ORO - Have you ever lost someone so profoundly intimate you cried yourself wretched so your heart ached and your entire being was soaked with such misery that you felt you were losing yourself?
And did you ever feel 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 breathe or walk or talk?
I’m sure many people have been there. I certainly have. Too many times.
My earliest recollection of such a moment happened at age five when I lost everything. I have often said I was seven or eight but I was five. I stretched my age because part of me refused to believe 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, everyone around me weeping.
But I was silent. I stood holding the finger of my Grandmother that morose and overcast Sunday morning at Kokoda Block 168, my home. A light drizzle caressed Victor Juffa’s final farewell. Grandmother was inconsolable and weeping a river of grief.
I looked around me in awe. Wearing my favourite white sailor suit with blue trimming, sandals, hair combed and parted as was the style for children born in the 1970s. 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 a dream or real and do not know if there is anyone in the dark.
Men and women, all familiar faces, writhing in 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 hawk nose defiant and tears streaming down his cheeks. His muscular body was deflated like it had been hit by a truck.
Swaying ever so slightly, he held my Mother whose eyes were closed tightly shut, her face contorted, crying silently, locking in the sound until it erupted no longer contained. I had never seen my Mother cry like this and it disturbed me. I looked away.
At their feet my best friend aunty Glen clenched fists of dirt and let them fall in small piles and clasped them again, wailing, “Why?”
There they were, all covered in clay and mud and dirt.
The rain fell earnestly 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 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, a cry of anger and grief and outrage and immense sadness packaged in 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 walked off as if on a fishing trip and stopped 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 favourite fishing spot along the pristine river Eiwo. “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 when best friends acted out childhood adventures during funerals in our Hunjara custom.
Earlier that week I had awoken to no one around me for the first time. There was not a sound and I felt very alone.
It was the day my Grandfather was admitted to 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.
Grandfather 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 the razor sharp, hung off a small tree branch on a cluster of boulders near the creek. Tin dish of warm water on a smooth boulder, white fresh face towel folded and placed next to it, large towel for me nearby on another boulder.
He would be humming some country song. Humming along, I would tentatively wet my toe and eventually kneel to wash my face. With the cool water, a child and his Grandfather would start their morning. These were the happiest memories of my life.
Not far away at the kitchen, my Grandmother was cooking our breakfast. Dumplings, biscuits, Milo and tinned meat, my favourite. Meanwhile Koropu would be prancing about near me and barking as I splashed about, eventually gathering the courage to dive into the stream and bathe myself.
After, we would have a morning meal together. That done, Grandfather would check me for any sores and dress them - there were always sores. He had a small first aid kit with everything needed to treat an overactive grandchild.
An inquisitive child, I was always falling, getting scratched or bitten or scraping knees or palms from a fall as I followed my Grandfather everywhere he went.
We were inseparable. But not now it seemed.
I was his shadow. If I fell tired he would reach down and hoist me onto his broad shoulders and carry on with me perched there. Eventually I would fall asleep, my head on his, my small arms wrapped around his neck. He would carry me back to my cot next to his giant brass bed and carefully lay me down and tuck me in before he went back to work.
I had a babysitter named Kathy who was the most beautiful and strongest woman I had ever known apart from my mother and Grandmother. 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 always busy, gardening, cleaning, billum-making, tapa cloth-manufacturing, scone-baking. She was a machine and life was heaven. Life was bliss in Kokoda Block Portion 168.
But I was about to learn a most painful lesson in life. That good times are always 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, high and low, joy and sorrow.
On this day, after a long stretch of amazing happiness, I was to experience my first real pain.
It started with my Grandfather not being in his large brass bed beside me when I awoke.
I rubbed my eyes seeking out my best friend, Godfather and Grandfather, Victor Juffa, affectionately called Nombo (namesake).
There was no response but I thought nothing of it and walked along the corridor of the crude but sound timber home he had built with his own strong hands.
I walked down the steps and sat on the last one and the crisp Kokoda morning greeted my cheeks with its cool mist. Our chickens were out and about and the red rooster crowed angrily as he intimidated the hens and young roosters.
I watched him and smiled. He was such a character. Scrawny yet so cocky. My Grandmother said he looked like an uncle she grew up with who picked fights with everyone in the village. Our rooster was like that.
I heard the pigs squealing in their pen, annoyed they were not yet let out 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 admonished her that their complete disregard for anyone as they shit everywhere they went was something his sense of order disapproved off.
She ignored him just to irritate him. Grandmother would 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.
“I am not your soldier or cargo carrier,” she would bark at Grandfather if he forgot and ordered her to do something. She would do the exact opposite or ignore him. I was amazed at her defiance and she would look at me and secretly grin while Grandad would walk off seething.
This morning, I looked around for Koropu, Grandfather’s favourite dog, a lean and swift hunting dog he had been given by a cousin who visited him for monthly hunting trips. Koropu was always by our side as we went about. It was us three that formed a nucleus surrounded by others such as my cousin Elijah or Cynthia or some unfortunate orphan Granddad had taken in for a while before they were relocated to another family.
I called but he was nowhere to be seen. Koropu was always waiting at the foot of the steps for Grandfather. Except today. He was nowhere to be seen.
From where I sat, my hands tucked under my armpits for warmth, I looked at our modest homestead and saw people moving around, many people. Uncle Alex strode towards our kitchen and spoke in a harsh and serious tone to an Aunt. A giant heavyset man with a thick moustache, Uncle Alex had a bad temper and was also my nombo and a beloved nephew of my Grandfather. He pointed to where I sat and my aunt looked at me and she nodded.
What is going on, I wondered?
Alex walked off and my aunt beckoned me to come. I walked to the kitchen and squatted as close as I could to the fireplace to warm myself. The cast iron wood stove was burning and there was pot bubbling. I could smell the dumplings cooking in coconut cream laced with canned mackerel.
My aunt handed me a hot plate of dumplings and a cup of Milo. I ate silently and drank holding the cup in 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!
She rushed with her suitcase through the cocoa trees and up to the house, practically flinging the case into the hallway. I stood up wanting to run to her. I had not been told she was coming. Normally it was a major event and I would trek to Kokoda Airport to wait for her with my Grandmother. But here she was.
And she didn’t notice me. I was dismayed she didn’t say anything to me but rushed off from where she had come. I was confused.
It seems children are not supposed to know about death and losing a loved one. How arrogant adults can be. They imagine it is only they who feel pain and sorrow. They forget that children are grievously hurt by such events. Adults comfort each other and participate in each other’s grief and soak in each other’s emotions. They cry and weep together and expel their emotional burden.
But what about the children?
Why are children not treated as if they matter and have feelings? They hurt and feel loss and are most frightened at these times.
Instead they are bundled off to bed or to a meal and rarely told what has happened. They are often confused and scared and needing hugs, reassurance and love.
So I stood there stunned, watching all these strange happenings and anxious and angry faces. The Milo grew cold in my cup and I looked fruitlessly for someone to ask.
I walked to the stream. Maybe Nombo had started to shave without me. Maybe he was there humming his favourite song and I would see his broad back and all would be OK. An empty brook and bare stones received me.
I splashed water on my face and wondered if anyone would call my name, but there was no one.
Everyone had rushed to the hospital. Only my aunty was busying herself in the kitchen cleaning up. She seemed not there. I sat on the steps and waited, hands between my knees, watching the road, hoping my grandfather would walk through the cocoa trees, wanting to see him.
A wind gust rustled the leaves on my favourite cocoa tree. I watched the tree shiver and shake and heard the wind whistle. I put my head against the wall and eventually fell asleep.
When I awoke I was in his brass bed. It was raining softly and tin roof provided a gentle lullaby. I dozed off again holding my Grandfather’s shirt to my face. It had the aroma of Old Spice, his favourite cologne.
I never saw my Grandfather again. Such is the cruelty and inconsideration of adults.
I watched a coffin disappear into the earth. It rained hard. The weeping was intense as earth was placed on the coffin.
My cousin Gibson, my Grandfather’s favourite nephew, collapsed with the spade and wept bitterly refusing to throw any more earth on his beloved Uncle’s coffin. Someone gently prised open his fingers, took the spade and continued.
I did not realise that Victor Juffa, Private 100, husband to Kathleen Juffa and father to many children, his and those he took in, neighbour to his fellow soldiers and veterans and everything to me, was gone.
I realised it later at night.
That night, after midnight 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 shedding tears.
I had heard something!
The distinct voice of Victor Juffa calling out to me. Softly as he did while I slept and we were to prepare for the day. Nombo! My Grandmother held me tight. “It is not him,” she cried gently but I was inconsolable. Why wouldn’t they let me see him? 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 I knew Victor Juffa was gone forever.… and I cried for so long and so hard and my dreams of a tomorrow by the stream with him in his white singlet, our towels folded carefully on the boulders, him shaving and humming and me dipping my feet and having our breakfast together faded to be just a lonely child’s memory of his beloved Grandfather, gone to God knows where.
The next day I walked to Victor Juffa’s burial site. I had packed my small suitcase because my Mother told me we would be going away for a while. In the case I had put my Grandfather’s favourite shirt and belt - all I had of him.
Koropu was sitting next to the grave. He looked up and wagged his tail and grinned. I sat next to him and we sat there saying nothing and everything at once.