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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

Gifts

I stored my bike on the enclosed porch to shield it from the relentless downpours that had been prevalent over the past month. These storms were intense but brief, leaving anything left outside inevitably waterlogged.


Meeki took notice of this peculiar habit of mine and inquired why I kept my bike inside the house. "Is this what people do in America?" he asked. I explained that most people stored their bikes and cars in a designated space called a garage to protect them from the weather. "Is the garage attached to your house?" he inquired further. I replied that some garages were attached while others were not—it all depended on the layout of the house.


As I described garages, I could sense Meeki contemplating something, though I couldn't quite discern what it was.


A few days later, I was jolted awake by a series of loud bangs emanating from the neighboring house. Stepping outside, I discovered Teem, Meeki's brother, busy at the front of the house constructing walls from palm spines. Curious, I asked Teem if he knew where Meeki was. With a knowing raise of his eyebrows, he gestured towards the back of the house.


There, I found Meeki diligently cutting coconut spines with his machete. Flashing his customary smile, he greeted me, "Ah! What do you think?" I couldn't help but chuckle as I replied, "I think it's early."


Laughing at my response, Meeki proudly declared, "I am building a garage!" Aware that a cargo boat was due to arrive on the island, I couldn't resist asking if the boat was bringing him a new bike. With another beaming smile, he confirmed, "Yes!"


Satisfied with his answer, I left Meeki to his project and quickly grabbed a bucket bath before the children began arriving at the compound for the day.


The cargo ship arrived around 1 p.m., prompting the cancellation of school for the afternoon so that all available adults could assist with unloading the ship. It seemed amusing to everyone that I, too, joined in the effort. Some jokingly asked if I had a store debt to settle. While I had no debts to clear, I was well aware that the sooner the boat was unloaded, the sooner my uncle's store would be replenished with goods, ensuring a quicker supply of food for everyone.


As the unloading continued, Meeki's bike turned out to be one of the last items to be brought ashore. Expecting to see a bicycle similar to mine, I was astonished when I observed a motorcycle being carefully lowered onto the dock. Until that moment, the island's sole motorcycle had been exclusively used by the government's medical clinic. Despite the expectation of numerous boxes containing supplies for Meeki's new garage and motorcycle, there was nothing of the sort. Everyone's attention was focused on preparing for the imminent arrival of his second child, who would make his debut just a week later.


***


The clinic boasted two rooms: a waiting area and an examination room facing Zenaida's house. The latter was equipped with a table, an electric light bulb, and several cabinets stocked with medical supplies like gauze, gloves, and bandages. Meeki remained outside the building while the rest of the family gathered in the waiting room. Inside the examination room, only Meeki's wife, Tera, and the nurse were present.


When I arrived, I could hear the family's murmurs from the waiting room, but there was an eerie silence emanating from the examination room. This struck me as unusual; based on past experiences in birthing wards, I had expected to hear cries or shouts. I vividly recalled my sister's birthing experience, during which she had screamed something about the "flaming gates of hell." Yet here, there was no such sound.


Perplexed, I approached Meeki and inquired if Tera was inside. With his characteristic smile and few words, he affirmed that she was indeed inside. Puzzled by the lack of noise, I pressed further, to which Meeki responded with a simple, "Yes, that is good, eh?"


After several moments of quiet anticipation, the distinct cries of a newborn baby pierced through the silence, announcing their arrival in the village. It was a joyous sound that filled everyone's hearts with happiness.


I later came to understand that in their culture, it was believed that only weak women vocalized their pain during childbirth. Tera's composed silence during labor was seen as a demonstration of her immense strength and resilience. Her ability to endure the birthing process without uttering a sound filled Meeki with pride and admiration for his wife's fortitude.


Eventually, the nurse emerged from the examination room, gently cradling Riima in her arms. With a warm smile, she introduced him to the eagerly awaiting family gathered in the waiting room. We rejoiced in the arrival of our newest member, sharing food, laughter, and songs to celebrate this joyous occasion. In that moment, surrounded by loved ones and filled with happiness, we were reminded of the preciousness of life and the bonds that unite us. Truly, life was wonderful, and we cherished every moment of it.


The next day, I resumed my duties at school, starting off with a one-on-one tutoring session with Tommy. Tommy, a fifth-grader, had fallen behind in his academic progress due to a family event that had caused him to miss an entire school year. Recognizing his potential, his teachers suggested individual lessons with me to help bring him up to speed with his classmates.


During our session that morning, we focused on writing the English alphabet, a skill Tommy had been working on for nearly two months. I encouraged him, letting him know that he would be tested on all the letters the following day, motivating him to put in his best effort. Together, we navigated through the letters, aiming to bolster his confidence and set him on the path to academic success.


Tommy arrived for his letter quiz with his biggest smile, clutching his trusty stubby pencil. As I observed him, I couldn't help but wonder if anything had truly changed... or had it?


In Kiribati, a passing mark required only 50%, but in my class, achieving 85% granted students a coveted trip to the treasure box. This box held an assortment of prizes: matchbox cars, tiny dolls, crayons, pencils, balls, balloons, bubbles, and even random plush toys from McDonald's Happy Meals that my parents had shipped to me. While these items might not have held significant value elsewhere, to my students, they were like gold. The rewards served as powerful incentives, motivating them to strive for higher marks and excel academically.


I noticed Tommy's eyes light up as he glanced at the airplane toy he had been eyeing for some time before he sat down to take the test. His determination was evident, and I felt a glimmer of hope knowing that he was setting his sights on a goal.


I pretended not to watch too closely as Tommy diligently wrote down the letters I called out. Secretly, I checked each one, and to my delight, he flawlessly identified and wrote down every single letter without a single mistake. As we neared the end of the list, I couldn't help but feel a swell of pride in my chest. Not bad at all, I thought to myself. In fact, it was brilliant!


I was overjoyed and immensely proud of Tommy. For the first time all year, he had achieved near perfection on a test, earning him the opportunity to visit the treasure box. With a smile stretching from ear to ear, he proudly selected the airplane toy he had been eyeing for so long. It was a moment of triumph and accomplishment, both for Tommy and for our shared journey of learning and growth.


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