25 years ago yesterday, on the 28th June 1995, a man who I had never met passed away as the sun began to dawn. Sajjad Hussein Rashid, my father’s younger and only brother, fought a long battle with cancer and had celebrated his 22nd birthday only twelve days earlier, knowing full well that the hour of passing was near.
I would love for this piece to be a elegy to him, but the reality is that I know very little about him. My family very rarely speak in any depth about my uncle, and I have only ever seen one picture of him, a blurry still taken some time during the late ’80s in the living room of my grandparents’ house in Birmingham, the same house in which I spent the first 8 years of my life. We would visit my uncle’s grave almost every week, and every time I would read the two dates carved on the immaculate alabaster headstone and each time calculate anew exactly how old he was when he passed. For a young child, it is very difficult to conceptualise someone who you have never met. To my imagination, my uncle was not quite a distinct person, simply a beautiful headstone, bracketed by two distant dates.
So, for a very long time, my uncle existed in my mind not as a man who was lost far too young, but as an addendum to my father, almost an impersonal happenstance in my dad’s life which shaped him into the man I would come to know. Of course, having never met my father before my own birth, I can’t tell you exactly what he was like then, but I think it is no cliche to say that a part of him was probably buried with his younger brother. A pure, silent pall of sorrow descends whenever my uncle is mentioned, a reminder of how unbearable the vicissitudes of life can be.
Whenever I was young, and would calculate the age at which my uncle died by the dates on his headstone, I would of course arrive at 22. When one is quite young, even up to eighteen or nineteen years old, the idea of being 22 seems impossibly distant, and so it never emotionally struck me how young my uncle was when he passed. I only very recently realised that when he was the same age I am now, 21 years and 5 months, my uncle knew that his cancer had spread to an incurable extent (my father always likens the final scan, which revealed how the bone cancer that had originated in my uncle’s leg had metastasised into pockets all around his chest, to ‘a constellation’). I feel like I’ve been slapped awake after many years of abstraction, and now face an unbearable and inexorable reckoning with the fact that my uncle, a living breathing person who looked like me and felt like me and was loved by all the people who love me most, died when he was impossibly young. There are no two ways about it. He was alive and on this earth and then he was not.
At the time my uncle died, my father was engaged to be married to the woman who would become my mother. This was an arranged marriage, and so my mother only met my uncle once, in early 1995. He was happy that day, I’m told, in the knowledge that his older brother would soon be married and have children and be happy. Can you imagine that? Being 21 years old, and thinking of a future that you knew wouldn’t include you, the thought of nieces and nephews you would never meet? Even more, knowing that you now wouldn’t ever be able to find love yourself? (I’ve never plucked up the courage to ask if my uncle ever had found someone he had fallen for. It’s born of denial, because the thought of him passing away without having loved someone is so beyond crushing that I can’t bear the possibility of it being confirmed). I am 21, and the thought of it is as alien to me as Homo neanderthalensis or the Large Magellanic Cloud. Every single iota of a human life is, by definition, spent alive. Dying (or the more philosophically controversial idea of ‘being dead’) is fundamentally unknown to us. This is compounded by the atheistic zeitgeist, where the comfort of religion is not close to hand for many of us (I have refrained from talking about my own religious views here; they’re not held by the vast majority of people I know and will only alienate readers).
I’m won’t finish this with something uplifting, partly because I don’t think that does the topic justice and partly because I don’t know if I have the philosophical or emotional capacity to glean anything but dumb, senseless pain from all this.