The English language does not differentiate between maternal and paternal uncles as the word "uncle" can be either your father or mother's brother. Derived from the Latin word "avunculus," uncle originally was meant only to denote one's mother's brother. Turkish, like Latin and its fellow Middle Eastern languages, Arabic and Persian, has a specific term for your mother's brother, "dayı." Spelled with a Turkish dotless "i," the word "dayı" has many positive definitions other than the literal uncle. Dayı can mean one who is brave, a leader, or an especially outspoken advocate. All of these terms would do justice to my youngest dayı, Can Onat (the letter "C" is pronounced like a "J" in English), who passed away abruptly a week ago.
The connotation of dayı is vastly different from its paternal version, or "amca" in Turkish. Dayı is more familiar. One is generally closer to their dayı than they are their amca. With the birth of my eldest cousin Elvan, who called her 10-year-old uncle, Can Dayı, the title stuck and with that my Uncle Can was known to nearly everyone who knew him as Can Dayı. He was everyone's Can Dayı, but he was also my actual Can Dayı. He was born on April 4, 1962 and passed away last Wednesday on Jan. 22 at the age of 57.
A businessman in the eastern Turkish city of Van, he was the youngest of nine children and also the youngest, and first to pass away during my lifetime of all of my aunts and uncles on both sides of my family. He had a heart condition since childhood but died of pneumonia after only one night in the hospital. His death was sudden and surprising and deeply painful to all who knew him. But his life was the exact opposite: He brought joy, kindness and happiness to everyone he knew.
I can't think of another person who was so universally loved. Hearing his name brought a smile to the face of anyone who knew him. He was well-traveled, and I would often call him and ask, "Dayı, I just arrived in city x. What should I do, see and eat?" Without skipping a beat, he'd tell me all that I needed to know down to the name of the best waiter at the restaurant he had just recommended. He was the greatest of trip advisers long before TripAdvisor existed. He was important to many but nice to all. His office was always full at lunchtime as friends, neighbors and even random people that he knew were hungry and couldn't afford a meal, would be invited off the street to eat together. His generosity was surpassed by only his humility.
I've been lucky enough not to lose a close blood relative at nearly the age of 40, but I have been reminded with the passing of my Can Dayı that mortality is a reality. It's great to be successful in business and investments, but we do not choose our own time horizons. Our lives will be measured not by dollars and cents but by the happiness we brought to the lives of others. Can Onat is survived by his wife Hülya and their sons, Kemal, Taha and Duha Can and his siblings, Zülfiye, Mine and Cumhur. I will miss you, Can Dayı, until we meet again.
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