My Uncle Pat was a giant of a man. It wasn’t just that he was taller than any other adult in my life, it was also because he seemed to fill so much more space than anybody else. No, he wasn’t wide nor portly; it was that he had presence: an over-abundance of it. And he was loud – in a fun, non-scary way.
I remember, when very small, asking him if he was a giant. I felt safe in doing so as, having observed him for a while, I had not witnessed any evidence of child-eating. He laughed long and loud. I think that is one of the things I will remember most and forever miss about Uncle Pat – his laughter – frequent, long and loud.
My Uncle Pat died on Tuesday, 19th January 2021.
I say “My Uncle Pat”, but he wasn’t mine exclusively – though when I was much younger, I may have once believed and later wished it so. He was an Uncle to many, as well as being a loving husband, supportive parent and doting GrandDad – just 4 of the jobs he did exceptionally well with seeming ease.
On the Sunday before, I’d been told that he and several other family members had received positive Covid test results the previous week. Though he’d gone into hospital and was receiving oxygen by mask because of a low oxygen-blood level, no-one was overly concerned. No, that’s wrong: most of us who knew were likely not worried. I’m guessing that my Aunt Ethel, Pat’s wife and one of my Mum’s sisters, was probably more worried than the rest of us. For me, and many other family members, Pat was indestructible, indefatigable – he was a force of nature. If anyone was going to catch and get past Coronavirus, it would be Pat.
He was, I’d been told, getting better, but the next day, Monday, just 6 days on from the initial positive test result, his levels dipped again, and hours later he was gone.
Tuesday, 19th January 2021, 6:30am: G, one of my cousins, calls.
It’s early, but Malawi is 2 hours ahead and, anyway, my minimal sleep, early-rising habits are well-known. So, I pick-up the phone, not knowing that things are about to change – that this is a call that will hurt.
“James, Uncle Pat is gone. He’s been taken from us”.
He may have said other things, but I’m no longer listening. My brain isn’t open to any other input; it’s too busy trying to process impossible information.
It’s been some years since somebody I loved died. In more mundane and morbid moments I’d wondered if I would still have any tears left for whoever was next. Such a silly question to have posited; even if only to myself. It turns out the answer is still yes, there are more than enough tears, just not yet. It doesn’t matter how often death comes; when it is somebody you care for it cuts and stabs at your heart. The moment you first hear someone you love has gone, time slows and stretches. Your mind tries to progress the news as it simultaneously leaps to protect you with total denial – you’re wrong– this isn’t happening – NO!
Reality snaps you back with what feels like a horse kick to the stomach. Your chest tightens: a black-hole opening and collapsing. But because you’ve been here before, you catch yourself, you stop the fall into a chasm of grief and remember there are others for whom this is and will be worse. You need to be there for them, doing whatever needs to be done.
I know how grief works. Not that there’s a 10-step plan or anything, but I know how it affects me. How the shock hits, how the collapse quickly follows. As if thrown in a barrel and cast into a storm-ridden sea. Assailed from all sides, chest-constricted, gasping for breath and respite. Finding pockets of calm, hoping that it’s over – only to find more unrelenting waves smacking you anew.
Yeah, I know how grief works; there will be enough time for mine later, but, for now, I need to pull it together. I have to phone family. I need to call his son (K) and later, when New York is up, his daughter (A), whom I don’t want to disturb because I stupidly think she is asleep – of course, she is not. She’s already been given the awful news. And though those calls are hard, they are not as difficult as the one and subsequent ones I make to my Aunt Ethel. Words are inadequate. Even now, over 3 weeks on, I still worry that I haven’t found the right ones. If you’re lucky, there are people in your life who you do not think of independently: they are your gold standard of relationships. How do you comfort the loss of the person they spent decades upon decades building and living a life with? I’ve not had that for myself, but I have been lucky enough to have observed it up close and to have basked in the warm, loving light of it. There aren’t enough words, let alone the right ones to create any consoling comfort.
Time feels like it is moving differently. There is a schism. The World is off-kilter. I find myself 5, 10, 15 minutes from my last conscious thought; elsewhere doing something I don’t remember starting: time lapses. This happens throughout the day and continues into the weeks that follow.
A week from this awful day, I’ll find myself in the park, halfway through a regular walk, no recollection of starting it; in the midst of vividly remembering the last Christmas before Covid. Uncle Pat playing with his Grandchildren and Grandnephews and Grandnieces: noisy, joyful chaos. Kids loved Pat: they intuitively knew that this was an adult who didn’t let adulting get in the way of fun.
This is the bittersweet agony of grief. It comes at you in waves bringing long-forgotten or not recently thought of memories. At first, they make you smile wistfully but all end as reminders that you won’t be in his company again.
I find myself thinking about how all of those children have had part of their future stolen from them: a World without Pat. Tears stream again, mixing with the rain of another grey day.
I was fortunate to have had him all my life, but this is life now, life without Pat; a World less sunny. A bright star has been plucked too early from the firmament.
If you’re blessed, there are people in your life who are on the periphery of your memories but with whom you have a rich core of recollections, stretching to your most recent. My Uncle Pat was one of those for me. Apart from 1 or 2 of the Gambia years, there’s not been a year I’ve not visited him and Aunt Ethel.
And now, every day is a day further away from him. Well, it is if I allow it. The challenge now, for me and everyone else who loved him is to keep him at the core of our memories and not permit time to take him away.
Wednesday. The next day. The day after Uncle Pat died is the day of his burial.
Covid necessitates speed. Hospital beds are for the living, and mandated burials have to happen fast. Uncle Pat is taken home from Lilongwe to his family burial grounds in Mzuzu. Sadly, Aunt Ethel is unable to attend, for she is Coronavirus-confined to a hospital bed; and neither K nor A will have been able to get there in time, even if they were allowed to blow-off the mandatory quarantine. It is only now, 3 weeks on, that I can admit to the fear that Aunt Ethel might not make it. The dread that other family who have it could start to deteriorate and those not yet infected might catch it. Every call from Malawi for those weeks is potentially bad news that can’t be avoided or delayed.
Messages and photos are shared on WhatsApp as family makes their way to Mzuzu. It feels inadequate and wrong to be so beholden to a mobile phone and yet still craving more. Sadly, it’s all that I and many others, around the World, who loved Pat have. At least, it is until they arrive in Mzuzu, where the kindness of a stranger to most of us gives us the greatest of gifts of that day. Dr M, another cousin, had stayed in Lilongwe to look after Aunt Ethel, but unbeknown to the rest of us she had been in touch with a friend and colleague, Dr J, who at very short notice broadcasted the burial over the Internet.
For those of us who couldn’t be there to lay our Father, Uncle, Brother to rest, it meant everything.
First sight of Uncle Pat’s casket. I know he’s in there, but he is also not – because I didn’t see him being put in there. I’m 11 again – my sister, Marjorie has died on Christmas Eve. I know she is gone because my parents have told me that, but I didn’t get to see her when she died, so maybe she is still alive. I hold onto that for weeks, longer than I ought; convinced that she will come home. Back in the room: time to put away childish things; Uncle Pat is in there. I gulp deep breaths, holding the door fast, keeping what feels like a monstrous wave at bay. Eventually, it’s the little things that create cracks and set me off.
- The meticulous care and respect of everyone involved with digging an 8ft+ grave and laying a supportive concrete base to ensure Pat’s last bed was perfectly level
- Every person who helped lower Pat to his final rest – determined to do so gently, to do it right
- Rhythmic shovelling of earth building a high mound that will later settle – laughing at the thought of relating this as an Olympic sport to Uncle Pat – he’d have appreciated the silliness of that
- Fresh, pristine flowers – how valuable a commodity in a hot climate
- And the many, many people who come to pay their respects. Funerals are meant to be limited in attendance, but how do you stop hundreds determined to say goodbye, for whom, on that day, in that place, social distancing is but a distant thought.
I hadn’t realised how much I needed that broadcast. Sat home, alone, it connected me virtually with so many others who loved Pat – so that together we could bear witness to his burial. Not his funeral, because we weren’t there to celebrate and commiserate him. There will be other times to raise glasses and tell stories, but that was an important moment to share in and treasure.
Surrounded by soggy tissues, I felt less lonely. The tight internal knot not yet untied but a little loosened – enough to more easily breathe.
Uncle Pat was buried on Wednesday, 20th January 2021. Born of the Mhone clan, married into the Mwale family: a titan in both.
Who was Uncle Pat?
Who was Pat Mhone? There are many easy cliches to reach for, none of them lazy – they are just true – ask anyone who knew him.
- Pat was larger than life: he was life. He lived like he had a deal with time not to touch him. If you didn’t know him well, you were likely 10-20 years out from correctly guessing his age
- Suck out all the marrow of life – when I first heard those words, I immediately thought of my Uncle Pat. When I later read them in context, it didn’t change their meaning for me: Pat wasn’t interested in living a Spartan life, but he did take all he could from life and revel in it. And like all giants, he had teeth strong enough to crack bones and get to the marrow
- He was the life and soul of pretty much any room he was in. If there was a party, you would know that Pat was there because he’d be at the centre of it. Not deliberately so, it’s just the man had that planetary presence whose gravity just draws you in. If you think I’m exaggerating, you are wrong – there are photos, so many photos of Pat. Pat would either be close to whatever fun was afoot or was regularly the source of it: as if Dionysus had taken human form
- Uncle Pat was my Aunt Ethel’s husband-to-be when I was very small and didn’t understand the word fiancé
- He was the Groom at whose wedding I did my first pageboy gig
- He was Aunt Ethel’s Hubbie
- He was a Dad and a parent. It’s an important distinction: you can be a Dad or a Mum without being a proper parent. Ethel and Pat were good ones. How good? Well, if you’re lucky enough to spend time with either their son or daughter or both the quality of that parenting will quickly be evident; and it will give you some sense of their parents’ caring nature, charisma and character
- He was a Brother. For Pat, blood was never a limiting tie, Pat had family and friends that he counted as brothers and sisters. After Marjorie, I had wondered if you could have family who were not relations. I took a lot of comfort from Uncle Pat on that
- He was a patriarch. Although Pat was always someone you wanted to be around, he knew his status as an elder and a patriarch; and although he wore both roles lightly, he could still exercise his authority, though with a delicate touch. A touch so faint but deft that you might not even notice and actually believe that you reached a particular decision all by yourself. As a teenager, there were family functions that I might have wanted to get out of because I thought that there was something more fun to do elsewhere. I was more often than not persuaded I was wrong about that
- He was an engineer who seemed to be able to repair anything. If something needed fixing, Pat would either know how to or he would learn to. I suspect he might have even found a way to fix computer issues later on in life if he’d had to – but he had me for that and likely wanted me to feel useful
- He was a GrandDad. He loved being a GrandDad.
Pat was a lot of things to legions of people; and though he was an Uncle to many, he was mine first.
My Uncle Pat: Giant. Legend. Fixer of problems.
There’s a lot of memories and photos being shared amongst family and friends. I need to check that they don’t mind me including some of those here, so come back and check in regularly.
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some of mine.
When K turned up, I already liked him because it meant I wasn’t the youngest in our UK family any more. He was also quite cute in the early days, in that way that babies often are: an easily-tipped sitting Buddha. I didn’t realise until later that he was going to be competition for the things that I wanted for myself.
I think I was 12ish when Uncle Pat took the time to repeatedly explain to me over a 2-week Coventry holiday that K was my brother and I had to be kind and sometimes let him win. He had to do this several times because, although I liked my Uncle Pat, I was quite sure he was wrong. He eventually convinced me by relieving me of the Binatone Tennis championship that I thought I’d won through prodigious talent and skill, and not because he’d let me.
It took some years before I understood that lesson was for my sake and not just K’s.
Good recommendations matter
I can’t remember precisely when A arrived as decades have since passed, but arrive she did, fully formed; as if delivered by a large cartoon stork.
I remember asking where she had come from and getting a less than 30-second explanation that she was family, and that was enough. 30 seconds was all that was needed – in my family if you come with a good recommendation we accept you unquestioningly quick and love you hard. A had the best: Pat & Ethel’s.
Uncle Pat loved music: of all kinds. And like all Magpies, he had an eye for jewels and would ‘borrow’ with the promise that you could have it back when you next met.
Over the years, a number of my cassettes found their way into his collection. I persistently borrowed them back, but they always seemed to return to the listener who appreciated them more. I took to recovering mine by buying replacements for Uncle Pat. It was an easy price for me to pay as he had more than paid for the originals in beers and multiple much-needed in-term £20 university cheques.
And finally, there was the:
When Aunt Ethel had a brief health episode a few years ago and needed someone to stay, Uncle Pat asked me. He could have asked any number of close-by friends who would have tripped over each other in offering their services. But he called me.
So unlike the deaths of other people I have loved, I don’t need to wonder what Pat thought of me or if he knew how much I loved him. Because when he, K & A were all far from home, he entrusted me with the care of the person he loved the most: Ethel.
Sorrow & Honour
When is the time to stop crying? Whenever the tears stop coming. It’s different for everyone. Your tears are not a measurement of the depth of your pain, but an acknowledgement of the sorrow & knowledge that you will not be in the company of a loved one again. At least, not in this World. Those tears will fall for however long you need.
At some point, you might wish to honour the life that has passed. Some have already mentioned that. I think it is fair to say that his family, Ethel, K & A should have first dibs on defining what Pat’s public legacy should be, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have your own personal one.
For me, I think the best way to honour Uncle Pat is to…
Celebrate life, suck all of its marrow, and find a way to help yourself or others when life sends hardships. And if you’re ever stuck on a problem or dilemma – think what would Pat do and then do that.
And though our good days are more grave for his passing: the older of us should, for the younger amongst us, strive to make ourselves brighter to make up for the light and joy in the room that is missing.
I think those of us who knew him would agree that Pat is impossible to replace. None of us – not one of us – is big-hearted enough to make up for that Pat-shaped hole. So, it’s good that he imprinted on so many of us that together we might fill it in; and channel a little bit of Pat’s soul, cause there ain’t no party like a Pat party.
Whenever you’re hit by a wave bringing forth a memory, don’t allow it to leave behind a melancholic aftertaste. Delve deeper into it. Find hidden morsels you’d previously missed. Live in that moment, revel in it. Remember it.
I think Uncle Pat would want us to be kind to each other, to live our best lives and to take joy in each other. All his family: blood-tied and friend-chosen.
Bye Uncle Pat.
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Created: 20th January 2021, Published: 14th February 2021
© JAK 2021
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