I let the luke warm water wash over my body, sighing out my stress. Even though hot water was practically non-existent in Fiji, I felt grateful. I was excited just to have running water in Suva (that had been an uncertainty). Plus the cool liquid helped to quell the squelching humidity of the morning. I soaped myself with satisfaction.
It was a few days into my Fijian journey and I finally felt like I was hitting my stride. I was learning the language (albeit slowly). I had adopted the traditional garb of wearing a sulu (or sarong) when in the company of the elders and had tasted my first bowl of grog (kava). It had tasted like pepper water, which as it turns out is a pretty accurate description (kava is made from the root of the pepper plant). Yes, it had the desired effect of making my tongue numb. No, I wasn’t really interested in experiencing more. But it wasn’t bad.
I was also adjusting to the communal lifestyle. There were five people living in this three-bedroom flat, but there were many more that passed through daily. The Fijians were a happy and welcoming people and even though I was used to being on my own, I was beginning to appreciate the family. I didn’t even mind the three-year old tailing me constantly. She reminded me of my niece. And I loved her curiosity.
Ro Mereani, Talei’s mother had greeted me with open arms. She laughed at my sevu sevu, asking why Felix insisted that I get her one. “She said she wanted to experience the true life of Fiji,” he responded. He was right. I did want to experience the local life. And I was already learning so much.
Ro Mereani was the daughter of a cheiftan, one of the three main chieftain families in Fiji. While Mereani was her name, Ro is her surname and title of rank (meaning Queen). Fijian families retained a sense of clanship and responsibility rarely seen elsewhere in the world these days. Each clan or lineage was responsible for certain tasks. If the crops were failing, the Priests of Food would be called in to fix it. There were clans for agriculture, fishing, and even ones that deal specifically with deaths.
Ro Mereani was everything I had expected from the daughter of a chieftain (and the mother of such a beautiful spirit). I could finally see where Talei got her smarts, independence and desire for knowledge. Talei’s father, David, was every bit as charming and inspiring as his wife. He was a European man, a world traveler (having been to all but eight countries), and a speaker of over 14 languages. He had met Ro Mereani while teaching at the Fijian University. He was a painter and painted every day, even though he suffered from Parkinson’s. He was warm and sweet and together they made an excellent pairing.
I toweled off and thought some more. This sudden calm had been all the more welcome from the ups-and-downs experienced upon my arrival. It had been a rough few days. There had been a lot of talk of Talei, the circumstances surrounding her death, and how the family was dealing with the loss of their loved one. My heart ached to support them. I felt awkward that I didn’t have more stories to offer since I’d only known her for such a short time. I felt like I needed to do more.
To add to the adjustment awkwardness, the circumstances made me miss my own family. I was a twenty-three year-old homesick girl (which of course, really helps my self-confidence). The more I learned about Talei, the more I realize how similar we were. Talei’s mother has even let me borrow her laptop. We liked the same music, down to the same Fleetwood Mac tracks. And that made it all the more unbearable.
I know I’ve said it before, but it could just as easily have been me in that car. She and her father were very close and according to her mother, David had taken it the hardest when she died. I thought of my own friendship with my father and imagined what it might be like for him to get than phone call in the middle of the night.
All I wanted to do for the first three days in Fiji was go home and hug my parents and kiss my sisters. I guess it took traveling over 10,000 miles to really appreciate my family, but now I just wanted to spend time. It had been awhile since I’d been home and the more I witness and hear about her family missing her, the more I missed mine.
I remembered the first time I Skyped with my parents upon arriving. I had only spoken on the phone with them while I was in Australia a few times and we had gone a many days without contact as I made my journey from Brisbane to Suva. I saw their fuzzy images come across the screen of Talei’s computer and burst into tears. It wasn’t so humiliating because they did, too. I’m sure we’re all just big babies, but it felt nice to share that moment.
But now things were better. I was beginning to view this family as an extension of my own and I could feel the love reciprocated. In the mornings Ro Mereani and I would share instant coffee and discuss the news in the paper. She would do the crossword with her husband’s help. Felix and I had nightly talks on the porch about our futures while he smoked and I enjoyed a cup of tea. The little one was even calling me ‘Auntie.’
“Oh Hilary,” she said casually, “Just so you know, David died this morning.” She placed her hand on my arm and gave me a grim smile. I froze, head overly cocked to one side, with one hand mid-air to brush at a stray hair. I stared at her blankly, my mind reeling.
Was this some kind of Fijian joke? Was I being punk’d? I glanced behind her to see the living room filled with relatives that hadn’t been there before I got in my shower. Were they in on this too? Were they all trying to give the American girl a heart attack?
I opened my mouth to form some snide reply, obviously catching her in her prank. But then I watched the nurse walk briskly into David’s room. My head followed her, my eyes widening at the sight in the room. My head whipped in the other direction at the sound of a police car pulling up in the driveway.
This was definitely not a prank.
I took a deep breath.
Oh holy shit balls. What the hell just happened?