Happy Birthday?

By Puja

Today, October 16, 2016 would have been my father’s 65th birthday. My father died on July 4, 2016 after a brief but fierce battle with complications from a stroke. My personality is such that I can be anachronistic at times, and this is one of those times. I never understood the need to celebrate the birthday of someone who has died. Buuuut…this is the first time he won’t be around to mark his expulsion from the womb.

Since I can remember, my dad would always say he was turning 37 every year on his birthday. I never understood why, until I actually did the math (literally 5 seconds ago), that was the age he was when we emigrated from Trinidad. Oh dad! I just told someone last week that I think he chose ’37’ because that must have been the age he was truly happiest. Which I’m kind of still right when you think about it. But was he happiest because he YOLO’d that last year in Trinidad? Or was it because he probably accomplished the biggest goal of his life? The most tangible achievement in a goal driven society: getting to America. Getting his family a shot at a better life. I won’t pretend that I know my dad’s every motivation or what he thought about certain things. I know I could have asked him, but my dad loved lecturing, so I didn’t. Did it excite him to impart knowledge or was he honored that someone would ask for his thoughts/opinions or did he just love the sound of his own voice that made his lectures so long? Maybe it was a combination of all three.

Anyway, I didn’t want this first birthday without him to pass by without saying something about it. I am publishing the eulogy I gave at his funeral on July 8, 2016.  Thank you for reading this, and reading about my dad, who probably would have liked talking to you.


July 8, 2016

Life implies death.

The second we are born; we begin to die. In the grand scheme of the universe, here lies a man who physically existed on the planet Earth from the milky way galaxy during the late 20th to early 21st century. But to the people who are gathered here, he was a part of our personal universe. And today, we acknowledge that both universes have gotten measurably smaller. I struggled writing this because I do not know what to say that hasn’t been said over millions of years about billions of loved ones because it all seems inadequate to honor my father’s passing. My mother and her sisters have told me that in our culture the mark of a great soul leaving this plane of existence is often acknowledged by universe. I don’t know whether it was good timing on his part or not, but as he left us on the 4th of July, the sky was bright with fireworks, as if heaven was celebrating. And every year until all that know him have gone, the day he left us shall never be forgotten. So sorry Bowie, Rickman, Prince, Ali, and Wiesel, you may have been timeless luminaries, but the sky was lit with fire to mark the passing of one of the greatest there will ever be.

Vishnu aka Toya aka Woodlee aka Woody Maharaj was a man of contradictions. He was  slow but impatient. He was late to any invited function, but was impatient to get things done. Which could explain why we are here today and not 20 years in the future.

How do I add to what was already said to give you a complete picture of the soul we are bidding goodbye to today? I can’t. You have heard what some of his siblings and children have said about him and his impact and significance on their lives. But coming up here for two minutes will just get you a basic sketch of the man he was: An island boy from Trinidad who was mischievous bordering on bad, headstrong, intelligent, who turned into a loving, generous, irascible, humorous, and intellectually driven man sounds more like a two-hour indie film than 64 years of life.

As anyone who knew him for more than an hour could tell you, he was very smart, but as my mother can tell you he could be very lazy. He was loquacious, but could be perfunctory. He had an organized mind, but was a hoarder. He valued cool logic under pressure, but could have a fiery temper. He lived a life he wanted to, but he lived for others. His existence is not a movie; it is like a good book. The type of book that you keep going back to and find that you relate differently to it the older you get.  Because of this, summing up his life and accomplishments in a succinct bullet list or timeline would be a disservice to him. Also spending time listing his accolades, milestones, and bragging about him would keep us here all damn day.

I wanted to get up here and tell you that he was the type of man who would go to the Asian market to practice Spanish with the fishmongers working the counter. That he must have loved to climb trees because I have seen numerous pictures of him at all ages up a tree.  I want to tell you how much pride he had that he was Trinidadian and how a big part of his identity was that pride. He gave my prom date a lecture about the history of Trinidad while we waited for the limo, complete with visual aids. I want to tell you that he was the funniest person I knew, and tried to find humor in everything. That he was the type of man to whom you could say “I’m meeting the UN weapons inspector for Iraq tomorrow, what should I ask him?” and he would give you a list of questions within a minute. I want to tell you that until I was 20 years old every time I had a nightmare, subconscious me called out to my Dad to come save me, slay the evil, put out the fire. And please note that the only reason that stopped was because I stopped having nightmares. I want to tell you that he fostered curiosity, learning, and provoked thought not only to the 6 of us, but to everyone he met. He often gifted people with subscriptions to reader’s digest, and had a National Geographic subscription for at least 40 years. I want to tell you that even though my mother grew up more religious than him, my father taught all of us our first mantra. I want to tell you that he made up nonsensical words, made up songs and randomly sang them (and you can tell when we has in a playful or good mood by how fast or slow he would say his made up phrases). I want to tell you that he could effortlessly befriend you or offend you in the same breath. I want to tell you that he always spoke his mind regardless if you wanted to hear it or not. I want to tell you that his voice has a way of echoing in your subconscious when you least expect it to.

I want to tell you that despite what you see before you today he was tall, strapping man who embodied physical strength, a modicum of agility, and the stamina of a workhorse. I want to tell you that he believed spinach and dhal were better than most modern medicines. I want to tell you that he fought. We saw him hang on and fight until he had no more strength left to give, because we asked him to, because we weren’t ready to see him go.  I want to tell you that, despite it being an arranged marriage, I have never in my life witnessed the limitless love that two people have for each other as I did when my parents looked at each other these last few weeks. He sensed mom’s presence before he heard her voice and always turned to her. He was the flower and she was his sun. Their 37th wedding anniversary would have been next Saturday.  I want to tell you that whether he was asked to or not, he spoke at many family functions, off the cuff most of the time, imparting wisdom and advice that he obviously took time to craft and think about. I want to tell you that he tried to look at all things in a positive light and share that light with those who would listen. I want to tell you that he lived humbly, quietly, and privately. I want to tell you that he died with unfulfilled potential. But again, all of these stories would take a long time to get through in the detail that they deserve. Instead, I will tell you this: just as life implies death; death implies life. And he led a full one.

In what seemed like a lifetime ago, I went to a lecture where an author was telling an anecdote from her recent book tour. On her tour she asked anyone she shared breathing space with ‘what is making you happy right now?’ One of the final people she asked this to was a woman in her fifties who told her she was happy that her and her friend were writing a book together. What was the book about she asked the lady. The lady said grief and loss. You, like me are wondering what the hell is there to be excited about grief and loss? Because first-hand experience, it sucks. Well the woman said that 20 years previously her only child died. And for those 20 years she was in search for a reason as to why she went through such horror. It wasn’t until her friend lost her own child did she see the reason. She had to be the shepherd. Just as there is purpose in life, there is purpose in death. I am sharing my takeaway in hopes that it helps you with your personal grieving process. And while I do not know why my father had to leave us so young, I/We have to believe there was a purpose. Am I going to be ok with waiting 20 years to find out why? Probably not, I inherited his impatience. But in the immediacy, we can take comfort in knowing that because he died young, in the twilight of his prime, he has transcended death and became a legend never to be forgotten.

A friend of mine told me the other day that you can retrospectively acknowledge how good you had it, while simultaneously realizing that you didn’t fully appreciate it because ‘that is life.’ I am urging you today to acknowledge the gifts that you are given while you have them, accept them and enjoy them. Otherwise, you miss out on celebrating in the moment and a making ‘pure’ memory. Pure in the sense that it is not tinged with regret or shame. Pure in the sense that the mere recollection brings you joy and nothing else.

Before I close and ask Aunty Wanie to come up and sing us a bhajan before the closing prayer, I want to personally, but collectively extend the family’s gratitude to all those who visited, cooked, comforted, texted, hugged, worried, prayed, laughed and cried with us since May 23. Especially to my Nani, who devoutly prayed for and with my father every day for 6 weeks. Your kindness will not be forgotten.

I will close with a memory: In 1992, our family went to Trinidad for a very long summer vacation. My mother, siblings and I were going to spend some time with my mom’s family in Guyana, without my dad. We were excited, until we got on the plane.  Then one by one, we all looked at each other and started crying because we realized that were leaving him behind. Truth be told he was probably grateful for the time alone, to wild out as it were. I think that it is poetic that we are here today, again crying but this time because he has left us behind. I know that the time apart from each other will be shorter compared to the time we will be together (because spoiler alert souls don’t die), but it is going to be excruciating until we meet again.

Rest in power dad. Your Big Pig, Nullryan, Vishti, Bumwalo, Chunalee and your dearest Doveas love you and set you free.  

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