Last night, KitKat Uncle passed away after a short but intense battle with cancer.
I’ve had many nicknames for my uncles as a child. There was UNO Uncle, the Bass Uncle, the Aloof Arab Uncle, the Lazy Eye Uncle, the Taxi Uncle (before I knew there were taxi uncles); all the fatherly male characters that had taught me and watched over me and entertained me as I grew up.
But the passing of UNO Uncle and Aloof Arab Uncle were unlike the passing of KitKat Uncle, which I felt the most grief for when I received a Whatsapp from my cousin close to midnight that he had gone. The intensity of my grief I found very disturbing considering that I had only met him a few times in the past seven or eight years and our relationship of late was sporadic at best.
In that time, I had met him once or twice with my ex-husband and the third and final time in a hospital ward at Singapore General Hospital when he was already undergoing cancer treatment. Even stepping into the ward was such a challenge for me. The waterworks came voluntarily when I approached his bed and sat down next to him: this withered shadow of the robust and humorous and generous man I knew as a child. I spent 10 minutes in tears and in silence, not daring to wake him up from his sleep because I thought that he needed the rest and knowing that I would burst into tears in the most unglamorous manner only because it was hard to believe the cadaver that cancer had reduced this man to was actually my KitKat Uncle.
Vintage 1980s KitKat bar
Only 40 minutes into the visit I had dared pull his blanket over a twitching socked foot; when he stirred and opened his eyes and recognised me, we started talking. When he asked me to help him to sit up so that he could talk to me, he was almost his usual self again, and for those precious moments I harboured hope that he would recover from his illness.
Tonight, I couldn’t sleep even after petting my cat and the usual routine of antihistamines, water and a late night comedy show. When I lay down to sleep, my fiancé asked me what was wrong and the first thing that I said was, “KitKat Uncle had died.”
And just hearing me say these words to him in the stillness and darkness that was the bedroom made me realise my grief was so thick not because of the ferociousness of his cancer and it was not some existential lament on the brevity of life, but the fact that he was the last person that had a direct connection to my late stepmother, the first mother I had ever known, and my brief joyful childhood before life accelerated at a rate that I could not, or perhaps, not even allowed to, slow down and feel, and in some cases like this one, grieve.
My late step grandmother or Nyai as we would call her, had lost her son in the second world war and had adopted KitKat Uncle and my late stepmother. Nyai had sewn me my first smelly pillows and bought me my first child-sized plastic chair and was the gentlest woman anyone could know; when I was a child I used to be awakened by the swishing noises that her broom would make as she was sweeping the kitchen floor. When I was five, Nyai had a bad fall in the bathroom and became bedridden and she passed away some months later.
KitKat Uncle was a cool cat. He played the trumpet and keyboard and sang and had big frizzy hair that would pile up onto his head rather than fall onto his shoulders; he would soon lose his hair and made himself the butt of bald jokes. He and my late stepmother were very close, close enough that he would buy my school fun fair tickets as a child even though he did not attend any of them and close enough that he would drop by my old apartment to see my mother whenever she was ill. His favourite remedy for tantrums and tears at that time as you could have well guessed, was a bar of KitKat, the best chocolate bar in the world. In my eyes, it was better than the hard, chewy Cadburies of that time or even the lime lollies with the vanilla filling that I had often enjoyed coming home from school.
My young stepsister and I had a whale of a time whenever my cousin, his first daughter, visited; we did everything from making pastry with plasticine and marbles, chasing my kittens around the house to making hammocks from my stepmother’s laces and scooping up tadpoles from puddles, running around the house with our underpants on our heads and making my cousin jump off the top of my double-decker bed, which caused an accident she would remind me of years later.
Then my stepmother was diagnosed with cancer and passed away some months afterwards. Her deterioration and our feeble, confused attempts to cope with her loss were made more unbearable by our moving to Jurong after my father remarried with a schoolteacher his age. This meant no more plasticine and tadpoles and jumping off the bed; I had been presented with a new set of step cousins who found these activities too rough for their liking.
Thank you KitKat Uncle for making me confront the grief that I had stashed away so deeply in all those years growing up. I hope you find your way to Mama and Nyai and watch over me and Nana and Auntie Idah and Marina and my Ayah and Mama and Tirah. And may you rest and peace. Amin.