Ricky Kresslein

An Ode to Nana


At the beginning of this year, my nana got sick. Nana is the Fijian word for mother. She is the woman who fed me for my first year in the Tawake. She massaged my back when I had a cough. She did my dishes. She walked to my house to bring me lunch on the afternoons she went fishing. She took care of me. She was my family here. The wife of my tata, Fijian for father.

She had a lump on her breast. I had no idea until it started bleeding one day. My tata told me about it. I do not know if they had prior knowledge of it or not. I do know that it was not treated properly. Tata did not go to the nurse to get help, because he believed, if they prayed hard enough, God would help her if he deemed her worthy of his help.

I did everything I could. I insisted that God only helps those who help themselves. That God gave us the knowledge of modern medicine and wants us to use it to treat our illness whenever necessary. Nothing worked. God is the almighty, and doctors cannot compete.

I went to their house one time, during all of this, to get Tata's signature on a form. Nana was lying on the mat on the floor of the sitting room. She looked tired and weak. She had hardly moved from that spot for months. When I came by she must have been embarrassed by the blood pooling under her right breast, because she mustered the strength to lift herself off the ground to wipe it up. It made me so sad, but I did not know what I could do. I think about it often, how I could have helped, but I still do not know what I could have done.

Finally, it got to the point that she lost so much blood she was losing consciousness. One afternoon, in February or March, during high tide, I heard a commotion outside. I went out to see if visitors had arrived, and instead saw a few men loading my nana into the boat on a makeshift stretcher. She was finally going to the hospital. Though it was sad to see her in such a condition, so weak and weary, I was happy she was finally going to get some help.

I saw Tata in Labasa, the nearest town, the next week. I sat beside him on the bench, in a busy courtyard beside the street. He told me Nana was okay. They had stopped the bleeding and she would be going home in a few days. However, she had breast cancer, and it had spread to her lung. She needed a mastectomy.

Unfortunately, Tata did not believe the doctor. He was just a man, and he prayed to God, asking if this information was true, and God had given him no confirmation that it was. Therefore, it was false. She did not need a mastectomy. She needed to go home and pray.

So go home she did, and pray they did.

Tata's sister, a woman I call Nana Levu, came to help out with the housework. She is a very sweet lady and she began cooking all of my meals. I used to go to their house for every meal. I would eat with them and talk with Tata in English and Nana in Fijian. She did not speak very much English, so the days it was just her and I, when I first got here, it was rough, but I learned a lot that way. Now they brought my food to my home, I guess because they either did not want me to have to see my nana that way, or because it was too much for her and she needed rest and their care.

I wanted to go over and talk to her. I wanted to tell her that she should not listen to everyone else, that I would get the nurse for her and get her help. That she needed her breast removed if she was going to get better. But I did nothing. I sat in my house, upset and unable or unwilling to help.

Then I my tooth started providing me with a nice, shooting pain whenever I ate hot or cold foods, so I went to Suva to have it fixed. The day of my dentist appointment I got a text. It said, “Sa mate o nana.” Nana is dead. She had died on Saturday night, the night before I flew to Suva, and no one had called me to let me know, to give me a chance to go back to the village for her funeral.

I was on a completely different island and there was nothing I could do. I called Tata. He told me they had to bury her on Sunday. The nurse told them that without a way to preserve the body, the rot in her chest demanded a quick burial. At about eleven o'clock Sunday morning, she was buried. I found out on Monday morning.

Nana Levu is still cooking my meals, but there is a noticeable absence of Nana. I went to her grave just the other day. It's the one pictured at the top of this post. I wish I had been able to attend her funeral, but some things in life we cannot dictate, as Nana found out the hard way. She did not choose to forgo treatment. It was not her choice. But it does not matter here. I miss her but I must move on.

I will never forget what a loving woman she was, nor the important lessons she taught me. She was always laughing and joking. She tried her best to converse with me, sometimes through hand motions and broken English. She took me in as a member of her family. She called me her son. I am so lucky I had the privilege of knowing such a great woman.