Monday, February 3, 2014

A friend is now with the stars...

The late Creusa "Tetha" Hitipeuw

A friend commented recently that I was (or, well, am) the first cetologist in Indonesia. Native cetologist, at least. It might be true. But I realise now, it might not happen without the sheer inspiration of a person who is not with us anymore on this planet.

The said person was Creusa “Tetha” Hitipeuw, an Indonesian sea turtle expert who for almost two decades worked with WWF Indonesia before her departure a few days before Christmas 2013. This post is dedicated to Tetha Hitipeuw, my old colleague back when I was still working at WWF from 1997 to 2003, a woman so strong and determined that her departure left a big hole in the hearts of us conservationists in this country. This post is more than a month’s late, about 40 days actually. The Javanese believe that once departed, a soul will still linger around on this plane of existence for 40 days to say thank you and goodbye to family and friends. Tetha’s 40 days was on the 31st of January, just as the Year of the Snake ended and the Year of the Horse started. Better be late than never; I think this obituary post is still worth it.

Tetha was diagnosed with persistent ovarian cysts around 6 August 2013. I forgot exactly, but it was a day before Idul Fitri last year when another friend informed me of the news. I used to have uterine fibroids in my system for about five years, until I had the fibroids removed in 2004. The fibroids gave me intense pain, so I could relate to Tetha’s cystitis pain.

I went to visit Tetha on the first day of Lebaran/Idul Fitri and found her recovering after her surgery. She was pretty cheerful, but also a bit pissed off with herself for letting that cyst developed so large (it was about 24cm x 19cm or something!) without her knowing it. Tongue-in-cheek, she said, “I swear, next time I found just a little seed inside my tummy, I will ask the doctor to remove it!” I left her that day feeling that she’d hit recovery soon and will continue working in her cyclonic way (I did lecture her a bit about the importance of rest, tho...).

Then around the end of October last year, I received disturbing news from another friend that Tetha had been hospitalised. She had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer (the cysts apparently had cancerous properties) and the cancer seemed to be spreading to her lungs. I remember my heart sank that day. Lung and ovarian cancers are very dangerous, truth be told, I wasn’t sure how good her prognosis was. And apparently, it wasn’t really good. After two months struggling in a hospital in Jakarta, Tetha left this world in the evening of 22 December 2013, just three days before Christmas. She was just 44 years old when she joined the stars above.

But that’s the chronological story of Tetha’s illness. That is not the story of her strength, her determination, and the loyalty her colleagues had for her.

From two friends I learned recently that she had been wonderfully strong and determined to the last breath of her life. A friend of a friend came to visit her on the morning of 22 December. Tetha was still joking around, despite the supporting machine plugged into her lungs. I think Tetha also received some guests from her church to celebrate an early Christmas there in the hospital. Not coincidentally I think... she left this world just after that Christmas celebration, in the evening...

From my friends I also learned that Tetha actually managed to inform her WWF colleagues of the content of her laptop. Get this: she actually dictated the important contents of her laptop to her sister (or friend) so that her colleagues can continue her donor reporting, strategic plans and whatsnot! She even asked one of her close friends about some work-related stuff (said friend of course immediately dismissed the question and begged her to focus on recovering soon). I mean, really, this girl, she acted like she was going on a two months’ holiday instead of... well, leaving Earth and joining the stars for good! How strong was that??

Would I be that strong when my time comes? God, I hope I will...

Back to Tetha: I also learned how closely-knit together the WWF family is in Indonesia. The staff took turn to accompany Tetha at the hospital every day. Yes, that includes the big bosses, and I mean, really big bosses. Top-level management. They also organised fund raising for her, for the hospital bill had sky-rocketed pretty fast during the two months of her treatment. Hats off to the WWF Indonesia family here, words are just not enough. They are really Tetha’s family to the end, and I’m sure she loved them so much.

I don’t know how her last moments were, but I pray that it was a swift and peaceful transition. And I feel, it would have been. For Tetha Hitipeuw was surrounded with so many loved ones as she left this world. She would have been in peace...

Coming back to my opening paragraph, I just realised that Tetha was a role model for me. She was the first native sea turtle researcher in this country. Could it be that I wanted to be a cetologist, and one of the first one at that in Indonesia, because of her? It’s very plausible. I never thought of it that way, but Tetha could well have had inspired me back then. She did tell me I needed to go back to school, to do my masters degree. She was happy when I finally went to Australia for that in 2003.

Tetha was a fighter to the end. A workaholic. An ever optimistic, to the end. I just hope we won’t let her down with our works in Indonesia. But somehow, I think she trusted us. She believed we won’t let her down. I know this because she “visited” me a few weeks ago in my dream.

I was sitting on a white plastic chair in front of a ‘warung’ (food stall) when Creusa “Tetha” Hitipeuw came to me. She sat across the plastic-covered table and, flashing her smile, said “Hi Icha!” in her signature way. A male colleague then came, and they then were involved in a work-related conversation with me as a listener.  In between their discussion tho, Tetha looked at me and said that she trusted her male colleague; that he’d be her ears from now on about whatever happens in the conservation world. That was the end of my dream.

I texted that male colleague later about the dream, and that Tetha looked happy and healthy in the dream. He conveyed his hope that Tetha is truly happy and healthy now. I said, “I’m sure she is.”

I mean it. I believe Tetha is happy and healthy now. I believe she visited me to say goodbye. To tell me that she’s okay now. To tell me that she has faith in us, even to date. She’s watching over us now, working to better the marine environment in Indonesia.

Rest in peace, Tetha. Thanks for visiting me in my dream. Thanks for everything you’ve done for the sea turtles, for Indonesia, and for Mother Earth. Thanks for inspiring me to be the best of me. We love you.

Also read: WWF’s obituary for Tetha (in Indonesian).

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