Dad died six years ago today. I remember it as a beautiful winter morning. Sunny. Warm. Then came the call. Dad fell. Get to the hospital. There was the forty mile drive, weaving through traffic, finding the emergency room, the nurses, the doctors, hearing the story: your dad was on the streetcar, he fell, his hip is fractured, he may have a subdural hematoma, we are not sure, he won’t let us do a scan.
And then there was my dad, lying on a hospital bed. Resigned.
Two weeks earlier Dad had taken my brother and me to see his hematologist. He wanted us to know the reality of his situation. More than fifteen years before he had been diagnosed with kidney disease. But instead of going on dialysis he controlled his condition with diet and exercise and an occasional injection of EPO, the hormone produced by healthy kidneys which stimulates the production of red blood cells. Eventually, however, the injections stopped working, and dad was living from one blood transfusion to another.
“We’re at a point where we’re just managing numbers,” the doctor said. “Trying to balance the needs of your dad’s blood with the needs of his kidneys.” My dad raised a leg of his trousers and the doctor pointed to a large patch of skin just above his sock. The area was dry and cracked and as black as a brand. “This is what happens when kidneys can’t keep up with iron from the blood transfusions. The heavy metal deposits itself where ever it can, eventually killing the cells.” This killing spree, the doctor continued, would not stop with the skin. Other organs—dad’s heart, his liver, even his brain would likely be affected. The doctor leaned close. He was a middle aged man with a wife and children and a mother and father in LA. “I would expect that some time this year, maybe this fall, your dad may need to enter hospice.” I imagined my father, the iron staining his beautiful brain to the color of coal.
When mom first told us dad had refused to even consider dialysis, we used our full bag of tools to persuade him otherwise: love, guilt, bribes. We contacted people we knew were on dialysis, and they told dad how the treatment had improved the quality of their lives. His relatives from half a world away would call imploring him to reconsider. “Rakha, please. For God’s sake, please.” But dad was didn’t want to be hooked to a machine. Moreover, he insisted, the medicare program that would fund his dialysis to the tune of about eighty thousand dollars a year was, in his mind, not meant for, “old men like me.” So we gave up trying to persuade him, and started wondering how we could ever live with the hole his absence would inevitably create.
And the years moved forward. An engineer by trade, dad would spend his evenings in front of his computer, punching numbers into a spreadsheet – blood pressure, blood count, medications, then occasionally showing us the results — graphs which pinpointed the end of his life. My dad chuckled at the doctor’s prediction about hospice. “I don’t want to burden to anyone, not hospice workers, not my children. I am going to die in two weeks.” The doctor laughed at his joke. Except for his chronic conditions, dad was otherwise healthy. His diet was impeccable, he still exercised each morning, still enjoyed taking an occasional physics class at the nearby university. There was no reason to think he’d be gone in two weeks. “None at all, Mr. Rakha.”
The doctor liked my dad. All dad’s caregivers seemed to really like him, actually. Some, I would say, even loved him. After his death I received letters from several. Each spoke about a courage they found when they were with him. A compassion and concern that felt utterly genuine. I wasn’t surprised. Born in colonial India, dad was a handsome Indian man with interesting stories and an insatiable heart and mind who faced his approaching death with eyes wide open. To him, curiosity was the key to living well. His goal was to understand. Understand his condition, understand medicine and music and art and religion and science and history and politics and people — all the people around him — his neighbors, his repairmen, his barber, the kids who would pump his gas. He’d bring pastries to his nurses and sit with truckers and shopkeepers and stand always stand for the fair way, the just way, the way of intellect and reason and love. So yes, his caregivers loved him. As did we, his two daughters orbiting his hospital bed casting glances at each other as people came in and out of his room that January day in 2015, and him ensconced within a still and quiet determination to face his fate. “I am going to die in two weeks,” he had said. And here it was, two weeks later.
Dad died on his own terms. No hospice. No machines. No aching decline. No children hovering for weeks or months. His breathing became labored, he was given a small amount of morphine, and he was gone.
And all that happened six years ago on this day. And I remember the details with a specificity. The sound of shoes squeaking on the floors, the smell of disinfectant, the taste of fear and despair. The words of my friend, Nancy, a palliative care doctor who came when I called. “You know he’s actively dying right now, right?” And then the word NO escaping my lips, the elongated vowel filling the hospital halls.
But my dad taught us well. All things pass, and isn’t it good and wise to have spent a life in the light of knowledge and love and beauty? My father came to America in the 1950’s, got his degrees, married an American and raised three deftly challenging kids: children with opinions and things they needed to do and places they needed to go and causes for which they needed to fight. Kids who moved far from home and lived far from home until our mom died and he moved to Portland to live near me and my husband and his grandchild.
And now I have those memories. Great and glorious years — walks and concerts and lectures and dinners. Food is the Rakha family love-language, and my father was a pure romantic—displaying his magnanimity in the meticulous way he browned onions and peeled ginger and ground garlic and toasted spices — cumin and cardamom and coriander and cayenne. It was an aromatic journey that brought his neighbors knocking and then leaving hours later with stories and flavors lingering on their tongues.
And so, on this day, I fill that hollow space in my life with heat from a thousand thousand thousand suns: the love and light my father gave, teaching me to appreciate and notice and care and be comfortable with the idea that all things pass, and isn’t it good, and isn’t it grave, and isn’t it just the way it is all supposed to be…