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May 21, 2022

Death In Paradise

My wife of 44 ½ years died last month, on April 24th, 2022. She passed away quietly in our home in Fiji, in our bed, late at night, with me beside her holding her hand.

Dying in Fiji is different than it is in the US. In the US, dying is usually done in hospitals: clean, sterile places with professional caregivers. After death, the body is whisked away and then perhaps seen not seen again until the funeral, when it is all cleaned up. The burial or cremation happen in ways that keep the body and the grievers separated by a “safe” distance. A brief parade past an open coffin and then a closed and covered casket is lowered into the ground or slid into a sealed room. The doors close before the fire is lit, the earth is replaced, and the process is over.

Not here.

A year before this, we had retired to Fiji and bought our dream home in paradise. For a year we had gotten up each morning filled with happiness and excitement as we did countless projects to make it our true home. She had planted hundreds of plants all around the property and it was so beautiful. It had been the happiest, most stress-free year of our lives and we thought we had many more like it in front of us.

Six weeks before her death, Soni had been a strong, vibrant, joyful, and seemingly healthy woman loving her life. A yoga teacher and nutrition consultant who exercised regularly, she looked great and felt great. But she had a time bomb inside of her from a case of childhood rheumatic fever that had left her with a scarred heart valve that put her at risk for a stroke.

No problem, we thought, we’ll get through this and then go to the states to get her checked out and fixed up.

But then, two days later, she had another, bigger, stroke that left her paralyzed on her left side.

The island we live on has no advanced medical imaging capabilities, so we medevac’ed her to the capital and the best hospital in Fiji. There a CT scan confirmed the stroke and its severity. The scan results looked really bad, as major portions of the right side of her brain were impacted and perhaps permanently damaged. The encouraging part was that she was still awake, lucid, and aware, and there was living brain tissue left. She was discouraged but far from ready to give up.

We talked, we laughed, and we looked forward to still going to the states to get her taken care of once she was cleared to travel. We both held on to hope and refused to give up. We had always held onto each other in the face of every challenge, and we had come through each time. We got this. We thought.

But then she had a 3rd stroke, even worse than the previous two, and she slipped quietly into unconsciousness as they wheeled her into the ICU.

The next day she rallied for a bit and, for one short period, she held my hand and squeezed it. She even responded to my voice. I thought that somehow we might beat this one more time, that she would be able to pull herself back from the darkness. We had been so close to recovering that we could almost taste it. Surely the universe wouldn’t take her away from me.

But it was not to be, and that was the last time she squeezed my hand or answered my voice.

For seven days they kept her in the ICU, with me still sleeping two doors down but spending every available moment with her. Two times, they woke me to tell me she probably wouldn’t last the night. Each time, I crawled into her hospital bed and held her. My heart was being torn apart; wanting her to stay with me and wanting her to be at peace. Loving her, I told her she could let go, move on, and that I would be ok. She knew I was lying and she held on.

Finally, when they realized there was nothing they could do for her, they brought her back to “our” hospital room where at least we were beside each other. The doctors told me that it was extremely unlikely that she would ever wake up and, if she did, she wouldn’t be “her”. Her brain was too badly damaged.

Soni always hated hospitals; the smell, the noise, and the coldness of them only made her feel worse.  If the hospital couldn’t help her then we weren’t staying there for a moment longer than we had to. I knew I had to take her home for home is the only place she would want to be, with me and her favorite blind dog beside her.

With the doctor’s full support and encouragement, I chartered a small plane to take us back to Savusavu and to our beautiful home overlooking the ocean. The weather was perfect and we flew at a low altitude to protect her. I could look down and see the crystal clear water and gorgeous reefs of Fiji pass beneath us and had a perfect aerial view of our beautiful home as we circled to land. Typical Fiji style, the ambulance I had reserved got called away while we were mid-flight, so we used a passenger van to bring her, for the last time, up the hill to the house and carried her into our bedroom.

We laid her in our bed and I arranged her nightgown around her and gently covered her legs with a sheet. She was home. The sun shone in through the windows, glistening off the ocean beyond, and a cool breeze bathed her with the scent of earth and sea. Even though she was in a coma and non-responsive, I could somehow feel her relaxing into it, releasing her stress, and recognizing that she was safe and in “her” . This is where she loved living and where she would pass away.

Two days after we got home, I noticed that her left foot had begun to die. The toes that I had massaged so many times after a long day on her feet teaching were starting to turn black and the skin rotting. Her circulation failing and her body beginning to shut down. There was no coming back.

I wailed at the sight of my beloved’s foot like this, and tears run down my face now as I write and remember. Seeing her body begin to decay was almost more than I could bear. Please god, not this way, don’t put her through this.

For the next seven days I cared for her with all the love I had in me. I bathed her twice a day, gently washing her skin and combing her hair. Someone brought me surgical gloves to use when I did this, but I refused them. We don’t “glove up” to wash a baby and I wasn’t going to for my wife. It would be my hands and my skin, which had touched her countless times with love, that she would feel against her each time. I did everything the nurses had done to take care of her personal hygiene, and more. Sweet-smelling lotions that she loved were rubbed into her skin, and her hair lightly oiled so it glowed. Everything was an act of love and togetherness and, even if she wasn’t conscious of it, some part of her knew that I was there and taking care of her as I had said I always would.

I changed her nightgown every day, dressing her in something pretty, and put fresh flowers from her garden around her. Hibiscus, lilies, orchids, and more that she had planted now decorated our room. I sat beside here and played her favorite love songs on my ukulele (every song had always been a love song when I played for her).

Each night, I crawled into bed beside her, told her I love her, and kissed her good night. Each night, I fell asleep wondering if she would still be there in the morning. And, each night, I slept touching her hand and with “one ear open” to listen for her breathing, grateful for another night beside her.

My in-laws were around to cook and help out some, but taking care of her was my job and I took joy and comfort in it. They kept me fed and mostly hung out on the deck talking and socializing, occasionally going in to look at her. Our children called from the states every day and messaged me regularly to see how their mom was and to check on me. They were trying to get here but knew it would not be in time.

I stayed with my wife. It was my honor and privilege to care for her and I knew she would want no one but me to do these things. She always knew she could count on me, and I wasn’t going to let her down now. It was a tender and special time we shared as we learned new, quiet love lessons. True love transcends the body and even the mind. In the giving and receiving of love, our spirits are forever together with no words needed.  I am grateful for that time and to have been able to give her those last gifts of love.

At first, it seemed like her body would last and last, unwilling to let go. Her breathing and her vitals were all strong. But slowly I could feel her weakening and fading away. Her breath got more and more shallow, and her body seemed to shrink smaller and smaller. It became harder to get a good blood pressure or pulse and I knew her body was shutting down its vital functions.

It was quiet that last night, Saturday the 23rd of April. I was pretty sure that she was not going to make it through the night as her breath was barely moving and her skin was clammy. I still tucked her in carefully, kissed her tenderly, and told her again how much I love her.

I slept a bit, dozed really, but had to get up to go to the bathroom. When I came back, she was no longer breathing. She was gone.

It must have just happened as she was still warm, but there was no more life in her body. I lay quietly beside her for a long time, gently touching her hand as I felt it grow colder. My mind was numb as it tried to absorb this impossible but undeniable reality. My wife, my lover, my partner, my best friend, my teacher and advisor, my constant companion for over 44 years, was gone.

The reality, even though expected, was still completely gut-wrenching and my mind refused it.

After an eternity, I finally got up and called my children to tell them, one of the worst calls a person will ever have to make. “Your mom is dead.” We cried together for a bit, and then hung up as I prepared for a new and terrible day, my first day as a widower.

My in-laws came over around 7am and I told them the news. They were shocked, at least a little, and saddened. But they knew it was coming and so their reactions were muted, perhaps just in shock. My mother-in-law was distraught. They filed into the bedroom to see her for themselves and say farewell. Then it was time to make tea.

Hindu funeral services traditionally are held pretty quickly after the death, and we decided on the next day (Monday) for both the funeral and cremation. But first, there were formal processes and procedures that needed to be done.

I had to take her body to the hospital and police in order to get a death certificate and “permit to cremate”. I had hoped a doctor or nurse could come to the house to do this, but it was not to be. Without a “permit to cremate” we would not be allowed to take her to the cemetery.

As though sleepwalking in a nightmare, I wrapped my wife’s beautiful, lifeless body in sheets, put her on a stretcher, and drove her in our car to the hospital. Her face was so peaceful looking, and she had a gentle smile on her face, at least so it seemed. I understood why we had to do this, and I understood the police needed to rule out foul play, but it seemed so undignified for a woman who had prized her dignity.

We took her to the hospital and lifted the stretcher onto the table in the outdoor morgue with the temperature approaching 90. There, the doctor and the police both did a perfunctory examination, producing a death certificate stating she had died of a brain hemorrhage. We then put her into a refrigerated drawer and it was off to the police station. It took a miserable half-hour of waiting in a line and then explaining to the desk sergeant while everyone around listened and watched my tears, but finally, I had all the paperwork needed and we could take her home.

Some of the family suggested that I leave her in the “mortuary” at the hospital even though that was not what most people did. It would have perhaps been “easier”. But that was a horrible, cold, and loveless place. She was coming home with me, to be surrounded by her space and her loved ones as she began her final journey.

Once again, we lifted her into our bed and I covered her body with sheets. I left her face exposed so I could see her, not willing to shroud her in darkness. She still looked so beautiful to me as she lay at peace in our room. I turned down the air-conditioning and sat quietly by her side, trying to let the stress and frustration and pain of the last few hours ease. By her side was always where I felt safe.

I was dreading the next 24 hours.

Most of the funeral arrangements had already been made as we knew this was coming, but we hadn’t known when. My in-laws wanted a Hindu ceremony followed by a traditional cremation. All I wanted, and all she had wanted, was a simple cremation. She was not religious and the rituals meant nothing to her, but they did to her family so I reluctantly agreed to a simplified service led by a pundit/priest.

In the evening, people came to visit and to view her body. I was happy to see those who had been dear to Soni in life and happy to let them see her and say goodbye. But I refused to allow any viewings “strangers” even if they were distant relatives. People who had not been to see her when she was happy were not going to get to ogle her now dead body for some voyeuristic thrill. That pissed some people off, but I didn’t care. This was my precious wife and not someone’s entertainment.

That night was my last night to lie beside her. I know it was only her body and that “she” was no longer in it, but it was comforting to be close anyway. Our dog crawled up on the bed and wanted just to be beside her, pressing his back against her. There was more quiet reflection that night than sleep, but that was fine. I was remembering 44+ years of adventures shared, of laughter and love and joy, a life well-lived together.

The morning came too soon, and too soon people started to arrive to start the final processes. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law came and washed her body for the last time. I wanted it to be me giving her that final wash, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t look at the sight of her no-longer-living naked body.

They dressed her in the sari she wore at our wedding. She had saved it all those years perhaps for this occasion and she still looked stunning in it. I put a special necklace on her that we had bought together, and I put in her hair the red powder that signifies a married woman. I kissed her forehead for the last time and said farewell.

The coffin was brought into the bedroom (it had sat like an ugly toad in my living room all night) and we carefully placed her in it, arranging the sheets just so and fixing her sari so it was perfect. We then carried her out to our deck overlooking the beautiful and serene South Pacific ocean and placed her on a special mat. Our dog came once again and lay beside the coffin with his head by hers. I sat beside him and her and we mourned together, each in our own way, for her spirit.

The priest, a young guy who spoke little English, arrived and began to prepare the elements for the service. Neither he nor anyone else took the time to explain any of it to me, but it didn’t matter. All that was important to me was honoring my wife and preserving her dignity, the rest was for other people.

The service happened with lots of chanting and offerings placed in her coffin. Incense was lit and Sanskrit prayers were said. Fire was circled around her body and holy water was placed between her lips, all with me participating blindly and numbly. I only paid attention enough to do the things the pundit motioned for me to do like place parcels of dough by her, then light that incense and others. I didn’t understand and no longer wanted to.

When it was over, it was time to go to the cemetery for the finale, but one more ritual was required. As we prepared to move the coffin, a candle was lit and placed in a small clay vessel (a dia) in front of it. We then lifted the coffin and moved it 8 feet forward and placed it down in front of the dia. Then I had to smash the dia with a rock and extinguish the flame. Five times we did this, placing a dia in front of the coffin and then smashing it behind, each time to symbolize breaking her bond to the house. This was the absolute last thing my heart wanted to do. It felt like I was smashing my own heart with each crushed dia, and I was empty by the end.

In a confusing twist, for the drive to the cemetery (another final time together) I was given a cup of black sesame seeds to lay a trail from the house so she could follow it back and I was meticulous in covering every meter of the drive. It’s so silly what the mind holds on to seeking comfort. I know she will always find her way back to me and I to her (we need no trail for this as our spirits always will call to each other). But I was glad to leave the trail that day.

The funeral pyre had already been built before we got there, a carefully stacked, five-foot pile of logs held in place by steel posts on the corners. We carried the casket up to it and then carefully lifted her using the sheets and placed her body on the wood. She looked so small and helpless, and so alone.

Once again, the priest led me through a series of mindless actions as we prepared for the ultimate act. There was a small fire, incense burning, chanting, and water. It passed in a blur and then it was the time I had been dreading.

We stood up and the priest held out a bowl of ghee (clarified butter) and told me to fill my hands with it and then cover her face. The liquid butter ran slippery through my fingers as I tremblingly covered her face and hair. My hands were shaking and my knees almost collapsed as I then covered her in oil, knowing why I was doing this. Then I poured the oil down her body, covering her sari down to her precious feet.

A large bowl with a mixture of rice, incense, oil, and other ingredients (samaghiri) was handed to me with a large spoon, and I was told to cover her with the mix. Ingredients to purify her and help the fire burn better. Three times I circled her body spooning this mix onto her until she was fully covered.

After I finished, men carefully placed more long logs on top of her, covering her body from view. The casket was broken to pieces and those pieces placed on the logs. Family members came and poured more bottles of ghee on her as they circled the pyre. Then dozens of small camphor squares were placed all around and inside the pyre. Camphor lights easily and burns quickly and is often used to start fires.

As I stood at the head of the pyre the pundit handed me a palm branch flattened at one end with two camphor squares on it. He lit them and motioned me to place them in the pyre with the other squares. Barely able to hold the branch, I did it and watched the flames reach hungrily for the wood. Twice more I had to do this as the fire began to catch. Then I had to slowly work my way around the pyre lighting little bunches of camphor as I went.

My hands were trembling, my heart was breaking and I could hardly comprehend and yet could not ignore what it is I was doing. I was lighting the fire which would consume the body of the woman I have loved forever. As I worked my way in that horrible circle, the fire began to burn all around and, by the end of my circle, it had fully engaged the pyre. My wife was burning before my eyes and I could hardly stand up anymore.

Very soon, the fire was too intense so I take a mat, the same one her casket had lain on at the house, and put it on the ground some 20 feet from the fire. As I sat, no one joined me. The other attendees stand around for a bit and then head to a covered pavilion to wait and chat. I was alone, and I knew this is how I would be from now on; alone.

But I wasn’t completely alone. My children had been on a video call for the whole ceremony, with the camera held by a relative. They saw me do all these things and then watched me light the pyre with their mom inside. I mounted the camera on a tripod beside me and had my earbuds in so we can talk, but we didn’t say much. We watched together, in silence and pain, as the fire blazed and consumed her.

It’s impossible to describe the feelings that go through you as this enormous fire burns. White hot and almost smokeless, it raged as my heart cracked and melted. Even that far away, the heat was almost too uncomfortable on my face, but I couldn’t move. Silently we watched, my children and I, alone together.

It took about two and a half hours for the fire to consume everything visible. The once tall pyre of wood and my wife, my life, had been reduced to a large bed of intensely hot coals. I had read that the skull sometimes explodes during this process, but thankfully that didn’t happen. We decided it was done. I said goodbye to the kids and joined the others waiting in the pavilion to go back to what was no longer “our” home. Nothing felt right.

A few people stayed to cook a meal so I would eat, but it was a somber occasion and I had no appetite for food or company. They soon left and I was glad to be alone with my dog and my thoughts.

The next morning, I got up early to meet the pundit at the cremation site for the last elements. At 7:30am he began the last of the interminable pujas; with one last small fire and one last stick of incense to satisfy the ritual requirements.

The embers and coals were still, 18 hours later, too hot to touch but bone fragments were clearly visible. A lot of them. Water that was carefully sprinkled on the fire to douse the coals immediately began to boil and the steam rose with a sickly smell to cover me. I held back my nausea as I watched the bones appear now white amidst the black ash.

A clay urn was provided and I began to one-by-one pick her bones from the ashes and place them in the urn. A finger and a rib here, a vertebra and a rib over there, the top of her femur, and recognizable portions of her skull emerged from the ash to be carefully collected. Tears rolled unimpeded down my face and the stink of the steam surrounded me as I collected the last of her remains and placed them in the pot. And then it was done and time to take them home.

My children came the next week and, together, we buried her bones in her garden. Surrounded by the plants she loved, now with blooms that she would never see, we laid her bones to rest with love and honor in the place she and I will always call home.

Death, real and immediate and unavoidable. The experience of her death here was more difficult and more painful than anything I have ever been through before. Much of the time I didn’t know if I would be able to do what was needed from me. But I did. For her, and for me, I did. These were my last acts of love and service for my wife, honoring her wishes for her body.

I am forever changed by these experiences, at the same time both strengthened and diminished. Diminished knowing that half of me is gone forever and that my future right now looks pretty lonely. Strengthened as I found the courage and the love to do impossible things that I couldn’t have imagined doing. I’ll carry both of those for the rest of my days.

We experience death differently here in paradise.

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