By Briar Pomana (she/her)
Te Pō and te ao. Briar Pomana recounts the pain only felt when a loved one passes on. Leaving those behind to band together in their grief. Loss and togetherness. Living and dead. These binaries are inextricably tangled in the dance of life.
The night my aunty slipped off, I woke up just before my mum came into my room. Her distant murmurings in the dark are what did it. I was always taught to answer calls that come in at night because, often, they’re the most important. I could faintly make out Mum liaising marae plans. I knew what sort of conversation was unfolding. I waited with closed eyes and my head heavy on my triangle pillow. I wriggled my toes to prove to myself I wasn’t dreaming. The murmuring stopped and silence returned to our inner-city apartment. Mum sat for a while in the silence too, not a whisper or a single punctuated breath escaped her. She finally slinked into bed with me and I could tell by the way she lay and cried into my shoulder that it was someone close we’d lost.
We washed our faces and prepared ourselves for what was to come. Mum was taking and making calls all the way out to my cousin's house in South Auckland which, at three in the morning, was a reasonably fast trip from Mt Eden. It was her mother, my mum’s sister who had gone from us. It was sudden and shocking, like diving into the shallow end of a public swimming pool. The thing that kept recurring in these calls were the exclamations of disbelief, followed by questions - so many questions - all of which, impossible to answer. Mum was determined to be the one to tell my cousin. We always joked that my older cousin, who is the first daughter of my aunty, is really my mum’s favourite child. They spent a lot of time together and everyone agrees that because of the bond they share, it should be Mum that delivered the blow.
As we made our way out to my cousin's house I wished we would just stay on the motorway and keep driving forever. The writer in me kept replaying the scene in my head over and over again. The news we were bringing with us was not something you ever wanted to force feed someone. Especially not before breakfast. Just before we’d left the house, Mum had called my other cousin who then travelled with us convoy style to be with our whanaunga. We were all wary of what would happen or would not happen next, and all Mum reassured us with was, “I need you both to be there for your cousin.” It’s an explicitly adult Māori thing to be the kaitiaki for grief in such an earth rumbling way. To be the vessel of this pain and somehow bring with you what joy you can find in your car's glove box or the pockets of that old jacket that you wear on haerenga like these.
When we arrived, the moon was hidden behind dark heavyclouds. It made me think of the vulnerability that exists withindarkness and grief - and it was both of these things that we hadstrapped onto our backs and were shuffling forward with towardsmy cousin’s front porch light. I wondered what moon phase wewere in and if that, somehow, was what we could blame thistragedy on. Getting caught in the illumination was confrontingas I looked around at our mini ope in our home clothes and frizzybed hair. I could hear her muffled screams before I was ableto re-adjust my eyes to her dim bedroom light. She ran to mymum before anyone else and they fell into each other. There’ssomething about the tangi of wāhine Māori that punctures us all.Like those times when the electricity of your kuia calling to eachother spark something else inside of you and you can’t help butplug in also. The wails crashed into each other and I looked downas to not let my own tears burn my cheeks. I’d rather they fall andpool gracefully at my feet, at least then I could dive in and hide alittle while longer. My cousin's partner sat down next to me andwe took turns stroking each other's backs - trying our best not tofall asleep and never wake up.
The silence returned to us as we sat and exchanged hā. As tangihanga always do, they come to us when it's the coldest. When you’re the poorest and when you’ve got no bloody clean undies left. We picked out photos we would take with us back to the marae and shared plans of doing a couple loads of washing each and then hitting the road together shortly afterwards. It’s a considerably long journey back home, but being urban Māori, we feat the distance regularly and don’t mind the chats in between small towns. This trip was different though, not only because of our state as whānau pani, but also because of the precious cargo we were bringing with us.
We were submerged in fog the entire way back to the marae. It wrapped itself around our cars like a nanny would a blanket. As the hours dragged on, we didn’t listen to music nor did we talk much except for the occasional “I still can’t believe it.” I kept thinking of all the life my aunty had left to live. She had planned the year before to take the train around the South Island with her mother, our nanny, and I couldn’t help but paint them in turtlenecks and winter coats slung over their knees, sipping mulled wine with a snowy landscape shooting past their luxurious carriage windows. Without her, that vision seemed too dull. Like a postcard that had been set alight. My mood board of the two of them withered away into ash.
When we reached the first roundabout in Taupō, we stopped for bathroom breaks and hot drinks. As soon as I saw my cousin get out of the car I pretty much flew into her pocket. Stuck like a pāua I accompanied her, as all wāhine tend to do, to the wharepaku. She washed her hands and then her face, red and tender from her current stream of tears. I looked at her as she looked at herself in the graffiti etched gas station mirror and started to attribute each of her facial features to her mother and then to our matriarchal line. I caught a glimpse of myself in the reflection of a hand dryer and did the same. We bought something out of courtesy and the woman at the till wished us a lovely day. I wanted to leap across the counter and throttle her. I had to remind myself that of course, this woman would not know that today and the days following would be some of the worst of my cousin’s life.
On the Napier Taupō road, the fog returned in greater force than before. I imagined patupaiarehe dancing alongside us and started to frighten myself. Mum always jokes that the bush along this highway is littered with them. Whether she is joking or not, my eyes never left their treeline. The small village before our marae usually takes a blink of an eye to enter and leave, but this time we were disoriented by the darkness we found ourselves in. It is not our tikanga to arrive at night and Mum was angry at us for taking so long during the day. There are no streetlights in Kahungunu country and my cousin’s car was one headlight down, so much of what was seen five metres ahead was accounted for, but the rest of the road was largely left up to our imaginations and memories. I was squinting in the emptiness, trying to make out the shapes, houses or trees of familiarity. I thought we had passed our nanny’s little blue coloured marae that sits just under a hill over three times and was confused when we saw it disappear a fourth time. Our signal was shot and every so often, when we would get high enough, it would return and a flood of messages would burst through our inboxes.
After what seemed like hours, we turned a corner and I could see the urupā our papa and other aunty are buried in. We all exhaled a sigh of relief at the fact we weren’t being kidnapped by fairy people and doomed to an eternal journey in Rarohenga. There was in fact going to be light at the end of those country roads. As we passed the urupā, we all blew kisses out to our family. We asked them to help guide our aunty so that she may transition smoothly. I couldn’t help but think of my papa with his two daughters reunited. I tried to fight them but felt those pesky tears welling again as I imagined them sitting together at Nanny’s old dinner table in Nūhaka, enjoying a hot lamb roast with peas swimming in butter and all the trimmings to accompany them. I think about how happy my aunty must be sitting there with her dad, her little sister, and the pēpi she lost all those years ago. In my head, they are doing what they do best. Which is having a kai, having a laugh, and catching up on all their nieces, nephews and mokopuna, some of whom they never got to meet in te ao mārama. The radio, which had previously been playing Dua Lipa’s 'Future Nostalgia', glitched and my cousin and I looked at each other, mutually agreeing that it was our papa growling at us for taking so long and being ‘those’ city cousins showing up to a tangi in the dark.
One thing about our papa kaīnga is that our whenua is mostly made of thick heavy clay. In the winter months, the clay is incredibly rich but also like a sludge swamp. So when we finally pulled up in front of the marae gates we were like amateurs on ice, slipping and sliding around trying to grab our bags and shake the last remaining crumbs of that bag of chips off our winter jackets. The marae had its porch light on and I could see some family inside whilst others rushed to put their shoes on. I looked up to the moon which was fully visible in the crisp Rakaipaaka air and helped Mum with our bags and blankets, careful not to drop them in the clay. The sound of our roller bags atop the concrete ātea seemed obnoxiously loud, as if we were trying to wake the entire village. My cousin found her younger brother in the marae car park and they pressed themselves into each other's frames. We all watched on, leaving them to fit like a horribly dampened puzzle. We shivered for some time as we pushed back the hair that was stuck to our wet faces.
Moving together we made our way to the mahau of the marae. I got there first and while balancing a backpack on one shoulder and a mink blanket under the other armpit, l held the door of the whare wide open, fighting the weather slamming it shut.The scene of a family - our family - struck us each with the eyes of our winter grief, meeting all those who entered and stood on. We took turns kneeling beside her. Some caressing her cold cheeks, others letting their feet fall asleep as they sat against the back wall of the whare. In essence, this was all that we had left to do as our puhi lay on the stage. She looked as though she had dozed off one afternoon in front of the fire after a cup of tea and a few nibbles at a sausage roll. That night and for the nights following, my aunty rested, surrounded by her whakapapa and all those who share it. In those moments, for the last time, my aunty was both within us as well as beside us. Her death, a beautiful reminder of ourselves and the stories that matter