I haven't been ready to talk about what happened to us 5 years ago. It has been too much, and I've felt trapped under the pressure of compartmentalised grief. I put it in a box and never really looked at it again. Looking back I can see how stoic I was, how calm and logical. At the time I was 16 weeks pregnant and very very sick. My priority was my own health but also the health of my unborn child. I had read about the mother's emotions having an impact on the fetus and I was determined to protect my little baby in the only way I could. I couldn't provide it the nutrients it needed as I was vomiting multiple times a day and not keeping food down but what I could do was to protect it from the flood of grief that engulfed our entire family.
My defining memory of this time is walking into a funeral home in Mangere, late at night, I had been awake since 5am. It was cold and very dark, a stark contrast from the heat and sunshine of Samoa where we had been a mere 5 hours earlier. I was there to support my cousin. She had grabbed my hand at the airport and said "You're coming with us, right?". And then somehow we were the first ones there, walking into a dimly lit chapel in a pacifica-decorated funeral home. A body was lying on a bed at the front of the room. My cousin couldn't wait for everyone else, she had to see. So I held her hand and talked in a soothing voice as we made our way down the aisle, thinking "Surely that's not right, it must be the wrong body, it looks nothing like her".
But just over 12 hours earlier, my Aunt, having fought 48 hours through an illness that rapidly spread through her body, lost the battle and succumbed to the blackness that overtook her. Her body would not, could not look the same after the significant battle it had been through. She first started to show signs of illness, perhaps a slight cold or seasickness on the previous Thursday when we were on a boat from the island of Upolu in Samoa, across to the other island of Savai'i. Her illness progressively got worse and she was hospitalised in the tiny clinic on Savai'i on the Sunday. An air evacuation later that day to the "bigger" hospital in Apia could not save her and she died in the early hours of Tuesday morning. She was there with her husband and her sister, my mother. What they witnessed in those short hours before she died will no doubt haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Samoa is a small proud island nation. In NZ, especially in Auckland, we feel a familiarity with the Samoan people due to the large proportion of Samoans who have settled there. In my family we feel a particular affinity as my Dad's sister married a lovely Samoan man who is a major part of our family. His family have become our extended family and this trip to Samoa in September 2012 was Nick's and my second trip there. What the Samoans don't have is the medical resources we're lucky enough to have in New Zealand. The limited access to medical staff and medical supplies means that in an emergency, the care they are able to provide is patchy. And while the medical staff who attended to my Aunt were compassionate and did their absolute best, this island nation is severely under-resourced. An example I can give is that when my Aunt was first taken to hospital, two hotel workers hopped in the van (driven by my Dad) with a big box of towels and linen. Because the resources are so limited that you need to BYO sheets. Since our loss in 2012 the rugby coach Andrew Strawbridge survived a similar serious sudden illness and his wife has been active in fundraising for medical supplies. This is an extremely worthy cause. Kiwi's travel so frequently, especially to the islands. What happens if you get seriously ill while you're away? You might have medical insurance, but what good is that to you if the country you're in doesn't have access to much needed medical supplies & trained staff?
Our family, friends and colleagues of my Aunt raised a significant amount of money for the hospital in Apia and we went back on the second anniversary of her loss to gift the money to the hospital. There was a brief formal meeting where we were treated to coffee & a selection of treats to honour our presence there. My Samoan uncle spoke on our behalf and my Kiwi uncle, who had 2 years earlier watched his wife pass away in that same hospital, proudly handed over the cheque. It was a cathartic trip for those of us who had been there and an eye-opening experience for her daughters who had not been with us in 2012.
9 days before her death in 2012 an assembled group of about 40 friends and family descended on Litia's in Lalomanu for the 60th birthday celebration of my father. It was an amazing celebration. So many people traveled to be there with him. There were speeches, songs, champagne and in traditional Samoan style, a LOT of food. I was struggling through it because while I had managed to get my vomiting mainly under control with the assistance of Ondanestron, I was still severely nauseous and malnourished. In fact, I remember that the only thing I could eat there was icecream! So while the celebration was incredibly special, I almost missed it completely and I was very lucky to be there.
We were all unlucky though over a week later, if you can use such an insigificant word. Although it is luck really. She didn't do anything wrong, there was no signs of grave illness until it was too late. I understand that even if she had access to the full resources of a NZ medical team she would have still met the same fate unless antibiotics had been administered at the first sign of illness. And how could they have been? We all, herself included, just thought she had a cold. It is incredibly unlucky that this illness presented itself within her body, even unluckier that it killed such an amazing woman. The real tragedy of it all was that it happened where it did, at a time that we were all there to celebrate. My father's birthday is always tainted by the trauma of what we all went through. Celebrating his 65th in Edinburgh recently was incredibly special. But we all felt echoes of what we went through together 5 years earlier.
And I know that her loss is significant to many people. My uncle lost his partner, my cousins their mother, my own mother lost her sister. I feel acutely aware of their loss along with my own. But what we all went through, those of us who were there, trapped helpless on the island of Savai'i as her health spiraled away from her on another island, will never be forgotten. As with our post of moments, there are moments, snapshots, that will never go away. And being memories they are not in chronological order but a scattered collection of my thoughts....
~ Standing outside my room in the darkness in the early hours of Tuesday morning and being offered a Valium by the hotel manager. I denied it, of course, being pregnant, and told him that while I couldn't take it, maybe it actually would help with my next task - telling my 84 year-old Grandmother that her daughter had died in the night.
~ Standing next to the drivers-side window of our van on the boat back to the mainland. My Dad was in the drivers seat and I was hanging over the side of the boat vomiting into the water. I stood up to wipe my mouth and my Dad commented on how amazed he was with my resilience - vomiting then standing up & soldiering on.
~ Being the first to walk into Aggie Grey's hotel where my uncle and Mum were waiting for us in reception on Tuesday morning and hugging my uncle tightly, tears streaming down his face and telling him that this was no-one's fault.
~ Waking multiple times in the night waiting for my Dad to knock on our hotel room door and tell me the bad news. Listening to the wind and rain of a brief storm pass overhead. Feeling cold from the aircon being too low. Thinking that every minute that passed meant hope for a better result, that the inevitable would not happen. That miraculously a med-evac team would arrive and get her to NZ in time to save her.
~ Sitting in the line for the ferry to the mainland early on Tuesday morning, waiting an hour just to board, the heat already sweltering, and seeing my Grandmother, sitting stoically in the middle seat with quiet tears streaming down her face.
5 years on and our family has suffered more than this one loss. We've lost cherished family members and many of us have had illnesses, surgeries, set-backs. Sometimes it seems that our bad luck run is never-ending and it all stems back to our own tragic 9/11. September the 11th 2012 changed me forever and every year I remember what we went through. I remember the special lady that we lost and think how she should have been there for every future tragedy we would suffer and how her loss, in bad times and in good is felt so significantly that sometimes it seems inconceivable that we even lost her in the first place.
We are a family of 3. This blog is the story of how we almost became 4, why we didn’t, and what we are doing to recover from that experience.