I had no idea it would be our last meal together. My father, ill with pulmonary fibrosis for a year and bedridden for nine months, told me he wanted a bowl of plain white rice for supper. A staple of our family's Haitian diet, rice was something we consumed nearly every day. Early in his illness, however, he had decided firmly, if incorrectly, that rice grains were contributing to his clogged lungs and aggravating his agonizing cough, so he abruptly stopped eating them.
Overjoyed that my father was actually craving something other than the nutritional supplement Ensure that comprised most of his meals, I rushed to share the news with my mother.
My mother was my father's sole around-the-clock caregiver. She'd watched him shrink from 170 pounds down to 90 and was the first to hold his hand when he lost the ability to walk by himself. And the afternoon he longed for rice, she was the only person he would allow to cook it for him.
She immediately sent me back to ask my father exactly how he wanted his rice prepared. Could she soak it in chicken broth, mix it with black or brown beans or mushrooms, sprinkle it with shredded cashews? Would he mind if she lubricated it with butter or margarine to add some extra calories and taste, if she stirred in chunks of sausage or bacon for much needed protein? Perhaps he wanted some fresh vegetables thrown in for fiber?
I rushed back upstairs to what had been my parents' bedroom and was now his alone, the queen-size bed replaced by a buzzing oxygen machine and narrow hospital bed that allowed my father to prop himself up at the push of a button to reply that he wanted only a small bowl of the plainest white rice my mother could possibly prepare. He even provided a shorthand recipe: "Cup of rice, water, drop of salt, spoonful of vegetable oil. Boil it all together."
My father had always been a picky eater. When he left Haiti and moved to the United States in 1971, he was forced to come without my mother because she couldn't obtain a visa. The meals he prepared for himself as a suddenly exiled bachelor always included meat, usually chicken or pork; some boiled plantains; and inevitably rice. When my mother was able to join him two years later, the first thing he did was cook her a lavish Sunday meal of stewed chicken, fried plantains, and rice and beans. Each time someone would visit from Haiti, my father would cook that same meal—his welcome repast, he called it—because he wanted his guests to taste what had buffered his transition to immigrant life. And even if their stays would not be as long as his, he hoped they would feel, as he did, that one could easily return home simply by lifting a fork to one's lips.
I watched silently as my mother prepared my father's rice
. When she dropped the contents of an overflowing measuring cup into a pot of boiling water, a few grains spilled out, turning black in the oven flames. I thought I saw her hands tremble as she lowered the lid to trap in some of the steam that would prevent the rice from becoming sticky. My father liked his rice light and fluffy, separate. Since he'd gone so long without a taste, the possibility of disappointing him weighed heavily on my mother.
When the rice was done, she searched a cabinet filled with her special occasion dishes, the kind she used only when she had company, and pulled out a gorgeous white porcelain plate with two giant cherries sketched in the middle. The cherries overlapped in a way that made them look like one large heart, and as my mother heaped the rice on top of them, they seemed like a coded message from a woman who was beyond taking ordinary moments with her husband for granted.