“You are my heroine too, Mana”
When I am overwhelmed with memories of Mana, I go to Aleisa road in my mind. She and I drove along there for many hours sometimes. Sometimes she played her favorite songs and we sang along to them.
Sometimes we laughed ourselves silly. Other times we listened to the breeze. She loved the serenity. And I suppose, at the time, it was our way to be nearest heaven. I imagine our childhood dreams are most beautiful in there. Despite her tormenting cancer and my wounding fears of losing her, the hovering sky of Aleisa engulfed us.
The banyan trees and hills of Aleisa road, stand brave against white clouds. You hear the whistling and fluttering of birds leaving. But you sense they too are watching the sunset with you. Somewhere in the silence in between, a voice is telling you that the sea is flat now and it is crying. I thought in our silences of her once flowing long hair.
I whimpered for her once strong body now ailing with pain and fatigue. I felt the deep fear in her chest, and how she couldn’t cry at times. Then I thought of how we were once children. And how our eyes used to meet the eyes of God, everywhere.
But those drives had us searching for him too. I realized it was hardest to find God’s eyes, when you don’t want to lose someone you love. But this life has a way of showing you, that it is never yours to begin with. That whatever your expectations, the sun will fall over the horizon. And the night despite her loneliness, dawns.
Mana’s fire for Pinktober burned strongly. She was able to inspire brilliant and powerful people to help her see why cancer patients could do with some more help in our country. The pink painted clock came to light for the first time, when she was bed ridden from her treatments. I know she wrote letters when we were asleep to find ways for people to hear her modest pleas. She was as excited as a child when she received news from Samoa Cancer Society and government officials in Samoa, about the progress of Pinktober. Each news item made her smile with a far-away look. I hear her words still.
‘Mepa, there is no limit to what we can do when we do it with love.’
The fire in her heart burned so fiercely and yet so earnestly. She was referring also to everyone wearing pink for Pinktober month.
Today, as I write this, I wish for her to know that her pleas have reached so many hearts that the color pink is covering the world, and all there is in it. The scent of frangipani lingers during Pinktober as if there is a romance between sorrows and love.
And that while God did not seem to be there when we were driving, he was following us the whole time. And he stood by us when she took her final breath. How else could I have had left over courage to muster a prayer to accept that her soul was leaving?
Her love for her husband and children, is something to write home about. She had a devotion that was clear and determined. And it was worthy of celebration. Yet my sister feared losing them the most. So it meant the world to her to die at home with her loved ones. She wanted to spare them the burden of saying goodbye in a hospital. The selflessness of dying. The taste of hibiscus nectars as children. The sugar on our bread because we grew up as simple Samoans. All these things, define the journey we were on. And it made our drives along Aleisa road, all the more important, as I write this.
I think of our 3am conversations, the laughter of silly things like sisters and their never ending loyalties to each other. And tears shed at knowing what was coming eventually. The way we tied our hair or mine was puffed while hers and Via’s were elegant.
The way she was taller and I was never mind. How despite our father being Tuvaluan she looked better than I did. And how that makes up for anything does not make sense to me. But it made her laugh to no end.
Meanwhile, I enjoyed every bit of the conversation I was lost in. There is always a way to love each other with no sensibility it seemed.
But the skies of Aleisa knew our deeper secrets. Mana knew that life was bitter. And she protected me from its rough edges. For some reason, she felt it was her job to do it. Even when she was the one who was suffering with cancer. She spent half the time consoling me.
How come I wondered? How can compassion be so cruel to someone with the world on her shoulders? It seemed as if she was looking for God to watch out for me when it was her time to go.
So the notion that one day I would be writing for Pinktober on my own, is something that she had inspired me to do. She said it would heal me. It makes sense now because I was her ears during her Pinktober motivations. What a heritage if you ask me. To write about Mana and her fire. To be able to hold memories so precious that I could explode with the light of the world in them. To take her encompassing heart and to try to show it all to you.
That all the while, when she was being a hero to everyone, I burned for her to hear me say, “ Mana, you are my hero too.” Yet when she left, this life, she taught me that the drive was not about her cancer. It was not about saving me either.
The drives along Aleisa road was about how the rise of the sea breeze to kiss the banyan trees, inspires birds to soar. The drives with her were to ignite faith that there is more to life. That sisters were as modest as we could be among the stars in the engulfing night sky too.
And that we could be simple mothers and daughters of Samoa and be heroes to our own. Weaving life as we wish it to be. Giving. Loving. And making sense out of nothing. This is what some of Mana’s heart lived for.
As her sister, I will always whisper with my small courage to say, “Mana you are my hero too.”
At least I will know as much as you, the meaning of the elegant frangipani flowers of Pinktober. That life is cruel but it can be elegant. Life is short but it can leave us with a lingering true love. And that, it is only through our suffering and the searching drives on endless narrow roads that like the birds in banyan trees, we will meet God’s eyes everywhere!
A memorable Pinktober month to you, and may, God bless you ever, dear island citizen.
• The late Manamea Apelu Schwalger, a former Miss Samoa and Miss South Pacific, died from breast cancer in April 2018.
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