Blank Spaces

On loss, grief, and mourning the unseen

I don’t auto-save videos on WhatsApp. Years of watching “lad” behaviour in groups has taught me to keep pictures and videos on manual download. So when Dad shared a video last month, I downloaded it thinking it would be something to do with IPL or tennis.

It was Uncle A -- more about him in a bit -- hobbling, with helpers holding him on each side. The anguish in his eyes and the creases under them were visible through the screen. Watching him struggle like that felt like a loop of bare-fisted punches on my chest.

A couple of months back, he lost his mother to Covid. In the hours after, when I last spoke to him, he seemed to be dealing with it alright. The following day, he was hit by a stroke that temporarily paralysed the entire right side of his body.

Walking four steps has become too physically taxing for the man who once trekked to the Everest base camp because he was bored. Up until the onset of the pandemic, Uncle A averaged about 5-6 kilometres of steady jogging every other day. At 57, he had the physique of a pro footballer. His evenings were spent listening to Jethro Tull with a glass of whisky and a plate of kebabs that he had cooked. He once rang me up to say “That natural minor chord you played on this track, make it a minor sixth. It will sound better.” You could be Bruce Wayne and Freddie Mercury mixed into one body; you still wouldn’t be as cool as him.

In 2019, while I was vomiting 6 kilograms of weight out in Ladakh, he hand-held my diet through the phone to get me fit for the marathon I went there for. He was the first person I texted after crossing the finish line. 

Uncle A is, by some distance, my favourite elder.

This week, Dad shared another piece of news. Uncle A is selling his house in Shimla. He used the hills for trekking practice and sees no way back to the mountains for the foreseeable future. In a way, this felt even worse than the video. The first was a visual confirmation, but this was his spiritual acceptance that he is done.

It is an odd kind of loss, where you only lose an idea rather than a physical presence, but the strength of emotion is just as strong. Because it is so difficult to define, it has become just as difficult to process. Is it okay to feel this level of heartache for a malfunctioning nervous system? Or am I feeling this too strongly because he is someone I care about?

The last few months have brought most of us face to face with mortality. Just the other day, I was joking with a friend that the count of known faces I have lost this year have reached tennis score levels. Six dead, two in the ICU. Seven dead, six infected.

Over this time, I have been trying to understand death and mortality. I am not the religious kind, so my questions are more existential. In death, do you lose different things with different people? And are those things basically an extension of your favourite idea of them?

When I lost my grandfather in 2017, I didn’t mourn as much for the smiling face which turned into a stick figure as much as I did for the raspy voice that brought me up. It turns out, voice is the first thing we forget in loss. Thankfully, I still have a vivid, albeit fading, memory of how Grandad sounded.

When a distant younger relative succumbed to the virus last month, I thought of her physical presence. She was impossible to beat at football or table tennis; and had more toned muscles on her upper arms than should be legal. When we were younger, we thought of her as the future India athlete who would get all of us on TV.

Uncle A is well alive, and I couldn’t be more grateful that the post-traumatic stroke didn’t turn fatal. One day, he will hopefully be able to walk around and cook. That said, I am not able to shake off the feeling that a door has been shut. A significant part of his life, and some part of my life, by extension, is now a vacuum.

Is it normal to look at a grainy phone video and mourn blank spaces?