meandma2I turned 51 today.

Last year was the milestone year. The big 50. I felt OK about it. 50 is the new 40, my older friends told me. I celebrated with a big party. My brother came from Canada, my cousin from New York. My sisters-in-law traveled great distances, too. Then everyone went home and life resumed, no different, really, than before.

Today is different.

Not that suddenly, I feel old. Or that there is no hoopla this year.

Today is different for one very important reason.

My mother suffered a massive stroke in 1982. On my birthday. She was 51.

That day changed our lives in so many ways. You can imagine all the obvious ways: my mother was in a coma for days in the Intensive Care Unit at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital and when she regained her senses, the left side of her body no longer worked. There were months and months of physical therapy for my mother. And even more months of adjustment for me and my family while we learned how to take care of an invalid, infirm woman.

She’d also lost a lot of her cognitive abilities and the mother I adored was suddenly gone. She was there in person, physically. But the woman I knew died on that day.

Over the next 19 years that she lived, I learned to relate to my mother on a whole new level. In the end, when my father also cruelly lost his cognitive abilities to Alzheimer’s, my mother became like my daughter. She’d ask me what she should wear, what she could eat. If anyone asked her a difficult question, she’d consult me before answering publicly. We exchanged roles.

My mother died in May 2001. I had to deal with her dying all over again. Except this time, there was nothing left of her at all. She was gone.

I’ve always feared turning 51. I feared it even more after I learned I was prone to hypertension — my mother’s blood pressure had soared to obscene levels before the stroke.

So on this day, I contemplate my mortality. And want desperately to make time stop so that I can have the opportunities to accomplish all that is left on my long, long list of things to do, places to see. It’s not that I want to be young again — I greatly value the wisdom time and experience have given me. Just that I feel the days whizzing past like speeding bullets.

Like everyone else, I want to feel that I did something good for this world. Now there are fewer days left for me to achieve that.


rena golden
Rena Golden

Hasan Zeya used to boast about how he was still practicing medicine into his early 80s. But at 84, he no longer is happy about his age. His daughter, Rena, passed away last week, days shy of her 52nd birthday.

“She did a bad thing. She cut ahead of me in the queue,” he tells me at her funeral Sunday.

Tears well in his eyes, though he keeps a brave front among the hundreds of people who have come to pay tribute to Rena. The weather, dreary and wet, matches the mood inside the inside Temple Kol Emeth.

Rena’s memorial was exactly how it should have been. A rabbi and grieving husband spoke of her incredible talent, compassion and ability to inspire. They spoke of a daughter, a wife, a mother, who gave her all to her family.

Rena worked for many years at CNN, a majority of her time spent as a leader at CNN International. The temple was filled with journalists who stood in awe of her.

Watch a birthday message from Dr. Zeya to Rena  on her birthday last year:

Dr. Zeya tells me how his own father had been a journalist in India but discouraged his son from ever becoming one. It was hard work and no money. But maybe that’s where Rena got her passion.

As a little girl, Rena would make her parents watch as she pretended to be a news anchor. She would hide under the table and appear from behind the tablecloth to the deliver the news.

Rena came to America on her sixth birthday. Dr. Zeya had wanted a better life for his family and moved to North Carolina from a remote part of the Indian state of Bihar. His family hailed from the place where Mahatma Gandhi launched his civil disobedience campaign in India — there’s a scene in the Oscar winning film that shows Gandhi arriving at that train station.

Dr. Zeya tells me he was happy to leave what he called the “most backward place in India.” For a variety of reasons.

He tells me he loved that in Chapel Hill, he could shower with hot water spewing from the faucets. And that he did not have to sweat through the entire summer like we did in India when the electricity went out and the fans stopped for hours. I felt connected with him — and to Rena — in a whole different way.

I never really spoke with Rena much about her early childhood in India. My connections to our homeland, of course, were much stronger since my parents chose to return there many years ago. But in a strange sort of way, it was comforting to know now that Rena had experienced life as I had there. She was only a year and half older than me.

My deepest connection to Rena was that when I first met her more than 20 years ago, she was the only other Indian woman I knew in mainstream journalism in the United States. Now, of course, there are many successful South Asian women practicing great journalism. But back then, there were few. Rena knew that and encouraged women like me to keep pushing forward.

As I speak with her father, I realize where she got a lot of her spunk, though he insists that it was she who inspired him.

Dr. Zeya tells me he never wanted to color his children’s thoughts about big things in life. Like religion. He wanted Rena to make up her own mind. It was exactly how my father had raised my brother and me. He never allowed organized religion to infiltrate our home. He wanted us to figure it out for ourselves.

Sunday afternoon, Dr. Zeya sat in the temple to hear Rabbi Steven Lebow tell the audience what Rena had said to him when it became apparent she was going to die.

She told him she didn’t fear death — she never had in her painful two-year battle against lymphoma. She worried only about what would happen to her children, Sabrina and Adam, and to the love of her life, her husband, Rob Golden.

She also told Rabbi Lebow that she wasn’t religious, though she considered herself deeply spiritual. It was a statement that made her father proud.

We spoke of religious tensions in India. Dr. Zeya sipped Sprite and launched a conversation on Islam. He believes followers of that faith must rethink their path to the future. It was not a discussion I’d expected to have at Rena’s funeral and at first, I was caught by surprise.

But on the long drive back home on 1-75, I decided otherwise. My conversation with Dr. Zeya was exactly what Rena would have wanted. Smart, forward-thinking, outside-the-box, provocative, even, and totally unexpected at a funeral. She would have liked that her father initiated an intelligent conversation with her friends and colleagues.

The rain came down harder. It was as though the entire world was mourning the loss of Rena Shaheen Zeya Golden.


Shonakaka with me,  (from right), my cousin Jayanta, my brother, Shantanu,
my cousins Sudip and Suman at our grandfather’s house  in Kolkata. Circa, 1968.
The last time I saw Shonakaka, I knew he was ill.
Gone was the mirth; his enormous zest for life reduced to a meager smile. At a family gathering in New Delhi last December, he could hardly eat a thing.
Shonakaka was suffering from renal failure and had to be most careful about what he put in his belly, especially foods high in phosphorous. His son — and my cousin — Ronny was not pleased his father had put a heaping spoon of daal on his plate.
If you knew Shonakaka at another time in his life, you would hardly believe my words.
He was always the boisterous one; the one who loved to eat, drink and make merry. “Live life king size,” he always said. At my cousin Suman’s wedding in California, Shonakaka danced atop Suman’s brand new Acura Integra.  We laughed, amazed at Shonakaka’s energy, though, perhaps, Suman was a tad worried about dents and scratches on his shiny car.
Shonakaka as a young man.
Unfair then that at a fairly young age, Shonakaka was forced to adopt a curtailed regimen and give up things that he loved. Cruel even.
He was my father’s youngest sibling. Kaka means father’s younger brother in Bengali. And Shona means gold or someone very precious. It used to be the norm to have a naming convention so as to avoid calling elders by their first names. That was considered disrespectful.
Shonakaka was born Ranjan Kumar Basu on July 8, 1942 in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh. He was 18 years younger than my father and grew up as the baby in a family of five boys and three girls.
Now, within the span of a few months, that generation of my father’s family is down to just a brother and sister still living. Everyone else, including my father, is gone.
Many of my friends in America may not understand the pull of an uncle or aunt.
I was raised in an extended family system in which my grandfather’s house was occupied at various times by various members of the family. That meant Shonakaka often stayed in one of the many bedrooms in the house.
Shonakaka holding me. I was about a year old.
When I was a baby, he made me cry and took a photograph of me wailing. Just to be contrary, he said. Why should I be happy in every shot?
From his travels abroad, he brought us back chocolates and other goodies that were non-existent in India in the 1960s and early ‘70s. He regaled us with stories of his travels – each adventure made grander with Shonakaka’s unique infusion of enthusiasm and zeal.
Once, he started growing chickens on the roof. My brother and I raced up the stairwell every morning to see how many eggs we could retrieve. And in the backyard, he built a tank to farm tilapia so we’d have the freshest fish.
Shonakaka (center) at a dinner at my parents’ house
in Kolkata in the late 1990s.
It was understood that Shonakaka would fix the menu for family weddings and other festive events. I’ll always have images in my head of my two youngest uncles breaking into a pot of syrupy sweets before they even made it into the kitchen.
After he married my aunt, they lived for a while on the ground floor of the family house. It was there that my cousin Bideesha — Ronny’s elder sister — was born. I often babysat her with my brother and our housekeeper, Shantidi, when Shonakaka and Kakima went out with friends.
Shonakaka was not far from home when he was attacked on the streets with acid and lived the rest of his life with scars. But he always rose above his woes. He never let anything interfere with living life to its fullest.
Until recently, when his health began to fail him.
Shonakaka with his daughter, Bideesha, in Delhi last
December. That was the last time I saw him.
I’d not seen him in a couple of years when we met last December. He was not even 70 yet but looked frail. He’d lost weight and suddenly, he appeared to me just like my grandfather. At the time, my aunt in California was in her last days of battle with cancer. It was then that I realized how those I loved in India were going away, how I was losing the links that kept drawing me back all these years.
The finality of death brings with it a host of regrets. I always hear people say, I wish I had done this and I wish I had done that. Yes, I have my regrets regarding Shonakaka. I wish I had visited more in recent years. I wish we had talked more on the phone. But I am glad for what I had with him. Glad that I made the trip to Delhi to see him in what turned out to be the very last time.
And that he was still smiling then.


Wendy at Cafe 640

Last September, my friend Wendy was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma. Breast cancer.

Her mammogram nine months earlier was clear.

“That’s how fast it can happen,” she wrote on her blog, “which is why I’ve already been pretty open and honest about my story.”

I saw Wendy Thursday at a gathering to celebrate her last day of radiation. She announced that her doctor had declared her “cancer free.”

She looked beautiful as always when I saw her. A big smile on her face, her positive energy filling the entire cafe.

If only everyone dealing with illness could see her, I thought. How inspired they would all be.

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