Umaer Basha, in many ways, was the son every parent dreams of having. Serious but fun-loving, outgoing but soft-spoken, friendly, loving, intelligent, curious and compassionate, he quickly became a special person to his housemates in the East Campus dormitory.
The life story of Mr. Basha, a freshman who died in Chicago Children's Hospital on September 24 after fainting and accidentally drowning in a shower enclosure during his first visit home, is a tale of youthful exuberance, intellectual curiosity, a thirst for knowledge and a healthy respect for education.
These traits endeared him to his friends and the faculty at Lake Forest High School in Illinois. Whether it was learning to play the violin, studying chemistry or physics, tutoring classmates or observing the Hale-Bopp comet, Umaer's enthusiasm about learning was contagious. Likening Mr. Basha to his beloved Hale-Bopp, a friend observed, "He will forever be the comet that passed through our lives briefly yet touched us deeply."
Another friend, Justin Peters, wrote in the Lake Forest High School newspaper The Forest Scout of October 3: "Heï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½accomplished more in 18 years than some accomplish in a lifetime. Every action of his life showed this: his grades, his extracurriculars, his strength of character. He lived every day as if it were his last."
But outside his hometown, the tragedy of Mr. Basha's accidental death was compounded when it became a footnote to the "big story" of binge and underage drinking on college campuses. He and his family deserve better.
For Umaer, matriculation at MIT represented both a homecoming and a dream come true. His mother Fatima, a postdoctoral fellow from Pakistan, worked until midnight in an MIT chemistry laboratory on the night before he was born on April 20, 1979. Two weeks later, she was carrying the infant back and forth across the Harvard Bridge while she continued her experiments. His father, Anwer, was also a postdoctoral fellow at MIT when Umaer was born.
The family bond and the relationship with MIT provide a subtext to the love, admiration and mutual respect that permeates the e-mail correspondence between a mother and son away from home. All the letters begin with the traditional Moslem salutation: "Assalaamalaykum" (May God's blessing be with you).
On August 28, shortly after he arrived on campus, Umaer reported that an eye exam went well and the doctor did not recommend that he get new glasses. "I think I will anyway," he said, "especially because the lecture halls are quite large here."
Anticipating a visit from his mother and 9-year-old sister, Amina, he wrote, "I am 100 percent healthy, happy and looking forward to your arrival (mom and sis) and thinking about what to get for dad from here. It will be an incredibly exciting weekend, like seeing the start of a soccer game or something; when you first mix together the chemicals in one of your laboratory reactions and then wait for the results to come back."
The next day, his mother replied:
"This is a time of great joy and celebration from our end and pray that inshallah [God willing], for you this will indeed be a lifetime-memorable living experience in all facets of your life. This was our dream, which your father and I shared together and by grace of God you with your unmatched gift for excellence made into reality. Now that you are surrounded by intelligent people, the best of all in their field at this great place of learning--we feel that our job is well done by God's help."
In a September 1 letter, Umaer wrote that he thought of his mother whenever he looked out across Killian Court. "MIT says 360 credits are a circle," he said. "And I have come full circle around--from here where I was born back to here. And it might seem to me at times that life is full of circles. But it is not--it presses forward in helices, like in DNA.
"Now that my room is set and organized, I miss you even more and wish you were here. It is strange how we want these moments to never end. But in fact, I wish I was home as well. I know that you feel very close to me as I do to you, so it is silly for me to miss [you].
"Always picture me studying and learning, as soon as tonight, and I see your love at the fundamental subatomic level--far greater a level than any more earthly love might encompass."
In the same letter, Mr. Basha wrote, "As Dad said in his prayers before I left home, God has helped me through every single step to where I am now. I feel as though you've both lifted me to such incredible heights from which I must now further myself."
Writing to his father on September 17, Mr. Basha noted that despite a bout with the flu and occasional homesick feelings, he was adjusting to life at MIT--"I'm beginning to feel at home here, too." Nonetheless, he was looking forward to a weekend visit to Lake Forest--"there's no place like home." He concluded this letter by thanking his mother for awakening him before dawn so he could witness the sunrise. "I really just wanted to rise with the sun (her sun/son) so that it might be sent over 1,000 miles west a little brighter."
During that visit, he fainted in the shower at home and lapsed into a coma after his lungs filled with water. Doctors said the cause of death was accidental drowning. Ironically, in an essay entitled "H2O" that accompanied his application to MIT, Umaer described how he overcame his fear of water when he learned to swim during his sophomore year in high school.
"Being the son of two chemists," he wrote, "I learned the molecular formula of water at a very young age. Yet none of their example of benign contact with the life-substance could convince me, five years old, to take up swimming. Neither of them knew how to swim, so they let it go, and for years I avoided the sport." By learning how to swim in his teens, he said, "My understanding of water has matured. It's more than a drink, more than a shower--it's a livable medium."
According to the Prophet of Islam, a person who drowns attains a state of martyrdom. The Koran says, "Martyrs are not dead. They are alive, but you are not aware of them."
In a letter of recommendation to MIT written last December, Lake Forest High School English teacher Diane Clark called Mr. Basha "one of the most gifted thinkers I have encountered in my 17 years as an English teacher." She continued, "He is a good friend to all who know him, he has a delightfully dry sense of humor and his list of extracurricular activities speaks of a diversified, well-rounded person. Umaer is ready for the challenges and rewards that await him and will be a respected leader, a distinguished learner and a trusted friend--in short, an excellent addition to any institution."
The high school will hold a memorial service on November 28 and plans to award a scholarship in Umaer's name. His parents, family and friends plan to establish a foundation to memorialize his life. Donations may be made to the Umaer Basha Fellowship Fund, c/o Dr. Wahid Qureshi, 3322 15th St., Kenosha, WI 53142.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 22, 1997.