Smooth Handfish Eulogy
It’s hard to make a eulogy for someone you never really knew. Perhaps you had a distant affinity for them through proximity or bloodline? You know that they mean something to all that surrounds them. You take them out of the equation and suddenly a network is adversely affected. Waters warm and ecosystems collapse.
I’ve had multiple conversations about grieving and grief in this time. My relationship to grieving, I believe, was inherently touted just as my parents were too, I imagine. I can’t place blame, but simply process. When one is discouraged in experiencing the breadth of their emotions, whether negative or otherwise, one can develop an inability to express themselves holistically, and may resort to other forms that may perhaps be linked to denial, suppression, and other coping strategies. I don’t attach a pejorative notion to either and any of these expressions. I think it's important to self soothe anyway you can, so long as it doesn’t harm those around you.
For me, I am reminded of the power of music. Sometimes I will put on a song that I know is going to make me sob uncontrollably, just to feel the fullness of that pain. I know it’s dramatic - forgive me for being a Leo Stellium, but I think that this has been a journey towards pushing me to recognise what lies within. And through that and much guidance with friends, partners, psychologists and art, has led me to being able to experience and articulate what I carry and what I am processing.
A matriarch dies and families grow distant. The last time I attended a funeral was for Mama Alice. I knew of her through the stories told. I heard of a hardened hand and gentle soul. A grand woman who would often care for her children’s children. A god-fearing, yet fearless presence, facing down violence and tending to animals and the land. Dad would describe her giant calves and her rocky temperament when not obeyed as a parent when he was a child.
He came running with his nephew two years his junior, after having disturbed a hornet’s nest in a tree Mama told them not to, screaming and crying and spluttering with stings on their heads. She gave them both a whooping, having not listened. My cousin told me of a moment she witnessed Mama tie up a litter of kittens into a bag and toss them into the ocean, not needing anymore hungry mouths to feed. I was shocked when I heard this.
I remember her as the gentle, generous grandmother who would gesture for me to sit next to her every time we would sit down for meals, and feed me, speaking to me in broken English and Fijian, repeatedly calling me a good boy - probably because I have always conditionally ate everything that has been handed to me.
Her funeral Masi - a mat made from beaten mulberry bark and stained with earth tones in Islander geometric symbols and patterns; emblazons the wall in my lounge room, oceans apart. Well, at least an eighth of it, before my Aunt had quartered it amongst family members - just some of her 10 children receiving a slice. Mum and Dad left me their part when they moved back home. The notion of home feels so distant right now.
I remember quite distinctly the day of the funeral. I would have been 15 or 16. Most of the family had come from all walks of the globe. The farm was packed with people and offerings. Praises and condolences. A procession was led by local policemen, who I believe were also close with the family. We walked all the way out to the cemetery behind a gaol. Detainees working in their orange boiler suits, clearing the fields with cane knives and wiping sweat beads from their faces. Waving as we passed them by.
She descended into her final resting place next to her Mother and Father. Weeping and wailing as my cousins began to sing. Kuki and Claudine’s voices standing out. Farrk, those two are talented. I think now about what home means, being stuck day-to-day in the one place coming upon near 14 weeks now. I, with my talented friend, have really placed intention into the space we cohabitate. Lockdown, strengthening the bond that began to blossom over a year ago from when we first moved in together. I think about the place I was born, Nipaluna. Muwinina Country. And Lutruwita as a whole. The only known habitat for this being in question. Dredging of homes, clearing of habitats, the active pursuit of ecocide and genocide continued from then into this very day. My own implications. As Greg Lehman puts it in his essay Tasmanian Gothic: the art of Australia’s forgotten war “To live in Tasmania today is to exist in the eye of a quiet, relentless storm.” Jericho Brown in his conversation with Krista Tippett at the 2018 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival states “If you are really good at hurting Black people, you will indeed hurt the environment, I promise you.” I think about the precedent to which you were subjected to. The clearing of land and oceans for profit. The imbalance of vast ecosystems created by lost souls, frontier renegades, or benevolent fools. ‘Australia’ has a lot to learn about adequate grieving. Of healing. Myself included.
I’m led to a prompt offered to me recently through a session run at Proximity Lab 2020 by Kate Sulan, drawing inspiration from her collaborators at Rawcus Theatre during the pandemic, in offering performances as gifts. I was fortunate to partake in a gift exchange with my lab mates.
I’m brought back to a conversation I had with a friend, in working through interpersonal tensions. I have found that offering a gift that counters the point of pain between individuals, as the thing towards the situation, is the thing that is most needed to heal - whether for self or for external. Even if the offering is made in private. I’ve thought about distance and proximity a lot here. How after her passing, I had built in my head that Mama Alice was one of the few remaining connections to my culture - a living library which I’d squandered time to sit with and get to know. That very thought broke me as I watched every shovel of dirt encapsulate her in the earth. But then the singing soothed. I shared gratitude for their healing voices.
When I think about Indigenous cultures and their totemic relationship to land and animals, I’m reminded of my own totem - the Shark. Mama’s Partial-lineage goes back to Taveuni, and the significance of the Shark there - the need to protect it and respect it, instills within me a great wonder and simultaneous fear of it. What will our encounter be? How might I show respect? How might we protect each other? Whose totem were you, Smooth Handfish?
I think about what gifts I would offer her, and what gifts I would offer you. I thought about sharing ‘Smooth’ by Carlos Santana and Rob Thomas, but then I thought that would be crass and perhaps also signifying my needing to resort to joking in order to cope. I tend to do that a bit.
How might I authentically acknowledge and respect you from the heart, and in the way that has been modelled back to me through my people?
The gift I offered my lab mates, through which I was shown by my friends at the Pasefika Vitoria Choir, and in observing Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori (Māori Language Week - 20-27 September) and the 50th Anniversary of Fiji’s Independence (recognising our language week 03-10 October). I wish to offer two gifts: audio recordings of my voice singing the choir parts for Pö Atarau and Isa Lei. Both are songs of heartache and farewell. In times where I don’t know how to process, I find that music can be the most healing and simplest offering to make.
Haere Rā. Moce mada. Farewell, little one. May your totemic spirit guide us in this fight for years and generations to come.
Words and Smooth Handfish musical gifts by Alec Reade