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  • Wavelength
  • Naomi Shihab Nye (bio)

My father didn’t really cook much. But he wrote an endearing cookbook, A Taste of Palestine, that sold out four printings, and a year and a half after his death, my friend finds one of his last grocery lists in a red coat I’m giving away.

Does this belong to anyone? She waves it.

Tomatoes, fresh, Tomato Sauce…

His spare, classy penmanship—more printing than cursives—sears me. The frills and flourishes of his first written language, Arabic, may be evident in the o’s and l’s of “olive oil”—but the little white paper, folded once in half, says, I am an organized American. All hell is breaking loose in the world and in my body, but I will go to the store, buy two kinds of tomatoes and green peppers and those little baby carrots someone invented, and stir up something tasty that gives me hope again.

I must have driven him. That’s why the list was in my pocket.

I’m touched by the side-note about the shrimp in the stew he grew so fond of at the end—steam, put on ice—which I misread at first as “put on rice.” He was an Arab. He put many things on rice. Shrimp was not really part of his cuisine for many years. But nearing the end, in the terrible seasons of clinics and medical details, he branched out in the dining category and fell in love with a vivid one-pot dinner that he was proud to make for my mom, his children and beloved grandchildren, anyone who came by.

Pine nuts has a check mark beside it.

That must mean he already had them.

Staff of life—pine nuts. As he always had a can or two of garbanzo beans, a tub of tahini, and bulbs of garlic—staffs of life. When I was a child, he [End Page 147] taught me how to mash up the garbanzo beans with a wooden mallet, saving a few whole ones for decorating the top of the plate of hummus with drizzled olive oil and carefully arranged marinated olives and slices of pickle. He was so happy with Arabic food.

At the end, his staff of life would have been a healthy kidney. When we’re kids, he said, we hear about the heart and the brain—but look, it’s the kidneys that got me! Actually, a lot of things got him. Not his brain though. Never his mind.

No doctor considered him a candidate for a transplant because his gentle heart was too weak. He’d had a quadruple bypass nineteen years before and by the end, five stents. He didn’t give up hope. He sent me racing around the back streets of Cairo to find a kidney surgeon who might, just might, give him another chance…a handsome doctor stared at me at ten p.m. with tired eyes. “He’d never be able to withstand the drugs after surgery. His heart would not take it.” Furthermore, my dad wasn’t an Egyptian, and there was a law in Egypt against getting an Egyptian kidney if you weren’t an Egyptian.

I could just picture it—my exiled Palestinian dad showing up in the Cairo airport with a brown paper bag and a kidney on ice…

A generally sociable guy, he tried to make the most of encounters with others during grueling dialysis rounds. He chatted with people around him, surprised they were so gloomy. They were surprised he wasn’t. He felt terrible for young people on dialysis. “I hope they’ll get transplants.” He let technicians detail their marital problems and worried about them. Late in the evenings, before clinic days, he drove to the corner grocery to buy a big box of apple turnovers at half-price to give away to technicians the next morning. Public relations—his specialty. He had warm affection for some gay technicians who treated him most tenderly and was always slipping them fives for lunch.

Watering his lilies, a year before his last day, he said, “My time is slipping fast now.”

This broke my heart...


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pp. 147-150
Launched on MUSE
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