‘I feel like my ancestors are always present. I know that there is a chief from my grandmother is always to the left of me. I don’t know who he is but I know that he is always there. I’m still trying to understand when they actually reveal themselves and when they don’t. I don’t want to be selfish and think that they’re my babysitters. I do feel that I carry them inside me and that whenever I do really need help or guidance, they will come through and either reveal themselves in something or reveal what I need.
‘I feel more comforted about death as a result. I think it’s because I don’t know whether my spirit will stay when I leave but I feel comforted that at least my ancestors are here because if I have children, they will still be looked after. If it’s not by me after I’ve moved on but someone will always be there. That’s such an important part of our understanding of our culture is that everything you do is to ensure the safety and protection and preservation of the next generation in this life and the next life.
‘I’m not scared of death. I’m scared of pain for sure and the process of dying and how that happens. If I was to be scared of death, I would be scared of what there is to understand about spirituality. There is a lot of power in that and there is a lot to be scared of in the unknown but it’s also cool. Most of the ancestors that I interact with are beautiful and really lovely and caring and are just trying to help but it’s just about being aware and knowing and being respectful.’
‘As long as I can remember I’ve seen people cry and grieve and celebrate life by singing and dancing in the name of a person’s life.
‘I’m Tokelauan Fijian – my mother’s Tokelauan and my father’s Fijian. Both sides have quit similar mourning processes but on my Fijian side the whole mourning process is 100 days. On my Tokelauan side it’s 10 days.
‘I found out my nanna passed away when I was 17 and I was on a plane from Australia and thrown in to 2 weeks of planning, organising, crying, cooking, singing, dancing, praying with my family from 7am to 4am, 10 days in a row.
‘Sitting with her body and my family for ten days – actually sitting and talking to her and holding her and seeing that it was real; there was no tangible life left in her – that really helped me.
‘In my mother’s culture, when you begin the mourning process you have these things called Leos – each community or family member that’s connected to the person who’s passed away will come together with their family and present to the immediate family of the person who’s passed away gifts, prayer and song.
‘So many people came to my nanna – it was leo after leo after leo. Each time we did a leo, I grieved again – even when I thought I had nothing left in me.
‘If you know the songs and dance, you get up and join in – even if it’s not your family. The power of the call of community and the call to celebrate was so revealing for me because it was really my community and my family saying you’re not alone.
‘Going through that entire experience really slapped me in the face because it taught me about the importance of sitting with death and sharing your grief. It also taught me the importance of celebration for a person’s life.
‘You share everything throughout the process – there is no hiding; there is quite literally nowhere to go away and just be private. It can be very overwhelming too but I personally found a lot of comfort in it.’
‘You go on Facebook and Instagram and everyone’s like shiny and happy and that would freak me out even more thinking, I don’t know what my life looks like. I would then evaluate my career and relationship or where I lived and there was just no certainty and it totally led to these really intense panic attacks.
‘It was this pressure to kill it at everything and that is what totally triggered it for me – this fear of the unknown and wanting to have control over it. What if I do take this job, then this could happen or that could happen and it was all just what if’s. I would just spiral – I wouldn’t do anything and I would freak out – it was paralysing.
‘It was a couple of years ago anxiety came in to my life and hit me like a freight train. I never expected it. I never saw it coming.
‘At my lowest point I wrote this poem called “We’re all going to die”. It was the first time that I’d had a sense of certainty. There was this one thing that could be guaranteed in my life and that was that one day, I’m going to cark it.
‘I realised that the only guarantee is death and everything is a mystery and that’s the beauty of life. So, why not go for it and why not take a risk? I’m going to die someday anyway so I may as well be who I really am.
‘On Friday November 17th I’m hosting “We’re All Going To Die Festival”. It is an amusement park for the soul. As an audience member you choose your own adventure – art installations, a film festival, music, panel discussions around fear and death and a lot of immersive experience. There’s everything from a death meditation where you actually imagine yourself not here on Earth any more through to a dance class where you’re encouraged to dance like you do in your own safe space in your bedroom.
‘It’s really about shifting people’s perspectives to just go and live life. It’s going to be a whole lot of colour and humour and we’re delivering it in the most fun way possible, because, why not?’
‘They (Department of Education) told me in later years I wasn’t to hug the children and I said, “Well, it will be a long day before I can’t hug somebody.”
‘I can’t stop children from coming up and hugging me. I said that I won’t stop hugging them. I never did.
‘You know all children, doesn’t matter which ones they are, they all need love. You have to give it to receive it. I doesn’t matter how much their mums and dads love them, you can always give them a little bit more because everybody needs love and you can always do with a little bit extra of that.
‘Children are so hungry to be loved. That’s all most of them wanted – to be understood and loved. Because that’s the real main thing in life. Nobody listens much you know – they talk but a lot of people don’t listen to you, you know?’
‘Two weeks ago I went back to the doctor and they said they’re not going to treat me anymore. They said I’d had enough radiology and enough chemotherapy and I still had it so I don’t know…
‘I feel quite active though. My lungs are good and my kidneys are OK. And I really don’t feel like it you know – to be saying goodbye just yet.
‘I was Preschool Cook at Australia Street Infants School in Newtown. I started off in 1973 only for a week or two while I filled in for someone. At the end of the next week, the Principal came down and said I can have the job. So I stayed there as Preschool Cook for 39 and a half years. In that time, I cooked over 7,000 meals for the children and I cuddled them every day.
‘I was made redundant in Xmas in 2012 – it was really stressful. Not long after that I was diagnosed with cancer.
‘They reckon I might last until Christmas but that’s about all. And that was a “might”. They said it depends on how much it grows and how much I deteriorate. Last week was pretty tough because I really don’t want to say goodbye just yet. I find it very hard.
‘I still get kids and adults coming up to me in the street. It feels very good. It’s hard to remember them because they change so much from when they’re little but they come up and say, “Miss Fay, I gotta give you a hug!” and that feels very good.
‘I don’t expect anything in return because you do what you have to do. I was working and everything and I did it all for the kids. I just loved them so much.’
‘The big change for me was that I lost my dad. It was over two years ago. He was a doctor and he’d been in the same community for over 30 years. He did quite well for himself and he had a lot of stuff and all the things that come with that.
‘But when it was all said and done, the thing that made the biggest impact on me was they had a big memorial for him and they had the biggest hall in our small suburb in Newcastle. I turned up and there were just crowds of people in the streets out the front who couldn’t fit inside.
‘I realised that that’s the only thing you’ve got is the impact you’ve had on other people’s lives. It’s not about all the money that you earned and all those successes and that was just a huge change for me. From that day, I went down this path.
‘Looking at what I’m seeing today shows to me that there is definitely the interest out there for people to be able to come together for many different reasons to express themselves. I just like to bring a little bit of happiness to people’s lives in some way, help the community and be part of it. I hope that then creates a domino effect of people helping each other. Something I’ve always lived by is to be the change in the world you want to see.’
What’s one of the saddest moments in your life?
‘That would be when my father died. I was 11 years old and he had cancer for basically all of my life. I guess I’m still kind of coping with it a bit.’
Are there any words he shared with you that really stick in your mind as advice that you’ve taken on for life?
‘Once when I asked about what the meaning of life was, he said, “People have wasted their lives trying to answer that’. That’s a decent philosophy I think.’
So what would be your main philosophy in life?
‘I try to be happy regardless of what people say or do. Happiness is a choice. If you accept yourself then you will find happiness.’