When I was briefly married to Luke, we lived in California. He introduced me to his friend Atamu, who was Samoan. We hit it off well, and when we went to Atamu’s wedding, I felt quite comfortable there, which isn’t a normal thing for me in large social gatherings. Luke and I weren’t married yet, but we’d gotten our license, and almost without knowing what was happening, we found ourselves getting married by the minister during the reception. There was no one to give me away, and Atamu’s great-uncle Tama, the chief of the family, was appalled by that. No older brother? No father? Not acceptable. He stood up and announced to the room that I was adopted, then he walked me up the aisle.
I found out over the next year that he meant I was adopted. It was later made legal, but where the family was concerned, it didn’t need to be. When Luke and I divorced, I went home to Tama without a thought for doing anything else. He started teaching me the traditional Samoan medicine, which he’d long intended to do, and that was how I met Mataio.
Matty was getting his pe’a, and doing it the old way, as described in the poem. It took months because he had to work around a job he had to be able to sit for hours to do, and he came to Tama after each session for the old medicines to prevent infection and ease his pain, which was considerable. Tama use dit a sa teaching moment for me, too; I was allowed to make the medicines, though given where Matty needed them, I wasn’t allowed to apply them. I did sit in the kitchen and talk with Matty (who mostly stood), and those were moments Tama had intended, too.
I learned a lot about Matty during those talks. As I was being passed Tama’s medical knowledge, Matty was his intended successor as the leader of the family. He was getting the pe’a in part because of that (though it’s no longer traditionally required). Tama clearly though we were a good pairing, and time proved him right. We’d begun talking about getting married when Matty was killed by a drunk driver.
Astrologically, this is a time for me to face down and put to rest old wounds and griefs. The one I’ve had the most trouble letting go of is Matty; this is the first time I’ve been able to address it in a poem. A prompt to write a modernized elegy finally spurred me to try. As the pe’a encodes so much of his culture, it encodes so many of the things I lost in him.
The opening line (and its translation in the final line) are from the Buddhist Heart Sutra.
Elegy for Matty
Mataio Tuitele, 1979-2005
Gate, gate, paragate.
Gone the pe’a, bloodline, lineage, leadership,
Driven under your skin with a comb of shark teeth.
Gone the map of our meeting, the fire that my hands soothed
After six hours under the hammer, cooled with herbal simples,
Learned over months to crave.
Gone the old, soft armor, culture held hard against invasion,
The men on the great white-sailed ships, the pelagi who passed
Thinking their kind had already landed, men seen through spyglasses
To be in breeches, waist to knee.
Gone the paths for my fingertips to follow through myth
And medicine, through the encoded knowing of panax leaf,
Plover track, plumeria bud.
Gone the braille of you against my blind and hungry
Hips and thighs, ridged candlenut ink making you into
A riot of sensation for the parts of me that had known men
Only as a weight to bear.
Gone, gone, gone beyond.