Ka hotuhotu tōku manawa māhau,
Ka kite ano, hei āpōpō.
My heart sobs now,
Tomorrow, I’ll see you again.
Dear Huhana and Kāhu,
Life is fragile, and how long it plays out for any of us is mostly a game of chance. But even with the best hand and all the cotton wool in the world, it still ends. Huhana, as Grandad passed last week you said “I don’t want to die.”
But your own death isn’t something you should worry about. It’s coming regardless of how much time you spend fretting, so those thoughts aren’t useful, and like my dad, your koko, told me once when I was in line for a hiding from an older kid at school: ‘physical pain doesn’t last for long’.
This letter is about the emotional hurt of losing someone else, someone you love.
Because of that inconvenient truth of us all being on a timeline with a start and end, the more people you love in life, the more people you’ll farewell. But that’s a reason to love more, not less.
Today we buried my grandad, your great grandfather, Ray Moffatt. Huhana, your first five years were roughly his last. From 0 – 5 years young, as you crawled, walked, and learned to write your name, he struggled from 90 towards 95 years old, his body winding down and stopping him from doing those same things. Kāhu, we started pushing Gran down to the beach in his wheelchair about the same time as you started climbing out of your stroller. Opposite ends of the timeline.
We were lucky to sit with Grandad over the last week. The doctors wrapped him in cotton wool for the pain as he made the journey someplace other than here. And we were lucky to spend as much time with him as we did while he was still standing tall on his farm in Otaki. We were lucky, but now our Tōtara has fallen.
I still imagine him leaning into the sparks of the grinder in his shed, safety glasses hanging from his neck, then marching down his wall-to-wall cabinet, searching and grumbling about tools not being put back in their place. Probably at me, maybe at one of my cousins.
It’s hard not to think about those sights I’ll never see again. Last time I walked through his shed, the sound of the grinder’s silence hurt my heart. The spaces we’ve lost always seem the biggest.
So we mourned him as we closed his casket this morning, already missing the moments we know won’t reappear.
In time, you’ll lose someone you love, too. You’ll need to say goodbye, you’ll shout at the world, cry and try to make sense of that loss. If you’re lucky, like we were with Grandad, it will be in the order that seems most fair, like a grandparent or somebody older.
When that happens, and your world seems to stop for that taonga you’ve lost, don’t forget to notice the treasures they left behind.
You can see the taonga Grandad left in every one of his descendants. There’s about thirty of us, ngā uri o ta tātou tūpuna, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and even a great-great-grandchild of Nana and Grandad, and those are just the direct ones.
He had hands for making things, and there’s some of him there beneath the finger pads of his and Nana’s kids. That’s Grandad there when your nana, my mum, weaves her kete. When my uncles carve or fix cars and furniture, when my aunty weaves piupiu and paints chairs.
The same goes for me, my siblings and first cousins in the next generation down. Grandad solved problems all day long on his farm and in the dust of his workshop. He’s not there now but he’s still in the callouses of our hands, the grip of our fingers, and the way our thoughts file away at whatever problem we’re solving. Wood, steel, people, medicine, plants, language, they’re all just new materials in the different workshops of his mokopuna. That’s him there. Hey Gran.
Nana’s there too, our other tūpuna, our ancestors and parents.
He’s there in you, Huhana and Kāhu. You didn’t know him for long, but he’s with you forever. Some of the things you do that you might think came from me, came from your great-grandad. So you have hundreds more chances to meet him and Nana Joan. You just need to notice those traits as they appear in your day, I’ll point them out when I do.
That’s the magic of life, we’re all made up of those who came before us. They’re the soil we grow in, the sparks that feed us from seeds to maybe one day a Tōtara like Gran. Those are their genes in our blood. And so those taonga, those tūpuna, are with us forever. They shaped and made us how we are today. Who we are now, is what they gave us back then. Each time you bring one of those traits to life is another chance to meet them.
In us we get to weave those tūpuna, Grandad, Nana, everyone else, amongst one another. I’m my mum and dad, Sue and John, my nanas, Piki and Joan, my grandads, Leo and Ray, and up and up and up. They all live on through us, in new and different ways, they keep growing with us and then you, our children – living in ways that could never happen in a single lifetime.
When the tears won’t slow and you can’t think about how to say goodbye, take some time to notice what they left behind. Your hands, your heart, your mind, that thing you do that reminds you of them.
Notice them and say hello.
So there’s a little bit of Grandad in me, like there is in every one of those descendants, and everybody else who’s lives he changed, influenced or bumped into like his tractor along the fenceline. He was still driving it on his farm at 90.
For me, I see Grandad in my belief that if something doesn’t exist, and I think it should, it’s up to me to put it together. To unwind the vice, put that idea in, tighten it up and go to work – just like him in the shed. He’s there when I think about how to build Shoebox Christmas better, when I try to make anything with my hands. He’s in the office for my 9-5 too, more air-con, less mess than the workshop, but when I’m rifling through the cabinet looking for tools, that’s him there too. Hey Gran.
So we had our tangi yesterday, cried and remembered the taonga we knew. And we’ll miss him today and tomorrow – but if we look hard enough, he’s there.
That’s the magic of life. It’s fragile and the end is guaranteed, but it carries on and so do those taonga.
We were lucky to have had Grandad here as long as we did. We were lucky to be the grandchildren shovelling soil onto his coffin.
If your losses happen in that order, you’re lucky too. If your children bury your mother and I, I hope them and you remember how lucky we are to have had time together. I hope you notice the little bits of us in you and them. I hope you say hello when you do.
In the lull of energy and emotion after Grandad’s tangi, we sat outside my mum and dad’s whare. The squeeky wheel of your cousin’s scooter was the only sound, tiny and loud in the sudden quiet over the home that had been filled with whānau and friends all week. I hugged you because life is fragile, every moment is – they always have been, and we’re lucky to have this one right now.
I look forward to seeing Nana and Grandad in you both, woven amongst the rest of those who came before us. I look forward to meeting them in new ways in myself. And when the time comes to say goodbye to my mum and dad, I know I’ll notice them there with Grandad as well. Universe-willing, that’s a while off yet and we’ll have many more moments together.