There are about fifteen of us in the boat when we hit the beach to visit the village, but two of the young women have not brought scarves or anything to cover their shoulders. Another woman on board has brought extras. I’m told I’ll have to take off my hat.

It’s conservative, here.

We walk up the path to a school, where we wait in the shade for recess to be over. Boys are playing rugby on a field of packed earth and dry grass, and it’s rough and tumble. Full-on tackle, take down, no pads no helmets, no elbow or knee protection. I can’t imagine such a game being played at a grade school in the U.S.

I have no idea how important rugby is to Fiji, but will learn in a couple of days.

It’s a boarding school, and children come here from other villages on other islands. The row of huts closest to us belong to teachers, and they have small solar power arrays for electricity.

“This is new, and saves on diesel fuel, which is very expensive,” says our guide. Teachers are dedicated, but at least need electricity.

“It’s Friday, so the children will go home today. They will return on Sunday for Monday classes.” They study math, science, English, the Fijian language.

Recess over, we cross over the field to a large classroom with two rows of empty chairs at one end, the rest of the room filled with children sitting on the floor.

“Be sure you clap afterwards,” says our guide. This is his village. I wonder if he has a child here.

This feels a little obligatory. We sit in the empty chairs as if we are the ones on stage. I’ve endured enough grade school performances. I really want to see the village, see how these wonderful Fijians live outside the cities. I’m sure the performance will be very nice and all, but…

Then the children start to sing.

The Fijian songs are intense, beautiful and the singing fills the simple room. It is not the pure, silver bell refinement of a European Children’s Choir. There is an earthen urgency in the harmony of these voices that is far less contained; almost a ferocity. I can’t help but sway with the notes. It is so strong and loud and beautiful, I’m nearly overwhelmed.

A little girl with deep dimples sits near the front, and she watches me very closely, even though I’m in the back row. After a minute I look back at her, cock my head slightly and smile, which brings a wide, beautiful flash of white teeth, a bright light of joy.

At one point, individual children stand up and dance at us, distorting their beautiful faces into terrible masks of crazy, tongues out, eyes bugged out, a grimace or fish face pushed eight inches from ours as they hop and flap about. It is startling at first, even a little scary, but all the rest of the children are laughing and singing.

Then the songs are those we recognize, and the little girl in front laughs with me as my fingers follow her’s and we climb an itsy bitsy spider up the water spout. Yes, I nod at her, I’m a dad, I know this song, while I sing along.

When the singing is done and our final, very real applause has ended, we stand to shakes hands with as many children as we can. The little girl nearly leaps out to grab my hand, stare into my eyes. We are smiling, acknowledging. Some things, you just recognize.

To hell with colored pencils: I put my largest bill of Fijian currency in the school donation box outside the classroom door.

We go to the village then, of huts about the size of a large U.S. kitchen, some made of corrugated iron, others of concrete block, others of grass. The Catholic church is the largest building in the village, of course, and is made of concrete.

There’s a communal laundry tub with water for washing clothes.

“The diesel generator is only turned on for four hours a day, from about six to ten p.m.,” says our guide. Diesel fuel is very expensive.

In a grassy square under some trees, village women have laid out tarps covered with items for sale.

“The money you put in donations box is for the entire village. What you buy from these women is for their own families,” we are told.

There are too many women to buy from everyone, and it’s a disappointment they are selling identicaal book marks, door mats, shells, bracelets of shells.

“Buy this for your wife!” says a woman on the blanket in front of me.

“No wife,” I say to her.

She squints at me. “How old are you?”

“How old do you think I am?”

“Dunno. 50, 60?”

When I tell her, she tsks, shakes her head. She does not approve of me being single. Some things you just recognize.

I remember the reading glasses I brought to give away. I ask the woman in front of me if glasses are needed and she says yes. Like an idiot, I give the glasses to an older woman sitting on the next cloth, because she’s older and I thought she might need them more.

This causes a little dispute between them. The glasses aren’t just an aid, they are a commodity, in a village where trading is living.

I make the rounds twice, three times. I do buy bracelets that my daughters may or may not decide to wear. I do not buy a bracelet with shark’s teeth for myself. I don’t wear shark’s teeth. Why give sharks an excuse for revenge?

I come to a place where children are sitting with their mothers, and from my backpack I pull out a tray of water color paints for a pair of boys.

Their mother gives them a little nudge on the shoulder, and the quiet instruction in Fijian to say “thank you.” Some things you just recognize.

“Vinaka,” they say together. A very small boy in a red shirt to my left watches hopefully as I reach again into my bag, but two little girls have appeared. I give the bubbles to them and the little boy cries out. His mother hushes him. I look at him and am sad, but the bubbles I’m holding would be better for these girls who are older.

The little boy cries when a bubble leaves the loop. Again his mother tries to hush him, but he can’t be consoled. I have nothing left in my pack. He cries as she puts her things away, and as they walk off down the trail.

Then we are done, it’s time to go.

Walking down the path I talk with a young couple from Monterey. Trey is in the Navy, Ashly works for a company that sells organic pesticide for vegetables, I think she says. As we walk out of the village, Trey is saying how amazing it is to see this much happiness when the Fijians have so little.

The little boy in the red shirt is still crying in one of the huts next to he path.

“Excuse me, I have to make amends,” I interrupt Trey, and walk up to the little boy standing on the threshold of a concrete hut that has almost nothing inside except what’s needed for survival. I squat down so he’s a little above me.

“Bula” I tell him. “Hello.” It’s the only word of Fijian I know, besides  vinaka, “thank you.” But he instantly stops crying. His mother stands behind him, and she is smiling.

“You are a wonderful boy,” I say from only a foot away from his wide brown eyes, looking as deeply into him as I can.  “I will come back here,” I say, and I mean it. Of course, he can’t understand a word, but the tears are gone now, and he smiles.

I stand up and start to leave. His mother says something to me. Though I don’t understand the words, I can tell she is telling me to stop. Some things you just recognize.

She brings the bag of items she had been selling from the lawn and that I bypassed several times after looking, even though I was tempted. She reaches inside. She makes me take a tiny shell bracelet. I’m overwhelmed.


Mother’s Birthday

I wrote this at the end of 2012 for one of my dearest friends. Well, honestly, I wrote it for myself. My mother died 42 years ago. I was in India. Today, St. Patricks Day, is her birthday. While I did not know her well, this is what I would have wished for her.

Her mother hovers near death, so light now she floats six inches above the bed while nestled small and frail so deeply in the sheets.

I am blessed, asked to sit in this room, asked to bring strong arms from which grief can be released. Blessed, trying to anticipate small needs, driving small errands, a presence to offer balance, solid with no weight.

Blessed, in this watching, to see here great beauty.

Two weeks since she fell and shattered bones in hip and neck, a week since she lost consciousness. Four adult children attend with children of their own, a great grandchild due in a month visits via the womb.

“Perhaps mom hangs on to meet her great granddaughter,” someone says.

“I think it would be better if mom meets her before she is born,” says daughter-soon-to-be-grandmother with a smile but not joking, the quickness of her response and the love in this room offers another chance to laugh.

With laughter and warmth they share stories of childhoods where Gaga played her important role, memories brought out and burnished like holiday silver.

So many meals for so many as her own children searched for channels into adulthood, moved back home sometimes with their own kids until fully fledged and swimming on their own. There are many stories.

Running through it all is the common theme: “She made each of us feel like her favorite.”

A grandson reads a book, his grandmother had read it to him, he cannot continue for tears that flow from love and loss. His father sits at mother’s bedside, head resting on one arm, his eyes to the floor while she looks to other vistas.

He caresses his mother’s brow for a long, long time. There is is no measurement for this waiting. He cries, one of his sisters puts her hand on the back of his neck.

The mourning is as natural and accepted the laughter, as the need to go out and get fresh air, to go home for a shower. We attend in shifts. Tears, laughter, errands, waiting, nurses come in every two hours with an opiate to ease her pain.

Until the end each dose eased her breathing for a while, but then seemed to have little effect at all.

A grandson in the Air Force flew home from Arizona, he and his brother stand at her bedside, eyes bright to her. They just stand, holding her hand, no tears, no drama, peace emanates from them. In another world they wore robes and traveled by horse or mule, they are timeless.

Rebel son of rebel dad, long hair creeping from under cap, but pride earned and voice direct to her even as she cannot hear, the love she poured into him pours back to her, from pitcher to cup to pitcher.

The words “I love you” bring from her a smile. They are the words spoken in this room most often.

An Army Sergeant brings his family home from Texas to be here for the services, and uses his leave to be part of this, to help as he can. Soldiers, aviators abound in this family, tough men who do not flinch from their own weeping.

They attend, ageless youth. Baby blankets she made for them, satin edging worn away by their tiny fingers, return to the foot of her bed, warming her now and them now again.

“What will I do, her love was so important to me,” asks a granddaughter, a professional pilot, overwhelmed in this moment by her helplessness.

“I just don’t want to let go of her hand,” responds her mother, who for years absorbed the pain of her mother’s uncertain shuffle to flowers in the garden, worn by years of a long transition.

Daughters together here and now, their tears flow to her in one stream through it all.

Then, a smile, another story, one stands to go to her bed, to hold her cool hands, to feel her feet to be sure they are warm enough as circulation slows.

Over the last days and nights her breath slows, becomes uneven, long pauses cause everyone to stop, to listen, then she gasps as the body’s need of oxygen overwhelms her soul’s desire to flee, the breathing is ragged in her throat, softened only by sponged drops of water.

“There is a door,” she said when she still had a few words left to share, “but I don’t know how to go through it.”

“Daddy waits and will show you the way, your papa waits and will guide you,” her children reply to her stillness. “All those who have passed through will be there.”

Finally, early in the morning her breathing slows even more and grows even more shallow, then just stops. This struggle is over, surrounded by loved ones through it all, not one moment of this departure did she spend alone in this room.

Such a blessing to be here.