by Rucha Powers
In August of 2007, during the last three weeks of my mother’s life, I was fortunate enough to be able to be with her at her home in New Zealand – along with my two sons, my twin sister, and my two older brothers. Together for the first time in nearly thirty years, we filled the days of those few short weeks with the errands and business of daily living.
We bought a hand-held blender for mum’s protein drinks that she could hardly stomach, cared mutually for my young children, made many a cup of tea, and kept up on the dishes and other domestic tasks. We visited with mum at her bed side. We took turns with tasks and turns taking breaks. One particular day my sister (who had been being the primary caregiver for mum in between visits from Hospice nurses for months) got out for a hike with my oldest son. They headed up along the ridge of the hill behind the house and I found myself alone with Mum.
Before they left, we brought Mum out onto the back deck. She had wanted to come outside for days and finally the weather had cleared enough to make it possible. Small and covered with a blanket, she was taking in her garden from her wheelchair, soaking in the sunshine and watching to see if we could spot our hikers as they came along the trail.
In my memory, it is a bittersweet afternoon. Her decline evident against the wide expanse of graying weathered wood and the glaring winter sun. Above the sky is cloudless and blue, the common markings of a promising spring day, but that’s just how wintertime is in Nelson, deceptively bright and unexpectedly frigid.
I savored the time alone with my mother, and silently thanked my sister for giving us this moment. The mood was peaceful and still. I felt this was my chance to say many things, yet did not know where to start. We talked about her garden, she told me about what was growing here or there and what would come to grow in some month’s time. I remember mum saying how the iris would bloom a swath of color; and how much closer she felt to her own mother since her death. Even more than she had in life, mum said.
The missing of someone who has died is (as they say) a strange companion. The physical longing of the heart to have again what the mind knows it simply cannot, seems to me to be one of the most poignant and cruel of human emotions. In our grief our lost one is so purely vivid to us, but they remain forever just beyond our reach.
But here on my mother’s back porch, I do not yet know this. Here on this day, I try to imagine my mum being gone and cannot. Today we are simply here together looking at the garden. She tells me of the mouse plant and how it’s flowering is a sure sign of Spring. Although I later hunted through her garden I never did see such a plant, but by then of course she had moved on and couldn’t tell me where to find it.
Above the rooftops behind us, the ridge of a low hill stretches along Milton street out to Atawhai drive near Founder’s Park and the Whakatu Marae. There is a narrow walking path which cuts through the gorse and rough, tussocky landscape. We watched and watched until we saw tiny figures making their way along it. They were too small for us to make out exactly, but we knew they were our people because they were waving to us.
Suddenly into our sunny stillness, seemingly out of nowhere a beautiful little New Zealand fantail appeared (also known as a Piwakawaka) and alighted very nearby to where we were sitting. It began chirping and hopping and flitting around my mother. It had the characteristic black and white tail spread into a proud little fan, and a curious head perpetually cocked to one side.
She spoke to the bird and welcomed him like an old friend, “Oh! Hello”. He cheeped in return and they ‘talked’ back and forth like this for several minutes. Now as I understand it, the fantail is known for its friendly, noisy nature and its social qualities, but even I had a sense as I observed this meeting, that something here was different. The little bird came so close to her and they related to each other so directly that I actually thought for a minute that maybe my mom really did have some gift of speaking the language of the birds.
After some time our piwakawaka flitted off and mum was ready to go back inside to her bed. ‘What a treat’ I thought to myself, to have seen such a special bird up close and personal ‘ I must remember to tell my boys about it’’.
A week later, Mum died.
Her funeral service was held in town at Marsden Funeral House. It was a beautiful and moving celebration in a room packed with her family, friends and admirers. Afterwards we mourners headed upstairs to the “comfort room” for the ubiquitous cup of tea (when in doubt!), and to “stuff ourselves sick on sausage rolls and lamingtons” – one of mum’s final wishes!
There, suspended above a rather plain room, was the most glorious stained glass window I have ever seen. Far from the traditional religious imagery of such a window, this was instead a beautiful rendering of a New Zealand landscape, detailed with native flora and fauna. I was so busy trying, (unsuccessfully) to photograph it with my borrowed digital camera that I cannot now recall in my mind the exact beauty of this window. I just remember it was amazing. And I remember the fern and the fantail.
Under a lushly depicted unfurling fern frond (the koru the Maori call it, the eternal spiral of Life itself) was a little piwakakwaka. The encounter in mum’s garden fresh in my mind, I turned to the dear friend sitting beside me with her cuppa tea. “That’s the bird that came down and spoke with my mother last week” I said.
My friend gave me a curious look and in a low voice, with a touch of reverence, she told me it is said that the Maori of New Zealand believe that Piwakawaka will visit when an elder is about to die. Suddenly I remembered the significance of our little bird in the mythology of this country: it is the associated with Hine-nui-te-po, the goddess of Death. It is commonly held that when a fantail visits, or flies into a room, that someone will soon pass into the next world.
I knew my mother would have been familiar with this story of the Goddess and the bird that awoke her in time to stop Maui from conquering death. Did she remember this lore in the moment of the visit of the fantail in her garden? If so, did the truth of it concern my mother, or cause her fear? Or did she see the signs and accept the next right thing?
Knowing my mother – who looked for meaning and significance in the natural world around her – I think she might have been pleased with the completeness of the encounter with this little bird. She: saying her goodbyes and completing the business of her material life. Piwakawaka: graceful and assuring; an iconic creature who plays the announcer of things to come.
The exchange between them was poetic and rich with meaning. The enduring image of it brings me comfort with each recollection. And this, mum would say, is as it should be.
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