West Coast Becky Manawatu on losing her cousin Che Warren during the lockdown. (This story has been published with the blessing of Che’s mum, dad, sister and nephew.)
My cousin Che Warren was one helluva man.
He was an adventurous guy. Very chilled, and a bit of a romantic, really.
In 1996, while he was living in the UK, he met a woman.
The woman told him she was off to India with a friend.
He’d like to go to India, he said, partly because he liked to travel and partly because he thought she was quite lovely.
She and Che made plans to meet in Delhi. Che scored a dirt-cheap flight with Syrian Airways and followed her a week later.
He went to Delhi, to the place they were to meet.
But she didn’t show.
No cellphones around then. So, at a loss, he decided to make the most of it. He travelled around India for three months, living on what little money he had and surrounding himself with locals. He somehow convinced a few that he was a famous cricketer named Che Crow.
Once, he saw an Australian traveller busking. There was something about the man Che found quite audacious. Perhaps it was his clothes or his luggage, but he was unimpressed that he was busking given the number of local people Che had seen begging on the streets.
Che’s travels continued — walking lots, seeing plenty, eating little — finishing up in rebel-torn Kashmir.
Aunty Tollie had a fit when she learned he was there, worried he would be kidnapped or something.
On his return to the UK, his sister Kellie picked him up from the airport.
Walking through the airport terminal, her brother looked like Gandhi, she told me.
He’d shaved his head and lost a lot of weight. His face had browned, he was wearing sandals.
At her London flat, she ran him a bath and wouldn’t let him sit on her furniture till he’d scrubbed off the dirt from his travels.
After his bath, he requested a feed of Burger King and told Kellie about his travels through India. Told her about the country, the people he’d met, and the poverty he saw. The woman he never found.
The last time I saw Che was just before Christmas. He was in Nelson Hospital.
A car crash in 1999 had caused him such brutal injuries he was wheelchair-bound.
Living as a tetraplegic meant he suffered ongoing health problems.
I went to his ward with my Aunty Tollie, Uncle Guy and Aunty Chrissie to say hi. He looked lovely like he always did. Beautiful bright blue eyes, big smile.
His hair had grown long and dark and he had it pulled back in a ponytail. He’d grown a bit of a beard and looked like he’d had some sun.
I gave him a kiss and a hug, asked him how he was doing.
He was good, he said.
His appearance that day made me recall the legends of him, the stories I heard about him as a kid.
Che died on March 28 — 21 years after the crash, and two days into New Zealand’s lockdown. He was 45.
With no possibility for a funeral, no coming together to share stories over kai, over laughter and tears, I asked Kellie: “Tell me that story, the one about India again . . .”
So, she did, and more.
Che was born on November 27, 1974, in Tokoroa, on his mum Colleen Salero’s 25th birthday. She always says she got her Che Baby and a fondue set for her birthday.
And what a gift Che was.
Her boy had magical blue eyes and he’d grow to become a gentle man.
His working life would include a job plucking turkeys and packing pre-packaged salads in factories while in the UK.
Che didn’t care what he did so long as he could earn money.
Shortly before moving back to New Zealand, Che showed up at his sister Kellie’s flat unannounced.
It was a winter night in England, and he arrived to discover Kellie was out.
When she returned home in a cab with a friend in the early hours of the morning, she saw a bulk on her front step.
The friend got out, so did Kellie. Both tentatively approached the bulk in the sleeping bag.
The friend said something like: “Oi mate, you all right there?”
Che’s head popped out. He said something like: “Don’t worry, just me.” And gave his sister a grand, teeth-chattering, eyes-twinkling smile.
Having spent hours on her front step, he was very cold, so she gave Che her bed that night and she crashed on the couch.
He was done with living in the UK, he told her before he went to bed.
He wanted to go back to New Zealand where he was his happiest.
In 1997, he moved back to Nelson. Back to the first job he’d ever had, when he was 15 and just out of high school — working on the Ocean Ranger, the fishing boat our Uncle Guy skippered. A job that he would love and settle into. One that he could see himself sticking with.
But it would also be his last.
On July 23, 1999, Che was on his time off.
That Friday night, he went to a pub near the wharf that was frequented by many of the fishermen and, frankly, Duggan family members.
Early in the evening, Che still had the presence of mind to walk our Aunty Franny and her friend to a taxi before retreating into the pub for a few more.
A few rounds later, Che decided he’d had enough.
He climbed into his friend’s car parked outside and fell asleep.
As Che slept, his friend came out and, despite being drunk, he made the decision to drive off in the car. Che was sound asleep beside him and wearing no seatbelt.
His friend crashed into a parked car on Collingwood Street and Che was thrown through the window.
His injuries were so horrific Che almost died.
After three months in Christchurch Hospital’s ICU, he proved himself a survivor, but was paralysed from the chest down. His arm and hand movements were severely limited.
He spent the next nine months in the Burwood Spinal Unit.
In the years after, Che would rarely express self-pity or regret.
Occasionally, he’d say he wished he hadn’t fallen asleep in the car, or that he hadn’t gone out at all that night.
And, in his victim impact statement, he said that he didn’t blame his friend.
One of the first things he said from his hospital bed to his dad, Mick Warren, was: “I’ve really fucked it up this time, haven’t I?”
I’m just guessing, but I can see my quiet Uncle Mick, looking at his baby boy, shaking his head, wanting to say, no, he hadn’t.
Our cuzzie crew is tight.
We were born to four Duggan sisters and three Duggan brothers (all fishermen), and their cuzzies.
Our grandfather Cyril Duggan’s parents migrated to New Zealand from Ireland, and married our grandmother, Elsa Dawn, whose parents also migrated from Ireland.
We’re a mixed lot. The Duggans married well, giving us a whānau with Māori, Pākehā, Sāmoan, and British whakapapa, to name some of what we know.
The last time most of us were all together was at Grandad’s 90th birthday.
Che came to Grandad’s birthday party, too. It was held at the retirement village in The Wood in Nelson.
We had cake and bubbles, and lots of photos were taken.
We all laughed, I remember, though I can’t remember why.
Everyone was happy to see Che, I remember, and of course I remember why. He was our Che Baby, as us cuzzies called him.
When this pandemic started to inch closer around us here in New Zealand, we all began worrying for Che.
A year before, Che needed an operation in Christchurch Hospital, and it went wrong.
A mistake meant Che’s respiratory system was compromised and he would live permanently on a ventilator.
Che was one of New Zealand’s most vulnerable.
It was a long road to recovery following the operation, but he was finally able to return home to Nelson in June.
Last November, his health deteriorated again. After a week in Nelson Hospital, he went home, only to be readmitted on December 22 in a serious condition.
Kellie messaged us in our cuzzies’ Facebook group to say the doctors thought Che might not see Christmas.
They gave him days — with some luck, maybe weeks — to live.
My family and I travelled to Nelson from Westport to visit Kellie. She cried and told us Che was feeling afraid to die.
He was afraid of how it might feel, and he was afraid he’d be alone.
From the outside, people might’ve looked at Che and seen an unenviable life.
But he had something truly enviable.
Che had people to love and people who loved him. Che had people who wanted more time with him, particularly his dad, his mum, and Kellie and her son Lewis.
From hospital, and with the information that he didn’t have long to live, Che went into the hospice.
There, under fantastic care, he improved to the point where he was able to go home.
Days, weeks, then months passed.
Che’s time, it seemed, was not quite up.
Hell, he had Warriors games to watch.
Unbeknown to Che, Kellie emailed the Warriors once.
Che was one of their most devoted fans. He loved them through the thick and very thin. “Keep the faith,” he’d say smiling after each loss.
Once Che told Kellie he might live forever because his dream was to see the Warriors win an NRL Premiership. Despite his loyalty to the side, even he had to have a chuckle at that one.
So, Kellie emailed the top dogs, the fish heads, the king pins and asked if, maybe, sometime, they could send some players (maybe even just one?) along to visit her brother.
Someone responded to say, unfortunately, that wasn’t something they could see themselves managing.
I read a short story at the weekend written by Serie Barford. In it, she wrote:
“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers,” my grandmother used to say. “For thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
It made me worry for the Warriors that they might’ve missed a chance.
Kellie last saw Che on the Wednesday before lockdown.
She had promised she would try to find him a PlayStation.
She couldn’t find a single one in Nelson, so she bought him one online.
“Sorry, but that means you’ll have to wait,” she told him. And he said: “Don’t worry. I’ll wait.”
She waved at him through the window. He smiled and waved, and she blew kisses and said: “I’ll see you soon.”
Che was admitted to Nelson Hospital on March 27 after his heart plummeted to an alarmingly low rate.
He messaged his mum at 1am on March 28 saying he was feeling good, much better, but fell unconscious at around 7am.
His DNR status meant hospital staff were to leave Che to drift from unconsciousness to die.
Because of the lockdown rules, Che had no family with him, though his carer, Belinda, was there.
For his life to finish in a hospital was one of Che’s fears, Kellie said. “We always said we would bring him home.”
A doctor once said to her: “Sometimes we don’t get to choose where we die.”
“At the time, I thought it was a crap thing to say — but I guess she was right.”
She might’ve been right, but it remains a cruel Covid-19 injustice that, after all they’d been through, his mother, his father, his sister and nephew couldn’t be with him through his final hour.
To touch his body, hold his hand, and kiss his cheeks, while he was still here.
That, while he was unconscious, but alive, they didn’t get to whisper goodbye to him.
Kellie called me that Saturday evening and said she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to say goodbye to her brother at all.
At that point, the funeral director was working under the restrictions of the lockdown.
I didn’t know what to say to Kellie on the phone, except encourage her to fight the fight I could tell she was gearing up for anyway.
The next day she learned she’d be able to see him, and the relief was tremendous.
On Tuesday morning, I was working at home, the place from which I’ve been working since a few days before we officially went into lockdown.
And it was surreal to be at my desk, working, checking the time so I could Zoom in to be at Che’s virtual service.
A few days before, Kellie had sent out the message to people to join at 11am.
From her computer at home, Kellie, with Aunty Tollie and Lewis at her side, told stories about Che which made us laugh and cry.
Aunty Tollie spoke about her beautiful, blue-eyed boy, who had taught our family great lessons about patience, strength and love.
Uncle Mick was there, too, listening quietly.
I saw Mum, aunties, uncles, cuzzies, other faces I didn’t know. We saw Che, who looked peaceful, in his coffin.
But it was heartbreaking to see him and not be able to kiss him goodbye.
The funeral director played Che’s favourite song, Paul McCartney and the Wings’ Mull of Kintyre.
Kellie admired her brother for his generosity, compassion and kindness.
She, Uncle Mick and Aunty Tollie have had many messages from his carers who all loved working for him.
They said he rarely complained no matter what he was dealt.
He had the utmost respect for medical professionals. When Kellie wanted to scream and yell and cry bitterly at everything he’d suffered, he remained calm.
She would sometimes visit her brother for a bitch about work or life or such, and he’d console her. “Don’t worry about that stuff, sis.”
Her 15-year-old son Lewis had a solid male role model in his uncle.
When Che got his electric wheelchair, Lewis whooped at how fast his uncle could go.
And Che would crack up when Lewis hassled him, saying stuff like: “Watch out, Uncle, you’re gonna run your pee bag over.”
At the end of the service we all sang Te Aroha together.
After, I shut my laptop and crawled into my bed and stayed there until I could muster some energy to return to my desk to finish the day’s work.
That afternoon, Kellie, Aunty Tollie and Uncle Mick went back to each say their final goodbyes alone to Che. Then they followed the hearse around Rocks Road out to the crematorium.
At the Zoom service, Kellie read a whakataukī which can be used to bless travellers heading off on a journey.
Kia hora te marino, kia whakapapa pounamu te moana, kia tere te kārohirohi i mua i tō huarahi.
May peace be widespread, may the sea glisten like greenstone, and may the shimmer of light guide you on your way, Che Baby.
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