Last week, horribly and with such shock and deep sadness, I lost a precious friend to cerebral malaria. Over the past few days as I've been remembering my friend Bethaney, I've been recalling memories of her as a PNG meri tru. In Tok Pisin that means that she was a true Papua New Guinean woman. Since returning to Canada when I graduated from high school it has become habitual to say that Canada is my passport country. In recent years I feel increasingly at home in calling myself Canadian but the title still feels so inadequate and lacking as my childhood and youth were uniquely not Canadian, and I actually treasure that about those experiences. I hadn’t been in contact with Bethaney for a few years but I have wondered this week if she knew and felt the personal complexities of ‘belonging’ to a country whose blood and marrow were not a part of who you are, at least on a deeper level. Bethaney was born and raised in a stunningly rugged country that is a lot like she was: humble and unassuming, spontaneous, breathtakingly rare, profoundly beautiful, boisterous, and expressive. Papua New Guinea.
We met at the beginning of our High School experience at Ukarumpa International School, which over there starts in grade 9. Tucked away in the remote and mountainous region of the Eastern Highlands province, with several hundred other missionary and expat families, my family was fresh to the country (1 year in) and she was fresh back from furlough in the United States. I remember ogling her bountiful collection of gel-pens and her, even at the age of 14, exquisite penmanship. Bethaney was shy for maybe 2 seconds. I don’t remember the subsequent moments from when we met to when we became friends, it just happened. Along with our friend Rachel, we were 3 peas in a pod for the better part of 4 years. Friendship, time together, and laughter, so much laughter litters my memories of her. Bethaney, with an E, and Erika with a K. Our names are spelled differently, and don’t you forget it. Even as I type this, autocorrect is getting it wrong every time, and boy is it making me smile, even through the tears.
Bethaney was loud, but in an utterly safe way. Her laugh was one of the things I can most easily recall, and one of those things that I don’t think anyone who has ever met her has ever forgotten. It began as a low guttural rumble until it exploded over all of us. It was like we were repeatedly and routinely standing beneath a waterfall, caught up in the mist and powerful cascade all around us and swept up in the intoxicating delight of it all. Bethaney had the gift of presence and expanded a space with her humour that wasn’t jaded or cynical, it was just good. A throw-your-head-back, fall-off-your-chair, hold-your-sides-goodness that I will remember to the end of my days.
Bethaney loved PNG to her core and PNG loved her. Her love for the nation and people was so deep and profound in a way that wasn’t self-righteous, it truly drew us to her, it was mesmerizing. In these current days we find ourselves in, when so much of our cultural, political, even theological perspectives can be polarizing and fracturing, I remember just a few months ago longing for her perspective. Longing for her depth of humour that could let the petty things go. Longing for her wisdom and deep knowing of a culture and people that were hers, and she theirs. Bethaney was a true advocate for the marginalized and those on the fringes. In the days since her death, I have been overwhelmed with tears and yet so keenly unsurprised by the knowledge that she died from an illness that claims the lives of Papua New Guineans everyday. Activism, at least in the cultural climate I am swimming in, can be such a buzz word, and even has a certain amount of trendiness associated with it. Bethaney’s heart, from the first moments I met her in 1999, reverberated with justice and mercy. As I have recalled my days with her and read the stories of others, I feel like I have dipped my bucket into a stream of refreshing waters. Oh the utter preciousness of it all, to have been able to walk along the riverbed as she carved her way through the land of PNG, walking humbly with her Maker and her beloved people. Last night with my Dad I watched from the glow of my iPad in my northern Canadian home, her casket being driven along the coast from her tropical home, curving along the clear ocean waters that surround the city of Madang. The towering eucalyptus and rubber trees swaying their branches in the warm breeze, I could almost feel it. The vibrant sun shining down from a clear blue sky, the regular braking and steering to avoid the potholes, the lushness, oh the lushness of green. And then, even then, while watching her final pass through an area and people that she lived and breathed and walked among, the few years we shared together, tucked within her 36 years of living, are invaluably treasured. They say hindsight is 20/20 and that by looking back, things become clearer. I wonder if the gift of reflecting on the past is not nostalgia but illumination. A lighting up again, in a completely non woo-woo way, of the preciousness of those moments shared together. Today, I am just so tremendously thankful and grateful for the treasure it was and is to have been her friend. Meri lewa, mi save misim yu tru.