Last Friday, I got a flurry of Facebook messages from my father’s family. After a couple years of throat cancer, rounds and rounds of chemotherapy, and a recent tracheostomy, my Uncle Roy had finally passed away in his sleep at a friend’s in Agra. His Facebook, on which he was prolific, had gone silent just a couple days earlier. In almost no time at all, it was updated to a legacy “Remembering Roy Daniels” account.
For someone of his age, I’m amazed how thoroughly Roy appropriated Facebook as a platform for his views. His speciality was zinging rebukes of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the nationalist BJP party. Facebook was what kept him going through the rougher patches of his sickness, and it is both impressive and dismaying to see how many detailed political commentary statuses he cranked out up until the end with very little mention of his declining health. His posts are laced with cynicism and bitterness; they seem more like an outgrowth of the cancer or deeper discontent than a life-giving work.
I crept on Roy’s Facebook profile for years before he discovered mine last year, added me, and sent me a message that he was my father’s brother. I replied that of course I knew who he was and I was glad to have connected with him. He replied simply, “That’s lovely,” and it struck me as so inconsistent with his typically scorching Facebook commentary that I wondered if this too was not dripping with sarcasm.
His gesture was pushed into perspective when, a few weeks later, I learned of his progressing cancer from one of the few statuses in which he addressed it. It includes a photo in which he looks like a gaunter version of my father, beard grey and choppy, eyes hidden behind large aviator sunglasses. A few weeks later, when he posted a couple photos of his daughter, Leahama, from his first marriage, I was struck by how much I resembled her.
When I shared on Facebook a post calvin piece in which I talked about planning my visit to Aunt Jessy in Mumbai and feeling conflicted about being named India, Roy reposted it, called it “lovely,” and recounted that he had asked my father if naming his daughter ‘India’ would be too great of a burden for a little girl. I wondered how my father responded to him, but Roy didn’t say.
I hadn’t expected to ever meet Roy, but that December he ended up in Mumbai at the same time as me for another round of chemotherapy. I was nervous about meeting him, but the first day he was generous and charming. His son from his second marriage, a cousin I hadn’t known existed, spent a couple days with us. He struck me as a wearier and more patient version of Roy.
On one of Roy’s more energetic days, he took us across the street for dinner at his regular haunt. I asked about Leahama (or Leah), who was named after our shared grandmother. Roy stared at me blankly for a second, then explained quite matter-of-factly he had not seen Leah in years. I knew that Roy was abusive to Leah’s mother; they separated when Leah was young. I hadn’t known they cut Roy off entirely and “Leahama Daniels” was erased. Her new name reflected that she was the fourth generation in a family of strong women and classical dancers who had been let down by the men in their lives. But Roy continued to refer to her as his mother’s namesake.
A while back, Roy told me as his son listened quietly, Leah had a short Messenger conversation with him, perhaps not so different from the one he initiated with me. She had no memory of her life as Leah and though she was curious, it was complicated for her to try to have a relationship with him. I realized that in sharing and captioning photos of her as “My daughter Leah,” he was expressing a mix of love, pride, and loss—there was no Leah anymore and no place for him in her life, but to him she was still his Leah, even if he could only be a distant observer.
As the cycle of treatment wore Roy down more and more we spoke less, both retreated more into ourselves. Jessy fretted, burst into tears a couple times. Where she was sensitive, yearning to connect, Roy was harsh and distant. He spent his time hunched over his laptop, scrolling through Facebook and news sites, subsisting on salted peanuts and scotch. When I left, he and I never properly said goodbye.
Back in Chicago, I wrote on the post calvin again about the heaviness of meeting and telling him the story of how his brother, my father, had died. But I never directly told him I had written about him. Since then, I hadn’t communicated with him at all aside from the odd “like” of a status. I didn’t know what to say or how.
All the places my mind wanders upon his death are more or less prosaic—I missed my opportunity to connect more deeply with him when I had the chance, I am down one more link that could help me make sense of this family, and I do not know how to console those who feel his loss more acutely.
The nature of grief on Facebook is fascinating, and I read with interest posts with over hundreds of likes from “friends” who may not have ever met Roy in life but keenly followed his online presence. They lionize him as the skeptic calling out political corruption in India. While these posts make me feel a little warm and have taught me new things about him, perhaps I want to temper these odes with a bit of the sadness and brokenness I saw in him.
And so this is the story I will tell.
India Daniels graduated in 2017 with majors in history and English literature. Her first year out of Calvin, she moved home to Chicago to serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA at Turning the Page, a nonprofit promoting parent engagement and literacy in North Lawndale schools. She now assists Turning the Page’s used bookstores and coordinates a citizen-reporter program for City Bureau, a civic journalism lab on the South Side.