I don’t know how to do it.
I don’t know how to understand a world that no longer has Uncle Pethro in it.
It’s not that I’m overwhelmed with grief at his passing. Losing my mother eight years ago shifted my perspective on death and dying. So, I am sad, I am heartbroken, I am bereft, but I am not in pieces.
Still, the journey of saying a final goodbye to someone who has been a constant fixture in my life is difficult. Coming to terms with the impact his loss has on others is even more fraught with emotions.
The formal obituary tells the story of Uncle Pethro’s life and outlines the legacies of his accomplishments, achievements, and successes. It pays tribute to his extended and extensive family and honours the woman who stood by his side over six decades, matching him stride for stride over the years, my Aunt Madge.
But who was this man to me?
My mother’s first cousin and one of her best friends. Uncle Pethro and my mom shared a bond that helped each of them triumph over the reality of being outsiders. Others consigned them to the margins. They asserted their right to be at and in the centre. They made sure they were seen, heard, and recognized without compromising what they stood for and who they wanted to be. They did not accept the spaces others relegated them to and forged their own paths, carved out more imaginative lives, lived bigger stories than the ones others wrote for them.
Uncle Pethro was the man who would say, “Let me look at you!” even if you were standing right in front of him. He didn’t just want to see the face you presented to the world, he wanted to see the essence of who you were on the inside.
He was also the man with the all-consuming embrace. The man whose arms would wrap around you and make you feel protected, invincible, and treasured.
He was the man whose voice echoed in the room, whose voice was deep, resonant, and full. And — I say this with love — it’s a voice you heard often and at length because he loved to pontificate! He wanted to dig out the complexities of life, to talk about its nuances, to sort out its chaotic randomness at the same time that he could be rude, crude, and indelicate.
He was the man who had a pride of place. He loved Jamaica, the land of his birth, in all its contradictions, even if it was the home he had to leave to find the space to be free and to become the man he wanted to be.
He was generous, caring, and thoughtful, opening his doors, at home and at work, to a diversity of folk. He and Aunt Madge entertained well and often, and they set a standard as hosts that is difficult to achieve, and essential to emulate.
We all forgave Uncle Pethro his bombastic nature because underneath it all beat a passionate, life-full, and cheery heart.
Until it didn’t.
Ultimately, it was Uncle Pethro’s body that stopped working with him and started to work against him, that whittled away at him.
He was stalwart throughout each health crisis that battered him. His physical strength and mental toughness, along with Aunt Madge’s love, diligence, and care, carried him further and for longer than seemed possible.
When I moved to Toronto in 1986, Uncle Pethro and Aunt Madge welcomed me into their home and made sure I never felt alone in the vastness of the city or lost in the gulf of the choice I had made when I left home.
They saw me through the ups and downs of my time in that city, celebrated with me when things went well and consoled me when they did not. We shared food, drink, and conversation. We built a bond that transcended the familial connection. That feeling of being a part of each other’s lives became even stronger after I returned to Vancouver and our visits, because of the distance, became occasional rather than frequent.
Having spent the last few days in Toronto with Aunt Madge and the family, I’ve been reflecting on the past and ruminating on the future. Now I’m sitting here in seat 2B on Porter Air, Flight 309, surrounded by strangers, high above the clouds, and anxious to get home. I’m trying to make the pictures in my mind, of the vibrant, vital person I knew and loved, more animated and I’m fighting the way I feel that they are blurring and ebbing already. I’m trying to understand this new world that has lost that singular gravelly voice, that strong embrace, that hearty appetite, that appreciation for beauty, and that gift of laughter.
It’s not about making a saint out of my Uncle Pethro or remembering him as a paragon of virtue. It’s about knowing to love him as the man that he was.
Because if there’s anything I’ve learned from the years of being in Uncle Pethro’s company, is that to be human is divine even if we are flawed and our lives are finite.
To understand this world without Uncle Pethro is to understand that it was better with him in it, and that it will still be good because he was once a part of my mornings and my days, my nights, my years, my joys and my sorrows.
I will remember him.
Rest in peace Uncle Pethro.
We shared a birthday.
Auntie Laila and me.
And every year, when March 29th rolled around, I would call her, or she would call me.
This year marks the final such exchange.
Auntie Laila died yesterday.
Just as her personality was larger than life, the impact she had on me is much larger than the quantifiable amount of time that we spent in each other’s company.
We’re also part of an extended family in a culture where the furthest relation is as close as your brother or your sister, your mother or your father.
Auntie Laila was married to my Uncle Ed who is in fact my paternal grandfather’s first cousin.
That gives you a sense of how distant we are from one another on the family tree.
However, when it comes to human connection, closeness defies measurement. You cannot measure love in metres, centimetres, and kilometres or miles, inches, and yards.
When it comes to family, to those we love, distance is only every measured in heartbeats, thoughts, and dreams. If you think of a person, then they are with you. If you dream of a person, then they are with you. And when such a person dies, they never leave you.
The strength of the tie between Aunt Laila, her daughter Medina, my mother, and my sisters can be traced to a particular time and place.
We were living in Beirut in the early 1970s when Aunt Laila and Medina came to visit. In my memories, my father wasn’t there. He worked in Kuwait and was typically home for only one week every month or so.
This must have been one of the times he was away. The task of entertaining and touring fell to my Mom who at the time drove a red, four-door Peugeot. We crammed into the car, all six of us, for whichever excursion Mom and Auntie Laila had dreamt up. We would pass the time in conversation, laughter, and with music. In particular, a song.
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine …”
Whether careening around the streets of Beirut or driving up to Karoun, the family village in the Bekaa Valley, we’d sing loudly and exuberantly with Auntie Laila leading the choir as the minutes ticked by on the clock and the kilometres of asphalt flowed under the tires.
“You make me happy when skies are gray …”
From that point on, Auntie Laila and my mother were sisters and whenever they were together they would gossip, they would giggle, they would laugh out loud. They supported one another, they travelled together, and they cooked for everyone.
When Mom died in 2015, Auntie Laila was unable to travel to Vancouver for the celebration of life, but she was in that room with us all.
She was there.
Knowing that Auntie Laila’s illness was advancing, and with the loss of another family matriarch that year, I was overwhelmed with the need to see her.
To hug her. To hear her say “Ya aini, ya habibti…”. My eyes, a profound endearment in Arabic, my dear one.
So, Luc and I did just that. We went to see Auntie Laila.
We embarked on a three-week road trip that took us from Vancouver to Kamloops, Jasper, Grande Prairie, Edmonton, Calgary, Lake Louise, Kelowna, and back home. At many stops along the way, we spent time with friends and family members. And in Grande Prairie, we caught up with Auntie Laila and the many relatives there.
It was magical.
“You’ll never know dear, how much I love you
Please don’t take my sunshine away …”
The last time I saw Auntie Laila in person was early December 2019.
I had suggested to my father that we visit Grande Prairie because the one truth that we continue to forget and have to relearn is that life — no matter how much we try to wrestle it to the ground — is random and change can come suddenly even when it seems like we will have forever. The toll of age and illness is never predictable. The time to go and see, to stop and call, to visit and reminisce is always now although it is not often feasible to follow through on such intentions and desires.
We were lucky enough to make plans and to act on them.
Dad and I travelled to Grande Prairie. As he challenged Uncle Ed to consecutive games of crib, I sat on the couch in the family room or in the living room and Auntie Laila sat in her chair. We would chat or not, we watched the Christmas movies playing on the television, or not. It didn’t really matter. What mattered is I could look up and see that she was there. I could smile at her, I could hug her, I could say, “I love you.”
The last time I saw Auntie Laila was just a few weeks ago on March 14th during a Zoom call that gathered households together from around the world to celebrate a number of family milestones.
Auntie Laila didn’t say anything, and she may not have quite understood what all the fuss was about, but just to see her made me tear up because while it felt as if she were in the room with me, she was so very far away.
“The other night dear, as I lay sleeping
I dreamt I held you in my arms …”
And now the connection has been disrupted.
There is comfort in the idea of Auntie Laila at peace, or more accurately — as my cousin Medina said to me on the phone today — she is somewhere cooking, shopping, laughing, gossiping, and partying up a storm with Alma, Haifa, Maza, and Yulanda among so many others.
It is, however, a cold comfort because the void she leaves behind is immense. It is now a distance that we will all only be able to traverse in our dreams, in our memories, and in our hearts.
In the stories we share with one another, over the years to come, of a woman who meant so very much to each and every one of us.
“But when I awoke, dear, I was mistaken
So I hung my head and I cried.”