In life, my uncle taught me to scale walls. With his death, I learnt to tear them down
Say what you need to say while people still care to listen
I was asked to leave my uncle’s funeral because I couldn’t stop giggling. As my family stood in a line outside the cemetery, I dissolved into hiccups of laughter, interrupting the procession of mourners delivering their “heartfelt sympathies” and “deepest condolences”. The grief that I didn’t understand had alchemized into a wholly unacceptable form, leading to my unceremonious expulsion.
Ten minutes later, I saw my cousin being escorted by a family member to join me in the naughty corner. He was laughing too.
T. Melvyn (short for Tio, uncle in Portuguese) was the Peter Pan of my childhood. My father’s youngest brother, he was a larger-than-life character who dominated summer vacations and weekends at my grandmother’s home. He was lanky with a wide smile and comically large glasses that made it look like he was watching you from the other side of a goldfish bowl.
T. Melvyn taught us to climb trees, an invaluable skill if you’re serious about hide-and-seek. He encouraged us to roughhouse with dogs and play with bugs, not to be afraid of dirt and mud and stained clothes. He fed us ghost stories as part of our nightly diet. He invented unlimited adventures for his gaggle of nieces and nephews, and unlike the other adults, never seemed too busy for us.
Which is why I couldn’t wrap my brain around the idea that he had died. Of course it was a mistake — T. Melvyn wasn’t being lowered into the earth in a wooden box, he was hiding in the boran tree waiting for us to find him. It didn’t help that most of the adults barely showed any emotion. Even my grandmother sat by his coffin at the wake like an iron pole keeping the roof from crumbling over our heads. I imagine that’s exactly how she felt.
At the time, there were so many moments I didn’t understand. Why T.Melvyn never participated in family events, always deferring invitations to birthdays no matter how much we pleaded. Why the kids would be asked to leave the room so the adults could launch into shouting matches that seemed to last for hours. Why he wasn’t allowed to enter my house.
Later, I realised that my beloved uncle had lost a battle to addiction, the same disease that had claimed his father. But we didn’t receive a formal explanation for his cause of death, because we never had a real, honest conversation about the choices — his and ours — that led there. The truth trickles out in spurts and gasps: a stray story from my grandmother here, an anecdote from my mother, a photo shared on our ‘Cousins’ Whatsapp group.
I’m sure they thought they were protecting us, preserving the joyful memories so we wouldn’t have to contend with the messy ones. But the truth is, like many Indian families, ours doesn’t believe in being vulnerable or talking straight. Feelings are sieved and refined until they’re palatable enough to be digested without Eno. If someone has taken issue with something you’ve said or done, you’ll almost never have them say it to your face. It’ll be delivered via an ombudsman. Float to you as a rumour. Or be served cold and calculated, a few years later in the middle of a totally different conversation.
After he died, my aunt discovered a collection of poems he’d written. It was a revelation — first, that he had it in him. And second, for the way he felt. He’d written one for every sibling, and one for his nieces and nephews, admitting he’d “squandered, wandered and wasted my years, no one’s to blame, so don’t be in tears.”
In his poem to my father, I saw snatches of their contentious relationship, how an “awful foe” turned “true brother”. He wrote, “the troubles, the pain and all that you endured, was the reason that I’m now cured.” Through his battle with addiction, my uncle had suffered multiple relapses, each one further fracturing his mind and his relationships with his family.
He couldn’t have seen the final one coming when he wrote this. And my dad, having already lived the future the poem failed to predict, didn’t put much stock in it. He told me the only poem with any merit was the one written for my cousins and me, where T. Melvyn prayed we would learn from his mistakes.
My dad was right. There was a lesson to be learnt from those scraps of paper. It was in the fact that my uncle had so much to confess, a whirl of self-doubt, regret and unexpressed gratitude inside him, but no easy way to say it out loud, and be heard. He was gone before he could apologise, before they had a chance to forgive him. What good is a book of poems if you can’t hug your own brother and tell him you’re sorry?
It’s been 22 years since T. Melvyn passed, and the edges of my memories are fading like old postcards left out in the rain. I have to concentrate and squeeze my eyes shut to conjure up his voice. I no longer remember his particular scent, but I’d like to think he smelled of ripe mangoes, the way his room did in the summer.
Post mortem, we tend to romanticise those we’ve lost, sanitise their memories so as not to be accused of speaking ill of the dead. My uncle’s battle with addiction took an irreparable toll on his family, yet we never discuss it. We don’t visit his grave, don’t swap stories at Christmas, and never share our regrets about his last moments. This won’t save us from repeating history, just like his own father’s death didn’t deter him. I doubt it will change the way my generation feels about him either.
The only thing this omerta does is prevent us from seeing my uncle, or our parents, as fully human, flaws and all. From being open and vulnerable with those who matter. From sitting in the discomfort of unpleasant moments to face our own inadequacies while accepting someone else’s. Saying what we need to say while people still care to listen.
“It’s hard to read those poems now,” says my sister, a trained psychologist, when I ask her if this piece will result in me being jettisoned off the family tree for good. “They’re so obviously a cry for help.”
The two of us are comfortable unpacking our mental health struggles with each other. We laugh about silly memories and shared trauma, occasionally aiming for each other with harsh truths and barbed arrows. I know her faults and she knows mine. We fight and make up like siblings should, confident in the belief that no battle could be so bloody we can’t find our way back to each other. It’s the best homage to T.Melvyn’s memory I can think of.
My uncle was a bright light within a dark cloud. I didn’t need him to be one or the other to love and accept him. I was hardly his favourite — maybe I was too annoying, too young, reminded him too much of my dad. But I have a feeling he’d probably understand me better than anyone, with our shared distaste for formality and convention. He’d have been a better uncle to my niece and nephews than I am an aunt. And I’m pretty sure he’d still have them foxed at a game of hide-and-seek, even without the help of a 20-foot-tall boran tree.