Death and the Obligations of Eternal Silence

When I left my family, I chose to live in the world, not in a coffin. I chose the uncertainty of finding my own way along a road that wasn’t clearly marked. I preferred not knowing what lay ahead of me. If I had stayed with my family, I knew what every day would have brought. Staying would have meant letting my mother dictate my every action because fighting her drained the magic elixir of life out of my muscles. She would have chosen the clothes I wore, decided what I ate, forbidden me to show emotion, turned her back on me and sent me from the room if I let fall one hint of my distress. I would have lived as she lived, in a coffin.

In rejecting the coffin and walking into a life where I decided for myself how I would live, I also chose to be absent when my mother died. I didn’t think about that at the time. I was young and all my longing was for freedom to live the life of my own choosing. Now that I know she’s dead, I think about my decision and what it meant for her. I don’t regret leaving her. But I realise I forfeited the chance to hold her hand while she died.

I remember the first funeral I ever went to. It was a big, formal tangi, held on the marae in Porirua, a huge Maori enclave in Wellington. My Aunty Maud had died of cancer of the uterus. My mother used to visit her once a week, putting on her good coat in the morning, threading her wrist through her good white handbag, and going to work at the factory. After work, she took the bus to the hospital. She came home in the dark – it was winter and brutally cold. She’d go into her bedroom, not putting the light on, and sit on her bed for a few minutes. I’d sit with her, feeling in a confused way that she was grieving for her sister, or perhaps trying to figure out how to grieve.

Once, she told me, “They put her on morphine for the pain. She said to me, ‘Look, there’s a hat on the wardrobe. A beautiful yellow hat. Bring it down for me. I want to put it on.’ But there was no hat.”

Another time she told me, “When Maud was born, she was given to our grandfather to raise. He was a cruel man. He used to chase her with the axe, threatening to chop her to pieces.”

My father forbade her to speak of her dying sister. He said, “Shut up about that.” His voice and hand trembled with fear. He hoped to keep deat at bay by banning any talk of it in our family.

After Maud died, my mother wanted me to attend the funeral. My father said no. “She’s too young,” he said. I was seventeen. she insisted, but he kept saying no. My mother pretended to acquiesce, like a good wife, while harbouring other plans.

A Maori funeral, a tangi, lasts three days. On the first day, she asked my brother Lynn to drive her there before he went to the office, and pick her up in the evening. She wore her good coat and carried her good white handbag.

On the second day, I went to school as usual, then just before lunchtime, I was summoned from class. My mother was waiting for me in the headmistress’ office. Lynn drove us to Porirua, to the marae, to the whare tpiuna, the house of the ancestors, where Maud had been laid in her lid-less coffin. She wore her best floral frock. She was a big-boned woman, tall, broad, her hair mingled grey and red – red hair ran through the family. Her eyes appeared sunken behind her sealed eyelids. Her lips were closed forever, but it seemed to me she disliked the obligation of eternal silence and was trying to find the words to protest against it. A cordon of ropes kept the mourners from getting too close to her.

My mother nudged me. “Say hello to Aunty Maud.” I said hello, feeling foolish and inadequate. Something was required of me that I didn’t understand. My mother spoke to her sister for a little while, a tear rolling down her cheek, more formal than real. She put out her hand to touch her sister, but the cordon of ropes kept her at a distance she couldn’t cross.

Around the big room sat the older women of my mother’s family, the kuia, all of them dressed in black. They sat on chairs taken from the kitchen and the meeting room. My mother introduced me to each of them. “This is my daughter. I’ve brought my daughter. This is my daughter.” Each one stood and offered me her cheek to kiss or her nose to rub. I felt rigid with discomfort. I recognised only a few of these women. More than that, I was taking part in something I didn’t understand, something governed and organised by formality and ritual and was as time-honoured as it was unreal. Each woman shed slow tears. Each one was absorbed in her own private thoughts to which I had no access. There was no spontaneous emotion. They all conformed to the rules of the ritual.

My mother took me outside to a tap, where she directed me to rinse my face and chest and hands while saying a prayer. I knew only one prayer, the one we said at school assembly. Our father, who art in heaven. It seemed out of place but I didn’t know a Maori prayer. My mother muttered a prayer in that language of her childhood, which she had refused to give to me. “You’re pakeha,” she used to say whenever I nagged her to teach me Maori. Being pakeha exempted me from all that Maoriness meant to her. Or so she thought. I thought of it as one more cutting off from her, one more way in which we were strangers to each other. She murmured instructions. “Don’t dry yourself. Leave the water to dry in the air. Always wash like this after visiting the dead one.”

On our way home, my mother warned me, “Don’t tell your father.”

My life with her had been governed by the rituals of silence and secrecy. These rituals forbade me to know her. They imposed separation and loneliness on me and her. They demanded that we be strangers to ourselves and each other. In leaving her, I rejected that separation, that not-knowing, that estrangement from the self and others.

For many years I have felt that I was the only one in my family who knew my mother – or came as close to knowing her as anyone could. Now what bothers me is that she died without being known, cordoned off by the rituals that brought the appearance of certainty to her unhappy life.

I don’t regret leaving her. I will never regret choosing life over her. What I regret is that she died unknown.

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