A year ago last Saturday, my uncle died. It was just weeks after celebrating his 60th birthday, and very sudden. I haven't talked about it very much since then, because every time I tried, I needed to stop to keep myself from breaking down in public. Composing this today in my head, I more or less kept it together, so here goes.
My uncle, who I called Sekar Mama was my mother's brother (technically, her double-cousin - their fathers were brothers and their mothers were sisters), and she loved him in ways that are difficult to express. She doted on him, she looked up to him, and she mothered him. When we lost him, she took it the hardest of anybody, and even today, I doubt a day goes by where she doesn't miss him.
He was the first one of our family to move to America, and besides my immediate family, he was probably the relative I saw most often growing up. He was often abrasive and rude, but he had one of the keenest minds and the kindest hearts of anybody I knew. So much of me was shaped by him - my sense of humor, my sense of intellectual honesty, and my capacity for critical thought would all be very different without him - besides my parents, he was the largest adult influence on my life.
When we heard, my mother went to Florida to see him, to make arrangements and generally to say goodbye. A couple days later, I joined her, and together we saw the people who he knew, and who knew him. Everybody there loved him, though they all were occasionally frustrated by him. He moved seamlessly between strata of society, circles of interest, and managed to make friends wherever he went. While we were there, I felt compelled for some reason to pore through the stuff of his life and grab those keepsakes that I could, so for two days, any time I wasn't helping my mother, I was either slogging through his un-air conditioned house or his un-air conditioned storage unit in the 90+ degree Florida humidity, excavating for those things we could keep to remember him. I have a suitcase in my apartment now filled with those things, and my mother has another. I don't think either of us has been able to go through those things yet.
Anyway, this isn't as articulate as I would like, but I needed to finally put it out there, if only to say it "out loud" for you guys to hear. I'll end it with this: I spoke at the service, and I think that what I said then probably still best reflects how I feel:
Most of you knew my uncle as Ish, but to me he was always Sekar Mama - "mama" means mother's brother. Sekar Mama was our only relative in the U.S. growing up, and those times when I got to see him were always some of my favorites. Whenever he visited or accompanied us on a family trip, life always seemed to be more interesting, and more fun. He always seemed to be on my wavelength - a little childish, a little mischievous, and always showering his nieces and nephews with pure affection. His joy for life was infectious, and even the most staid onlookers were always drawn into his fervor. When he was in a room, it was never quiet -- he always had a joke or anecdote to tell, and he was always laughing (often at his own jokes and anedotes). I have never known anybody else who always had something interesting to say for any occasion. I last saw him at my wedding, three months ago. Even then, he was the life and soul of the party, and his joy at the occasion only amplified our own, and those of all our guests.
Sekar Mama was more than an uncle - he was a teacher, a counselor, a mentor, and a friend. From him more than anyone, I learned the importance of real critical thinking, keeping an open mind, and tolerance and acceptance of other viewpoints. He never subscribed to a philosophy or adhered to dogma - every opinion he had (and those who knew him know how many he had) was carefully reasoned and, more amazing still, he was one of those precious few for whom a persuasive argument could change his mind.
To everyone who knew him, he was a force for good - as adept at enlightening with his wisdom as he was at lightening the mood with a joke. He was taken from us too soon -- too many stories still untold, too many plans still unrealized. Today, the world is seems a bit dimmer without his smile in it, it sounds a bit duller without his laugh, but all of us who were touched by him were enriched by our time with him. I hope he has found his enlightenment, but I am going to miss my mama.