I thought I'd escaped unscathed but Covid-19 claimed my uncle who was like a dad to me

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Maria Pillay and her late uncle, Reverend Phillip Arjnan. Photos supplied
Maria Pillay and her late uncle, Reverend Phillip Arjnan. Photos supplied

When President Cyril Ramaphosa first announced that the country would go into lockdown, like most people, I just figured it would last a week or two - a month, at the most.

The first few months were great. I learnt to bake, made sure I didn't skip my workouts and spent hours talking to God. I didn't have to drive anywhere, I didn't have to get dressed up, I didn't have to wash my hair. It was wonderful.

I lived alone for the longest time but just before the lockdown, I got a housemate. My best friend's cousin moved to Johannesburg from Durban to start a new job and needed a place to stay.

I guess it was a blessing in disguise because even though we didn't know each other very well, having another person in the house during the hard lockdown was exactly what I needed. 

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Around July, a very close friend and her family tested positive for Covid-19. Her husband spent a few days in ICU. 

I checked in with her every day and left care packages at her gate. Thankfully, they pulled through. All in all, I went through 2020 relatively unscathed and started to relax a bit.

December arrived and we planned our Christmas lunch and tried to make it as special as possible, with just immediate family.

On Christmas Eve, I received a message from my uncle and aunt that they were self-isolating because they hadn't been feeling well. It was a tradition to always go over to the home of my uncle, Reverend Phillip Arjnan, after we had our own Christmas lunch. 

We would take gifts and my aunt would bring out trifle. My uncle would strum on his guitar and sing a few Christmas Carols if he was up to it. 

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This time, however, we popped over on Christmas Day to drop off food. My uncle came to the gate to fetch it. We shared a few jokes, laughed a little and said our goodbyes.

But it was just temporary. Soon we would be able to see each other again, even if we could not hug. Life would go back to normal. But it didn't. Over the next two weeks, my uncle's health took a turn for the worse.

Our fears were confirmed when his Covid-19 test results were positive. But we were a family of faith. My uncle was a pastor, a man who loved God so much. Surely, he would be healed.

I chatted to him via WhatsApp and he told me he was feeling better, just a little tired. I went to fetch his medication from the pharmacy. I left the packet at the door and stood outside.

My uncle was lying on the couch. He heard my voice and asked me how I was but he couldn't get up. My heart broke into a million pieces as I stared at the figure on the couch. He looked so different from the man I saw on Christmas Day – just two weeks before.

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A few days later, we rushed him to the hospital because his oxygen levels had dropped. Not being able to visit him in hospital was torture.

We called the nurses every day for updates on his condition. They were very kind. But my uncle never came back home.

I can remember getting the call at 02.30 on January 25 and driving to my aunt's home to break the news to her.

My uncle was like a father to me. He mentored me. We had our private jokes. He was always in my corner, even when I messed up. He constantly reminded me to check my tyres and make sure I had a spare. He once left a meeting and drove 30km to pay my traffic fines after I was pulled over at a roadblock. I couldn't even imagine my world without him.

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Before we had even heard of Covid-19, I would have moments when I would think about my uncle dying. But even the very thought brought me to tears. And suddenly, there it was.

We couldn't mourn his death the way we wanted to. Our family was far away. Those of us who were together couldn't even hug each other. It was all just so cold.

At the funeral, there were just eight family members at the church and a few clergy members. Everyone else watched online.

It's been two months and a few days since his death, but it still feels surreal.

He would have turned 71 on 24 March. I found myself driving to the store to buy him a gift when reality hit and I stopped.

I thought I had escaped unscathed, but Covid-19 took a piece of my soul. 

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