Embers and ashes

Not a week ago, an uncle of mine died very suddenly, in a hospital where he was being treated for a fall. He had been weak for some time, but his death was nonetheless a shock. He was joking with the nurses at 7 p.m. on a monday night; a half hour later, his heart gave out and he couldn’t be resuscitated at all. The details (and the full extent of) his ill health came later: the official cause of death was ischaemic heart disease, a ticking time bomb that was simply waiting to happen.

My aunt – his widow – and the woman whom we know as Aunt D, had a hard time processing it all.

We all did. 

We called him Uncle Fat as we grew up, because he was somewhat large in the stomach and drove a VW van around in Back To the Future style. Back then, he was formidable…and irritating, commenting on how much weight we would have gained or lost depending on the seasons and the time he saw us. He cycled everywhere he could go after he retired, visited his sister’s house religiously only to mow their lawn and boasted in his healthy living and the strict routine of boiled chicken breast, rice and bread that he ingested daily. The bizarre slant to his personality only grew worse as he aged and it wasn’t long before adjectives like ‘weird’ and ‘paranoid’ started to be inadequate to describe his hypochondria and his multiple buying of items like pencil cases, shoulder bags, toilet rolls and cans of spam. He hoarded plastic bags, then gave them away in bulk, built a shelf for his medical files that he proudly displayed and blasted his retro collection of DVD concerts at everyone who came by.

Our occasional visits to his house simply displayed just how much he’d degenerated in his growing paranoia: there were rants against the government, clothes all over the floor and a brand new plasma tv set, in addition to one that he already had. His wife had long been pushed to the sidelines and I’d felt terribly dismayed for her. She’d been our guardian as we grew up and it’s her kindness and gentle personality that had allowed this to happen.

Uncle Fat and Aunt D kept separate quarters. Their marriage had stagnated a long time ago and they were more roommates than anything, tolerating each other as time went on and as their house deteriorated under Uncle Fat’s shenanigans.

It wasn’t our place to say anything.

In the meantime, we kept on feeling sorry for Aunt D and endeavoured to spend as much time with her as we could as she aged as well and went around merrily leading her own life.

Yet when Uncle Fat died so suddenly, nothing still quite prepared me for it: the shock that reverberated through the night, palpable from the glazed eyes ringed with dark circles of the people who cared for and knew Uncle Fat. Aunt D has been a constant presence in the hospital by his side, up until the wee hours of the morning and hadn’t said a word until he died, thereby adding to our shock.

All she knew, that very night his heart couldn’t be revived, was that he wanted everything simple and literally took his words to heart: to be dressed in a singlet and his briefs in the coffin and thereafter, to have his ashes scattered at sea. Some gentle persuasion by my cousin and she finally relented, opting for a shirt and shorts to dress the body in instead.

At the wake, I’d met his side of the family for the first time, horrified at how ‘normal’ and nice they were compared to him. In fact, they were one of the nicest groups I’d ever met, taking upon themselves the burden of doing the bulk of the funeral prep work and the costs, leaving us to hold Aunt D’s suddenly fragile hands. We were still unsure, how to mourn this caricature of an uncle, who had been so difficult to live with, and was likeable only from a far distance.


We met again on the day we were to take a boat out to scatter his ashes and the whole affair suddenly felt like a family outing. There was black humour all around; we laughed at all the jokes – told in the same shade of humour that Uncle Fat used to have – his family made and inadvertently somehow made his final journey a hilarious one. The boat went out and hugged the coastline, taking us strangely near the place where he lived and loved. We threw flowers, lowered the box of bones and took videos of it all.

Maybe Uncle Fat would have approved.

But in the aftermath, it’s time again to turn to the living. The clean up begins, the mourning – perhaps for Aunt D – begins. Uncle Fat hasn’t even been a week dead. Aunt D’s house still looks like a bomb had exploded in it.

I can’t wrap my head around it still.

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