Losing Her Was Like Turning Off the Sun

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Background sunset image: Mana swimming at Le Lagoto.

She Believed in Love.

for Manamea Apelu Schwalger. 

She was born on the 26th of October 1975. She would be 45. But she died of cancer. Breast cancer.  She was barely 43.  I tried to write about her but could not.  Night after night.  It’s been 2 long years without her. 

Manamea Apelu Schwalger, my sister, is known to many as Mana.

By now, much has been written about her. So you would know that she was dynamically involved in the first Pinktober for Samoa.  What you may not know is how she was able to be so involved, while at the same time, going through treatment.

Mana called it the gift of no sleep. Her medicines kept her up sometimes, so she would stay awake and write emails, and coordinate as much as she could to get Samoa’s first Pinktober rising.

Most people recognise her as the former Miss Samoa Miss South Pacific whose fight for cancer awareness stirred up the country – from the villager, to the overseas Samoan, near and as far away as Alaska, to the business community, to the leaders of our country. 

To lose someone so vibrant, is like turning off the sun.

She left a void that is impossible to fill. Even as I write this, I hear her giggling at me to say, “ I told you you’re going to miss me.”

I never said I would not miss her but Mana had a way of forcing you to get things off your chest.  To empower truthfulness, was her way of giving love.

Now I write, “I miss you so much”, in every true sentence I can muster.  I write that I miss her, between these lines. 

Mana had a great vision of humanity. She saw everyone as equal. So when she had to raise awareness for cancer, she wasn’t weary of approaching our Prime Minister.

Mana also reached out to the local media and to Samoans living abroad.  In her mind, she was merely another young Samoan lady with cancer. Her voice was to start the move towards better care for cancer patients.  She was humbled by the tremendous response from the people, both here and afar. 

Image: Samoa Cancer Society.

Her letter to the Prime Minister to request the painting of the historical town clock to commemorate Pinktober started the first united hail from Samoans towards empathy and care for cancer patients. She wrote letters to people of influence, politicians and business leaders, to support Pinktober initiatives.

She wrote them from her bed, while she was suffering through chemotherapy.  Mana had told me in one of her messages that there was no time to rest.  It seemed as if she was in a rush to get the ball that is now Pinktober, rolling.  It seemed as if she knew she didn’t have long. 

The Miss Samoa Alumni came on board.  Her modesty was impeccable, so she never wanted to put it out there that she was Miss Samoa Miss South Pacific.  She thought it was too boastful to say so. Thanks to these beautiful ladies, Mana had the courage to wear this achievement with grace, and bring even more impact for the cause.

Perhaps she didn’t think it would make a difference. But when the Miss Samoa Alumni was formed and patroned by Hon. Fiame Naomi Mataafa, Mana saw there was much more work the alumni could pursue to further the mission of quality care for people with cancer and other terminal illnesses. 

Mana started a book with me during her final months in our world. Yes, she did most of her writing from her bed.  Imagine her fragile form, filled with the desire to help put cancer awareness into the minds of all Samoans.  Late into the night, sometimes, we stayed up because she couldn’t sleep from her medicines. Those sleepless nights, she spent to reach out, to hear someone else’s pain, to comfort.  I couldn’t fathom it, till I saw with my own eyes the waterfall of blessings pouring via affectionate love and participation from friends and strangers alike.

Mana’s humble plea was felt by everyone she reached out to.

“Have faith. And believe in love”. 

Mana was diagnosed with cancer at Stage 4.  She was told that she would not live for another year but she made it five more.  In those 5 years, she underwent conventional treatments to prolong her life and as she said, “to prepare everyone”.

Mana’s Fb Post: “Love is bigger than cancer. Sept 2017 Stage 5 Breast Cancer patient. Dec 2017 Saaga Clan gathered to nurture one of their own”.

In her final moments, Mana reminded me of the man who lay next to her at the national hospital when she was first admitted. She was deeply touched by his story.  The family had to pay a neighbor’s car to bring him to the hospital.  They had very little money but they bought him noodles and milk to “calm” his stomach pains. His family had decided to stop any more treatment for his cancer. 

Mana’s cry for help started with that old man. She saw in him, the struggle that every ordinary Samoan would face, with a difficult illness such as cancer. She saw the unfamiliar decision that had to be made due to the lack of resources, information, and money.  She saw the distrust in his children’s eyes and she felt his contempt.

She whispered to me, “Mepa, give them all our fruits and gifts”.  We were humbled by his polite “thank you”. 

Mana’s wings for cancer grew. She was unstoppable. But if you were part of her “fiery space” and you remember her during Pinktober, her gift of love lies there. 

As her sister and confidant, I’ll look at Mana’s grave and think of flowers. She was a gardener in her soul. What she planted was always seeded with love. 

Dear reader, as I think of my sister with these words, I turn to you and say, “May you remember Pinktober with a glow in your hearts. May you have courage. May you be filled with love, no matter what happens in this fleeting world. God keep you”.

The background image is of Mana, swimming in the sunset of Le Lagoto Resort, Savaii.

Lumepa Hald