My uncle didn’t deserve to die.
It’s close to 2 AM and I’m finally getting down to penning an urgent document. I open the Word file, and all the collected references, and begin.
“Patients with cirrhosis are at a high risk of developing bacterial infections. They present recurrently to the hospital with life-threatening conditions.”
I come to a halt. My fingers hover over the keyboard, unsure. I don’t need all these articles to tell me this. I know. Now I know.
I’ve heard that my grandmother was considered barren for a great many years before my uncle was born. Ten years, to be exact. They visited famous temples and prayed to umpteen gods before she finally wore him in her womb. I’ve heard how he was a charming boy in their village – fair, handsome, well-mannered, quiet-spoken. Everyone thought he was worth the wait.
My grandmother was thought to have turned barren again after his birth. My mother arrived twelve years later to prove them wrong.
My grandfather was rapidly ageing by then. He wasn’t ready to be father again; so my uncle took his place. He pampered his little sister, gave in to her every wish and never let her want for anything. One day, when their parents were away, the back of her little frock stained with blood for the first time. He ran down to the town and came back with a cover of sanitary pads and a long piece of cloth. When she came in wearing the the newly stitched big-girl skirt, he picked her up by the waist, stood her on the dining table and kissed her forehead.
And when the little sister had a little girl of her own, he treated her like a princess. He held the tiny baby in his chubby arms in their frontyard and showed her off to the early morning sun. He bought her a doll that slept with its eyes closed as it lay near her, and accompanied her in her dreams. She would blush and squirm as he recounted her talents, her marks, her brilliance to everyone who listened. He travelled miles with a birthday cake every year, even after she grew too old to be blowing candles, because the shop at his town baked the best ones. And when she stained her dress for the first time, he brought enough sweets to feed a village, and an exorbitant silk skirt embroidered with fine golden thread.
If there is one thing that I would never forgive my father for, it’s introducing my uncle to alcohol. He was too naive, too soft. He was the fair, handsome, well-mannered school boy; he wasn’t a callused ruffian to survive its onslaught.
I remember the days they would slip quietly into my room as the rest of us played in the hall; how they would pretend that we couldn’t know of the quiet clinking glasses. I remember laughing at the way they behaved when caught. I remember feeling clever that I knew exactly where the bottle of brandy was hidden in my cupboard. I don’t remember ever thinking of asking him to stop. Maybe he would have, if I had asked. Only, I didn’t know it at the time. I didn’t know what happened to well-mannered boys when they started playing with ruffians. I didn’t know he could get hurt.
By the time I reached my first year of medical school, he had started developing symptoms. I progressed through my classes, and unknown to me, he deteriorated into a wretched being. He joked over the phone about how he would present as a patient for my final year, that he could be my exam case. I think I laughed. I didn’t know. I think Mother mentioned hospitals and lab reports from time to time. I think she mentioned that the that they were selling off property to pay for the medicines. That his elder son, my cousin, left his education half way to take care of him. I was in college, surrounded by friends. I didn’t really pay attention. I didn’t know. I think I didn’t know.
My last memory of him is a large man swaying at the bottom of the stairs, smiling on a high, and talking to me in slurred tones. I was just about to enter my final year, and home for a few days, meeting him after a very long time. He laughed and told me I could practise on him for my final exams. His fair flawless face was now a dark mess of ailment, sagging prematurely – porphyria and lipodystrophy . His abdomen was distended – ascites. His legs were like two large pillars and the way the skin looked… – long standing pedal edema. Some part of my brain kept ticking off everything I had learnt in my textbooks, even as I looked on in horror, unable to find my uncle in the person in front me.
He didn’t make it to my final exams. I got the call early one morning, and I remember feeling nothing. Not on my 8 hour cab ride home for the funeral. Not when I watched my red-eyed cousins follow someone’s instructions regarding the rituals while holding back tears. Not when I watched my grandmother break down at the feet of her first-born. Not when my mother hugged me and wept like the world ended.
I remember telling myself how this was better. The mounting debts, his son’s broken education, my aunt’s incessant tears – it was better that he died than lived on as a ghost of his previous self.
Seven years later, I stare at the screen of a random assignment and sob uncontrollably into the night.