August 24, 2002 Tawatana
Miriam died tonight. She was in her 40’s and had eight children, the youngest just three or four years old. They say she had uterine cancer. For a year she knew that something was wrong. Finally she went to the hospital in Honiara and they just sent her back home again.
Her sisters sat with her all day today. She kept crying out in pain, asking to be shifted to one side, or to be lifted up higher on the pillows. Her husband went up to the garden; he couldn’t stand to listen to her crying.
Late in the afternoon, she said, “I want to go, I want to go, but I’m waiting for Peter to come back from the garden.” When Peter came, she died. One of the little girls who was in the room at the time said that she just let out a big breath, and didn’t breathe again.
Then everyone in the house began wailing, and the news started to spread like ripples on a pond. Someone ran to stop the boys’ soccer game, and to tell the girls to leave their game of In Water. Someone else went to beat the drum, just a few loud strokes.
As the news spreads outward, a cloud of silence forms over the village. An unquiet silence, a conscious, swirling force, with a screaming eye of grief at its center. It draws the entire village in. Whole families come, walking silently up the path, past our house, toward the wailing.
We can hear the wailing from our house, mostly low and droning but with a few high, frantic cries from the closest relatives. “Mother, mother, don’t go from me.” “Eee, mother, mother, eee, mother.”
Outside the house, people are standing or sitting quietly, mostly looking at the ground. Babies are silent, wide-eyed. Children creep around, not speaking, dodging into the house, looking at the body, watching the mourners, learning how to grieve. One young man is lying outside on a bench, moaning, with other young men gathered around him, all crying quietly as they fan their friend.
We leave our shoes at the foot of the stairs and go inside the house. The air is hot, humid--thick with stale sweat and fresh tears. Here, people are weeping openly. Miriam still lies in the small bedroom where she died. The women are gathered around her, and here is the center of the wailing. I can’t even see the body, there are so many relatives weeping over her.
Andy stops to talk to Peter, to hold his hand, and to give him the gift of tinned meat and money that we’ve brought to help with the cost of the funeral week. I squeeze into the back of the room full of women, feeling awkward and useless. Fortunately, no one pays any attention to me. I can just stand here crying in my own inadequate Western way.
Miriam’s daughter, Ara, is screaming and crying, lying over her mother’s body. Other relatives are holding her, while they wail with her. What she says doesn’t make any sense to me. For some reason, she is screaming about cabbage. Later on, we ask someone else about this. Why was she screaming about cabbage? “I don’t know either,” our friend answered. “Maybe she meant that one thing she would miss was her mother’s cooking.”
The women want to move the body out of this small room and into the main living area of the house so that the real mourning can begin. But when they start to move the body, Ara screams even louder and faints. Three women carry her outside and bathe her with cool water. “Ara, Ara, think of your baby,” they tell her. “Come back and carry your baby.”
Eventually we leave the house, and one of our friends walks with us. “I blame Peter,” he says. I think that he’s talking about the long delay between her first symptoms and when she went to Honiara to the hospital. So I tell him that uterine cancer is just that way. Even with the best treatment, people die from this. Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do.
“Why? What causes it?” our friend asks again. Then I realize that he is looking for the true source of the illness. Not the immediate medical cause. If somebody dies here, there has to be a reason. Broken relationships are always the culprit. People don’t get sick for no reason. Ill will, anger, even curses and sorcery—these are the real causes of illness and death. Peter is known to have been a faithless husband, not much of a support to Miriam. So our friend blames Peter.
I wake up early with the full moon blazing through my window like an interrogation light. Even the curtains, when I draw them, barely dim the moon. I can’t sleep.
Outside there is a strange bird calling, calling, calling. The note is high and rising, an unanswerable question: “Why? Why? Why?” The question sways low, rises. Each “why” ascends a notch up the scale. As the “why” goes higher, it becomes abrupt, demanding, “Why-why-why-why-why-why?”
Far away, another bird calls out. Its cry is falling, soothing, reassuring, comforting. But the why-bird keeps wailing. It moves to another tree, farther away, but I can still hear it asking “Why? Why? Why?”
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