Monday, July 11, 2011
Tofa Mai Feleni
You can’t say goodbye to someone once they have died. You can only reflect on the moments in life you shared together and through memories, the deceased may live on. Friday I learned that a very dear friend had passed away, and so this blog is dedicated to his memory. Avaga, Ava, my friend, mentor, father – you will be missed.
Upon arriving in my village, I was greeted by a small welcoming committee of matai (chiefs) from the village. Ava was among them. The first words I received we’re a somewhat grumbled, and disappointed “oh, we thought you would be a man. At least you are a pretty girl!” I awkwardly entered my future house filled with these men and in broken Samoan and English went through the still unfamiliar Ava ceremony. I was too nervous and too new to the language to understand what was said, but later on, Avaga explained it all to me. His words had been words of welcome, and within them, he had declared me a daughter of the village.
As time went on the village, I had many ups and downs with Ava. People joked that he was looking for a new wife and he had decided that I was to be the one. The fact that he was 60 years older than me just made them love the idea even more, and although I knew they were joking, it definitely grossed me out! After a few months, it got really old to be asked, “Where is your husband tonight?” Yet I persevered and went along with the joke. On Friday when I heard of his death, I had to crack a joke and say, “I guess we never will get married after all,” to which the teachers let out a collective, hearty laugh. But then one of the teachers said something that really moved me, and I don’t know why I didn’t see it all along. She told me that although we always joked, Ava really considered me the daughter he had never had, and he referred to me as such within the village. I was moved to tears – the first of many over the next few days.
Ava was instrumental in my understanding of village life and culture. We spent many afternoons discussing anthropology and sociology, two of his favorite topics. He is the one who gave me the history of the village in a “family tree” style that I am still trying to figure out. When I moved in, he installed my laundry lines, and when I showed up to church with no church hat, he brought me one his niece had sent from Tonga to make sure I never again showed up without a hat. I made the mistake of not wearing it one week and every woman asked me what had happened. I had figured it was just a fashion statement, but it turns out, that hat means a lot more than style. I have worn it every week since.
The last time I saw Ava was on the ferry a few weeks ago. He was returning from a failed operation in New Zealand but insisted that somehow he had been cured through Chinese medicines. He promised to stop by for coffee sometime soon, but unfortunately, that opportunity never arose. I will miss him greatly, for although our relationship was short in the scheme of life, it was intense and beautiful. The village is in morning, and the roads have been lined with palm leaves in preparation for the funeral procession Friday. Tofa mai felelni, Avaga.