Have you ever lost someone so profoundly intimate that you cried yourself wretched for so long your heart ached and your entire being was so soaked with such misery that you felt you were losing yourself?
And did you ever feel like life was no longer worth living and you cared for nothing at all and there was this silent emptiness in your soul so heavy you could not breath or walk or talk?
I am sure many have been there. I certainly have. Too many times it seemed.
My earliest recollection of such a moment happened at the age of 5. It was when I lost everything. I have often said I was 7 or 8. But I was 5. I stretched my actual age because a part of me refused to believe that I had spent such a short time with Victor Juffa, my beloved Godfather, Grandfather, best friend and everything.
Well there I was, standing by the freshly dug grave and everyone around me weeping.
But I was silent. I stood holding the finger of my Grandmother, that morose and overcast Sunday morning in Kokoda Block 168, my home. A light drizzle caressed all in that epic scene of final farewell for Victor Juffa. Grandmother was of course inconsolable and weeping a river of grief.
I looked around me in awe. Wearing my favorite white sailor suit with blue trimming and sandals, my hair combed and parted as was the style for children born in the 70s. Everyone was weeping. But I was not. I could not. I had no idea what was happening.
No one seemed to know I was there. They were all very busy, crying.
I could not.
I blinked and blinked and felt a terrible sense of foreboding, a cold inexplicable fear. Like the fear you feel when you wake up from a horrible dream and are not sure if it was just a dream or real and do not know if there is anyone there in the dark.
Men and women all familiar faces, writhing in contorted grief, distraught in various poses of dark sorrow, some lying on the fresh red dirt kicking their legs like infants who did not get what they wanted, others squatting and holding their heads between their knees and weeping loudly, rocking back and forth.
There was my Uncle Vincent, watching stony faced his fierce eyes searing through me, his hawks nose defiant and tears streaming down his cheeks. His muscular body looked like it had been hit by a truck and was deflated. He swayed ever so lightly and held my Mother whose face was contorted in agony crying in that silent way that would lock in the sound until it erupted no longer contained, eyes closed tightly shut…I had never seen my Mother cry like this and it disturbed me. I looked away. At their feet my aunty Glen who was also my best friend was clenching fists of dirt and letting them fall and clenching the small piles again and sobbing. “Why?” she kept wailing.
There they were all covered in clay and mud and dirt.
The rain fell earnestly and heavy now. I moved closer to my Grandmother and she stood one hand holding mine and another on her chest…where her heart beat so loudly even I could hear it.
“Victor, num nam toto deka pamboi…nam deka mona…deka mona…nahau mo..ari em deka oeh?” My Grandmother asked in a hoarse voice, in a cry of anger and grief and outrage and immense sadness all packaged in that one sentence… “Victor, how could you leave me and go ahead… how can I remain now…myself…how can you be doing this..?”
I watched an elderly man I had never seen before act out a pantomime…he was walking off as if on a fishing trip and he would stop and turn around as if to wait for someone who followed…waving with his hand he called out excitedly “Ma useh era ro..o ingono, orike, otahe, seri te eyn eto mera ro, enjo hajo!” a child…beckoning his best friend…to their favorite fishing spot along the pristine river Eiwo so green… “We are so close…the fish are teeming …the ingono and orike and eels and prawns so huge..they wait for us…dear friend come quickly”…a farewell pantomime mimicking childhood moments of happy times…common expressions of farewell that best friends acted out of childhood adventures during funerals in Hunjara custom.
Earlier that week I woke up for the first time to find myself alone. There was not a sound and I suddenly felt very alone. I had no idea the loneliness I would feel later on in life but this was a preview for sure.
This was the day my Grandfather had been admitted to the Kokoda Hospital.
I always awoke at the crack of dawn with my Grandfather Private Number 100, Papuan Infantry Battalion Soldier Victor Jaya Juffa on Block Portion 168, a great man larger than life itself.
We had a routine.
He would prepare his shaving ritual and I would stand by to assist. I would hand him his shaving brush and razor and he would shave his strong jaw, dressed in his white singlet and shorts with suspenders. A leather strap used to keep his razor sharp hung off a small tree branch near the creek, on a cluster of boulders, tin bowl of warm water on a smooth boulder, a white fresh face towel folded and placed next to it, a large towel for me next to it on another boulder. He would be humming some country song. I would tentatively wet my toe humming along and eventually kneeling to wash my face. The cool underground spring would be bubbling along and a child and his Grandfather would start their morning with what were the happiest memories of my life.
Nearby at the kitchen, my Grandmother was surely cooking our breakfast. Dumplings, biscuits, Milo and tinned meat, my favorite, meanwhile Koropu would be prancing about near me and barking as I splashed about gradually gathering the courage to dive into the stream and bath myself.
After bathing, we would have our morning meal together. The meal done, my Grandfather would check me for any sores and dress them if there were any and there were always sores. He had a small first aid kit with everything needed to treat a curious overactive grandchild. As I was such an inquisitive child, I was always falling and getting scratched or bitten by some insect or scraping my knee or palms from some fall as I skipped and hummed munching some snack and following my Grandfather everywhere he went.
We were inseparable. But not always it seemed now.
I was his shadow. If I fell tired he would reach down and hoist me onto his broad shoulders and carryon doing whatever he was with me perched on his shoulders. Eventually I would fall asleep, my head on his head, my small arms wrapped around his head, my heavy, slowly shutting and finally asleep. He would carry me back to my cot next to his giant brass bed and carefully lay me down and tuck me in as he went back to work.
I had a babysitter named Kathy who was the most beautiful and strongest woman besides my mother and Grandmother I had ever known. She would take over and watch over me as she wove a bilum and hummed a song.
Always nearby would be my Grandmother, Kathleen Furi Juffa who was the always busy, gardening, cleaning, blium making, tapa cloth manufacturing, scone baking. She was a machine and life, ahh…life was heaven, life, was bliss in Kokoda Block Portion 168.
I was about to learn a most painful lesson in life. That good times…are always ever great because they are inevitably interrupted by moments of loss and sorrow…the inexplicable science of gain and loss…the balance…day and night…good and bad…night and day…highs and lows…joy and sorrow…
On this day, after what was an unbelievably long stretch of amazing happiness, I was to experience what would be my first pang of real pain.
It started with my Grandfather not being in his large brass bed beside me when I awoke.
I rushed outside rubbing my eyes and seeking out my best friend, Godfather and Grandfather Victor Juffa, affectionately called “Nombo” or “namesake”. I heard no response. I thought nothing of it and walked through the corridor of our crude but sound timber home he had built lovingly with his own two strong hands.
I walked down the wooden steps and sat on the last step and the early crisp Kokoda morning greeted my cheeks with its cool mist. Our chickens were already out and about and our red rooster crowed angrily as he intimidated the hens and young roosters to respect him. I watched him and smiled. He was such a character. So scrawny yet so cocky, my Grandmother said he looked like an uncle of hers she grew up with who picked fights with everyone in the village. Our rooster was like that. He picked fights with everyone.
I heard the pigs squealing in their pen, annoyed they were not let out yet to scavenge. I wondered where Grandmother was. She loved the pigs and always let them out to scavenge much to the irritation of Granddad who always admonished her that their complete disregard for anyone as they shit just about everywhere they went was something his sense of order completely disapproved off.
I am sure she ignored him just to irritate him. Grandmother could never be told what to do. Even if it was wrong, she would do it if she was told not to. You had to ask her in a roundabout way. Direct commands never worked with her. “I am not your soldier or cargo carrier!” She would glare at Grandfather if he forgot and ordered her to do something. She would deliberately do the exact opposite or simply ignore him. I was always amazed at her defiance and she would look at me and grin secretly when Grandad would walk off seething.
This morn, I looked around for Koropu Grandfathers favorite dog, a lean and swift wild hunting dog he had been given by a cousin of his who visited him for their monthly hunting trips. Koropu was always by our side as we went about doing whatever. It was always us three that formed a nucleus and then others such as my cousin Elijah or Cynthia or some other unfortunate orphan that Granddad had taken in for a while before they were relocated to another family to take care off. I called but he was nowhere to be seen. He was always waiting at the foot of the steps for Grandfather.
Except today, he was nowhere to be seen.
From where I sat, I looked around our modest homestead my hands tucked under my armpits for warmth and saw people moving about, many people. My Uncle Alex strode towards our kitchen and spoke in a harsh and serious tone to an Aunt of mine. A giant of a man with a thick moustache, Uncle Alex was a heavyset man with a bad temper who was my “Nombo” as well and a close beloved nephew of my Grandfather. He pointed to where I sat and my aunts eyes followed and looked at me and she nodded.
What was going on I wondered?
Alex walked off and my aunt beckoned me to come. I got up off the step and carefully walked down. The cold earth under my bare feet shooed away any sleep left in my tiny frame. I walked towards the kitchen and the already lit fireplace and squatted as close as I could to the fireplace without getting burnt and reach out to warm my hands over the fireplace.
The cast iron wood stove was already burning and there was pot on the heater already bubbling away. I could smell the aroma of dumplings cooking in coconut cream laced with canned mackerel.
My aunt deftly handed me a hot plate of dumplings and a cup of Milo. I ate silently and drank my Milo holding the cup between both hands. I scanned the homestead for Koropu but he was nowhere to be seen.
I continued my meal. Suddenly my jaw dropped and my eyeballs widened.
My Mother was here!
Suddenly! She was rushing with her suitcase through the cocoa trees and she rushed to the house and practically flung her suitcase into the hallway. I stood up still holding my cup of Milo wanting to run to her! I was never told she was coming! Normally it was a major event for me and I would trek to the Kokoda Airport to wait for her with my Grandmother! But here she was! And she didn’t even notice me! I was so torn up that she didn’t say anything to me and rushed off from where she had come! I was confused.
Apparently children are not supposed to know about death and departure and losing a loved one! How arrogant are adults! They imagine that only they feel pain and sorrow and loss. They totally forget that even children, in fact especially children are most hurt by such painful events. Adults always comfort each other and revel in each other’s grief and soak in each other’s emotions and loss and they cry and weep and express themselves and fully expel their emotions and unload their emotional burdens.
But how about the children?
Why are children never treated as if they matter, they have feelings too! They hurt and feel loss and are most scared at these times!
Instead they are most often bundled off to bed or a meal and hardly ever told what has happened. They are often confused and scared and needing a hug and reassurance and some love.
But that hardly ever happens.
So I stood there stunned watching all these strange happenings and comings and goings and anxious and angry faces, my Milo grew cold in the cup I clutched with both my shivering hands and I looked around to ask someone but there was no one there.
I walked to the stream to check. Maybe Nombo had started to shave without me. Maybe he was there humming his favorite song and I would see his broad back and all would be ok. But only an empty brook and bare stones greeted me.
I splashed water on my small face and wondered if anyone would call my name and ask me if I was okay but there was no one.
They had all rushed off to the hospital. Only my aunty was busying herself in the kitchen cleaning up. She seemed totally not there. I walked back and sat on the steps and waited. My hands between my knees and watching the road, hoping my grandfather would be walking through the cocoa trees, wanting to see him soon.
A wind blew strong and the leaves on my favorite cocoa tree rustled and seemed to be alive. I watched the tree shiver and shake and heard the wind whistling an eerie song. I put my head against the wall of the house next to the steps where I sat and eventually fell asleep.
When I woke up I was in his brass bed. No doubt my aunt had carried me there. It was raining softly and the rain on the tin roof was a gentle lullaby and I dozed off again holding my Grandfathers shirt that had the aroma of Old Spice his favorite cologne to my face.
I never saw my Grandfather again. Such is the cruelty and inconsideration of adults.
So often their feelings and grief overshadows their consideration for children.
I watched a coffin disappear into the earth. It rained hard and heavy. The weeping grew intense as earth was reluctantly placed on the coffin.
My cousin Gibson, my Grandfathers favorite nephew collapsed with the spade and wept bitterly refusing to throw any more earth on his beloved Uncles coffin. Someone else gently pried his fingers open and took the spade and continued, he too weeping.
I did not realize that Victor Juffa Private 100, husband to Kathleen Juffa and father to many children, his and those he took in, neighbor to his fellow soldiers and veterans and everything to me, was gone.
I realized that later at night.
That night, after midnight I was told, I awoke in a fit, the room dim from the yellow light of a hurricane lamp turned low, my Grandmother sitting near me, her feet straight out and her hands weaving a bilum, her eyes cried out.
I had heard something!
The distinct voice of Victor Juffa calling out to me. Softly as he did when I was still asleep and we were to prepare for the day “Nombo..” I rushed towards the door and my Grandmother was there…she held me tight… “ It is not him” she cried gently but I was inconsolable. Why wouldn’t they let me out to see him? I had not seen him for days, I was outraged and angry and bitter and kicked and punched and screamed but I could not overcome my grandmothers strong arms and she held me and she wept softly and it was then…that I realized Victor Juffa was gone forever…and I cried…for so long and so hard and sobbed and wept…and my dreams of a tomorrow by the stream with him in his white singlet, our towels placed folded carefully on the smooth boulders, him shaving and humming and me dipping my feet and then having our breakfast together…faded away to be just that…just a lonely child’s memory of his beloved Grandfather…his everything now gone…only God knows where..
The very next day. I walked to Victor Juffas burial site. I had packed my little suitcase. My Mother told me we would be going away for a while. In my suitcase I had put my Grandfathers favorite shirt and belt. Its all I had of him after the usual destruction of grieving relatives during funerals as was customary for the Hunjara.
Koropu was there at the grave site sitting next to it. He looked up and wagged his tail and smiled at me. I sat next to him and we sat there saying nothing and everything at once.