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Hon. Frederica Filipe: Our Beloved Queen Mother Halaevalu Mata’aho

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It is in heartache that I turn to writing as a form of healing; as I had done when I started the Princess Diaries series. However, this time, the heartache is more severe. Our grandmother, who was the rock of our family, has passed on to the Lord’s realm.

As writing has always been my refuge, I turned to written reflection for solace. Knowing that I would struggle to fully express and remember how I feel, I made sure to lock the memories leading up to and during the passing of our grandmother in a diary. This is that diary.

Wednesday 8th of February, 2017
Diary @ 6:00pm:

With Fahina at my parents’ house again, and apologising for not bringing her everyday as I usually do. Our mother sits down and tells me our grandmother isn’t well; she has pneumonia in her left lung and is in Auckland to see a specialist. I feel horrible as Fahina usually sees her everyday when she’s in Tonga but I’ve been so slack lately. I hope they tell me when she comes back so I can go take Fahina to see her.

The Official opening of the Tanoa International Dateline Hotel was opening the next day so I was getting ready for that event. The news concerned me but our grandmother was incredibly resilient. She had fallen ill a few times before and then recovered so I didn’t think there was much cause for alarm. I went about my day but strangely this time, at the back of my head I was constantly thinking of our grandmother.

Thursday 9th of February, 2017
The opening of the new Tanoa is a lot of fun. I’m being a lot sillier than when I usually drink. Hopping about from table to table laughing with everyone….I’m wondering if I’m unknowingly forcing it a little because of the news regarding our grandmother.

As I sat with my cousins and friends at the Tanoa opening I couldn’t help but talk about the Queen Mother often. Friends would ask how she was and as unsuccessful as I was, I tried to keep my composure as she would during cocktails and events she attended. She was always light, always elegant, always the true aristocrat.

Sunday 19th February, 2017
@ 11:00am:

Arrived early to our family lunch with Fahina, we’re the first ones here. I’m sitting upstairs with our mother while Fahina plays with our father. Our mother tells me our grandmother isn’t doing well at all, she is mobile but hasn’t eaten and the doctor suspects the pneumonia in her lung is something far more severe. Mata’aho Si’i (HRH Princess Angelika) has flown down from Australia to be with our grandmother. Lucky Ta’aho but I’m happy she’s there. I feel so useless.

As I sat across from our mother a wave of mixed emotions hit me. My body and face remained calm but internally I was a buzzing heap of confusion, thoughts ran wildly through my mind but my most immediate concern was for my mother; “How do I compose myself? How do I remain strong for my mother? What will she need me to do?” All these thoughts came to a halt when I stopped thinking and focused on my mother’s voice starting to tremble. I fell into her gaze as she continued about our grandmother. The tears swelled up in her eyes. She took a tissue from the tissue box that was within arm’s reach, I saw the rubbish bin with more tissues indicating she had been crying long before I got there. By the time she paused, I had gathered the strength to talk. I looked up and in a strong voice I said, “Mum she’s 90. Like you said, she’s never been in the hospital and has been mobile and able right up until now. No one can say they’ve lived a fuller life until the very end like her.” Our mother nodded her head, just as a head of tight dark curls popped around the corner; it was Fahina grinning from ear to ear followed by our exhausted-looking father.

@ 12:30pm:
We’re having Sunday lunch with Va’u (The Hon. Fanetupouvava’u), Moheofo (The Hon. Lupeolo), our mother, our father, Sione (The Hon. Sione Ikamafana) and Lopeti (Ensign Aleamotu’a). Amidst the buzz of conversation at the table I hear our mother telling Moheofo about our grandmother’s declined health and I can see Moheofo starting to tear up a little so she sips some water. I think everyone caught the end of our mother’s conversation with Moheofo and silence falls on the table. Again I gather the courage to repeat what I told our mother earlier. our mother forces a slight smile while Moheofo, Va’u and Sione nod their heads agreeing.

The conversation over lunch was beset by us children trying to find ways to distract our mother from the sad news. My older sister Fanetupouvava’u is always best at bringing our parents attention to other things through conversation. As difficult as it was to repeat myself, I felt it necessary. I sensed our mother’s usual bright energy waver and fade a little; this prompted my desire to speak up and keep the mood as light as possible. I was grateful for my siblings at this time as they sensed the same thing as well and followed suit.

@ 9:00pm:
Pau’u (The Hon. Lupepau’u) rings me to tell me the same news our mother had told us over lunch. We couldn’t talk as I had a few friends with me but I could hear the seriousness in her voice. Moheofo is sitting across from me and glances over when I say Pau’u’s name. Moheofo knows it’s something to do with our grandmother too. I thank my friends for having me over and excuse myself.

It is a gift when you can communicate with close family and friends with a single glance. When our eldest sister rang me it was as though the somber tone of her voice resonated through my eyes and caught our youngest sister’s attention. I quickly stole my glance back and looked away as I continued talking to Lupepau’u over the phone. Our younger siblings are grown but we still have a protective intuition and I didn’t want to confirm our fears to her and our younger brother. We all knew what was waiting for us in a few hours but we dared not think it, let alone speak it. We were all in denial that our grandmother was gravely ill. Today as I wait for her to return to Tonga, it is in disbelief and heartache.

@ 11:00pm:
I’m already in bed and I keep getting calls from Ivana (Lady Ivana Vaea) so I call her back. She’s sobbing so much I almost don’t understand her and she can’t hear me talking to her. The line breaks then my phone rings again, “Ivana??” I ask, I just hear Ivana say, “Freddie if you can hear me ko e Kuini Fehuhu eni kuo pekia.” I felt nothing but answered, “Ivana I can hear you I’m going to go to Mahinafekite (my parents’ residence) now then I’ll text you”. I frantically search for a hair tie and can hear my phone buzzing with texts. I pay no attention to my phone and before I know it I’m at Mahinafekite. I jump out of my van and go directly to my mother knowing she must have already heard the news and needs one of us with her. I climb the stairs to find our mother calmly watching her film. I don’t utter a word as I silently take a seat facing her. She looks up at me and says, “I suppose you’ve heard… mother may not survive the night.” She has no idea! She didn’t know that she had already lost her mother. I hold her gaze as she takes off her glasses and dabs her tears away, “Siu’ilikutapu (HRH Princess Siu’ilikutapu) just rang and told me mama is ready to let go, and we should do the same.” The only words I can muster are, “koia,” “yes.” My mother continues to say, “I’m really trying to do what Siu’ilikutapu said, to let go but it’s so hard! She said my mother is ready and we should be too…..I had already started packing my bags to go see her but I think I’ll be too late when I get there.” Again all I could say was “koia.” She started talking about the strength her mother has and by the end of it I gathered the strength to say, “Mum, what can we do for you?” She gave me a list of things she wanted done; our youngest sister was to follow her to Auckland and I’m to make that and other arrangements. I was honoured to follow through with her wishes. She walked around checking her suitcase again and again, I turned to her and said, “Mum there isn’t much we can do now so I think you should get some rest.” She agreed and made her way to her room and in an instant I’m back in my room; I take a look at my phone and it’s almost 2am.

It wasn’t long after my mother started talking to me that I decided not to tell her the updated news; that her mother, our grandmother, had already passed away. It occurred to me that my duty wasn’t to be a messenger but in this situation to be her daughter first and considerate of her well-being and to protect that. I have grown significantly since the last time such a major task of this caliber rested on my shoulders. I knew how much the Queen Mother’s well-being had consumed my mother’s life so I decided it was best to allow her a few more hours of rest before the devastating blow the next morning would bring. I couldn’t sleep that night as the news burned through me in bed. Sorrow overcame my mind and a constant stream of hot tears ploughed a course down my face. I was shocked at how hard the news was hitting me. I had always been content with the relationship I formed with our grandmother. Looking back, it was the fear of the loss of such a prominent part of our lives that shook my spirit.

Tuesday 21st of February, 2017
@ 10:00am:

Her Majesty the Queen has called us all in for a meeting at the palace with Tupouto’a (HRH Crown Prince Tupouto’a), Sinaitakala (HRH Crown Princess Sinaitakala), and Ata (HRH Prince Ata). Moheofo rings me to hitch a ride and I’m happy to provide her with one. We walk into one of the rooms at the Palace where Tupouto’a, Sinaitakala, Sione, Va’u and Pau’u are already sitting with the Queen at the head of the table. I feel some consolation seeing her smile at us and am drawn to her to say good morning and Moheofo follows. We wait as Ata joins us and the meeting starts with a prayer and we go through the tentative program for the funeral. The Queen goes down a list of points and asks for comments which we all take turns in providing. After the turmoil I felt when hearing the news of our grandmother’s passing this meeting really comforts me and I’m incredibly happy to be there for it. It is healing.

The meeting at the Palace came as a surprise amongst us siblings. Usually it was only the senior royals who were called to meet and then they’d delegate different tasks to the younger family members. Her Majesty guided the meeting with precision and care noting every decision and suggestion put forth. It was during this meeting we sensed we, grandchildren, acknowledged the growth and strength we each had and would volunteer for different tasks with confidence. I was humbled when HRH the Crown Prince and HRH Crown Princess Sinaitakala asked my sisters and I to return and support the Crown Prince in making the official announcement of our grandmother’s passing. All of Tonga had withheld making public statements of Her Majesty the Queen Mother’s passing until this official announcement from the Palace. My two older sisters, brother sione, Princess Sinaitakala and the Crown Prince Tupouto’a entered the room with the press in it drawing strength from each others presence. It isn’t often we have the chance to stand together as cousins and siblings for a shared purpose. Our grandmother gave us the opportunity to band together and be stronger together, even in her passing.

The days flashed passed and it was finally the day we were all awaiting; the day our grandmother would arrive. I helped prepare refreshments at the VVIP for the family, friends and dignitaries who were there to await the arrival of our family accompanying our grandmother from Auckland. This task, although small in comparison to grander gestures of help, was fulfilled to the best of my ability, because it was my daughter’s duty as one of the great grandchildren and because she, on her father’s mother’s side, was low in rank to my grandmother and a liongi. Although my daughter did not have to fulfil the position of liongi, through my grandmother I learned the greatest way of honouring another was to humble oneself. It was with a spirit of humility and gratitude that I approached every person and hour until our grandmother’s burial.

The plane carrying our grandmother had arrived and with it, carried relief that she had finally arrived, and fear, that we were finally confronted with the truth of her passing. As the plane touched the ground my older sisters and I reached out to each other holding onto one another for support. In my experience, we had never been so united before that moment. With tears streaming down our faces my sister Lupepau’u followed the Crown Prince to the plane to escort my mother back to the VVIP while I stood with Fanetupouvava’u holding onto our children. I was distracted for a second by my daughter trying to play, in my grief I made the mistake of telling her that “our grandmother” was coming. She broke away from me and stood alone watching the plane waiting for our grandmother to come out as she’d seen her do so many times before. Her little gaze never broke from the plane as she waited for the Queen Mother to walk out and my heart broke as I felt the weight of this misunderstanding grow heavy on my heart. I tried my best to save her further confusion by pointing out that my mother was there and it was with much relief that Fahina decided to make her way to our mother. The King left soon after the vehicle carrying our Queen Mother was ready to begin the procession into town. We all rushed to our vehicles and there was a great urgency amongst the drivers to find a place in the front of the procession. Remembering my grandmother, I told our driver it didn’t matter what number we were, as long as we get to town safely. Taking our time to catch up to the procession gave me the opportunity to observe the thousands of young students sitting on either side of the road, hands clasped, with their heads down. Mothers were seated on the ground with their babies in the rain waiting to pay their last respects to the Queen Mother as her procession took her to the Royal Palace. I suddenly remembered driving with my grandmother straight after King George the V’s coronation. All the students and people of Tonga had lined the streets to wave at the newly crowned King and we were in the vehicle behind him, even though they were there for the King, my grandmother said “Wave at them, Freddie, they’re here for all of us and we should thank them.” I found myself trying my best to make eye contact with the children and parents sitting on the sides of the road in puddles wet from the rain to give them a smile and say “Malo.” Most of them were surprised anyone was looking back at them, some of them smiled and said “malo” back.

At the Palace family prayers awaited us once our grandmother was in the throne room ready for her wake. Throughout prayers my sister Lupepau’u and I couldn’t stop sobbing. Those of us here in Tonga when she passed were going through the process our cousins in Auckland had the time to experience while they were there with her. Once prayers were over the royal undertakers told us it was time for us to fe’iloaki with her. After His Majesty and the senior royal members of the family came our turn, the grandchildren. Our grief and sorrow over seeing her for the first time since she had passed away overcame us and we forgot for a moment that we were in the Royal Palace. When it was my turn to see her I couldn’t stand, I walked on my knees to her casket and fell seated beside the feet of her coffin and grasped my sister Lupepau’u’s hand. I hear her voice reassuringly say, “I know Freddie, I know.” As I got closer to our grandmother and saw her, it was as though she was sleeping. I could hear my cousin Prince Ata and Prince Tu’ipelehake in their grief as well and all I could say was, “I’m sorry mama, I’m so sorry ka teu ngata pe ‘i heni. If I kiss you it’ll be the last time I ever do. So I can’t kiss you mama, kataki atu pe mama ka te u ngata atu pe heni.” I kissed her casket and I was content with that. I left the room and sought the sight of my mother. Although the grief she felt as the Queen Mother’s daughter was unimaginable, just the sight of her brought me comfort . I sat outside the throne room on the floor with my cousins composing myself in case I was called upon to assist in any way. Our cousins Princess Angelika and the Hon. Salote Maumautaimi were the one’s who tended to our grandmother throughout the night and they had taken this duty upon themselves in Auckland being the only two granddaughters with our grandmother when she had passed away. Tapu is not as strict with the grandchildren as it is with a deceased’s children. Tapu is the same for all Tongans regardless of rank and it was with this freedom my cousins and I were allowed to assist in preparing for our grandmother’s burial. We sat throughout the night watching relatives and close friends of the Queen Mother pay their last respects, each showing the weight of grief we all shared.

A wake in Tongan is called an ‘Ā Pō and you are expected to stay up all night to accompany the deceased. Her Majesty the Queen Nanasi had told us that we were to use the Royal language for our grandmother even though she was a Queen. The Royal language is usually reserved for referring to God and the King, and so Her Late Majesty’s wake was referred to as a Takipō. During the Takipō each Christian church in Tonga was allocated an hour to pray at the palace in vigil until morning. It was while I was helping our aunt Joleen Mataele when I heard the Catholic church start to pray. I immediately asked Joleen to go with me to prayers; it was during prayers with the Catholic church I felt our grandmother’s spirit with me. She was a practicing Catholic but had never converted to the church. They held a special place in her heart and it was amongst them I found a piece of her still here with us. Not long after the Catholic church’s prayer service was my Anglican church’s prayer service, seeing my Anglican family fed my spirit and I left the prayer service energised and perpared.

During tea that night with our mother and Her Majesty the Queen, a great aunt mentioned she had heard I received the Catholic and Anglican prayer service that night. I was quick to correct her, I did not receive the churches but joined them in their tent on the floor beside them for prayers. The spirit of healing I sought was amongst them, not above them. I also wanted to make it clear that I did not believe I was entitled to receive the churches or kainga; I am my mother’s daughter and may easily use rank as daughter to the female line to justify certain actions but in the spirit of our grandmother and through the teachings of my mother and aunts of humility and love, I respect and honour the Palace grounds as home to the current King whose immediate family are it’s occupants and are the one’s most appropriate to receive churches and kainga. That great aunt looked a little surprised at my clarification but it was necessary for peace and understanding amongst my family and kainga. We are keepers of our traditions and respect what it entails but love and kindness must always prevail; this is where we draw strength from as leaders and keeps a family strong and united.

Once my younger sister and her husband took their turn to stand vigil with our grandmother I went home to steal a few hours of sleep before going back to the palace. As the sun rose at the Palace we were ushered back into the throne room to say our last goodbyes to the Queen Mother. There was something in the air that was different. I remember asking Lupepau’u if she felt the difference between the previous night and that morning and she said yes. It was as though our grandmother’s spirit had left and we sensed it and the weight of the sadness we felt was a little lighter.

The procession to the royal tombs was not long for me. Each step was the last I’d take with our grandmother down the road she often took for her daily drives. Every Time I looked up and saw her casket I remembered how much she loved my daughter and how kind she was to my husband. We found our seats with ease when we arrived at Mala’e Kula and the service began. It was a beautiful service with royalty and chiefs from Fiji, New Zealand, and Samoa; it was a visual testament to the life she led. I cried a little during the burial service but not as much as I had thought I would. The royal undertakers carried her casket to the tomb where two separate tombs became one so that there was no divide between her and her late husband His Majesty King Tupou IV. I no longer needed to pray for strength to bare my sadness but rather for a spirit like our grandmother’s. I kept turning to look at my mother as she watched the Nima Tapu carry her mother into her tomb. The strength and legacy she embodies is incomparable and I will honour it through my actions and life lessons I leave my daughter. Tongan tradition dictates rank is passed down through the female line but in today’s society I like to take it in a more modern tone, it is strength that is carried down from mother to child. The greater the responsibilities she is faced with, the greater the strength she accumulates. The Queen Mother has passed away and not only left us with our memories of her but all Tongans who mourned for her will inherit her strength. Our loss united us with all Tongans and that was one of the greatest strengths and legacies Her late Majesty the Queen Mother has left behind.

Written By: Hon. Frederica Filipe

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