Two sisters, two coasts, one blog

The Piwakawaka

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.

Mum's garden 2007

garden mural by Oami

Euphorbia in the garden, Mum with new trellis (circa 1988)

Oami on trampoline & the view behind Mum's house (1987)

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.


Sunset in Mum's garden

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.

not the stained glass window but another fantail and fern, on ceramic by NZ artist Vinny Thompson

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.


Rucha's tattoo (2007) & "fantails on fuchsia" by NZ artist Jo Ogier

Piwakawaka by NZ artist Sam Clark


For  more details on the talented NZ artists contained within, please see:

14 Responses to “The Piwakawaka”

  1. Jacquelyn Marie

    So beautiful, Rucha. I am so glad you told this story and sent it out to the world. Much love, Jacquelyn

  2. Aunt Diana

    Thank you Rucha. Made me cry, of course. Beautifully done, and the photos gave me a sense of the time and farewell that I missed. Much love, Diana

  3. Justine

    Dearest Friend-
    Your writing is lovely. How lucky you were to get those days with your Mum in NZ. I think you Mum would so love yours and Oami’s blogging adventures! Tonight for our bedtime story we (the girls and I) read some of the stories my Aunts and Uncles wrote of their father who died in the mid 70’s. We read, cried, read and cried…
    I think you would like to read them.

  4. Ursula

    Thanks for sharing this Rucha. I’m so glad I had the chance to meet your mom. She really was lovely and very special. It just pours out of both you and Oami too.

    Justine is right by the way. You are a talented writer. This is such a sensitive thing to write about. You did it with such care it’s like a gift to anyone who reads it.

    • ruchapowers

      Thanks Women for all your support and words of encouragement. It did take some nerve to face the feelings of this story but I agree that Mum would have really liked it, as well as all the glorious NZ art I found during my research. To help me, I used a book by Lynda Barry called “What It Is” which explores the creative process and gives great exercises to tap into internal imagery and get your creative process flowing. I highly recommend it to ALL you talented, artistic women out there.

  5. spongey queen

    love love love u sister……..
    so glad 2 have u and ur babies in my life….
    ANd 2 have known beautiful, complex, artistic Judith…
    (remember that time on T& 53rd when we had our mums both to offering that eve being tofu pesto- lasagne in the backyard….?) how different that visit was from the ones that came later …. we were soooooooo young & & sooo “hard” on our mother’s .I mean , we were so not
    where we are now… perspective i think it’s called….. :-}
    Fantail – Laughter (Piwakawaka)
    Fantail is a bird of power in Maori lore. Piwakawaka is the Sky Dancer within the forest. Flitting to and fro, shifting and turning in a moment, swooping close and spiralling away, it brings joy to the day. Fantail is laughter in motion.

    Piwakawaka flits into your life to bring two messages. The first is that we should stand back from the little drama we create in our lives and bring laughter to them. Laughter gifts perspective, the ability to expose the core of a problem. Laughter is the friend of the wise and the antidote to ego running wild. It is good to look at our actions and laugh, to enjoy our frailties, to see them for what they are, and then move on.

    Laughter helps us forgive ourselves and forgive others. Laughter is healing.

    The second gift is the lightness it offers shifting us into world of paradox, for laughter opens the way to the deeper of the mysteries. This little one is the messenger of the spirit, the one who dances across the realms to reach into the Above and Beyond. This is why Piwakawa often visits when death gathers. It does not cause the passing, is not the agent of change, merely the guardian of the spirit that has decided to move on.

    Fear is not the companion it brings to that moment. It’s offering is reassurance, A REMINDER THAT WE DIE 1000 DEATHS IN A LIFETIME,THAT WE LET GO OF THE OLD AGAIN AND AGAIN 2 GIVE BIRTH 2 THE NEW… It speaks of beginnings that are without end, of CONSTANT RENEWAL, the promise of change and growth. remember………Nothing is lost to us forever. All is of the turning, for we are joined as one within the circle.

  6. Caitlin

    Beautiful story, Rucha, thanks for sharing. I love never knowing what I might find on blog sunday. You and Oami always keep me guessing and always deliver something special!

  7. Sol

    This is beautiful. I do not know you, but your writing touched me. I have been considering a tattoo of a fantail for sometime, and thats how I stumbled on your page. It is a stunning piece you have. I love how you said the fantail is the announcer of things to come. I have in no way suffered the immense loss you have, but I am currently enduring my own crisis, so a symbol of something announcing another stage to come, is something I need greatly to give me strength. Thank you for this. My prayers are with you and your family. xo

    • ruchapowers

      Thank you for your kind words and for reading our blog. I LOVE my fantail tattoo for all the reasons described in this piece AND because it is just a gorgeous image to get to wear. I encourage you to get yours when the time is right, may it be something that brings you pleasure and inner strength whenever you need it!

  8. Jo

    My mother passed away just over two weeks ago. As a family we had been maintaining a vigil by her bedside The night before she died my sister and I stayed with her and the morning she died my sister & I had not long gone home for a break leaving our younger brother with her, however he had to leave while the nurses were attending Mum and he was sitting just outside her window under a spreading Ngaio tree when a little fantail (piwakawaka) came fluttering around his head, it flew around him quite a few times then disappeared. A few minutes later the head nurse came running out quite distressed to tell him that Mum had passed away. Now he knew the myth/legend but was not going to mention this (might sound like a nutter!) until I told him of my experience. After we had all been in to say our goodbyes to Mum my second eldest son who had been staying with us took me to lunch. We sat outside at a lovely vineyard and as we waited for our order a fantail flew in under the high canopy over the seating area and fluttered & flew up and down around & above us then left, it didn’t go further afield or any where else around the dining area My son asked me if I knew the Maori legend about the fantail and he proceeded to tell me that it sometimes is thought to symbolise a death and/or a new beginning or a freedom and in my Mum’s case I felt that yes it did represent that she was free at last from the confines of her body and pain and sorrow. Two things I need to tell you are that I sat by the window looking out at the Ngaio tree for 2 & 1/2 weeks and never in all that time saw a fantail nor did other members of the family. Birdlife is quite scarce in the area as it is surrounded by vineyards.
    Another thing I need to say too is that Mum grew up surrounded by the bush on the West Coast (NZ)and absolutely loved the little fantails, she would make a calling sound to them on the back of her hand. I am a Christian but I think that if God can use a dove as a symbol of peace and hope I’m sure He can also use a piwakawaka!

    • ruchapowers

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us. I am so sorry for the loss of your mother and for the difficult path one must travel when grieving. I really love what your son said about the fantail symbolizing a freedom. I observed the moment when my mum passed away that her eyes lit up and she seemed to see something… beyond. And there was relief in her expression. And that in turn has provided me with much comfort, whenever the longing for her sets in. Blessing to you and your family at this sad time.

  9. Lisa

    Hello Oami and Rucha 🙂 It’s lovely to be able to read this blog and maintain contact with you, however limited and distant.

    I’ve just been down in Nelson and I wanted to share with you something Dad told me that I thought really encapsulated something of Judith.

    They went to Australia in – I think – 2004 and met up with me in Brisbane where I was living before moving back here. Judith didn’t seem very happy and when I asked she said she wasn’t really enjoying herself on this holiday. Dad and I were talking over dinner about their trips together, something they generally loved doing. I asked why she hadn’t liked the Australia holiday and he said that partly she’d taken against it from day one, but also staying with Dad’s brother & his wife for five weeks was a strain. He said “She just found it very difficult having to behave herself in front of them – you know – being good ALL the TIME!”

    Can’t you just picture that?!

    The hollyhock in your photo has just finished blooming, it goes forever that thing. There’s been a spectacular crop of grapes in the glasshouse this year, it’s like a grape ceiling in there. I’m told the fig tree fruited deliciously and heavily too, and the feijoas are coming on. In fact it seems to have been a good growing year for pretty much everything, there’s massive piles of compost higher than my head! The magnolia ‘Judith’ in the front garden is coming along well too.

    I’m trying my best to move down there. Of course it’s not a good situation job-wise at present, but it looks like I’ll be doing my Master’s degree so with luck I’ll be able to stretch the budget enough to cover expenses. I hate having strangers in the house, although of course I’m grateful that they are willing to pay the rent that allows us to keep the house in the family. I’m so glad to have it there for Dad, he really is hopeless about his future. Definitely a grasshopper singing over summer – I can’t think how many times I’ve heard Judith say “Oh – your FATHER!” half in frustration, half in acceptance.

    Dad also showed me the spot by the river where the bench will go. It’s lovely, I think you will like it.

    This has been longer than I intended! I hope you are both well and happy. Much love!

  10. Zoe Williams

    I worked with Judith at Phoebe Hearst and was your teacher, both of you. I loved you very much and have thought of you and your family often through the years. Please include me on the blog distribution list. Reading who you have become enlivens my life and stimulates my creative thoughts, just like being with you as four year olds did. I think I was Ms Cutright at that time (have had various names and incarnations). Love, Zoe


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