Wednesday, February 18, 2015

My Own Damn Fault


I was a political reporter for the Consortium for Public Radio from 1995 to 2003, which means I covered most of John Kitzhaber's first two terms in office. I remember him as a smart, articulate and passionate leader—always with his eyes focused at least 30 paces in front of him, as if Kitzhaber, an ardent fisherman, were looking for a good hole to cast his fly. Meaning: he was a forward thinker: The Oregon Health Plan, the Sustainability Workforce, the Energy Plan, his focus on higher education and kids reading and early childhood development...

There is a long list of things Kitzhaber tried to tackle. Some were successful, many were not, but at least there was the effort—the call to arms, someone who supported workers and the poor and kids, even when partisans in the legislature appeared not to.

John Kitzhaber singing Margarittaville at his 1999 inauguration
I remember him coming to my office one day, this was when my son was about 13 months old and half my office was then a play room. He walked in, sat on the floor and played cars with Elijah, pushing them along the carpet. Making noises. That's a memory that will stick. So will him guiding an elderly lady out of the capitol after it had to be evacuated due to a post-9/11 anthrax threat. I remember him near tears when talking about how hard it was to allow for the execution of two prisoners, and I remember him during the endless "special sessions" that had to be called when the economy crashed. I also remember him telling me he was going to crack open the Wild Turkey when the legislature finally came out with a budget he didn't feel compelled to veto.

But of all the memories I have, the one that has been coming up in my mind as I watch the unfortunate unraveling of Kitzhaber's reign is related to the song Margaritaville by Jimmy Buffet. I have seen the governor preform this twice. Once at a private party of reporters, and the second at his 1999 inauguration party. True to Kitzhaber's form, staff, friends and family were invited to a "hoedown," versus a formal affair. It was held in an old K-Mart and people came dressed for a square dance: all cowboy hats and petticoats. Halfway through the party, Kitzhaber took to the stage with the band, borrowed a guitar, and off he went singing about being, "wasted away in Margaritaville," and "looking for his last shaker of salt."

But of course it's not those particular words that stick in my mind now, but the ones at the very end.

"Some people say there's a woman to blame, but I know, it's my own damn fault."

If there's one fault I can find about Kitzhaber is that his iconoclast personality gave him a swagger and a false of sense of invincibility. He broke rules of dress, of social conformity, he never backed down from saying what he thought, never glad-handed. These are characteristics that draw people in. But in the end, they were not characteristics that could save him from himself. 

I have no inside insight into what happened these past months with Kitzhaber and his fiancé, and how their actions led to his resignation, but I do think the Governor's departure will find him focusing a little closer in, and maybe searching for a new song.

-Naseem Rakha February 18, 2015


Sunday, February 1, 2015

Undone




I have not written my dad's obituary yet. I have not cancelled his credit cards or opened the notebook that says what I am suppose to do, as executor. I have not boxed up any of his clothes, or thrown away any papers, or medications, or magazines. I have not thought about what date we, as a family, will fly back to Chicago with his ashes.

Some of his ashes. Some I will keep. Some we, the three children, will leave at places he loved. A scattering at the coast. Mt St. Helens. The Grand Canyon. The Ringside Steak House (no). Some I am going to plant under a tree. A gingko, perhaps. Perhaps we will donate a tree to the Japanese Garden. I think Dad would like to be a tree in a Zen garden. Some of his ashes, I may have made into a small glass orb I can wear around my neck.

Portland's Japanese Garden photo by David Cobb
The rain started today. It has been two and a half weeks since Dad died and the days have been clear and warm, but the rain started today, and it feels heavy and I feel heavy. In the hall, there is a suitcase of photos I need to sort through, then scan, then make albums of the very best, so I can give them to my brother and sister.

I made the mistake of watching the movie Beginners last night, a touching film about a middle aged man played by Ewan McGregor, living with the life and death of his 75 year old father, Christopher Plummer. It was about relationships and love and grief and getting to know your father in a different way as an adult, and about the sadness of seeing that go away.

And I know my Dad died the way he wanted, he was not drugged up, not filled with tubes. He had his beautiful mind and that beautiful mind said this is my exit. And I know he was lucky that way, and we are lucky that way. And I know he was 85, living to an age far surpassing any of his ancestors, and I know he was telling us he would not be with us much longer. And I know I thought I was ready.

But I was wrong.

And now I am the executor of an estate I do not want to take apart. I have to write an obituary about a life I can not confine to a word count. I have to look at these photos again and again, to see what there is to remember—the vase that sat on the table, the funky blue chair, the plaid slacks, the yellow house, the chipped sidewalk, the cottonwoods, the coffeepot, the kettle. All the things you never think are very important, until they absolutely are.

-Naseem Rakha, February 1, 2015

Dad and me. November 19, 2014 - my 55th birthday









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 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.

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. It is another time consuming dish, and it is also a dish that, due to my father's limited diet, he could not longer eat. Yet, that is what he wanted to make for us, his children, all of us in our forties and fifties now, all of us so graced by the abundance of his love and generosity.

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



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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 9:35, his breathing became labored, he was given 1 mg of morphine. "A whiff," Nancy said.

Nancy had arrived at my father's side at ten minutes after nine. 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, a brain infection, etc...) we would be shown a view of the ledge—but not taken over the cliff. Shameem and I had it all figured out. We would meet with his physicians in the morning, we would get them to his bed, and together we would 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