We die twice, according to the movies. Robert de Niro turns to his Hollywood sidekick and tells him that we die first in our physical leaving. The second, final death comes when the last person who remembers us dies his or her own first time. I don't remember the name of the film, but as I returned this week to the church of my Rarotonga childhood, I remembered de Niro and his delivery of that very poignant truth.
Sitting here, soaking in the sounds of imene peroveta soaring off white stone walls, I am still amazed at the ability of death to bring us back to its own singular reality – that this, a farewell we have attended for so many others before us, is one day going to be our own.
Sitting here, I remember someone who became my friend long before we ever met in the mid-80s when I first took up a cadetship with the newspaper arm of the then Cook Islands Broadcasting and Newspaper Corporation. I was 17, but I had known Bobby Turua since I was seven. Radios, not flat screen TV's, were the centerpiece of every home. As with the handful of broadcasters for his generation, Bobby was the voice of my childhood, the invisible, confident, professional presenter who defined my news world. A world of boat arrivals and departures, comings and goings of leaders, English dramas and the tutaka schedules between the latest news updates from Radio New Zealand and Radio Australia. Yes, the time before Facebook. Little did I know one day I would be working for both radio and later, television, alongside that iconic voice known to everyone simply as ‘Bob’.
Bobby Turua was part of a new post-independence wave of ‘empowered’ Cook Islanders leading this fresh thing called nationhood, from their respective fields. For Bobby, it was media and broadcasting, a role that fit his flair for fashion, drama, language, and creativity to a T. In August 1965, he was already part of the new generation of Cook Islands ‘creatives’ in Australia and New Zealand trying out the fashions, freedoms and language of the ‘papa ‘a’. It was in this newfound world that Te Ariki Kaienua Noouapu-o-Te Ariki Karotaua Paurangi Turua also switched to a simpler name for his schoolmates and teachers to pronounce: Bobby. By 1978, when he returned from studies and work in New Zealand and Australia, he went into the core of his life’s paid work -- as an on-air presenter and journalist with Radio Cook Islands, and later with Cook Islands Television up until it was privatised in 1995.
I remember those mornings as a cadet doing the first transcripts of the morning news reports for the editors to select for print that night. Bobby was already part of the seasoned leadership of the broadcast A-team. He would sometimes swing through the newsroom, a meticulously dressed, serious man, looking through copy he could use for Maori-language bulletins. Unlike many of us in English reporting who would suffer in our Maori, he was one of a handful who spoke both languages with a rich beauty, able to reach for phrases and still nail the questions in any context. He brought in new vision, even while maintaining the high standards, timetables and programme schedules that defined broadcast production in that decade. Those were heady years, when writers such as Turepu Turepu, who later went on to become the Cook Islands first poet laureate, and Makiuti Tongia, who went on to take Cook Islands Maori into NZ academia, were on staff. Poetry was a welcome and sought after part of the news content in the daily paper. Traditional wisdom or kai korero also featured, as did the daily scripture. In this context, Bobby coined the phrase ‘purua’, for poetry. His creative edge to his news professionalism didn't stop there. In later years, he adapted a classical funereal dirge and scheduled it to preface every announcement of a death in the community. Eventually, the music became the standard bereavement call of the nation. People would stop whatever they were doing to tune in once that flute started haunting the airwaves. For a minute, the music would carry the message of mourning and loss for a family, and create a community of grief.
Another innovation with a lasting and rippling impact to this day is Bobby’s pioneering of talkback radio in the 80s and early 90s. Remember, we were a small community. Even journalists knew that leaders spoke for us and by virtue of being elected, knew what was good for the people. Bobby was very serious about the need for Cook Islanders – and their leaders to have a forum to speak their minds on the issues of the day. This was still at a time when ‘conventional’ journalism especially for State-owned media centred on government talking heads and other high-level people in authority. For Bobby, the solution was to open up the phone lines and effectively ‘free the airwaves’. Many listened and tuned in as people spoke, letting loose during the day and sometimes late into the night, sometimes on topics that were considered taboo.
I never tired of hearing him speak on issues and ideas. He was a fun-loving free spirit and the life of the party as often as he was the cause of ensuing chaos. He was also a deep and fascinating thinker, passionate about our past, our alternative worlds of spirit and mana, our need to stay connected and mindful to realities seen and unseen. He held key custodian status over one of the country’s most sacred landmarks- the Arai Te tonga Marae, with two titles - as the “Kauono o Te Ariki Taraare Mataiapo Tutara” o Araitetonga (George Taraare); and “Tako Ariki Potikitaua Taunga”.
That strong spirituality, his faith, and his family, were to come in good stead for the rocky times to come. When TV went from public to private in the 90's, Bobby and a generation of media colleagues were amongst the casualties of change. In his case, the path eventually took him through a range of jobs working for himself and others, back to his first calling. He was with the Office of the Prime Minister where he did information work, coming in 2009 to his role back on the air – as Interpreter/Translator with the Parliament of the Cook Islands.
Fast forward to this moment. Here we are, at the graveside, the call from the family to join the kaikai, the workers impatient to start mixing the cement, and struggling to coax the mixer into life. As it chugs into action, I imagine Bobby Turua in commentary mode, describing with a chuckle in his tone the goings on before him, the raised eyebrows he would use to poke regal fun at my over bright, under sized red jandals.
Then, the voice is gone. What lingers in its place is a legacy of many voices, many conversations, in new spaces beyond talkback – on the issues that matter to Cook Islanders. It is the lived difference we make in our time here which will dictate how soon our second death, that of being lost from human memory, follows on from our initial exit from life.
The writer Mary Oliver penned of death: “When it’s over, I want to say all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real. I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument. I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.” What a life Bobby. You held the world of this nation in your arms. And we are a better people for it.