My uncle passed away a few days ago. He was 50.
When he died, everyone thought he had overdosed. Yes, Uncle Ghani was an addict. Rumour had it he died in his bed and his decomposed body was only found days later. Nobody was surprised to hear of how he died – once a drug addict, always a drug addict, right?
Uncle Ghani was the youngest among eight siblings. He was born when my mom was twelve. Mom was very close to Uncle Ghani. But by the time he turned eight, mom had got married and left home. So did the others – if not married, they were out working and had very little time for him.
Uncle Ghani pretty much grew up alone. My grandpa, being a street typist, spent most of his time with his typewriter outside the Penang High Court. And my grandma supported the family making sweet coconut apam, string hoppers and tosai – she was in her kitchen from 5am to 11pm every day. Everyone was busy. No one had any time, or made any time for my uncle.
Not having anyone to depend on, Uncle Ghani’s studies suffered – he wasn’t any good at reading and writing – and that made my grandpa even angrier and embarrassed.
As a teenager, my uncle befriended the “wrong” kind of friends. He kept his hair long, stayed out late and seldom came home. Anyway no one was available to give him the advice, attention or love that he needed – and every time he got into a mess, everyone would scold him, highlighting his many flaws.
That was how my uncle’s relationship with his family deteriorated – he was always seen as “not good enough”.
Then my grandma passed away. She was only 53. The smoke she inhaled all those years of making appam killed her. I remember that day clearly – everyone was crying, including Uncle Ghani. That was the first time I saw him cry. His face was red but he did not look sad. He looked furious. He had lost his mother without having had the opportunity to experience her love.
A few months after grandma’s passing, we heard that Uncle Ghani was caught by the police for drug possession. From his lock-up, my uncle cried for help from his family. But even after he got out, his heart was still imprisoned. He had to endure tormenting words from his family and relatives about what a disappointment he had turned out to be.
Soon, my grandpa too passed away. That’s when my uncle’s addiction kicked-in in a big way. He was in and out of prison. Spending months and years on end in Pusat Serenti for rehabilitation. But every time he was released, there was always some other addiction he picked up. Heroine, glue, alcohol, women.
Uncle Ghani pretty much lived a solitary life from then onwards. Every now and then, I would catch glimpses of him in the streets of Penang – sometimes he would be a parking attendant, sometimes he’d be washing cars. While he continued as the black sheep of the family, he pretty much lived his life alone, without depending on anyone or troubling anyone in the family again.
Sitting at one of Uncle Ghani’s prayer sessions after his funeral, the truth of his death finally reached my ears. He did not overdose – in fact, he had been free of drugs for quite some time. This came as a surprise to many of us in the family who thought his addiction was beyond curable.
Trying to start a new chapter in life, my uncle was given a break by a stranger who saw potential in him. Uncle Ghani was given a room, a good job and a decent salary as the caretaker of a gym in Campbell Street, Penang. For years, he worked for the Chinese taukeh and built his own family among his gym friends.
However my uncle fell ill due to a viral infection. In his last days, he suffered from a prolonged fever and took time to rest in bed. After a few days, he returned to work but upon a few minutes on the treadmill, he fell to the floor, clutching his chest in pain. Like the life he lived alone, he was also alone in death.
I have often wondered what went through his mind those last moments of his life.
While many of us in the family still saw him as a drug addict, strangers began to step forward, telling us tales about his good heart and the kindness he showered on others. Even the cost of Uncle Ghani’s funeral and the prayer sessions that followed were covered by his newfound “friends” who loved him for the person he was.
As I dwell on my memories of Uncle Ghani, my prayer is that every child and teenager not be shunned by others because of their flaws, but loved and cared for despite their flaws. I pray that we can find it in ourselves to be more forgiving and more accepting of one another. I pray those strangers who showered my uncle with love when our family failed to do so, be blessed by the Almighty.
Everyone who make mistakes in life also has so much good in them. If only we can open our hearts to show some love and kindness without any expectations, there would be more happy souls in this world.
Al-Fatihah to you, Uncle Ghani. I am sorry for not being there for you. -FMT