08 Dec Grief is White Gardenia in Vaimoso
I am blessed to have two mothers. One is named Peka Siloto. Several months ago she had a massive brain haemorrhage that left her body paralysed and in a coma. The brain damage was so extensive that there was nothing the doctors could do, save for alleviate her pain and keep her comfortable. We brought her out of the hospital so she could be at peace in her home. The place where she had always fiercely guarded her independence. Once there, she coughed out her feeding tube and then rejected any food or liquid by mouth. As a family, we decided to honour her wishes and hold fast to the mantra of – What would Peka want?
The answer to that was easy for all of us. Peka told us all many times that she wanted to die in her home. She hated the very mention of the rest home Mapuifagalele and it hurt her deeply when her older sister had to go live there. Peka spent many years of her life caring for her mentally and physically disabled younger brother. She refused to have him admitted to a care facility and she cared for him until his death. As Peka’s health declined over the years and she fought her way back from a major stroke, it was a great frustration to her every time she had to concede another step away from her independence. She eventually became bedridden and confined to a wheelchair, requiring assistance with all her daily needs. On rough days, Peka would cry and tell us she wanted to die. She refused all offers to travel or even to go to town because she said, she might die there, and it was imperative that she die in her home.
For the last ten years, since Peka retired and she had her first major stroke, my siblings and I have tried to take care of Peka and contribute to her wellbeing. My brother Cam was the leader in this, visiting Peka three days a week and making sure all her financial needs were met, as well as taking her the chocolate cupcakes she loved (against the rules because I’m pretty sure the doctor said, Fa’asa ai meaai suamalie! )
It wasn’t easy to make a tough woman like Peka slow down and be careful. I remember not long after she moved home after her first stroke, I stopped by and she was standing on a chair, ON THE TABLE, cleaning the ceiling with her good arm. Other times, she’d be walking up and down in the yard, a slight drag to her leg, determined to do her kolegi. (exercise).
Keeping a loved one company as they die is both an honor and a privilege. But its also an exercise in humility and faith because you must face the reality that there’s nothing you can do to heal them, or to alleviate their suffering, or to hasten the journey. Peka spent much of her life sheltering us from hurt and hunger, and yet here now, when she was at her most vulnerable – we could do nothing to help her. Except sit with her. Sing to her. Talk to her. Laugh, cry and reminisce with her.
It’s now Day Four since removal of the food tube. Peka has sips of water and milk, but only to moisten her mouth because she has no swallowing reflex. Her house has been painted, cleaned and brightened with fresh flowers and clean linen. Her bed is in the front open fale, draped with a white mosquito net – so she can see everyone coming and going. So she can better feel the breeze on her face and smell the lilting fragrance of the frangipani on the tree outside in her garden. She is surrounded at all times by her loved ones who bathe her, dress her and massage her. Every hour she is gently turned so she doesn’t get bedsores. There’s a radio playing, with Samoan hymns and talk-back programs. Yesterday when I went over, Eminem was playing so I changed the station. I love Eminem’s music but I don’t think Peka would appreciate it! Every evening, family gather for lotu. There are songs and prayer. Scripture reading and the shushing of restless children. There’s sharing of stories about Peka. Precious memories. Some of them funny. Some of them sad. Some of them wild.
Peka never married and she never birthed any children. She was a proactive and involved aunty to many of her nieces and nephews, and she combined generous love with strict discipline. She was the aunt who chided children home late from aoga faifeau and chased them with the salu. But she was also the aunt who bought all her nieces and nephews new clothes for White Sunday and took them groceries on weekends. She cooked the food for their weddings and helped pay their school fees. She was the aunty who doled out hugs and kisses as easily as she barked out swear words and wielded a lala aute. She was the fierce matriarch of their extended family who understood that true leadership is founded on a love for those you lead and a commitment to serve them. Her niece Telesia called it, loto alofa.
And then there’s us, the six children ‘of Tuao and Marita’. Peka came to look after us back when my older brother was a young boy. She was the one who helped my mother look after me when I was born. She cared for each of the Terrible Three who came after. When our mother was sick in hospital for a long time with my little sister Pele – Peka made sure we were fed, bathed and loved. When our mother went to Hawaii to take our big sister and her broken wonkily stitched arm to stay at the Children’s Hospital – Peka kept our home functioning. When our parents went overseas on work trips, Peka would come stay with us. It would be a nonstop slumber party of awesomeness with our mattresses on the floor and all of us playing cards and eating the treats Peka could always be persuaded to make for us. Outsiders who didnt know any better called Peka our babysitter, Nanny or housekeeper. But she was none of those things, all of those things and more. She was our mother. She loved us. And even though, we didn’t always show it very well – we loved her.
Day Five. Every morning, I go sit with Peka. Sometimes the children go with me. Middle Daughter sang to Peka today. Sang to her in a voice choked with emotion, because just as Peka is my mother, she has been my children’s grandmother. Thirteen years ago, Peka told me off when I brought my daughter home from New Zealand because Peka said she was too skinny, too little, too fragile to live in Samoa. ‘Why did you take her out of the hospital?’ she chided me. She cradled my premature baby with an almost fearful embrace. For the first time, Peka was reluctant to bathe a baby, worried she would hurt her. I watched Peka care for our daughter and I was reminded of how she cared for my younger sister Pele who had been a sickly baby and then a skinny sickly child. Peka gave Pele everything – the last piece of chocolate cake, the biggest serving of Shepherd’s Pie and always when the rest of us kids complained about the obvious injustice, she said, “Se she was sick when she was a baby. She nearly die. Alofa ia lou kei, love your sister.” And then we all rolled our eyes. Of course! …Today my daughter is a strong, compassionate, clever and beautiful young woman who loves to sing. She’s nearly as tall as me. She towers over Peka. I listened to her sing and I wept as I remembered Peka singing to her. When she was done, Peka opened her eyes and did that mouth-moving thing that looks like she’s trying to speak. She was more alert and aware than I’ve seen her since the stroke. I held her hand. I told her I loved her, that all of her children loved her. I named them one by one and with everything I have, I willed her to know and feel of their love for her. I thanked her for being my mother, and asked her forgiveness – for being an inconsistent visitor, a crappy daughter. I said, “We are here, we are with you. No matter what happens, we are here.”
When I think of Peka, I usually think of food. Something savoury or sweet and always delicious. She was a legendary cook. Our mother taught her everything she knew and Peka filled in all the rest. She helped cater their dinner parties, bake Christmas treats to deliver all over town, cook for our mother’s cafe, and always – she made sure we kids were happily fed. When we came home from school each day, it was to an endless variety of ‘after-school snacks’. A platter heaped with ‘spaghetti flying saucers’ (toasted sandwiches). Or cucumber sandwiches dusted with pepper and salt, with the crusts all cut off, like afternoon tea with the Queen. Her specialty, crepes drizzled with melted butter, sprinkled with brown sugar and rolled and stacked in a heap of sweet goodness. Her servings were generous and there was always more than enough for the neighbour’s – our childhood friends, Chrissy and Salma Hazelman who lived across the hedge. Peka was always calling out to them to “Sau ai!” Come eat. Peka knew all our favorites and our kitchen was always a bustle of cooking activity.
I remember… having to tip toe through the kitchen and shush because there was a pavlova in the oven and Peka said the sumptuous piled dollops of white gold meringue would ‘get mad’ and ‘fall down’ if we startled it with too much noise. Watching her capable hands at work as she rolled out the sweet crust for a chocolate pie, patting pieces of fragmenting dough into the dish, and keeping a sharp eye out for my little brother Josh who was a skilful raider of the pot of chocolate custard on the stove.
I remember pleading to have a turn at stirring the batter for cookies – so that I could sneak delicious chunks of it when she wasn’t looking. Her yelling at Sio the gardener to pick more lemons because she didn’t have enough for the lemon meringue pie, the green tanginess that filled the air as she squeezed them all by hand. The determined effort as she kept up a steady stirring at the stove, whipping up her legendary cream puffs that she would fill with custard, lace with chocolate sauce and then sprinkle with icing sugar. When we got up at 4am to go watch the Independence Parade every year – we would have Peka’s cinnamon rolls with a thermos of hot cocoa. It’s been thirty years since, but still, every time I see the parade, I think of cinnamon rolls dunked in cocoa. The sugary dough fragmenting in your cup and the rich sweetness as you drain the last drop of chocolate.
I blame Peka for my forever association of love=food!
Day Six. It’s not all sadness at Peka’s house though. Today I helped Telesia massage her with nonu leaves. My brother Cam reminded us all of how long time ago, Peka had a misa with the faifeau of her church. She went with another woman and they took a bag of rocks and stoned the church building, smashing all the stained glass windows. Peka was arrested and had to go to court. I’m pretty sure that’s when she changed churches lol. Peka’s right arm is gnarled and stiff from her first major stroke and Cam told us how he would tease her that was the arm she used to chuck rocks at the church – and she would pretend to be mystified and forgetful about anything related to stoning churches. I said, no this is the arm she would do all the ironing with, oka so much ironing! Me and Cam laughed as we told Telesia and Loimata about how Peka was (Obsessed?) with making sure everything was ironed. She ironed sheets, tea towels, pillow cases, pyjamas and handkerchiefs. She would even iron Darren’s work overalls and shirts that were riddled with holes from welding fire splatter. Our power bill was astronomical and Darren always said it was because of Peka’s ironing. One did not tell Peka what to do. Oh no. So instead, I would squirrel away laundry from the washing line once it was dry and hide it in my bedroom so that she wouldn’t know of its existence and wouldn’t iron it. Some days I would hide the iron. Finally, I ‘accidentally’ dropped it and broke it so she couldn’t do anymore ironing. Thought I was pretty clever there! But no, with Christmas coming up in another few weeks, Peka bought us a brand new iron as a present, yay! And the mass ironing re-commenced.
Peka didn’t just cook though. She managed our household. At various times, my parents had several staff – housekeepers, a driver, the gardener. Peka was the boss of them all. I saw her yell at them and I listened as she complained loudly when they messed up. When our housekeeper Fou (allegedly) got a boyfriend, Peka hit her with the broom and our mother had to intervene. Peka got Sio to cut us the flowers and coconuts we needed to take to school for Culture Day, and she taste-tested the fa’alifu fa’i and kalo that he cooked outside for our dinner. We had chickens and she supervised the killing and cleaning of them. I remember helping to strip their feathers and my fascinated awe at seeing a chicken’s insides. When I needed to learn how to dance the siva for the Miss Soccer pageant (at age 8), Peka organized a fabulous teacher for me – a skilful and dazzling fa’afafine who worked at the kitchen of the university canteen (our father was the Dean of the university at the time.) The lessons were held in the carport and everybody – my little brat siblings, the gardener, the housekeepers AND Peka, would sit and watch. And offer unsolicited advice.
When I was sixteen, my family moved to Washington DC and Peka went with us. We drove down the street and Peka was sad when she saw all the homeless people huddled around grates and in doorways. “Where’s their families?” she asked, bewildered. “Why aren’t their families taking care of them?” Peka couldn’t understand how people could end up alone, hungry and cold – because she had always understood the importance and value of aiga, family. She’d always been the person who took care of her extended family and so her first instinct when seeing D.C’s homeless – was compassion and then anger at their families. In America, Peka cooked splendid meals for diplomats and helped my mother host dignitaries and visiting government leaders. She wasn’t happy there though, so cold and so far away from her home and the rest of her family. There was no Bingo circle every Saturday in D.C, no going to church with her friends, or Saturday trips to the market to buy a nice fish for the faifeau. She went back home early and we cried to see her go. I felt abandoned and afraid, unsure how we would cope without her. I missed her terribly.
Day 7. Her breathing is harsh and ragged now. A struggle. Then it slows and stills, like she’s sleeping. Then it hesitates in long pauses. I sit with her and hold her hand. But not too tight. Her skin blisters with too much pressure applied because it’s so thin, so fragile. She’s tiny and the bed seems to dwarf her, the sheets swallow her up. She’s sinking into herself, curling up like a flower that goes to sleep at the close of day. I talk to her but not too loudly in case it hurts her ears. Peka, can you hear me? Are you here? I hope you’re not hurting. I’m worried that you’re afraid. What if we made the wrong decision? What if we’re supposed to take you back to the hospital and hook you up to lots of machines and pump you full of everything you need to keep going? I don’t want you to go. I’m afraid. Who will love me the way you do? The way you always have? Your faith in me and your love for me has been the sole constant for as long as I can remember. Now I have Darren and my children, but I’m still scared to let you go.
Many of the memories I have from my childhood, the important occasions and the sad painful times – all have Peka in them. She gave us presents on our birthdays and at Christmas. She spoiled us on White Sunday, even though our family was Mormon and didn’t celebrate White Sunday. One of my earliest memories is of being dreadfully sick with a raging fever, and my mother hovering over me with worried eyes while Peka draped my body with towels soaked in ice water. When I fell out of the tamaligi tree next door ( because I was trying to catch a glimpse of the tuli bird so I could check it off for my Girl Guides Birdwatching badge…) it was Peka who heard my crashing descent and came running. When my sister Rebecca fell out of the pu’a tree and broke her arm, it was Peka who carried her to the car, who stayed with her overnight in the hospital, sleeping under her bed on a woven laufala mat. When Rebecca’s arm healed, it was Peka who caught the bus with her and took her to physio sessions at the hospital. (And its probably Peka’s fault that Rebecca’s arm is still crooked because she wouldn’t have been mean enough and tough enough to force her to do everything the physio told her to…) When our mother smacked us, Peka would cry and go sit in the bedroom. Then she would tell our mother that she was going to quit and never come back because she didn’t want to see her hit us.
When I worked my butt off and came second to Dux in year 7 at Apia Primary, it was Peka who made my frangipani lei, came to the prize giving, helped me dress in the taupou outfit complete with feather kiki and crushed velvet and a sparkly headband, and then danced ai’uli for me when I had to do the siva. When I had uku’s (which happened a lot…hey, I had really long really thick hair!), it was Peka who treated my hair with nasty smelling chemicals and then patiently sat and combed out all the dead creatures, exclaiming loudly at the size of each one.
When I grew up and went through a #rottenTeenager stage, Peka’s love for me didn’t change. She still cooked nice treats for me. She still told me every day that I was ‘teine aulelei, teine poto’…a good girl, a clever girl. When I came home for school holidays from university, Peka still hugged me and praised me, rejoiced that I was home again. When my sister got drunk and tipsily made her way home after a night out, Peka would look sad, ask her please ‘aua te inu pia’, and then cook her favourite foods. Because Peka thought she was too skinny and food was a magical cure for all ills. (Including hangovers.)
When I dated a #BadBoy that had my parents in panic mode, Peka would go outside to see him when he came to pick me up. She told him he was a good boy and to please ‘look after Lani and be good to her.’ When I married that #BadBoy, Peka helped cook the food for our wedding. She cried when we left and reminded my husband, ‘Vaai fa’alelei Lani…’ be a good boy and take good care of Lani. Twenty-two years later, the house that Peka loves and protects so fiercely, is the house that my husband helped renovate and build for her when she had her first major stroke several years ago. His gift to her.
My little sister Rebecca is named after Peka. When Rebecca got married, Peka walked her down the aisle. (Our actual mother didn’t attend the wedding because she was mad about something that seemed very important at the time, but probably makes no sense now.) Rebecca lives in the Cook Islands. We haven’t spoken to each other for about two years. We aren’t Facebook friends and the only way we know about what each other’s children are up to, is from listening to third-hand stories from our parents and other siblings. I can’t quite remember what made us break up with each other as sisters, but I know it was bad. I tell my husband that I don’t care if I never talk to her again – and I mean it. Then Peka’s brain erupts and her imminent death slams us all. In the hospital, Peka’s caregiver niece Telesia says that Peka is waiting for me and Rebecca to forgive each other. She laughs but she’s not joking.
I fofo Peka’s feet with vanilla coconut lotion and think about how meaningless sister-fights are in the face of weightier eternal things like life, dying, death, and love. I think about how many times in my life, from childhood to teenager to young mother to being Peka’s inconsistent visitor – how many times I probably hurt Peka’s feelings (or drove her up the wall…), and yet still, she loved me. Still she watched and waited for me. Still she hugged me and cried every time I visited…
Rebecca arrives from the Cook Islands. We meet at the hospital. We hug. We don’t talk about all the crap from the past. We don’t have to. We are Peka’s children and she loves us. “See Peka?” I say, “Me and Peta are good now. You don’t have to worry about us. If that’s one of the things you’re worried about, then you don’t need to and you can go whenever you’re ready.”
Why am I telling her she can go? When all I want her to do – is stay.
Rebecca helps look after Peka in the hospital. She bathes her and sits vigil by her bedside. At night she sleeps by her bed, just like Peka did for her all those many years ago.
When I was pregnant and sick with hyperemesis, drowning in depression and choking on vomit all day every day, Peka would hold my hair back while I threw up. She wiped my face with a cold cloth, emptied bowls of vomit and told me I would be alright – even as she had tears in her voice and in her eyes. She would make me French toast, the one food that my body didn’t reject. She would cut it into bite-size pieces and bring it to my bedside. Faced with my tears that didn’t seem to have a reason or an end, Peka would brush my hair and mutter about how I should make sure to never have any more babies after this…
Peka helped me care for my children. I had read every single book in the library about babies and parenting yet I still had no clue what I was doing. She bathed my babies and sang to them. She thought feeding routines were ridiculous and ‘leaving a baby to cry itself to sleep’ – was a horrible crime that only horrible palagi people subjected their children to. She baked golden pumpkin and mashed it with a pat of butter, a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper, for my son’s first try at eating solids. She wanted to make him custard. Even though I earnestly explained to her that the baby nutrition book said, DONT GIVE BABIES BUTTER OR SALT OR SUGAR. (She had a very low opinion of baby expert books. A whole lotta rubbish made up by people who had no clue what they were talking about.) She made my children pancakes, chocolate cake and spaghetti flying saucers. She got mad at me when I made them do chores, when I made them weed the garden. She was outraged when I said they should iron their own school uniforms ( or wear them wrinkly…I don’t care!) When their baby teeth fell out, she threw them into the bush at the back of our house and called for the rat spirit to come get them. (Because that would guarantee their next teeth would grow strong and healthy.) When the ve’a bird made the mistake of wandering close to our house and crying it’s distinctive cry, Peka would go chuck stones at it – to keep my children safe, because EVERYONE knows that when a ve’a cries outside your house, it means someone’s going to die. She changed their sheets every two days – even if they weren’t dirty, and she got them clean towels twice a day. (Because children need to be treated like they’re living at the Hilton, y’know!) Our baby-care ideas may have differed sometimes, but if there’s one thing that she knew above all else, one thing that Peka was an expert at? – How to love children. She showed me how to love my children better. If I am any kinda good mother to my Fabulous Five, it’s because of Peka and what she taught me.
Day Seven. Darren and I go to Peka’s family plot at the cemetery behind her church at Vaimoso. Peka’s oldest niece Loimata shows us where they want Peka to be buried. Darren’s team of workers includes a capable trio who on weekends, moonlight as builders of graves. Our contribution to Peka’s farewell will be her gravesite. There’s a line of graves. Peka’s parents – Manori Siloto who came to Samoa from the Solomon Islands. He met a young woman called Loimata from the Tamasese family and they had a Romeo and Juliet style love affair, but with a happy ending as they got married and had a family. Sadly though, they both died when their children were young and Peka and her siblings were raised by aunties and uncles. Peka’s sister and brothers are buried here. Peka will lie next to her younger brother Maligi, the brother she spent half a lifetime caring for.
I get the phone call at about 6:20. Come quick, Peka’s fading. The time is now. Me and the girls get in the car and go to Peka’s house. We walk in and her nieces are standing around her bed. Crying. No, is it too late? Has she gone already? They make space for us and I sit beside her. I hold her hand. I say, “Peka, I love you. Peka, I’m here. We are all here. You can’t see them or hear them, but I bring with me all my sisters and brothers. They’re here too. Tanya, Cam, Pele, Joshua and Peta. Thank you for being our mum.” Peka’s breathing is a harsh rattling sound. Her face is gaunt and drawn. Cam’s car drives in. He gets out and comes up the steps. I lean forward and say, “Peka, ua sau Cam. Cam is here.”
Peka’s eyes open in a sudden startled expression. She leans forward with a slight arch of her neck and cries out. She draws in a single loud breath that never releases. And she dies. Just like that.
I thought death was supposed to be peaceful and that the next life… step …phase.. .whatever you call it – was supposed to be glorious. But all I see in Peka’s eyes is shock. An abrupt full stop in the middle of a sentence thats nowhere near finished.
There’s loud weeping and wailing. One of Peka’s nieces throws herself on Peka’s body, pleading for forgiveness as she recites her past wrongdoings. Cam steps in, calm and reassuring, with reminders that Peka needs us to be strong and farewell her with love and even happiness. “Don’t tie her here with your sadness. Let her go. Let her rest.” He wishes Peka well on her journey, “Manuia lou malaga.” I’m glad he is here.
I look up at the ceiling. Then outside at the frangipani tree that rustles in the night breeze. They say the spirit lingers awhile near the body. And I believe it. It doesn’t feel like she’s rushed away. Not yet. Stay awhile Peka. Please?
We sing hymns while we wait for the pastor to come and give Peka a blessing. I am a rush of messy emotions. Ive hated seeing Peka die slowly. I’ve prayed she would rest and be at peace. But now? I’m angry. And guilty. I prayed for the wrong things. I should have prayed for a miracle. For her to be well. For her to stay with us.
Monday 21 September 2015. My brother Cam writes –
“Today I carried Peka into her Church at Vaimoso, the Church that she loved and gave much tautua. As I listened to the beautiful singing it occurred to me that its been more than 2 years since Peka last came to Church. And I felt sad knowing how much Peka liked to go to Church but wasnt able to.
Today I carried Peka out of the Church that she loved so much to her final resting place where she was laid alongside her brothers and sister who had gone before her. For many years Peka carried my sisters and brother with so much alofa. It was an honor to be able to do the same for her at her sauniga mulimuli.
Today I carried Peka as she made her last trip. I did so with gentlness and thanksgiving and was deeply humbled by the experience.” Cam Wendt.
Dec 6th 2015
Today I was driving through Peka’s village, Vaimoso – and I saw a cluster of flowering gardenia bushes. White blooms redolent with their distinctive fragrance. I remembered how Peka would bring a handful of gardenia when she came to work. She would put them in glasses of water and dot them throughout the house. Gardenia in the bathroom, in the kitchen, and on the dining table. Such beautiful perfume.
I drove through Vaimoso and I started to cry. Because Peka’s far away, probably making her famous chocolate pie and pancakes in heaven for any and all who need to be loved and nurtured. Reminding those who need reminding, that they’re worthy of love.
I cried for Peka all the way home. Because I miss her and I love her. Because I miss being loved by her.
Because today, grief is white gardenia bushes in Vaimoso.