An extraordinary essay on death, Samoanness, and lockdown by Auckland writer Amber Esau
It’s been three minutes since getting off the phone with Mum. I’ve placed my computer monitor onto the ground to make more room on the wooden desk that’s been turned out from the corner of my bedroom, closest to the breeze. I can’t feel it from inside though, turning slightly to see the bedroom light cast curves of golden grain in the window. It could be an hourglass suspended in the stillness. I shift and it spins to a crash, spiking the garden path with sand. These are the days of our lives, eh?
Being extensively practised in denial, I last saw my grandpa on his birthday, a year and a half before Mum called to tell me he had passed away. We were preparing for our family games while he sat out on the deck smoking the only Nana-sanctioned annual cigar he was allowed. Persistently, he had pushed through all the necessary paperwork fast so that he could take a slow savouring drag, puffing out thought bubbles above him. After years of health concerns prohibiting him, his stubbornness to smoke got its victory. There was a pensive look, like he was inhaling all the cloud in his head, and for that brief moment, watching it clear across the hills on his exhale.
Earlier this year, his condition had worsened briefly. I planned to visit him in Wellington at the end of February but then changed my mind last minute when he seemed to have been stabilising.
Having left my job a month prior, I decided to wait until I had found another one. My partner had offered to pay but at that point he was the only one working and I was adamant that it would be fine. Papa was the jolliest and kindest grandpa out there and the reaper would peek out from curtains in the air, point a skeletal finger at its chin, and be like, “Nah, too cute, next”.
At various points in my life I’d considered Papa might be forever and was comforted by that. Even though I’d lost people before, I’d impressed a kind of immortality onto my loved ones, especially my grandpa, who had survived two operations on a tumour and a massive heart attack by the time I’d started high school. Friends had assured me that it was okay to want to be there with my family to which I’d said, “Nah, he’s a fighter. It’ll be fine.”
Near the end of my intermediate years, Papa had a heart attack which caused him permanent short-term memory loss. The biggest conversations we would have were him repeatedly asking if I would like a cup of tea. On a few occasions, I would already have a cup in front of me on a cork coaster and with the warmest smile I’d say, “Yes, please. I’ll make it.” He would give me the rows apart smile. The “Oh, choice” grin. It was less restrained than the ones in old photos of him. And it never changed, spinning on the same loop as his memory.
Watching Papa’s memory decline slowly morphed into making Papa grin and chuckle. Super easy. All you had to do was ask how he was doing. This was one small but significant way we were able to connect across the barriers of memory. Repetition enforces habits, both good and bad, and can shape perception, slowly shifting all the times we smiled and laughed together over simple things like greetings and pleasantries into one of our best past times. It was all good and Papa was way more chill than me and he was smiling because there was nothing wrong and since he couldn’t remember, there wasn’t, eh? I learned there was a sense of safety that came from inhabiting the illusion.
Towards the end he started having episodes of forgetting almost everyone. After flying down, Mum said it was okay if I wanted to remember him as he was. We didn’t see him regularly after they moved to Wellington, so, for me it seemed intrusive to join them. Even though that’s what you do for family, I didn’t want to put more stress on him to try to remember me too; I didn’t want him to see my tears once he didn’t chuckle with me.
It’s hard to see the denial when it’s trapped under the arrogance of the past. It hadn’t worried me so much when it was first announced that we would be going into lockdown at the end of March. Not too long, right? I’d convinced myself he would still stretch across the days. Like a drum skin though, taut with a bit of bounce, not a rubber band.
Throughout my childhood I wavered between being obnoxiously loud and extraordinarily quiet. There was very little middle between extremes which I didn’t mind so much until I entered intermediate. In Year 7, I performed at our school’s talent quest, in my school uniform, and with the stiffest lack of charisma singing “Proud Mary” to one of my dad’s driving tapes playing on the speakers. It was oppositional. I had wanted to be heard on stage but was embarrassed by my desire to be seen.
We were asked to write poetry for English class. I was excelling, embarrassingly, to the point that my palagi teacher questioned whether I had plagiarised one of my poems
In Samoan, I would be (and often was) considered “fia fa’amanaia,” literally translated as “wannabe good/cool”.
After school that day, one of the boys in another class ran up to me and started to chugga chugga his arms while he sang out “Rollin’!” between laughs. I never did any school talent quests again.
The following year of intermediate, I was 12 or 13, and we were asked to write poetry for English class. I was excelling, embarrassingly, to the point that my palagi teacher questioned whether I had plagiarised one of my poems. (It wasn’t even good but better than what was expected.) When I explained to Mum what happened, she responded by calling the teacher a bitch, even though after I assured her I had written the poem, which I’d relayed to Mum, I was asked to read it out for the class and did so, nervously.
From that educational interaction, I might have been called “fia poto” meaning “wannabe smart”. This term is usually reserved for those that think they know better and has been shortened to the more commonly used slang “Bots”.
Neither myself or the teacher realised she was so fluent in Samoan and I was slower to understand she was just fluent in the Queen’s English.
The particle of “fia” in the Samoan language denotes a wish for something specified by the following word. It cannot stand alone and, like most words, is contextually bound. “Fia fa’atasi” which means “wanting to unite as one” is very different to “fia fa’amanaia.” The former, positive, and the latter, a ‘nah, uce’.
In my pessimism I had only recalled “fia” being used in its negative form, something my dad tried to correct me about over the phone to which I kept Samoansplaining (he’s the fluent one) that I had never heard it used other than as a negative. I asked him for a few examples of it being used positively following the same pattern and he said, “fia fa’atasi and fia fa’amālosi”.
After a few seconds of me scoffing over being a bit bots about the use of “fia” in Samoan, he explained that fia fa’amālosi is said to encourage someone to go forward, to be brave. It seems that “fia”, when used with abstract concepts such as good (fa’amanaia) and courageous (fa’amālosi) and intelligent (poto) and unified (fa’atasi), is categorised as either positive or negative based on whether the word relates to an interpersonal, outward focus, or solely to the individual.
In Irish Gaelic, “fia-” is a prefix that means wild or large. It’s interesting that although they mean slightly different things, both swivelling around a sense of reaching, they sound the same. If numbers remain purely logical and distant, then letters, being the super needy symbols of the lot, try to grip onto whatever pairing sounds right, becoming coded by our subjectivity. Fia. With my kiwi accent, it could almost be the English word Fear.
From the photos, young Papa was handsome; a strong jaw with a cheekiness that sharpened with age. It seemed that he was never far from a cigarette, smirking a small tick in the corner of his mouth which matched his rebel with the laughs brand. He was born on December 3, 1933, growing up in Masterton, with three sisters and two brothers. A true Sagittarian, he loved a good social gathering, at least that’s what the photos suggest since he never wanted to go out clubbing with me lol.
Before his heart attack, and the memory loss following, I hadn’t ever wondered about his relationship with his father, was brought up to not be so nosey anyway. It made sense to me that there was a kind of inherited distance from him, as with from me. The texture of memory doesn’t seem to change our perceptions of a person—we crop them to fit. His father, an Irish Catholic immigrant in the Merchant Navy, was a pretty private person too and any of his history before this land had been thrown overboard, tumbled in the boat wake before sinking down a cleft somewhere in the Pacific. It must’ve been almost baptismal for him, to plant a brown leather boot onto the whenua, and, as our Tūpuna did before him, tell himself, “Home.”
Surely, he had been comforted by the familiarly rippled green hills in the distance. He passed away before Mum was born so she couldn’t tell us much more about him except that he was a bit conservative but liked the pub. Thinking about my own papa, I panic that our memories together have disappeared, suspended in the same kind of mythic distance that’s been applied to my great grandpa, remembering him by what I needed not what he did.
Rather than any conversation we could have, it was his smile that became him. Poured into this toothy mixing bowl, stirring the lumps out with the end of a wooden rod, everything started to fold into it: the classic polo tucked into some khaki shorts, mid-calf white gym socks, and New Balance sneakers; watching Cricket from an armchair with Mr. Whippy beside him, the thick rope of fur coiled on a plump cushion; getting a growling from him for climbing the archway in the garden when I was eight or nine; pushing his $10 Bowls prize money into my hands, sitting on the storage box of his walker, insisting as I refused; wheeling him around Te Papa and speeding towards the large Pounamu boulder, his spread hands reaching to feel the Mauri. They all blended together—even his voice smiled.
It became a touchstone for me; my own way of knowing him. But if I started seeing a different version of him over the one I’d recreated my automatic response was to recast him in concrete.
There was distance and detachment in the denial, generated by this fear that he would forget me. I know I was actively contributing to it but how do you rewire years of self-inflicted guilt? Internalised shame is the calcified parts of enforced shame and this cycle would eventually make me rationalise my grief as invalid. Although it is selfish to pre-emptively detach from someone, especially Papa, it seems even more selfish to cry for him after he’s passed. That’s the logical conclusion. Something that doesn’t always translate well in the feels.
Since childhood, emotional detachment has always been my default mechanism to avoid being paralysed by the permanent guilt of existence. Doesn’t matter if you’re Samoan or not, we were all raised to tend some sort of Vā, that relational space, and the failure to do so is incorrect. Feeling this grief is unearned only sharpens it.
From 11 or 12, it has seemed natural for me to understand community from a distance. I have always been pretty close to some while never fully feeling a part of them, even within my family. Especially within my family. This doesn’t change the desire to participate, only the form of the expression, where the performance of self disguises the reality of it. Fia fa’amanaia, right?
While grieving is often a very solitary process, enforced isolation can create a sense of futility in only being able to grieve alone. As social creatures, we tend to seek out support from those who share our experiences, to weave our versions of the deceased into the whole ‘ie toga, admiring from the single pulled cloud in the sky a desert in the flax. The funeral serves as a performative function of collective grieving and is not unique to Māori and Pasifika communities, even though the expression of it as defined by the values of communal cultures can differ. We find connection across our varied cultural contexts through the act of interpreting versus the interpretation itself.
It is in the latter, the static product, that people have used shame to define our grieving communities. We grieve for those we’ve lost combined with an unrelenting need to grieve with those we love, to grieve for those left behind. Regardless, it still feels like penance, or dramatic irony, that my papa passed away during lockdown, that my detachment resulted in the most distant of grieving, but I don’t feel bitter about having to be isolated. This doesn’t mean that it hasn’t hurt or that I don’t love him. Sit down, buddy, fia fa’atasi. Efforts to make space for each other in a pandemic can be complicated for those who have also experienced loss over lockdown, but redefining the singular and communal perspective can be difficult. It’s not impossible.
When my grandparents used to live in Onehunga, until just after I finished intermediate, we would often visit their house on the weekends and it contrasted my childhood home significantly. It felt like an immediate transition from the “We” mentality to the “I”. Living with this borrowed escapism and seeing other ways of agency expanded my own personal world and made me question the communal values that had been drilled into me. It was a place where I could temporarily shed some of the pain and reform it in my angsty search for identity.
Lockdown has been a global funeral; a time to collectively grieve the lives we used to have
For most of my high school junior years, my papa and my great-grandfather were evidence to me of my own inner whiteness, allowing my culture cringe to bloom. Given some shitty and not so shitty childhood experiences it became second nature to latch onto being part-Palagi as an escape from some pretty rigid ways within my “full-time” cultural landscape. The dichotomy of being fairly smart and being a fia poto was the balancing wire on which every step seemed to dip close to the ground, raising the end point up higher away from me.
Sure, teenage insecurities are a rite of passage but “my papa’s Irish,” would be uttered in any sentence with palagi classmates that were being dicks about my Samoanness as a part of, but simultaneously fuelling, my own dickery. He became a shield for me and, when I was able to process some of my cultural hang-ups, the shame of holding this internalised space was too much. We are creatures of habit, after all, and, when perpetual shame is the name of the game, trying to pinpoint my historical reasons for detachment only opened myself up to spinning through shame like a Wheel of Fortune.
It’s unfortunate there’s even guilt in me processing my cultural conditioning in case someone tries to bots it and think it’s only Samoan culture. Nah egg, it’s the “abstract” culture of Power, and everyone understands its customs and protocols.
To view power dynamics in Samoan culture as structurally separate from the wider power dynamics that enforce western societal norms is to forget the Church as part of the institutional framework of our colonial narratives. Shame being an invasive and at times invisible tendril of overarching power dynamics on the individual and social levels.
The truly insidious thing about shame, like all protocols of Power, is that it eventually starts to self-regulate and, for me, maintaining a sense of the individual was supposed to be secondary to maintaining the community, something which had seemed to have been interpreted differently by both sides of my extended family.
If I overlap these dual perspectives, it makes sense to me to try to understand the chaos of the world now as an opportunity to start reconfiguring our relationships to the whenua, to each other, and to ourselves. To accept that freedom exists as a relational element of community. That we process our experiences in relation to each other and so, our first steps should be to understand those touchstones of connection in order to address historical inequalities and injustices. Ka mua, ka muri; walking backwards into our future.
In a way, the lockdown has been a global funeral; a time to collectively grieve the lives we used to have, the societal structures still used to define us. This is present in the way we constantly talk about going back to normal. But, there is no normal we can return to, just a place where we wriggle from the quicksand, grasping for some small bit of firmness on which to pull ourselves out, patting everywhere and collecting sharp grains under our fingernails. Fia fa’amālosi.
* Made with the support of the Matatahui Foundation *