Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Telling Friends

Dad is the one holding the child. 

Last night "Pete" called. Pete is Pethachi, one of Dad's colleagues from his days at Purdue University in the early 1950's. Dad arrived in the United States knowing no one. He arrived just days before school started. He was dazed and confused. Then he began to meet fellow immigrants. Pethachi is from Chennai, India. He was studying chemistry. My dad, engineering and physics. They and another Indian college, Silvi, became fast friends, and remained so. Growing up, whenever Pethachi came to town he would stay with us. There would be Indian silks, Indian sweets, Indian stories of a life so much different than the one we had in Illinois. It was from Pethachi that I learned that Dad had a nick name. It was Mo. And Silvi was Sam, and Pethachi was Pete. When I learned this, I remembered that a few years before someone had called the house asking for Mo. I told him no Mo lived here. And the guy said, Mo, you know Mo, Mohammed. I was aghast..... People call my dad Mo? 

Mohammed Allah Rakha, Pethachi Sivagami, and Silvi
A few years ago Mo, Pete, and Sam returned to Purdue to re-live the old days. Three aging Indian dudes bopping around Lafayette, Indiana recounting their first years in the United States. The freezing cold weather, the bland food, the new customs. 

Dad was very good at staying in touch with his friends. Always making sure to call them every few weeks. 

It has been hard to tell these men Dad is gone. They all, to a one, say the same thing. "Oh, no. Oh, no. I have lost such a dear friend. Such a dear friend. He was the kindest man. The kindest man I knew." 

Each phone call brings both empties me and fills me. First one, than the other.

Dad with his school friend Reddi, in Hyderabad. They knew each other since childhood.

-Naseem Rakha, January 28, 2015

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Last Supper

Dad, in his kitchen - photos taken by Amir Rakha

Two days after Dad died, he made us dinner.

We sat at my table and we ate a feast of Qabooli Biriyani and Mirchi Ka Salan, both dishes typical to Hyderabad, India where Dad was born and raised.

Qabooli is a lentil Biriyani made with basmati rice and channa dal. It requires a careful hand washing of the rice, rinsing out all the starch from the grains until the water runs clear. It requires a sorting and picking of the dal (golden lentils), ridding any that may be of poor quality. Then the two, rice and lentils must be drained and let dry. It requires the finely sliced onions to be dried as well, squeezed tightly in towels before they are carefully set in a half inch of sizzling hot oil and stir fried to a delicate golden brown. It requires garlic and ginger to be peeled and puréed into a fine paste, and then a grinding of spices. It requires a precise measurement of turmeric, cardamon, coriander, cumin, cayenne, mint and fresh squeezed lemon. And then, and this is critical, it requires that both the rice and channa dal be par-boiled to a place that is not quite done, so that once the five elements—the rice, the dal, the golden onion, the garlic/ginger puree, the spices are all layered together—it can be covered, and sealed and baked to the exact point in which when a spoon breaks into the surface of the dish, each hand washed grain emerges tender and whole and separate and distinct.

The second dish, Mirchi Ka Salan or Green Chili Curry, is, according to my sister, the equivalent of making a Mole, it is so time consuming and complicated. The paste itself has more than 12 ingredients. But the end product is so unique and so flavorful that it is one of my favorites.

When my sister came home on Monday the 12th of January, Dad was in the kitchen preparing to cook. It was 6:30 in the evening, the National Championships were on the TV, and dad was at his cutting board preparing the onions, his kitchen towel characteristically tossed over his shoulder. When Shameem asked what he was starting, she was, at first exasperated that Dad had taken on such a big project so late in the day. She had worked all day, she was tired. But, this was her Dad. And we all knew his days were limited. The kidney disease, the heart problem, the iron build up from transfusions. Dad talked about his death a lot. So she set aside her exhaustion and spent the rest of the night cooking with Dad.

What surprised Shameem most, she told me, was how much food he was preparing. This was not just for the two of them. Dad clearly had something else in mind. Perhaps a party the coming weekend. She didn't ask. Instead they chopped, and stirred, and fried, and mixed, and boiled, and baked their way through the might. Finally, somewhere around midnight, they finished and put it all in the refrigerator for another day.

That day was Friday, 45 hours after Dad died from a tumble on the Portland streetcar. Earlier in the day Shameem, Amir, and Renee and I went to the funeral home and arranged for his cremation. Then, before heading back to my house, we went to Dad's place, opened his refrigerator and took out the meal he had made.

When he came to the United States in his early 20's, Dad had no idea how to cook. None. That was the work of servants in his home, not the family and definitely not the men. Plus, trying to cook Indian food in the 1950's and 60's in the US, when Indian spices were not as ubiquitous as they are today, made the process of cooking even more challenging. Yet my father took on the job of learning to cook for himself.

One of his favorite things in his later years was to have friends and family over for large meals, even though those meals, particularly as he got older, would often take him more than a week to fully prepare. It frustrated him that it was taking longer for him to prepare these meals, it frustrated him that sometimes the onions would burn, or that he would forget some spice. It frustrated him that cooking would make him so tired. Still, just the weekend before he died, Dad told me he wanted to make Shrimp Pulau one last time.

Unfortunately, Dad did not get to make that dish. But he did get to make the Mirchi ka Salan and Qabooli with his youngest child, Shameem. And I believe he must have thought of that food while lying in that hospital on January 14th, fully aware that by not allowing doctors to treat him after his fall, he would die. And I believe, it gave him satisfaction knowing he would feed his family one last time.

His recipes are shared on my sister, Shameem's blog, Scratch: For the Love of all things Homemade.

-Naseem Rakha January 24, 2015

Friday, January 23, 2015

Mohammed Allah Rakha

"He got to live the way he wished, and with his family around him right until the end." 

Atal Gawande, Being Mortal


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Returning to the Stars

Here is a little something special. Words from dad about one of his favorite subjects: God.

I taped this conversation between he and an ER doc sometime early this summer when Dad and I made a late night trip to Silverton Hospital because his blood pressure had elevated to a dangerous level. His greatest concern, in his later days, was that he would be incapacitated by a stroke—unable to think or do for himself.

Dad honored his indepence like no one I've ever known, and, until my sister moved to Oregon in June, he lived on his own, cooking, driving, getting himself to and from his numerous doctor appointments. And even with Shameem there, doing all her great cooking, he still made his sambar, and coconut chutney, he still went to the Farmers Market, still attended Tuesday morning medical lectures at OSHU, still read his New York Times, his Scientific American, always telling us about articles "you have to read," or shows on PBS that "you have to watch."

The articles and shows showed the diversity of Dad's interests: physics, medicine, genetics, cancer research, politics, war, Islam, history, fitness, music, art, mortality, geology, animal communication, brain studies, cognitive development—on and on the list went, but on top of it were always his questions about this idea we call God.

Dad was raised a Muslim, married a Catholic, he and Mom took me to a Unitarian church when I was young, and after a couple years of that, they both threw in the towel on the whole religion thing. For them, if there was a divine it was in the music they shared, the sunrises they would show me, the birds my father woke me up to hear, telling me they were singing in the sun. It was in smiles and laughter, it was in us, their children, and all the mysteries that surrounded us, abstract questions about creation and destruction that were much better satisfied through scientific inquiry than superstition or mysticism.

My dad would talk with anyone about these things—friends, nurses, doctors, people in the hall or elevator, his children and his one grandchild. His mind always nibbling away at the bigger questions of life and death and whether or not there was a divine. "If there is a God," he was fond of saying, "he's not a micro-manager." Meaning his daily worries, were certainly not something a creator would have an interest in.

In the end Dad died an atheist. It was, in fact, one of the final things he uttered that last day. Saying quite clearly that he did not believe there is a single creator. Instead, his conclusion after a lifetime of study, was there was no heaven or hell, no pearly gate to walk through. We are all just energy, and that energy will simply become something else. "And if I'm wrong," he said on that hospital bed, "I will deal with it later."

"If you are wrong," I said to him, "you will end up lecturing God."

At the celebration of his life on Sunday, one of his nurses repeated a conversation she had had with dad. During one of his transfusions she asked if he believed in reincarnation. His answer was yes. "I started as stardust, and I will return to stardust."

And so will we all....

-Naseem Rakha 1/21/15

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Goodbye Dad

Last night, at 9:55, in a hospital room in Portland, my father took his last breath. I was sitting beside him on his bed. Shameem was standing beside him, my dear friend Nancy Boutin was with him. Nancy is a palliative care doctor and she knows about death, and she knew my father was making his passage. I, on the other hand, did not.

But my father has always been one to do things his way, and his death was no different.

He fell yesterday. He was heading home from the doctor's office, when something happened and he fell. He fractured his pelvis, he hit his head, he bruised his shoulder. When he arrived at his condo, the people there could tell he was confused and got him into an ambulance. Shameem was called. I was called. We both raced to the hospital.

I was there by 12:30. Eight and a half hours later he was gone.

The doctors don't know what took him. They only know that they were carrying out his explicit instructions to do nothing but provide comfort. My dad has been talking about his death for a while. He has been living with end stage kidney disease for more than a decade, and because he refused dialysis he had many other associated health problems. His big worry, though, was that he would be incapacitated, and require others to help him. He did not want that, and he did not want to trouble others. So when, at about 8:35, his breathing became labored, he was given 1 mg of morphine. "A whiff," Nancy said.

Nancy had arrived at my father's side at around 9:00. She talked with his nurse, his doctor, and then us. She told me he was dying soon, and I cried out NO! I did not believe it. I knew he refused treatment for the hematoma he had suffered from the fall, but doctors said we had a lot more time before that would effect him. And there was a chance it wouldn't effect him. There was a chance that this time, like all the other near death walks my father has taken (Yellow Fever, Typhus, Malaria, the Plague, two horrendous car accidents, a broken neck, an brain infection, etc...) would give us a view of the ledge—not take us over the cliff. Shameem and I had it all figured out. We would meet with all his physicians in the morning, get them to his bed, urge him to rally.

"He's decided," Nancy said with a hug.

And he did. Less than an hour later he puffed out a few hard breaths then he opened his eyes and stared at something. I do not know what he was seeing. There were no words anymore. Not from him. It was just me and Shameem and Nancy, telling him we were there and that it was alright, and that we love him.

We love him so so much. So very, very much.

We were lucky, his family and friends. My dad was a jewel in the crown. Born in India in 1929 (we think, they didn't keep records) he came to the US in 1950 for his education. He defied his family, and did not return to be handed off in an arranged marriage. Instead, he married a woman he met in Chicago, a German American who shared his love of opera and ballet. He defied the dogma of Islam in favor of the tangible qualities of numbers, and science. He defied conservatism by remaining an ardent liberal, always open to the potential of compassion. He defied his doctors, who said he should have died years ago because of his refusal to get dialysis, a procedure he refused in favor of daily exercise and meticulous attention to diet. He defied stereotype, and defied the idea that fathers are somehow less: less nurturing, less present, less aware. My father was always nurturing, always present, always aware. He was always there for me and my sister and brother and son and husband. He was there for his friends, and his relatives in India. No matter what time of day or night. He was always pointing to something for people to notice and think about and question. Always teaching us that there are things we can do that are kind. Even in death.

Life is all in our brain, he said yesterday. Everything we see and think and feel, all come from our brain.

Right now my brain feels like it is locked in a futile struggle to grasp the enormity of this loss. It's just too big. For the rest of my life, I think, it will always be too big.

My father died yesterday, and I am proud of him for finding the exit he dreamed of. "The only way he could have done it better," my brother Amir said, "is if he was protecting children from some terrorist."

Dad would have laughed at that, and said it was true. We are a laughing family, my dad's laughter, something that always made me happiest.

Goodbye, Dad. I will love you and love you and love you for the rest of my life.

-your daughter, Naseem
January 15, 2015

Thursday, January 8, 2015

To the Fascists who Kill in the Name of their Prophet

My muslim friends and family, I am sorry your religion has been hijacked by fascist groups of frightened and ignorant fools who have traded reason for fear and hate, and who kill those who dare question or mock Mohammed, the great and powerful, and who refuse to see how their violent actions do more to subvert the Prophet and his words than any combination of journalists and artists and writers combined. My Christian and Jewish friends and family, my Buddhist friends, my Hindu and Zoroaster friends. Wiccan, Jain, believers of all stripes. Non believers. Reach out to your Muslim neighbors. They are just as mournful over the casualties of this senseless war, as everyone else.

The slayers of faith clothe themselves in fear and lies.

Naseem Rakha - January, 7, 2015

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Only Children Weep

Ferguson, Missouri - November 24, 2014 after the Grand Jury declined to indict Officer Darren Wilson for shooting and killing
18-year-old Michael Brown

"They've done it before and they did it tonight and they'll do it again, and when they do it seems that only children weep."  —Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I do not know what happened in Ferguson, Missouri
August 9th, 2014

I only know it was the product of the same


That have lead to
Led to black teens
lying dead on America's streets

Mothers screaming

And Ferguson now burns with anger

Justice not an ideal
but a jewel saved

The insiders
The ones with the right addresses
The diplomas
And suits
And skin as white
and "pure" as snow

I do not know what happened
on the street of Ferguson, Missouri
August 9, 2014

But I know the decision to ignore it
feeds a story
that has not yet found its end

Naseem Rakha - November 25, 2014