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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Piece of Mind: A Giant Falls

March 26 (Jakarta Globe) Having just moved apartment, I intended to write this week about how disconnected I felt being without a home Internet connection or phone for days, and how surprised I was to have become one of “those” people — unable to go a day, or more than a few hours, without checking my inbox or my Facebook account. And how I needed to wean myself off the habit.

But then my favorite uncle died on Monday morning and I got a whole new perspective on how we connect to each other. I don’t want to always write of death but I do want to celebrate his long and full life.

I very much grew up with Des as a male role model, having lost my father at the age of 8. I mean that literally, not euphemistically, as he boarded a plane one morning and was rarely heard from again.

So Des’s home, which he shared with his wife, my mother’s sister, and their three daughters, all older than me, became a place of calm and stability for my siblings and I. We were always welcome, there was always a spare bed if required and it was impossible to visit without being sat down with food and drink for a chat.

And in the center of it all was Des — always on the go, always in the thick of things, always the life of the party. It seemed every time I visited there was another project on the go, something new he was building.

I remember him as a giant of a man, the kind we refer to as a totara in New Zealand — one of the largest trees in the forest and one that New Zealand Maori view as a taonga , or treasure, for its many special properties.

Like many Kiwi males, Des enjoyed rugby, racing and beer, and he had a permanent Saturday spot at his local bar, where he’d discuss the day’s games and the week’s doings with his many friends. But while every inch a man’s man, he was never less than a gentleman, and while always quick to tease or play a practical joke, he never hesitated to administer comfort when needed.

I was glad to be nearby at the time, about 15 years ago, when Des had a massive stroke while visiting his daughters and grandsons in Melbourne. I flew from Sydney to join the family at his bedside and was shocked to see the totara felled, and saw clearly his frustration and anger at his inability to communicate, and what he no doubt saw as his body’s betrayal. But I also saw that his essence remained, and his strength, even as his body had let him down, and I watched as he determinedly took the very first steps in learning ways to communicate when full speech had failed him.

And over the years, when I phoned family or, too infrequently, visited, I’d hear tales and see signs that showed he was still the same Des, and see in his alert eyes and his fierce determination even more to admire.

He still got up to his old tricks, and with a motorized scooter providing the mobility he had once relied on strong legs for, he’d sneak out of the house and be found later at the bar, in his usual spot with the usual suspects. I can imagine my aunt’s worry the first time he went missing, and can picture her shaking her head with feigned frustration each subsequent time it occurred.

I phoned my aunt on Tuesday morning, as I knew she would be busy all Monday making funeral arrangements, and we talked and laughed and reminisced, and I no longer felt disconnected. We relived our shared memories, and also the many things I’d missed by moving away, and she laughed as she imagined Des in heaven with my mother and grandmother, teasing them unmercifully, as he always had.

In the Maori culture, we believe the spirit does not leave the body until burial, usually three days later, so it must not be left alone until then. Friends and family sit and visit with the deceased, and will touch, kiss or address the body. It’s the last time to resolve anything with the person before their spirit departs so the speeches made at a tangi , the Maori funeral rites, are not always complimentary. I feel sure at Des’s they will be.

My aunt said the house, where Des lay dressed in his rugby gear, had been a constant stream of visitors, the phone had not stopped ringing and many more visitors were on their way from farther afield. Another aunt and her husband were sleeping beside the body to keep Des company at night and I know that all who visited would be sharing their own tales of their friend, and the house would be more full of love and laughter than of sadness.

And although I wish I was there to hear of those escapades unknown to me, Des and I resolved everything between us long ago, and my family knows I am with them and him in spirit.

So I’ll treasure his strength and determination and the privilege of having known Des, and by trying to live up to his example, remain connected to him forever.