Her bedridden father had one wish: white rice, simply prepared. Who knew magic lay inside such a plain dish?
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.
I brought the rice up to my father on the bright yellow bed tray we served all his meals on. My mother
added a tall glass of ice-cold water, which he'd requested at the last minute. When I walked into the room,
my father's face lit up, his eyes sparkling with anticipation. He was wrapped in three heavy comforters,
which were doing the work that muscle and fat had once done for his body.
As I leaned over to place the tray in front of him, the forward sway of my body spilled the chilled water
right onto his chest and lap. The water soaked through the comforters and into my father's pajamas.
My father let out a loud cry. I quickly pulled the tray aside and rested it on the dresser across from his bed.
Even as he moaned and tried to wriggle away from the wet comforters, his eyes trailed the plate of rice
that was now cooling off just a few feet away.
My mother heard my father's screams and hurried to his rescue. She quickly peeled back the sheets, all
the while shouting for me to get her a towel and dry pajamas from the closet.
My father's pained utterances quickly went from moans to wails.
"Oh, God!" he called out tearfully. Because of his illness, he was oversensitive to the cold and must have
felt as though he were being drowned in an icy lake.
My mother removed his pajamas and patted him down with the towel. In addition to the fibrosis in his
lung, my father suffered from psoriasis, which covered large portions of his skin with dried scaly patches.
This was the first and only time I'd seen my father naked. Not only was his body bared but his carefully
hidden lesions were, too.
An hour later, he was still shivering under three dry comforters. It took some oxygen and a nebulizer to
stabilize him again. By then the rice was cold and he showed no desire for it.
"I'm sorry, Papa," I said.
"It was an accident." He raised one bony hand from under the blankets to grab mine. "I know you didn't
mean to do it."
"I ruined the rice for you," I said. "I know how much you wanted it."
He hesitated, then pressed my hand harder.
"I didn't want it so much as I wanted to want it," he said. "The truth is, I don't feel hungry or thirsty
anymore. I just wish I did."
It pained me much more to hear this than to hear him saying the day before that he'd dreamed of
long-dead relatives standing at his bedside. It pained me more than the way he introduced nearly every
sentence with "When I'm gone." I remembered being angry at him the previous Thanksgiving when he
surveyed the feast at our family dinner table and curtly declared, "There's nothing here I can eat." After
cooking for two days, my mother had been devastated. What we didn't know, however, and what my
father himself had no idea of at the time, was that the disease was slowly eating away at his body's
yearning for food and quickly wiping out his reliance on it.
Sitting with him that night after the water spill, holding his hand, I could smell it before we saw
it—a new batch of long-grain white rice prepared by my mother. This time she brought it up
herself, and not on the bed tray but on a round silver server from the special cabinet. My father raised
himself on the bed to receive it, and as soon as my mother handed him the spoon—for he always
ate his rice with a spoon—he immediately dove in. He barely chewed at all, simply bouncing the
grains from cheek to cheek, then swallowing quickly. Had I not known, I would have thought him
famished, ravenous, even insatiable. And perhaps he was. Or maybe he was desperately trying to
nourish himself with something recognizable and familiar.
When he was halfway done, my father handed me the plate.
"Do you want some?" he asked.
"There's more in the kitchen," my mother said. "She can have it later. This is for you."
"Let her have some," he insisted.
I reached over and took the plate. Using my father's spoon, I piled a mound of rice into my mouth. It was plain but flavorful, delicious. I suspected that my mother might have slipped in some broth or margarine, even a few drops of coconut milk, but I couldn't be sure.
Handing the rest of the rice back to my father, I said, "Thank you, Papa."
Three days later, my father was dead. In the interim, he'd stopped eating altogether.
I will always be grateful I shared that plate of rice with my father because for nearly a year my mother, my brothers, and I had constantly brought him food yet had rarely eaten with him. Somehow it hadn't occurred to us that he missed sharing a table or a dish, passing a spice or a spoon. But he did.
Three weeks before he died, my parents had their 40th wedding anniversary. My brothers and I invited a few friends over, even though my father was too weak to leave his bed. Still, as we all gathered around, he seemed relieved for once to be at the center of an occasion that did not involve his illness. The simple act of rejoicing, our honoring the day he and my mother were married, he said, allowed him to momentarily concentrate on life rather than death. And even the simplest life, like the simplest meal, is cause for celebration.