July 27, 2020
Vueti Raloka is ready to leave us. He doesn’t know it and neither do we until a phone call is received, a hasty trip to the hospital is made and the doctor looks at his watch to announce the time of death.
The news trickles through the family like coconut oil running down the back of the neck when you’ve put too much into your hair.
“You mean Momo Vueti?” asks one member.
“Surely it cant be Tamai Kima,” says another.
Shock and denial echo through all the corners of the world as the phone calls were answered. Once affirmed, the wails and the sobs fill the airwaves between one caller and another. Death during covid is about internet connection and video calls, separation, and flight restrictions, and suffering silently in bubbles. This is all new to us- this organising through zoom and viber chat groups. It’s strange not having him in our discussions but everything about this is.
We wish we could start this day over.
My sister seems to be holding it together but there’s a funny sound in her voice. The one she makes when she pretends to be fine. I ask if she’s okay. By way of answering she says she has things to do, people to inform and children to look after. She tells me that she can’t sit around and mope. It’s clear that she’s not fine.
Through the phone I want to hug her or tell her that I love her. But we’ve never been a family of, ‘I love you’s.’ Our love language was action, taught to us by our elderly father who would now have to be informed of the loss of his son-in-law. His beloved who never failed to get him branded T-shirts from LA even though my father didn’t know the value of Under Armour. To him it was a gift from Tamai Lekima, as he was known in the family, so into my father’s Katokau it went. We have always reminded him to wear his good clothes and not store it up like he does.
“I’m saving those cause Tamai Lekima bought them.”
He would always say this as if gifts from Vueti belonged in a museum and not on his body. Little did we know how prophetic my fathers words had been. Tamai Lekima was a generous man. We secretly called him 12 long loaves because whenever we’d ask him for a single bread he’d buy the whole works at HBK.
My mother opens their katokau lays out their clothes for the funeral. Her hands shake over his gifts.
My brother-in-law’s eldest child, Lekima, tells me he’s okay. Over the phone he really sounds like he is. But I’ve never called someone who has just lost their father in less than 24 hours so I have nothing to compare this to. I worry that he had left many pairs of sneakers with me in London. Will he have shoes for the funeral? We had kept back most of his things because our brother-in-law had agreed that Lekima would be our boy by the end of the year. Studying and living in the City.
Plans are on hold, Lekima tells me. He is busy welcoming the first arrivals to their house. Their steep driveway is causing problems for some drivers so he has to stand by their gates directing them in, just as he did all his young life for his dad. As a child Kima always knew his job number. When their car reached the top of the drive, his dad would slow down to allow him to jump out and open the gate. Kima had to make sure that Alex-Tiko, their dog never made a run for it. But now Alex sits still from the porch and doesn’t leave the house even though the gates remain wide open.
He seems to be mourning too.
The visitors start piling in. The scaffolding is heaving from the weight of people filled with sorrow. Their grief is visible through the screen and a bad viber connection keeps freezing their tears in space. Curfew restrictions mean that they must leave their collective mourning early and manage it alone as best as they can.
I watch from many miles away as my little niece, Heilala, mingles among people her father had known. Relatives, friends, acquaintances. She drifts through the crowd looking lost, only finding safety in her older sister Tieri, who had been through this a few years before when she lost her mum. Her Uncle Vueti had been the constant in her life, taking her to MacDonald’s when she was still in her diapers and continuing to do so when he had his own two kids. When Tieri lost her mum, it was just natural that her Uncle Vueti took over guardianship.
The two girls disappear from my view and I am glad that they can retreat to a solitary place to heal.
The Pilots come to pick my brother-in-law up for his funeral. They look so neat in their uniform. The air traffic controllers have taken over the breakfast operations and they are running it smoothly like their flight deck. My brother-in-law was supposed to have worked on the day of his funeral but instead he is taking a different flight.
The pickup from Sugar City taxis come as normal arranged by owner, Ravi and family, who have lived close to him for years. Ravi’s mum is among those visiting and its comforting to see her there. There are lots of mums there including Vueti’s own. She has never left his side since they brought his body to his home. Her thin frame clings to his coffin.
It’s a hard scene to watch and little did we know that she would quietly follow him a few months later.
My brother-in-law is laid to rest at Balawa. Friends and family line the roadside to his final resting place. The Pastor takes earth and throws it on top of the beautiful mats that have been lovingly prepared. Through the camera we hear Heilala cry out for her dad. Her voice is piercing and haunting. We all hope we will never hear that sound again.
Our bubble in London allows for a few of us to collectively grieve. It’s strange having to do so over a video link but after a few minutes we get used to the sometimes-muffled sounds and the delayed transmission. My husband stares deep into the Tanoa that Vueti had sent over four months before. It was as if he was lightening his worldly loads and giving out things before he left.
The funeral is over and people start to leave. Some stay on behind to take selfies by the grave and we can’t believe that six feet under the masi covered mound, our beloved person lies. We never got a chance to say goodbye to him and as the video link ends, we sit quietly in pain.
27 July 2021
Phone calls to my sister since her husband died are not the easiest. We talk about the children, work, Fiji, the dogs; carefully skirting around issues of grief she’s been processing for a year now. Grief is not an easy process.
She tells me that she doesn’t know the proper way to grieve. I am not sure either but I know that C.S Lewis and Chimamanda Adichie wrote their way through their sorrow, and Eric Clapton sang his grief away in ‘Tears in heaven.’ Tamai Kima had a great taste in music. From Sade to Pete Cetera, it was always a pleasant surprise to hear his song selection during the grog sessions. Maybe listening to his music would help? These are useless suggestions because there’s no telling widows how to grieve. From the one who chooses to wear black all year to the other who tucks flowers behind her ear determined to face up to her new life, everyone mourns differently.
It’s been a year since we lost this wonderful person. A year of grieving and gratitude for the life of person whose selfless acts have left indelible marks in our family.
In loving memory of Vueti Raloka.
1977- 27 July 2020.
Husband to Kalusi and father to Lekima, Heilala and Tieri.
* Trying to capture the life of someone as special as Tamai Lekima is one of the most difficult writing assignments ever. One day when my nerves are not so fraught I will re-attempt to give his story justice. To everyone that has helped us cope this past year- vinaka vakalevu na loloma.