Dr. Houshang Khorram
Middlesboro knew my father first and foremost as a beloved pediatrician. He grew up in Iran, in Yazd, during the 1930’s and 40’s. Yazd was probably not that different from Appalachia at that time – poverty, disease, needless suffering. And my father chose to tackle these issues by studying medicine. He was accepted to university in Shiraz, where during his medical studies he met my mother, who was a nurse. They married, they had a son, and they moved to the United States where this promising young doctor continued his studies at Johns Hopkins University. And a daughter was born. To stay in the United States, my father had to go where doctors were needed, and he came to Eastern Kentucky. He practiced medicine for 50 years, and forty six of those years were spent here in Middlesboro. Over the past few days, the tributes have poured in from this community – words like: “He was one of a kind. Touched so many lives and the little ones he took care of so tenderly for so many years.” “I loved him… He saved my baby girls life.” “Our grandson was a baby and had just started talking when we'd taken him to see Dr. Khorram. As he was leaving the room our grandson said, ‘I love you, Dr. Khorram.’ Dr. Khorram stopped, turned around and came over and hugged him. Our grandson really loved Dr. Khorram! He's 19 and would drive himself to go see Dr. Khorram when he was sick!”
This was my father. A kind, gentle man, who spent his life caring for children. There is no possible way I can capture all of the feelings that have been expressed about his passing, and I don’t think I need to, because, after all, he was a part of your lives and a part of your hearts. What can I say, that you do not already feel deeply yourselves?
Although he must have known the impact he had on this community, he never talked about it, never acknowledged that he was even aware of it. You see, he was just thankful to you, for entrusting him with the privilege of caring for your families. He was thankful for such meaningful work. He loved his life serving the children of the area. His work filled him with joy and with purpose. On weekends, he was waiting for Monday, so he could get back to doing what he loved.
When I was here five years ago, he took me to his office one weekend. And I stood in the silent office, looking at the hundreds of pictures on the walls. The pictures of his patients, who over the years, would bring in school photos for their beloved doctor. Many of the pictures were faded, some were more than 40 years old, the faces of children, with gap-toothed smiles, and lopsided haircuts, and innocent eyes, all captured in time, all a witness to his work.
From the time my dad hit sixty – that more than 20 years ago! -- we would ask him about retirement. To retire was simply not something he wanted to do, or saw the slightest reason to do. “I love my work,” he would say, “I help people. They thank me. What can I do in retirement that would be better than this?” And so he kept doing what he loved into the 83rd year of his life. He did finally retire, this January, and over these past few months, he would often talk about how much he missed his practice. I put a pause on my own practice of medicine two years ago, and I would joke with my dad that he outlasted me in the profession by 30 years.
For my dad, his work, this service, was a quiet testament to his Faith. He grew up in Iran, where Islam is the predominant Faith. He was born into a staunch Muslim family, and raised his early years as a Muslim. But something was quietly happening in the background that he was not aware of. In 1844, a new Faith had been born, the Baha’i Faith, an independent world religion that is now the most widespread religion after Christianity. It was, and remains today, reviled by the fanatic elements of Iran, with tens of thousands of Baha’is having given their lives, and many today remaining imprisoned for their Faith. It calls to mind the early years of the Christian martyrs at the hands of the Romans. Something significant had quietly happened during my father’s childhood in Yazd. His mother, at significant risk to herself, and with great courage, had embraced the Baha’i Faith. She had done so secretly because of the danger.
My father found out about this unexpectedly. He had learned a schoolyard taunt against the Baha’is and had come home happily singing it. His mother took him into the basement, away from the family, and firmly told him, that he was to never say such disrespectful words about the Baha’is again. It was then, that for the first time, my father suspected that his mother was a Baha’i. Soon thereafter, she openly proclaimed her faith before her husband’s family, who cast the entire family out of the household. It was then that my father began in earnest to learn about this Faith that his mother had embraced. This Faith , which he had been raised to ridicule, became his own, and became the motivating force of his life. If my father had not become a Baha’i, there would likely have never been a Dr. Khorram in Middlesboro. So, it is this Faith that we have to thank for this man’s presence in this community.
My father was attracted to the core tenants of this new Faith, that teaches that there is only one God, that all the religions come from the same divine source. That their spiritual teachings, that tell us to be kind, loving, just, and fair, run through them all. That they differ, not because they come from different Gods, or because some are false and others true. No, they differ because their historical contexts differed and the needs of humanity differed. It was in these teachings, the teachings of Baha’u’llah, that my father saw the renewal of the same light that shone in Christ. It was in Him that he saw the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Bible, and that all the world’s great holy books speak of: the coming of a promised time when peace shall cover the earth, when the lion shall lie down with the lamb, when swords shall be beaten into plowshares, when we shall study war no more. My father was optimistic and practical. He knew that the Kingdom would not descend magically from heaven, but would be built by our hands, through toil and effort and dedication. It would be built by each of us fulfilling our two-fold moral purpose – to refine our own characters, and to contribute to the advancement of humanity.
My father believed that the teachings that God has given for this day through the Baha’i Faith are the practical means of ushering in the Kingdom of God on earth – the teachings that there is only one God, and that all religions come from the same God. That humanity is one. He recognized that this is easy to say, but difficult to do, because we have to give up our prejudices – prejudice of race, class, religion, color, and nation. We must give up anything that allows us to feel superior to others. He believed in the equality of men and women, the harmony of science and religion, the importance of knowledge, the need for all to be educated – all tenants of this new Faith of God. My father saw that to truly incarnate the principle of the oneness of humanity, our current social structures, whether political or economic, have to be completely transformed and recreated… because you can’t have peace without justice. That’s a lot going on in the mind and heart of a pediatrician sitting at his home at 1714 Cirencester Avenue.
I share this with you, because I know that my kind and quiet father would have wanted you to know where his motivation came from. He thought about these things each day. He prayed about them each day. He gained purpose through them. He wanted the same for everyone.
When I think of my father, as a father, his gentleness and his humor are the two things that stand out. During the most difficult times of my life, he was there. I would put my head on his shoulder and cry, and even though I was in my twenties, he would comfort me, “It’s okay,” he would say, “It’s okay.” And in those tender moments, he was just as likely to say something that would make me laugh and wipe away the tears. He always made us laugh. Even in the most serious or sacred moments, he had the ability to distill a situation to its funniest elements. I keep expecting him now, to sit up and say something, to make us all laugh.
My father was not afraid of death. He spoke of the coming transition often – not because he was sick, or because he thought he would die soon, but simply because death is a practical part of life. After all, none of get out of this life alive. The Baha’i writings shed quite a bit of light on life after death, and as part of the service, we’ll share some of those insights with you. My father knew that when the body dies, the soul is like a bird that is released from a cage. The soul is eternal, a sign of God, and continues to progress towards God through all eternity. How we live our life in this world, combined with the grace of God, determines our station in the next world. The Baha’i teachings speak of nearness and distance from God – a continuum, more like a ladder, rather than just a heaven and a hell. So our work in this life, is to prepare for our next life, through worship and through service.
The Baha’i burial is a simple one. This body, which has been associated with the soul and which returns to dust, is treated with respect. It is washed and wrapped in cloth. A ring, is placed on the finger, bearing the beautiful inscription, “I came forth from God, and return unto Him, detached from all save Him, holding fast to His Name, the Merciful, the Compassionate”. There is a special prayer that is said before the burial, which will be read tomorrow at the graveside. Other than that, there is no set form. We’ve chosen the readings and prayers that we think my father would have wanted us to reflect on, and to bring us all comfort and understanding, and to advance his soul into the next world.
It broke my heart when I read the three-word message from my sister: “Pups died. Come.” But that anguish passed quickly. He often said that he hoped his end would be quick, that he did not want to become a burden for anyone or to linger. And his wish was granted. After so many years in the wards of a hospital, it seems to me somehow appropriate that he died at home, sitting in a chair, after having just gotten the mail from the mailbox. A few weeks had passed since I had last spoken to him, but by some stroke of luck, or divine grace (we never seem to know which it is) I called him just a few hours before he died. The conversation was sweet, as it always was. He asked about me, he asked about each of my four children, how they were doing, and what they were up to. He laughed that my daughter, Nava, had complained about her college applications on Facebook. He asked about Mara my wife, he asked about my sister, Jaleh, and her boys, and it always made me laugh that he would ask about Saipan, the island in the Pacific where my family and I had lived most of our lives. We laughed a lot, as we always did. And we said goodbye.
This is a sacred time, this time of transition of the soul from its association with the body, to its full glory in the next world. According to the teachings of the Baha’i Faith, the soul continues to progress in the worlds of God, through the mercy of God, and through a combination of two things which those of us here can do: the prayers we offer, and the charitable acts we accomplish in the name of the departed. This highlights a great emphasis of my father’s Faith and of his life – the necessity to combine worship, with service. I think my father exemplified this. So please, do pray for the progress of his beautiful and radiant soul. And if you are able, illumine your prayers with some act of service in his name, some contribution to any charity in his memory. And as you do so, say, “This is for you, Dr. Khorram”. His soul will rejoice.
Thank you, Baba. Thank you for your gentle spirit, your example of a life lived in service, of faith expressed through deeds. Thank you for the gift of your humor, your generosity, your steadfastness, and loyalty. We honor you today. Thank you for honoring us.