Friday – I meet Rongomai for the first time. He’s arrived at my girlfriend Kerry’s house (where I’m staying to wait – with fingers crossed – for my UK visa). I want to create his portrait, but it takes days to build up the courage to ask.
Saturday – I escape the house before it fills with 20 or so guests who are in the house for a workshop, and return late in the evening. I ask Kerry about my pounamu, a 50th birthday gift from her which was an anchor after the quakes. I’d left it in her care while we were out of the country. It now feels alien and unfriendly. She rouses Rongamai from his bed to ask him about it.
Sunday – he, along with many others, witnesses my distress and tears …. a combination of missing Nigel (who has had to return to the UK), the cries of a child with stomach cramps, and having to explain my difficult relationship with my pounamu. He later gives me a stone heart carved with ‘kia kaha’ and tells me how he’d seen it abandoned somewhere and having asked the nearest person if it was theirs was told it was now his …. he needed it. Which confused him because he’s strong, healthy and so very happy. I usually am too, but he’s decided he was meant to give it to me and I am grateful.
Monday – over breakfast he and I discuss clothes. According to Rongomai, every man needs a tailor-made charcoal grey suit, with a white shirt and black tie. It can be worn for weddings and funerals, as well as business. I tell him I disagree about the tie – a black tie at a wedding could make it look like you’re going to a funeral. He smiles and thinks I’ve made a good point. He explains about kissing-buttons on jacket sleeves, watch straps and their faces, and belts. He always buys good shoes, but most of his clothes are second hand and says he’s lucky with charity shop purchases and offers to go shopping with me Tuesday afternoon. We learn that our mothers both worked for LWR – mine in Christchurch, his in Ashburton. Mid-morning I ask him if I can take his portrait and he’s very happy to oblige – his daughter wants a black and white photo to put on a picture board. He’s happy for me to share his image on aGathering. He tells me that tourists often ask if they can photograph him – he understands their interest and usually agrees. He’s enjoying our photo shoot and says he’d really like to have one with a dark background and just his face coming out of the dark. It’s a bright, sunny day and I explain the difficulties but we head inside to give it a go, but I can’t find somewhere suitable, and I don’t have lights with me, so decide to give it a go Tuesday evening when he’s back from Hanmer. I select this image as my favourite and edit it – he likes it, a lot. His son picks him up mid-afternoon to take him home to Hanmer, and we hear later how they spent the afternoon – the drive there …. karate practice, where Rongomai’s grandson teaches him some moves …. chicken casserole for dinner. His wife is vegetarian, so he enjoys eating meat when he can. He’s had a magical day.
Tuesday, December 8th, 2015 – we’re having a girls’ road trip to Hanmer, to meet Rongomai and his son at the hot pools, then drive Rongomai back to Christchurch for his last night in town before returning home to Turangi. The phone call comes through just before Woodend. Rongomai died in his sleep, from a heart attack.
My images of Rongomai were taken less than 18 hours before he died. He was a vibrant, happy, healthy man. And then he wasn’t.