Those He Left Behind
Saima Najib Chaudry
© Copyright 2022 by Saima Najib Chaudry
Photo by Izuddin Helmi Adnan courtesy of Unsplash.
I only met my uncle for two brief years. He was my father’s cousin. In the two brief years that I knew him, I witnessed him cry at least a dozen times. A mental health practitioner would sum it up as emotional dysregulation, but he cried because of some deep, unhealed wound or some silently guarded, shameful secret. Although my uncle was not very friendly, he was not an unkind man. He was quite unorthodox, unflinchingly stern in his mannerisms, yet he was perceptive to the discomfort and suffering of those around him. He led an unremarkable life. Nothing about it was spectacular. Yet amidst that mediocrity lay a heart that craved something more. He had a sacrificial spirit within him and lived for his siblings. He was not very confident but experienced fleeting moments of self-assurance. He rarely expressed his opinion but was fiercely adamant when he did. He was always inexplicably sad, forlorn, and seemed worn out. He suffered from torturous self-recrimination. His incessant clamouring for approval served as a strong contrast to his stark obliviousness to people. He appeared resigned to life yet lived in defiance of it. He seemed placid but was thoroughly discontented with life. If I could come up with two words to sum up my uncle, they would be grossly maladjusted.
Like all life journeys, my uncle’s life did not follow a linear trajectory. His life was precarious at its best and insanely chaotic at its worst. In effect, in retrospect my uncle’s life seems pretty uneventful. However, underlying his otherwise banal existence was a tormenting pain that whispered its way to his psyche and soul. In his mid-fifties, my uncle started experiencing moments of profound disorientation that sadly bled into hours, days, weeks and then months. He became catatonic, dangerously sleep-deprived and kept pacing back and forth in his room. He started mistrusting everyone and was eventually institutionalized in a public sector hospital. Almost two decades prior to his hospitalization, my uncle had been pursuing a graduate degree in Economics at one of the leading universities in the United States. However, he abandoned his degree mid-way when his mother passed away and came back home. He never went back to the States and never completed his degree. It was just another addition to his ever-expanding list of abandoned pursuits.
At the hospital, the psychiatrists could not trace the exact source of his delusions and paranoia. My uncle hated being confined to a ward populated by patients struggling with schizophrenia, schizoaffective, and delusional disorder. He believed he should not have been classified among them. Despite brief episodes of glaring madness at the hospital ward, my uncle complied with the medication, gradually started speaking and was eventually released after being committed for three months. I have always believed that there was a dark cloud of sadness that hovered over him long after his release. When he came back home, it seemed as if there was this ghost pain that haunted him. A part of him mourned and bewailed what was no longer there. To this date, the genesis of his profound mistrust and delusions remains uncertain. One plausible explanation could be that perhaps his brief altercation with insanity absolved him of his mistaken judgments, his perceived failures, and his abandoned pursuits. I never witnessed his brief encounter with mental illness first-hand so I can only speculate. I came to know about most of the details of his compromised mental state through accounts given to me by my parents.
I remember he once reluctantly confided in my father that there was a time when he could not sleep for months on end. This was two years after his institutionalization. He barely slept two, three hours at the most, over a period of four months or so. He claimed that there was this dense nocturnal chattering that kept him awake. Amidst the sleepless nights, the snail-paced, lonesome hours tormented him. However, since he didn’t want to be institutionalized again, his brother recommended that he go on a pilgrimage to Mecca. My uncle was hesitant at first, but later relented.
He later recounted that the pilgrimage was one of the best decisions he had ever made in his life. In the courtyard of Masjid al-Haram (The Great Mosque of Mecca), he slept for twelve uninterrupted hours—on the cold, light-greyish tiles of the mosque. He claimed that he felt like a baby that is severed from the womb and later reunited with the familiar, comforting embrace of its mother. He would recall the tranquility he experienced at The Great Mosque for years to come. However, the moments of blissful serenity experienced in Mecca rapidly vanished like quicksilver once he returned home. The intoxicating grief and sadness resurfaced when he returned to his empty, unkempt room—populated by aging bookshelves, dust-bound books, rusted doorknob, half-abandoned manuscripts, and cobwebs of confusion—that overshadowed his life. These were the ruined remnants of a life unlived. The books helped him stay distracted and kept his mind at bay from the recurrent replaying of tainted memories.
After the episode in Mecca, he cried profusely. In retrospect, I believe he cried because of those he left behind—his wife and three children. As the cliché goes, the phantom of abandonment always haunted him. He had abandoned his family and in turn felt abandoned by life. He left his family because his mother and siblings disapproved of his wife. He also left them because he lacked the courage to stand up for those he loved. He could never take a strong stance against his mother and siblings—they petrified him. He visited his wife and children once every ten years. Although my uncle was not a rich man, he owned some property. Nonetheless, his wife and children lived in abject poverty.
Remorse swallowed the prime of his life. He never forgave himself. At the age of sixty-one, he found himself unemployed and alone. He started complaining of perpetual shortness of breath. An elaborate physical examination followed by a biopsy revealed that he was suffering from lung cancer. The initial shock of the diagnosis lasted for a few weeks. He was never the same after that. He would often be found alone, crouched on the bed or in a corner—soundless sobs wracking his almost lifeless body—frail with aggressive rounds of chemotherapy. The illness consumed him and rendered him remotely recognizable. Cancer forced him to confront the images of those he left behind. He sought forgiveness from his wife and children. They felt sorry for him and believed that forgiveness was long overdue, considering how much he had endured and suffered silently, so they made their peace with him. But their forgiveness could not prevent him from slipping into the netherworld of martyred hopes, fractured dreams—the unlived life—a life webbed with anguish and indecision…a life continuously spent in obsessive rehashing of grievances.
In the last few months of his life, it seemed as if both his mind and heart were bruised irreparably. He suffered from unexplainable fears. He became petrified of water and didn’t bathe for weeks on end. He did not recover from hydrophobia nor from cancer. Two months shy of his sixty-second birthday, my uncle—my father’s namesake—passed away. He left with a broken heart—a heart that yawned for belonging and connection. In the end, there was no respite for him, no dénouement. He wanted a witness to his suffering but that compassionate, attentive, attuned witness never appeared. In the end it was too much for him to take.
He and I were not close, but I always cherished his presence. There are times when I wish I had consoled him—had offered him some kind of reassurance—but I was too young and self-absorbed to understand his pain. Perhaps, the hallmark of my uncle’s life was that he never resorted to self-deception. He never glossed over his mistakes or made excuses for the unfulfillment that shrouded his life. In the end, my uncle’s tragic life reminds me of a verse from Larkin’s poem entitled ‘’Deceptions’’— ‘’What can be said,/ Except that suffering is exact’’ (CP 41). When all is said and done, in the end, my uncle was the ‘’less deceived’’ (CP 41). *
*Larkin, Philip. The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin. Edited by Archie Burnett, Faber and Faber, 2014.