An ode to those who pass on and what they leave behind. In this personal essay, Edie Balme (Ngāti Mutunga) retraces the journey of her whānau as they navigate the complexities of love, grief and the evolution of tangihanga.
Content warning: This piece explores grief surrounding the death of a loved one.
PART I: The Walnut
Bolt upright. That’s how I woke early on November 5th, 2019. Guy Fawkes Day to most people, and the painful anniversary of the 1881 plunder of Parihaka, the day where my tūpuna faced the invasion of Crown soldiers. For my whānau, ever since 2019 it's a day to mourn the death of Brooke. Brooke Harry Nelson Wolfe. Brookie to some, Chookie to others. A brother, a friend, a husband, a father, a son and an uncle to me.
It was five in the morning, still dark. “Why am I awake?” I said out loud. Cautiously, I went back to sleep. The house was empty. Mum, Dad, and had all gone south to New Plymouth, Taranaki; our home. I was used to being left alone by now, the past year had consisted of Mum and Dad frequently going home for uncertain periods of time. Occasionally Nīkau, my younger brother who was thirteen at the time, would be taken with them or be left in my care. My role as stay-at-home daughter consisted of holding down the fort in Auckland while maintaining the typically exhaustive lifestyle of an eighteen-year-old university student. Lectures, part-time jobs, boyfriends, new friends, arguably too much alcohol and not enough sleep. I stayed at home during my first year to save money and to stick close to family, which had increasingly become important to me ever since Uncle Brooke had been diagnosed with cancer.
In 2017, sometime before Easter, Dad had called me at school. “Two things,” he said, “Number one, the new deli down the road said they’re hiring local kids for part-time work and I put your hat in the ring. Number two, Brookie had a fall today and they took him to Wellington hospital. They found a mass in his brain. A tumour. Cancerous. It’s about the size of a walnut.”
“...A walnut…” that’s what my five-year-old cousin declared to his friends at school in the following weeks. “My Dad had to get a walnut removed from his head.” That marked the beginning of the next two and a half years. It all blends together now but there were so many treatments, optimistic Facebook posts, and medications. There was no way to treat brain cancer in New Plymouth so Uncle Brooke would fly up to Auckland and stay with us, sometimes with the crew in tow: Lucie, his gorgeous wife, Millie, his eldest daughter who is like a sister to me, and Oscar, his youngest boy who never fails to entertain. Our whānau units became incredibly close over this period, for which I am endlessly grateful for. I just wish it would’ve happened another way.
Two and a half years after Dad had called me at school, he rang me again at seven o’clock in the morning of November 5th, 2019. Still half asleep, I took the call. “Brookie passed away this morning.”
I already knew. I think he had told me.
PART II: Tokomaru Street
I like to think that Brooke woke me up in the early hours in the morning to say good-bye as he passed me. According to our philosophies, we as Taranaki Māori ascend Mount Taranaki in death and circle Te Whitinga o Rauhoto, a sacred peak, before journeying to Te Rerenga Wairua up North. This journey is the righteous path for all Māori to return to Hawaiki. Mount Taranaki is a beacon of home to us Taranaki Māori; always overlooking and ever present in our lives. Many of our whānau have ventured to climb Taranaki, including Brooke, who summited at dawn to see its perfect triangular shadow cast over the region below. Its history dictates that Taranaki ventured west after losing a battle to Tongariro over the beautiful Pihanga. Taranaki now stands in solitude, jutting out of the inland horizon, with its shining peak, visible for miles. As a whānau, we admire the view from the back garden of the house that Brooke built.
Brookie is my uncle on my mother’s side. He is the youngest of four siblings; two older sisters, Sally and my mum, Katie; and then his older brother Todd. Four names straight out of an 80s sitcom. Their parents, my grandparents, Neil and Raewyn are at the helm of our whānau. They’ve been together for fifty-six years and have ten grandchildren, including myself. Granddad Neil, who is a German and Welsh hybrid standing at a proud five foot three, passed on his family name of Wolfe. Thus our whānau call ourselves the ‘Wolfe Pack.’ The Wolfe Pack is as incredibly close as families go. Mum shares many stories of mischief that the four of them got up to, many stemming from their time spent together down by the Mimi; our awa. Ever flowing, like our river, their love for each other as siblings is endless. Even in their lowest moments of grief and heartbreak, they were united. It was Brookie’s wish for them to be all together when he had to go - and that’s what happened. He was surrounded by his whānau in the early hours of the morning when he passed, lying in his bed, in the house that Brooke built.
Our Māori whakapapa descend from Ngāti Mutunga, Ngati Tama and from Nana Raewyn. We’re a small and close-knit iwi from Taranaki. I ngā wā o mua, after a conflict occurred in Hawaiki, our early tūpuna sailed to Aotearoa aboard Tokomaru waka. Some dictate Manaia as the commander, others say it was Whata. Disagreements aside, Tokomaru first landed on the East Coast before heading North, rounding the northernmost tip of Cape Reinga and descending to the West Coast before settling at Mohakatino. Like other great waka, Tokomaru was hauled onto the land to rest and was lost to time, its precise resting ground still unknown. However, I like to think that it was nestled somewhere up the road from present-day New Plymouth Boys High School and across from the raceway where Tokomaru Street now exists. And around the corner from that street is the house that Brooke built.
Time was of the essence when Brooke was diagnosed with cancer and as a result of that, lifelong dreams were quick to realise. This included family holidays to Hawai’i and Disneyland but what was most important to him was the building of his own house, right in the heart of Tokomaru Street. With enough room to house the kids and anyone who needed to stay over, the house quickly became the go-to spot for whānau visiting or even just a place for kapu tī. Warm, modern architecture, with floor to ceiling glass windows and a spacious layout. It became our meeting house; our wharenui. Taranaki Māori are the wharenui-less people. Many of our wharenui and marae have been burned down or neglected to time. None of the tangi I have attended have been in a wharenui on the marae, rather they are often held on whānau homesteads. This aspect of Taranaki Māori I find differentiates us greatly. Regarding location, we have lent into more modern, westernised, practices of tangi and out of necessity, we have largely adapted. As a result, it was an incredibly natural decision in our whānau’s time of mourning to house Uncle Brooke in the new homestead for his tangi; in the house that Brooke built.
PART III: Thank You For the Guavas
When I arrived in New Plymouth after a last-minute flight, the first stop was to visit Uncle Brooke. The house was constantly heaving with people coming and going and the kitchen bench was steadily being overwhelmed with peoples' generosity: flowers, food baskets, home cooked meals. In the lounge people gathered to have a cup of tea, to kōrero, to greet each other. Tangihanga always seem to create an unofficial family reunion.
Brookie laid in the movie room, just off from the lounge. The space was quiet for people to mourn and grieve in real time. He was placed in a simple casket made from a pale wood. The lid was leaning against the wall near his head, with multi-coloured markers strewn next to it. Close whānau and friends wrote their goodbyes all over the lid in bright colours. In green marker, I wrote, “Thank you Chookie for the guavas.” Brookie and I were particularly close in my eyes, as he was my neighbour for the first four years of my life. He bought the house next door to us on the North Shore of Auckland in Torbay. Some of my earliest memories were going through the fence to visit him in his blue house, mainly for the purpose of raiding his guava tree.
What I think is important to note here is that not everything at Brookie’s tangi was orthodox. We are a proudly blended family of both Pākehā and Māori, and our family customs also follow that way. As is tikanga, Brookie lay on top of a mat to keep him from touching the ground. He laid upon a mat from Africa, a keepsake he bought on his OE when he was in his twenties. His body was draped with a whānau korowai, a new addition for the whānau. His open casket was not the first I have seen, but it never gets easier. You tend to forget how warm we appear when we are alive.
I sat in that room for some time with him. I embraced my mother, my brother, my aunties, and my nana. When someone you know dies from cancer, everyone is exhausted. Everyone has been running a marathon for the last two and a half years with no idea when the finish line would arrive. No one wanted the marathon to end like this, but there's an air of relief that it's over. A relief that the person suffering is no longer in pain. However, our pain continues to linger.
I cried. Of course I cried. There is just no way I could regulate my emotions during that time. Naively, I wanted to. I wanted to maintain the fort still, for my parents and my brother. I wanted to take most of the burden off of them. They had cared for him so much and now I wanted to care for them. But that’s not how grief works. It's internal. It's personal. It's a whole other journey to partake on. And you can’t deviate from your own journey to help others. You have to acknowledge the pain, the grief, the mamae. So I cried. I cried a lot. And I still cry to this day, not as often, but I still do. When I finally said goodbye to him, I knelt down and kissed his cheek and gave him a hongi.
“Goodbye Uncle Brooke. I love you. Thank you for the guavas.”
PART IV: Boys High
After four days, Brookie’s funeral was eventually held. His service was in the assembly hall of New Plymouth Boys High, where three generations of our whānau have schooled, including Brookie. Uncle Todd even wore his old school blazer to the service. His black and yellow pinstripes blended with everyone else's bright hues. Mum and I wore orange, my cousins wore blue, an a-traditional choice to reflect how rich and colourful Brooke’s life was. The hall was full to the brim; over a thousand people turned up to pay their respects. He was incredibly influential in the community.
Us close whānau walked in with the coffin carried by pall-bearers. Mum’s hair was adorned with pare kawakawa as she led with a karanga. Her voice was fragile, it slightly wavered, but nevertheless it carried across the echoey hall. Brookie’s coffin was carried to the front. The top was covered with an arrangement made by Nana; kōwhai from Kuratau, kawakawa from Waiti, roses from her garden, all places of importance to Brooke.
Truth be told, the subsequent events that took place are all slightly blurry in my memory. The grief and sadness of the tangi was overwhelming as it could not be ignored that his was a life that was taken too soon. What stood out the most was the speech that my father made. He spoke about Brookie’s life from the time he lived next door to us to his death. Miraculously, he made us all laugh and in this laughter, we remembered Brooke’s coy antics and quick wit. He was cheeky, lovable and kind. In tautoko to Dad’s speech, my younger brother led a haka alongside Todd and a few others. The mana was electric.
A few more people spoke and photos of his life were played, accompanied by “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by Israel Kamakawiwoʻole. When the time eventually came for his body to be carried out to the hearse, he was sent off by a haka performed by the current Boys’ High rugby team. It was a tohu of respect for his time at Boys’ High, his love of rugby, and the support of his community. We all filed out behind, one by one in solidarity with each other. One last touch of the coffin, one last goodbye, one last sighting of him as the hearse drove off.
The wake was held at the Fitzroy beach surf club. Before the wake began, we all gathered on the beach to watch Brookie’s daughter, Millie, and her friends paddle out to the back of the surf. They gathered in a circle, bobbing up and down gently, and placed the wreath that lay upon Brookie’s casket into the water; to honour a place he loved and for Millie to have her form of goodbye. The beach is an important place for Brookie. There, Nīkau found a rākau for Brookie which he then used throughout the duration of his final journey to help him stand tall. Now, a bench has been erected next to the surf club bearing a plaque honouring Brookie’s memory. It is a place for reflection, for whānau and for friends to watch the sea, and think of Brookie.
PART V: He Aurukowhao
Due to timing problems, Brookie wasn’t cremated until the morning after his funeral, unbeknownst to most of the funeral guests at the time. He spent his last night resting in the quiet of Nana and Grandad’s home, for his parents to have their time with their son all to themselves.
I can’t write about how the scene looked as I wasn’t there, but I can imagine that Brookie was brought to the lounge or perhaps to the den so that he wasn’t carried up too many stairs. Perhaps Nana knelt next to his coffin, or perhaps she sat on the couch in reflection. Maybe Nana had her alone time with her son, or maybe Granddad was with her the whole time. I can’t answer these questions right now but I don’t think I ever will be able to. There are certain occasions in life where knowledge is not entitled to everyone.
Before the house that Brooke built became a modern-type homestead, the original was Nana and Grandad’s home on Fillis Street. An ode to the seventies in architectural design, rib-caged by exposed dark wooden beams, and textured wallpaper. This home has sagged and swayed under the pitter-patter of children’s and grandchildren’s feet for fifty years. Leather couches gather around a television for cricket and rugby games in the lounge while floral printed sofas are arranged in the sitting room for Christmas present openings. Mum and Sally’s bedroom is now the office where Grandad plays solitaire on the computer and Todd and Brooke’s bedroom are now made up for guests. Two generations have run around Nana’s impressive garden, carefully pulling out the occasional prickle from our feet. In her garden Nana grows flowers, roses mainly, as she is an expert flower arranger. Once the flowers have bloomed and been cut they are arranged in the room under the stairs - a place that has always been strictly forbidden to tamariki for fear they might lay hands on the secateurs. Nana has done the flowers for every wedding in the whānau and, of course, for Brookie’s funeral. Through these descriptions of Nana and Grandad’s home, I want to convey imagery of warmth and love and whānau. Although his last night wasn’t necessarily planned to be there, in hindsight it seems appropriate.
There is a whakataukī that says, ‘Mate i te tamaiti he aurukowhao’ ‘The death of a child is like a leak in a canoe.’ Together, all of us are journeying on our own waka through life and when there’s a leak, it slows us down. We can try to bail the water out or stop to fix the repair, but regardless, it will disrupt the journey equally, you cannot ignore these leaks or the waka will sink. Though Brookie was an adult he was still the pōtiki of his whānau. He died in his youth, only forty-five years of age. Nana and Grandad lost their youngest child, Mum, Sally, and Todd lost their younger brother. My cousins and I lost our uncle. Lucie lost her husband, Millie and Oscar lost their dad. And though time allows for the leak to be patched, a scar will always remain.
Brookie was cremated on the 11th of November. His ashes were split five ways; to his wife and children, to his older sisters, to Nana and Grandad, and to Todd. Cremating has become a more common option for Māori over the years. Urupā begin to run out of room and whānau disperse across the country, making new kāinga elsewhere. Brookie will be part of us wherever we go, we do not need to have a specific place to stop and remember him. In saying that, he rests in a few physical places. His ashes are interred next to his Pākehā grandparents, Harry and Mary. That was Nana and Grandad’s choice with what they wanted to do with their part of Brookie. Lucie and the kids have Brookie in their whare, he is surrounded by beautiful art made for him in memory. He is in the heart of the whare, he gets to see everyone who pops in to say hello. He rests there now, and alongside him is his rākau. I know I can always visit Brookie, with my whānau in tow, gathering in life to share stories, all of us safe in the warmth of the house that Brooke built.
Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.