For 30 years, the Pikihuia Awards have celebrated Māori writers. This year, English teacher Eru Hart was highly commended in the non-fiction category, for his sharp, funny and moving account of illness and childhood. Here’s his entry in full.
Zion’s mum, my sister, has posted on Facebook. “Anyone seen this cat?”
Attached is a regal-looking photo of Ralphy peering judgily at the viewer. Ralphy is one year old and Zion’s first cat. When I see Zion later that week, I ask him where Ralphy is. His mother has told him the unwelcome news. Ralphy has probably been eaten or squashed on the road or most elaborately hanged by his collar after dropping from an unfamiliar tree.
“Ralphy has been killed,” he tells me in a three-year-old’s clean-cut way.
The next day Ralphy comes home.
The First Cancer was mine, though I don’t remember it. I asked Mum, as an adult, both of us, how old I was. “Three or four?” she asked in a questioning voice, as if I might know.
I do remember being sick and being in the hospital. I remember they had school there, where you played with sweet-smelling playdough, and got chocolate milkshakes (or orange juice) in the morning, before light, from a tray that jangled in the dark hallways.
I remember the smell of olive oil and Dad rubbing it into your head and giving the Blessings, the Laying on of Hands, and Dad using the Church Voice: “Our Most Righteous and Eternal Heavenly Father.”
I remember that being sick meant you could ask for anything and one of the adults with a sad look on their face would probably go and get it: KFC, bowl of ice cream, a book from the Whitcoulls catalogue — that sort of thing. I knew that the next kid down — my brother Les — didn’t have cancer and that meant he couldn’t get what he asked for. So, he didn’t even bother. And I knew that he hated me for that, and this hate would long outlast the cancer. He even hated me from prison.
I knew that being sick meant I was skinny and that Dad would feel my hip bones to see if I had got fat since the last time he fingered my bones. And I knew I had asthma, which meant your lungs were broken too, which seemed a lot since I had cancer of the blood. It seemed a lot for a child, like too many sicknesses.
I knew that being sick meant you were Holy because Jesus had His Eye on You and might take you to be in His Bosom as soon as He felt like it. Any moment really.
But the most important Lesson from my cancer was that Fasting Works. My Nanny Emma played the organ at church and had all the church manuals, and the large picture of the Lord hanging in her lounge in his red robe, which is the one they scorned him and killed him in.
And one week at church, my nan had hobbled up to the pulpit and asked the Ward to Fast for her sick mokopuna who was dying and that the whole Ward fasted, which means you don’t eat for two meals and donate the money you would have otherwise selfishly spent on your hunger to The Church so they can build another Temple in South America.
And the whole church, or at least the people who loved Nanny, like we did, starved themselves for breakfast and lunch and gave the $10 or so to The Church, and the next day I went to the doctor’s and the doctor said, “It’s a Miracle. No more Cancer. I can’t believe it; I have only seen this once before.”
And this all proves that The Church is True, and these are indeed the Last Days and that The Lord will select those who deserve to Live Again.
Nanny died a year later, but her example of Faith will live on until people forget her.
The second cancer was Joanna’s. She was my first cousin. Her mum and my dad were brother and sister. I had been living in Wellington since 1997. My father had died of a massive heart attack, and I had moved to Wellington six months later, now free from religious indoctrination and control. I was the first in my family to go to university, don’t you know. And I was going to be a lawyer, did you hear? And my life was generally going to be more successful than anyone else you had heard of (excepting celebrities).
But I had fallen into wanton ways, vices and the fiery darts and snares that Satan lays out. And instead, it had taken me 15 years to get a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, which any idiot who can read one hundred books and make up an essay the night before can get.
And I had got a master’s degree in Teaching and Learning, which sounded made up, and there were more Māori than usual, so maybe I had snuck in under some aspirational racial profiling. And then I became an English teacher because what else can you do with all that paper. And I was teaching in a decile 10 high school with kids who would inherit more money than my father had saved after a lifetime of working in the freezing works.
And out of the blue, Joanna had texted me, “We’ve moved back to NZ. Can we meet up?”
So, I’d met her on a windy pier in Lyall Bay, and we ate fish ’n’ chips. Les was living in Wellington too, a few years out of prison and Doing Quite Well, which was a relief for The Community and his family. But he still had a way of interrupting me and speaking and breathing, which annoyed me no end.
“Drawn together by kin,” Joanna had told me. And Les and I felt that.
And she introduced me to her sons who were all vigorous and handsome, and her husband who was rascalous but also handsome and therefore entitled to a range of unacceptable behaviours.
Two years later, she asked to meet during the school holidays.
And I went out to Porirua, which is a 15-minute drive north, and practically a different country from Wellington City. There are children living in Porirua who have never been into The City. There is a Kmart Plaza in Porirua, and a nice swimmable beach, and many thousands more Islanders and Māori in Porirua.
Joanna told me that she had been running on the treadmill and fell over and that was strange because she is fast and slim and could be a Black Fern Netballer, going by her build. So, she went to the doctor with her sore leg, and he told her she had Pancreatic Cancer. I told her I was sorry, I mean, what else do you say?
By the next school holidays, she was bed bound and drinking beetroot juice only.
Two weeks later, she sent me a text to meet her at her Ward, and when I got there, she was in a wheelchair and drugged-up looking, smiling serenely, glassily. And when it was testimony time, she got her husband to help her up to the pulpit, and she then said, “I declare before all the Tents in the House of Israel that I am Cancer Free, and the Lord has shown me my future: Russleigh and I will Serve a Mission.”
And later that week I got a text from Aunty Ella that “Joanna has died”.
The day we buried her, Russleigh came up to me and said consolingly, “She loved you. She really loved you.”
But he didn’t need to tell me that.
We were Kin.
“That nurse was really rude,” I told Jaye as we walked out of the exam room in Auckland Hospital. She rolled her eyes at me impatiently. Pouted. “That’s why I brought you. To see the way people who look like me get treated.”
I had been in class the previous week when a breathless girl, sent from the Office knocked on the door. “Miss wants to see you.” I skulked out of the classroom and headed east to the office.
“Your sister rang. She needs someone to go with her Friday, up to Auckland.”
I was annoyed that my family had intruded into my workplace. I had been feeling fucked off that I’d had to support myself financially during the exceptionally lengthy process of becoming the first university graduate in my whānau. Like some unrequested Moses, I had returned to Hawke’s Bay after 20-plus years in Wellington, and I was still adjusting to taking into consideration my family’s many and varied unmet needs. The phone is an effective gate to contact: messages can be left unread, calls can be missed. There is a patience to such communications. But calling, knowing the person must answer, is so insistent.
“It’s not a walkie-talkie,” I tell people who ask why I haven’t picked up.
So, Jaye had called the school office and spoken with my principal, and the principal had approved my leave, and I was now just finding out about their plans.
A counsellor once described me as a “Nanny-Boy”, and I knew what she meant straight away. And here I was getting nannied into meeting the needs of older women again. Pressured internally and externally to fill up gaps designed to be filled by other men who have abandoned their responsibilities: husbands who have died, fathers who came and left.
The first person who gave me illicit drugs was Jaye. Mum had left her at Nan’s when she married my dad. Nan only lived a block away. The Church had set my parents up: he was a widower whose wife had died of stomach cancer four years before, but still had handfuls of children at home to care for. She was an unmarried solo mother living with her mother. Both situations were intolerable, and The Church had established itself as the One Source of All Things True and Beautiful, so there were appearances to be kept. The End of The World was on its way, you know.
So, my parents got married. He was 20 years older than her and had previous children the same age as Mum, so it wasn’t ever clear who was in charge, except that Dad always was. But the next in line was a source of everyday tension. Margaret had lived in the house her whole life and that was her dad, and he and her mum had been perfectly happy (she would imagine) until cancer killed her mum.
And what was my mum doing there anyway? Margaret had done fine for the four years between marriages, cooking and cleaning, changing nappies, packing lunches and keeping Dad company. And then my mum had come along and pushed her off the queen’s throne, and no house can have more than one queen. And who else would Dad defend but his little girl who was now 30 and had never found her own husband? She was married to the house and her younger siblings and the housework — so much washing in a three-bedroomed house with 10 people in it.
But then I had been born, and I was sickly. And Margaret had always loved a baby, and a boy was a pleasant change from the last run of three girls. And suddenly, there was a shared thing to love, so Mum retired into her bedroom because she’s never liked children.
Ten years into this misery, my mum had remembered her other child, and Nan had died, so she better go and pick her up. Jaye was darker than us and naughtier at school. She went to Girls’ High School across the road from our school and would lean against the fence and call out to us. She would walk us home along St. Aubyn St only to eat our leftover lunches and ask what Mum was doing and about the Old Man. We didn’t know who Jaye’s dad was, but the point was she had none, and she belonged to Nan, and we had moved on without her.
But then Nan died, and you couldn’t help but feel sorry for Jaye, and there was no room at our house, but you couldn’t leave her in Nan’s house now that Nan was dead. So, we squashed her into the corner of the boys’ room, and she didn’t have any belongings so that was good because there was actually no room for her body and spirit, let alone her belongings. And Mum would look at her as if she were some loved and unloved mistake, but Nan was dead now, so you couldn’t forget about her and leave her there any more.
The first night she stayed at our place, she had pushed Kirstine and lit a stick of incense, and Dad had simply had enough. So, he went charging down the hall with those heavy steps of his and lifted that fat hammy fist of his to shake at her, “If anyone hits in this house it’s me.” And Dad had a way with words; he didn’t say many, so the ones he voiced were important, loud and heavy. The kind that give kids headaches and make mums think twice about answering back.
Later that week, it was just Jaye and me home. I was 10 and she was 17.
“Do you want to try something?” she asked.
“Something like what?”
“Something like weed.”
“I don’t want to eat weeds.”
“You don’t eat it. You smoke it.”
I gasped. “You know I have asthma. I’ve been to hospital.”
“Bring your inhaler.”
So, we went out the side of the house by the woodshed Dad had built out of wood he found. And she lit her joint with a lighter, and even a lighter was forbidden let alone weed, but this was all part of the New Order of Things now that we had to pretend we had always had this sister and had always had to choose between a new sister and our old sisters, and our dad wasn’t her dad, but our mum was, now Nan was dead. It was a lot for a 10-year-old.
And sure enough, the smoke made my lungs hurt, and I coughed, and my chest got tight.
“Have your inhaler!” She laughed meanly, and my eyes got blurry. But she looked at me like she knew it would go bad, and although she loved me, we had stolen her mother, and maybe I deserved something like this.
When Mum and Dad and the kids got home, I just couldn’t even look at them. And there was Jaye in the corner, red eyed, offering to help unpack the groceries, and I just knew we had done a wickedness and there would be a Hell to pay eventually.
So, the third cancer was Jaye’s. I can see her now at the School Gala 2021, holding her jaw like someone had punched her.
“Aren’t you eating any of the food, sis? The hāngī is ready at 1 p.m.”
She shook her head. “Sore tooth.”
She took her sore tooth to the dentist, and the dentist told her it didn’t look good, and she needed a biopsy. And the biopsy person said it didn’t look good, and she needed to fly to Auckland. And I flew with her. And the flight nurse on board, Kate, whose brother I went to school with, looked worried the whole time, but in a kindly way.
Auckland was just as messy a shithole as it was in my memory. Flat, wide, sticky and dismantled looking. And the hospital was worse. Jaye and I were ushered into a room that looked like a NASA control centre with a dozen monitors and white men and Asians (dark and light) monitoring the screens. And they shoved a camera down my sister’s neck, and for the first time I saw cancer. It was yellow, or like mouldy meat, and moist, pulsing and bloody.
Once the medical people took some screenshots, we were ushered out again, and the nurse said, “Go downstairs. They have Subway. The doctors will speak to you after lunch.”
But we didn’t make it down to Subway because in the hallway I told Jaye, “Fuck, those people were rough with you,” and she said, “That’s why I brought you so you can see how people who look like me get treated all the time.” And just as she said this, I noticed a rivulet of red blood dribbling down the right-hand side of her mouth, and I gagged. And this made her look suddenly frightened, like now was the time to let that out, after holding it in for weeks. And I called for a nurse, panicking.
And Jaye died on Christmas Day 2021, in her sleep, forever ruining “Silent Night” or making it Holy forever, depending on your perspective . . . Sleep in Heavenly Peace.
And her brothers had to pay for her funeral because her boyfriend of 25 years only wanted to smoke weed with her every night and pump her full of four children, but not support her financially, emotionally, or intellectually.
It is said that cancer is the cousin of the process of evolution. That the random mutations that create flowering plants from ferns or a worm with a spine or an ape that ruins the world from some East African monkey also creates, now and then in the unlucky, cells that replicate and cannot be controlled. So that the cancer process is a necessary co-product of life’s ability to adapt, develop and evolve.
Well, how fucking bad would it have been, really, to have stayed forever unformed in The Garden and have avoided all this nonsense?
A thousand years, oh, glorious day!
Dear Lord, prepare my heart
To stand with thee on Zion’s mount
And nevermore to part.
— Let Zion in Her Beauty Rise, Edward Partridge (1793–1840)
From Huia Short Stories 15 ($25, Huia Publishers) reproduced with the permission of Huia Publishers. Available for purchase from www.huia.co.nz
Eru J Hart (Ngāti Kahungunu) is an English teacher who is on a mission to get as many kōhine Māori to university as possible. He prefers writing three-part short stories: Storm + Perform + Norm (repeat). This mirrors natural processes. He lives in Napier, where his people have roamed for hundreds of years: whaling, gathering and sunbathing.
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