Requiem for a Beloved Uncle
Updated: Mar 6
On September 17, 2021, one of the sweetest people I have ever known went into cardiac arrest in the ICU at Thangam hospital in Palakkad, Kerala, India. They could not revive him. He was 82. His name was T. Unnikrishnan Nair. He was my father’s youngest brother, and my favorite uncle. The next day, his oldest brother, 89, wrote his obituary. A photo from his daughter of her smiling father accompanied the obituary which appeared on September 19 in a Malayalam newspaper. 10,000 miles away, his grieving niece wept for her favorite uncle. The uncle who amused, consoled and comforted her when she was a little girl. The uncle who took her and her older brother to the big movies for the first time — all the way to Kolkata, the Big City. Holding his hands, we crossed huge streets, rode on buses and trains. To the Globe Theatre, or to the Elite Theatre, where with open-mouthed wonder we watched elegant red velvet curtains rise over the impossibly huge cinema screen. before the opening credits of The Poseidon Adventure. And another time, The Magnificent Seven Ride.
The uncle who always pushed us as children, asking, “What do you want to be?“ A teacher, I replied once. And another time, I said a nurse. He replied, “Why do you want to be a nurse, if you can be a doctor?” All the nurses I had seen were women. I had never seen a doctor who was a woman. This was the first time anyone had broadened the horizon with a simple question. I have never forgotten it. The uncle who married the most beautiful, kind and good-humored aunt, who took us into her heart soon after meeting us. Together, they would come to take care of us as children when our mother had to spend some days in the hospital or was away at another aunt and uncle’s house, recuperating. The uncle who ran, carrying me in his arms, to come within view of the distant train tracks, so we could see the trains rushing by, hear their engines and turning wheels. The Farakkah Passenger. The Howrah-Katwa local. The Howrah-Bardhhaman local. The uncle who once sat behind a transistor radio, singing tunelessly, attempting to pretend to his skeptical and incredulous little niece that the song was coming from the radio. The uncle who would mix rice and sambar and roll it into a giant ball, boasting that he would eat it all in one mouthful, as we watched eagerly, and a little anxiously. The uncle who always wanted more salt with his food. The uncle who took a teenager shopping for new sandals to shops all along the wide streets of Bhowanipur, Kolkata. Unable to find anything she liked, and frustrated with the search, when she lashed out at the shopkeeper, he looked at her in alarm, and embarrassed, apologized to the shopkeeper on her behalf. And kindly said to her later, we must not speak to people that way. The uncle of whom your aunt said many years ago, in the days before email and smartphones, before his own beloved daughter and granddaughter entered his life, “In all the world, your uncle loves you the most. The day you left for America, he cried all night. Please write to him.”
He loved fragrances. If anyone gifted my aunt a perfume, it was my uncle who would breathe it in deeply, enjoying it thoroughly. You see, he had introduced me to the taste of rose petals when I was a few years old, as I wrote in my piece about making rose jam.
When he was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, my heart sank. India’s terrifying Covid-19 second wave put a halt to all travel. When he responded well to Xeloda, I dared to hope. Even so, when my damask rose bushes put out dozens of blooms, I harvested them carefully and made rose jam for him to taste. I took bottles of sterile rose jam, some facemasks, some fragrant lotions that I thought he might like, packed them all in a box, and took it to the post office to mail to India. Over the course of a month, it found its way from San Francisco airport, customs in the US and India, Kochi airport, my father’s house, and via some relatives, to him. I wrote a card with all my love, telling him that but for the pandemic, I would be there in person. But until we could meet, I wanted him to taste the rose jam I had made. I don’t know if he enjoyed the taste of it, but something made with my hands with a great deal of love found its way to him even though I couldn't, and for that, I am grateful.
Soon after, following a much-delayed bile duct stent replacement, like so many others near their residence where COVID-19 was raging, he tested positive. Then too, I dared to hope. He was fully vaccinated. Vaccination rules out hospitalization and death, I consoled my aunt. Out of an abundance of caution, he was admitted to the hospital, where they could take care of him if he took a turn for the worse, given his vulnerable state. His first stint in the ICU left him scared. I learned later from a physician friend of ICU psychosis, where patients become disoriented and scared, and even hallucinate. After another day or two, when his blood oxygen levels dropped, he was taken back to the ICU. He did not want to go. He did not come out alive.
I have not felt this deep a grief since my mother died.
ICU. Ventilator. 10,000 miles. These are recurring words that raise anxiety and dread.
There is much rewinding and replaying when a loved one leaves us. Would s/he have lived if…? What if we had done this? What if that had been done earlier? Could we have stopped it somehow? This bitter churning of thoughts, regrets, pain and loss is one of the forms that grief takes. Grief also comes unexpectedly sometimes, triggered by a song, a smile, a photograph, a fragrance, a favorite food, a poem. It comes in waves for which we are unprepared.
So it goes on, with everyone we lose. And it seems our losses are mounting. As we grow older, and particularly with COVID.
When I last saw him, a few years ago, my uncle gifted me an embroidered kasavu sari. I have worn it twice so far. Once, to take my father for a long-promised tulabharam at the Vaikom Shiva Temple. And again this year, when my uncle was still alive, at an Onam gathering at my house in California. I will treasure it for the rest of my life.
My gentle aunt now faces a world without him, her constant companion and confidante. In the earlier days when his cancer was first diagnosed, she told me, she hoped for a few years. Then she hoped for a few months. In the final days in the hospital, she prayed fervently, she said, for one week. Just one week, when he could be home with his family. With her, his daughter and granddaughter. But that prayer was not granted.
To have left so many hearts filled with love and wanting more time with him, that is to have lived. Rest in peace, dearest Unnimaman. You lit up our world with your smile, laughter, jokes, playfulness and joyousness. You will be in our hearts forever.