My father searched his patient’s eyes for fear of death – a man present at his own funeral! – but found defiance. Expecting sadness, he discovered only the joy that comes from a man seeing his family concentrating, for a spiritual moment, all the elation within them – concentrating it on him. My father expected despair but encountered satisfaction. A man celebrated is a man honored is a man beloved – is a life justified. Tofa soifua is justification of life.
Dad remembers Pago Pago better than he remembers his childhood backyard. Then again, the Manhattan townhouse of his youth didn’t have much of a yard. On long family road trips, the tires of the car melting into endless asphalt roads, I’ll tire of iPods. My dad will get that wistful, I’ve-lived-half-a-century look in his eyes. Like a magician, he conjures stories that seem too fanciful to be true, stories of his days practicing tropical medicine in American Samoa. These stories bloom to life in colors and movements and smells, vines snaking up through the floor of our minivan and hibiscus flowers unfolding from the stick shift. Memory is a shimmering dance, then, and his nod to the island of my birth is a story. The day we meandered through tales of our friend Zarah Ingles, my dad talked a little about death and a lot about life, a little about mourning and a lot about celebration, a little about goodbye and a lot about fare-thee-well. He told us of the tofa soifua.
Zarah Ingles is perhaps one of the few Americans lucky enough to receive a tofa soifua, however accidental. She took off for a spontaneous vacation one Friday, seeking momentary release from all of the people who surrounded her in New Jersey – coworkers, neighbors. It was the ideal plan in its nod to isolation, an elopement without the burden of another. The next day, The New York Times announced in frenzy that one Zarah Ingles had died of unknown causes late that Friday night: Zarah Ingles – an uncommon name. Those morbid acquaintances who scanned the obituaries over morning coffee found it a strange coincidence that another Zarah existed and had, in fact, died. Coworkers laughed; her boss paused and then chuckled. All figured they’d show her the article on Monday, they’d chortle – fancy, another Zarah Ingles! On the fateful day preceding the accidental tofa soifua, Zarah hadn’t arrived early to make coffee – Monday was her day – people started to feel a nervous itch. When she didn’t set foot in the office on Tuesday, they blanched. Zarah, dead!
Everybody in Samoa gathers. They come and they stand, they sit, they pack into the open space. Everything takes place outside in Samoa. The leaves are a vibrant, tropical green, the water that blue on postcards. The island breathes. It rustles. Untouched, unblemished, nature frolics about in a crazed tangle of vines and jungle. Life is a sasa, dance, to Polynesian drums and everybody gathers. Throbbing concentration centers on the man at the front – the man honored – standing in a position to receive. Sometimes the skin sags on the bones of his face, but occasionally he is young, the skin taut and elastic. He is calm, quietly smiling. Or, he beams. Women in the crowd cradle gifts of fine mats which poke toward the sky. The crowd buzzes. An organism itself, it shifts in a ripple and sway.
Tofa soifua. Goodbye.
Everybody in New Jersey gathered at Zarah’s house. It was a house locked and empty of life – without context, abandoned. Calls and visits later, friends were in a state of shock. They could do nothing but mourn blindly, angrily, confusedly, trying to recall last words to Zarah. Not one knew whom to contact. There was not a corpse to satisfy disbelievers; no sign of violence or suffering disclosed all. Family members didn’t seem to be present. Closure seemed impossible.
Zarah’s house slowly grew, sprouting pockets of people with flowers. This shrine began to curiously resemble a little island in the Pacific, as my father put it. Lilies cascaded down the front steps and dripped onto the yard; more flowers lined the path. Men and women congregated outside the house, quiet and stiff. One gentleman, bending to place a flower on the welcome mat, split his pants at the seam of the crotch – those who saw looked away, uncomfortable. No one laughed. The thought of dancing would have been preposterous. Indoors, Zarah’s message machine boomed commiserations to an empty room. An old boyfriend expressed his love; an old boss assured the silence that he always knew something was wrong. People were sorry – they were so sorry. Far away, in a household wracked with grief, in a family robbed of a loved one, Sarah Ingles’s family did not receive any condolences: The New York Times obituary section had made an unfortunate typo in the spelling of a name.
Tofa soifua. Celebration.
My father, a doctor, has experience with death. Sinking into his stories of Samoa, he conveys songs and commemorations, the flashing smiles of women on the island – skin light like coffee, eyes dark like chocolate – and an electricity in the air. At the tofa soifua, women proffer gifts to the man at the front. Men pat-a-pat drums, hardly lifting one hand from the surface of the drum before replacing it with the other. Children – they run wildly, unchecked, safe. The mass surges upward in dance, moving with abandon to a beat and nodding, bouncing, almost flying. Samoans dance and eat, sing and eat, eat and smile, people concentrating love on a man dying. They unite under humanism, under sameness. Before someone passes away, the community celebrates his life. Death is an excuse for honor in this organic world of vines and soil, where a funeral is an inhale, an exhale: a beat.
Americans have a systematic approach to death – the funeral (read: words spilling into a space voided). Sentiments long overdue and a little too late decorate letters. Americans send condolences to corpses. Post-funeral, families meet with an influx of flowers and try to avoid treading upon baked goods. Open caskets and solemn ceremonies, ritualistic chants and scattering of ashes all benefit those left behind but leave the dead un-thanked.
Zarah traipsed in from vacation to a world transformed. She returned to life as she had never known it, to a personal Eden exploding from her doorstep. Friends were shocked to see her living. Chaos reigned, but confusion gave way to relief. She was Aslan as she breathed life into the grieving. Inhaling, she was exposed.
New York Times Obituary typo tofa-soifua. Talofa: Hello.
Everybody gathers. They come and they wonder, they laugh. People flock to arrange bouquets, they come and hug, kiss – they dance and eat, sing and eat, eat and smile. They express without restraint the euphoria within them. They pulse. My father sighs into this closure, exhaling into the end of the story a rhythmic hint of drums, of tropics and of people who dance in celebration of life for the living.
We pick up our ear phones and plug in our iPods; we’ve hours to go and the two-lane road ahead.
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