In the final hours of Deo “Mohan” Persaud’s life, as his oxygen levels dropped and his kidneys shut down and his heart rate slowed, he was not alone.
The phone by his hospital bed sat off the hook. On the line were his wife of 56 years and their three children and grandchildren. They talked to him through the night, recording part of their conservation.
Intubated and sedated, he could not respond. But he could hear them, the doctor promised, so they kept talking.
“All the years that we count is gone,” said his wife, Sylvia Persaud, sniffing through sobs. “All the years that we count together is gone, honey.”
Mr. Persaud was a native of Guyana who built a life in two different countries and two different industries. His American dream was to raise his children in a safe place where they’d learn to work hard.
He did, and they did.
He died on the morning of May 30 after getting the coronavirus in a St. Petersburg nursing home a month before. He was 80.
For a few minutes before switching to the bedside phone, a nurse called the family via FaceTime so they could see Mr. Persaud. “I’ll never see this face again,” Sylvia said. “Look at you. You still look handsome. All I have left is a picture. All I have left is a picture, honey… I love you.”
Mr. Persaud made his family the center of his life, but he grew up mostly on his own.
His father died soon after he was born in Strasveay, Guyana, on South America’s eastern coast. His mother remarried and, at 8 or 9, pulled him from school and sent him to work to help support their growing family.
Mr. Persaud worked for a tailor and still loved to read. As a teenager, he traveled to a bauxite mining town and found work as a stock boy at a general store. Over the years, he moved up to supervisor, then started his own shop with the help of his old boss.
After surviving an outbreak of political and race-based violence, he moved back home and started a small store in the town of Annandale, about 30 minutes from Guyana’s capital, Georgetown.
At 24, in an arranged Hindu marriage, he met Sylvia, then 17. He loved her at first sight. She wept but came around.
Together, they worked 20-hour days running the store, then building another in a nearby village. It never had a sign but was known to everyone as Mohan Store. They sold everything from ice cream to tires.
The couple had a daughter, then another, then a son. In 1985, in the midst of political persecution of IndoGuyanese, in the middle of a sweltering day, armed soldiers arrived, sent customers away and pulled a truck up to the back of the shop. They left the shelves empty.
Soon, Mr. Persaud and his wife packed their suitcases, got their children and visas and left for the United States.
He’d started from scratch once already. He was prepared to do it again.
Mr. Persaud’s oldest daughter cried through the phone from her home in New Jersey that last night. In the background, machines interrupted with stuttered beep-beeps. “Daddy, I love you. It’s Janet. I love you so much,” she said. “We have all these good memories together, and I want to continue having more good memories with you. You’re such a kind person. You’ve helped so many people in this world.”
Annette Persaud-Jairam was 12 the summer her family moved in with relatives in the Bronx. Her dad was determined to figure out the city’s subway system and she, always his shadow, wanted to go with him.
Someone told them to go to 14th Street in Manhattan to shop. They got a subway map, which they didn’t understand, instructions from family and bought their tokens.
In the middle of the city, the two congratulated themselves for moving from Guyana’s minibuses to New York’s mass transit. They bought things for the baby. They walked around a bit.
Then, they got very, very lost.
Mr. Persaud kept asking for directions, in a Caribbean dialect not everyone understood. It took several subway rides and three or four bus trips, but her dad never looked panicked.
For Persaud-Jairam, it was a great adventure.
After that, Mr. Persaud decided the city was not for them.
He visited a family member in New Jersey and found the pace closer to the unhurried village they came from. A week after moving, he bought a car. At first, family drives stuck to the main roads with familiar landmarks scattered like breadcrumbs to lead them home.
He found work, too, as a stock boy, before deciding that he did not, in fact, have to start all over again. Mr. Persaud talked to family who introduced him to friends who eventually helped him discover real estate investment.
He bought a house and managed properties and settled into life with the comforts of his wife’s curries and rotis and the knowledge that they had very little, but they were safe.
Unlike his sisters, Prem Persaud’s memories of his dad are all American ones.
He had to get straight As. As a teenager, he had to help with the business, fixing leaky pipes and other small disasters at the rental properties. His dad didn’t play baseball. He wasn’t cuddly or affectionate. He never said, “I love you.”
He worked hard and expected the same from his children, even the one who grew up with Saturday morning cartoons and air conditioning.
(His mother, it’s worth noting, tells a story about a 17-year-old who knew to ask dad for his first car and came home with a white Mustang.)
Persaud and his sisters all graduated from college. His sisters started families of their own. And he watched the strict patriarch who never forgot a mistake become, well, a teddy bear.
After convincing him to move to St. Petersburg to be with their two youngest, Mr. Persaud picked his grandsons up each Saturday and drove them to Dunkin’ Donuts. Once they were old enough to drive, they came for him and insisted on paying.
Mr. Persaud also loved when his son came by to take him for long drives. Persaud, who worked in and later left the corporate world, now owns and runs two businesses. He sees that his dad gave him everything he needed.
And a few years ago, Mr. Persaud started to say, “I love you.”
On FaceTime that night, Persaud-Jairam spoke to her brother. “Prem, do you want to say anything more to Dad? The very nice nurse is going to have to probably...”
“I love you, Dad,” he said.
Soon, the family switched to the bedside phone, and they talked to Mr. Persaud until the next morning.