IN Papua New Guinea, death is no stranger, just the gritty reality every child faces growing up in a hard and unforgiving country.
It is ever present in every society pervading through villages, settlements and urban centres. The ultimate thief, it steals children from parents and parents from children, siblings from each other.
My childhood was by no means unique and I experienced my fair share of death as I grew up in Kokoda, Oro Province.
I cannot recall how many funerals I attended. The first was with my grandfather. I held his hand and we walked to a settlement behind our cocoa block in Kokoda.
I must have been about four and had no idea it was a funeral. I was humming and skipping at his side, as I usually did whenever we went on walks. Life was one big adventure.
We crossed the river and I begged to go swimming but my grandfather quietly said no. We walked across the stream and came to a house. People were gathered around it. Some were seated.
I recall with vivid detail the sight of a woman prostrate on the ground. She was weeping. Frightened, I clutched my grandfather’s hand. He walked towards the people and the group parted and became quiet.
Then I saw my first corpse laid bare on a mat on the ground. Its stomach was huge and distended and its skin grey. I tried to look away. But my grandfather held me firm and whispered, “Look at it. You will see more. Get used to it. This is death, the brother of life.”
The walk home was long. I said nothing and neither did my grandfather. It rained heavily and he cut a large taro leaf for me. I held it like an umbrella and walked behind him.
I remember that day as if it were yesterday. For years, on some nights, I would suddenly awaken, covered in sweat, having seen this vivid image in my dream, the dead grey body, the protruding stomach, the stench of sweat, mud and death.
Oh, the smell of death is unique. You never get rid of it. It is etched deep into your memory from the first time it invades and you are captured by that pungent scent. Youremember it forever.
That day it rained hard. Dense, dark jungle rain. The sun banished early and the night arriving ominous and fast. Later that night, as I lay beside my grandfather and my grandmother wove her bilum by the dim light of a hurricane lamp, the rain beating down on the tin roof, I heard the sound of bats squeaking outside our window and shuddered.
“They are carrying the souls of the dead on their backs for a last time on earth before disappearing to their new home,” my grandmother told me, and I covered myself with my blanket lest they take me along with them.
Only three years later, my grandfather would be snatched by death, leaving me confused and lost for years to come. It was a terrible lesson for a child. A lesson I have been drawing from ever since.
It is that no matter how much love you have for someone, the fateful day will come when they are taken away. And you can do nothing about it. Not a single thing.
That day, I awoke to silence. My grandmother was not there. My aunt was asleep beside me instead of on her mat.
I ran to my grandfather’s bed and it was empty. I felt it and it was cold. I knew he had not slept in it. I ran outside and looked around the homestead.
It was a crisp Kokoda morning with the mist beginning to creep away. Not a sound to be heard. A faint wind rustled the leaves of the cocoa trees. The night was just leaving and I stood alone. Not a sound I heard.
Then as the leaves moved they made a sound and I watched fascinated as they seemed to take a life of their own atop of the giant cocoa tree that was my grandfather’sfavourite sitting place.
It seemed to want to say something to me. Here he would place his fold-up deck chair on Sunday mornings, dressed in long sleeved white shirt, crisp-ironed and starched long white pants and white shoes, rolling a Tally Ho cigarette.
Near his long legs would be his favourite wooden table with his giant tin mug full of steaming black tea. A record player would be playing country songs and I would be happily chasing the hens as he watched.
My grandmother would be cooking Sunday breakfast and humming some obscure hymn that only she seemed to know.
That day, a dreadful silence seemed to envelop our humble home. There was only the rustling of the leaves of the giant cocoa tree.
My grandfather had been at Kokoda Hospital for a while. A week probably, that seemed forever to a child, especially one who spent every waking hour with his grandfather.
I had visited him yesterday. He had held my hand. He looked tired and smiled, saying nothing and yet so much.
I asked when he would come back home and he looked away. I looked at my grandmother and she was looking away too.
I know now that he was crying. He knew he was saying his final farewell and the giant hand that hauled me onto his huge shoulders when I was tired from walking would not be there again.
Never there to wipe my tears or dust my knees when I stumbled or comb my hair or make my tea or bring me supper.
There is nothing more painful than the loss of one so loved that you feel the loss in your heart every day. That pain was only matched when my grandmother finally left us to join her beloved husband and my mother to join her parents some years later.
It is the tragic reality of life, that death is its constant companion and always nearby....