Sewn Lips

The “Guardian” reports on a detailed litany of sub-standard medical care at Christmas Island.

I read the piece with interest and with some recognition: I had worked there earlier, before the present ‘off-shore processing’ (the hasty export of the unwanted) was instituted. Initially I kept silent. Then I wrote the following, which is the introductory chapter to a suite of stories which will appear in 2015 in my next book of non-fiction, “Burned Man.”

“Sewn Lips

A few years back I signed up to work for a short time as a doctor caring for Asylum Seekers detained on Christmas Island. I went with every impure intent. Indignant over my country’s conduct towards refugees, I headed to the island determined to observe, to record and to betray: I would witness wrongdoing and I would expose it.

But I signed a Confidentiality Agreement: now my lips were sewn. So I would have to resort to allegory, to obliquity, to any literary device to tell unforbidden truths while avoiding forbidden fact. And of course I had every right to report on my own state of mind.

In the event the Administration thwarted my plan: I saw no wrongdoing, detected no bruises, smelled nothing: nothing to report. Stolid unimaginative warders ran a barely decent prison. Good nurses, skilled young medical colleagues, experienced mental health nurses were on hand to attend to generally healthy, universally miserable patients.

Keeping the system honest from the outside, the Red Cross visited and the Australian Newspaper snooped.

And we servants of the nation did everything by the book. We followed all the rules and Conventions. We – the system now incorporated me – we kept Australia’s nose clean. Assiduously, conscientiously, courteously, with perfectly consistent meanness, we kept our clients (they weren’t patients, my true client was the Government) we kept them healthy, we kept them confused, we provoked them by systematic delay.

We drove them mad.

Australia’s impeccable gulag calibrated its practices to equality with the countries of origin. We managed to be just as cruel without raising a bruise.

Meanwhile, doctors were drinking every night. One guard took his own life, another attempted suicide. One mental health worker was dismissed for ‘fraternising’. In fact, she visited her 18-year old client who had been held incommunicado for 36 hours in a psychiatric ‘facility’ (lovely facile word, drained empty, morally bleached) in Perth. She understood her authority ended once she delivered her patient to the Psychiatric Hospital, but his need and her care did not.

I returned to Australia proper and resumed my life. Back now with family, a free person, a citizen, surrounded by comforting supports, I found I had brought the island with me. Contaminated, implicated by national service in unkindness policy, I was troubled by dreams. Night after night, in darkness and unable to speak, I saw myself doing things I had not actually done.

In those dreams I did Australia’s work. I lived the nightmare we perfected.”

The Guardian article by Oliver Laughland: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/may/27/doctors-litany-of-medical-neglect-of-asylum-seekers-still-largely-ignored?CMP=soc_568

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Wilson’s Promontory

Wilson’s Promontory – where the Australian mainland gropes south towards Tasmania and the Pole.
Wilson’s Promontory – in whitefella parlance, “The Prom”; to blackfellas, “Wamoom” – a place too special to live in, reserved for ceremony.
The Prom – a place sacred to whitefellas who do not reside there, vacation nomads.
Wilson’s Prom – where generations come and keep coming, where they need ballots to winnow the applicants; we who apply – we are the grass.
Wilson’s Prom – where four generations of my family have wintered and summered, most of them beyond remembering.

Some of my family spent this (prolonged) weekend at the Prom, both saplings and old growths, across the generations and down: two grandparents, their niece from Boston, her two children, the three children of our firstborn – all of us in that heightened state of aesthetic rapture as rugged mountains meet a moody sea.

We hiked and climbed great rocks, we jumped from them onto sand that squeaked, fell from them and upon them. We collected water from a mountain spring, we crossed small rivers and we peed into them, we ate and we ate, we read stories from the Jungle Book, we played chess and Scrabble and board games.
Screens were eclipsed.

Five young children from two different continents, different lives, met and blent, and were Australian in the special way that occurs ‘in country.’

Ten years ago, I wrote a poem here, memorialising a whale and my father, then one year gone.

WHALE MOURNING AT WAMOOM.

My father walked these hills and steeps;
Woke early ever, walked rugged rock-strewn track
To the lookout and back. Now he sleeps
Forever; and I rise with the sun
On this second day of this last new moon
Of the dying year,
And sound the shofar, the ram’s horn warning,
Then go for a run on a crystal morning.

My father walked till his dying year; I follow his track
Across the bridge,
Then up the hill and over a ridge –
Then back; pausing to view a sapphire sea.

High here, on air, at Wamoom, this southern
End of a continent,
Comes remembrance, a fifth element.
Midst earth and water I stand, content,
Basking in the gentle fire of an early sun,
Then turn
To start the slog and gasp and sweat – up hills
And tracks on the ridge of the returning run.

‘Stop!’ – cries the voice of my companion –
‘And turn!
And look out to sea, and see – there’s a whale!’
I stop and turn and look – and sight the sail-
Shaped fin, the hump of back, the mammalian
Brown-black, a bruise
On the blue face of the sea. Now it sinks again
And as I smile, give thanks and muse
It surfaces and plays, and sprays its spume
At the end of the dying year.

Another whale was here, beached, dead; while with my father
A decade ago, I saw it. We paid homage at its sandy tomb.

(from ‘My Father’s Compass’, Howard Goldenberg, Hybrid, 2007.)

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Into the Danger Kitchen

My great nephews are visiting from Boston, and suddenly there’s danger in the kitchen. It started when the older one was the only one: he must have been about eighteen months of age when his mother took him to an allergist for his atopic eczema. That doctor said: ”He’s at the age where he’ll range and browse and try foods that he could be allergic to. Here’s a prescription for an Epi-pen. Inject him with it if he stops breathing.”

The child’s great-uncle, a veteran family doctor, grunted: “Typical American medicine – over diagnosis, over-eager intervention.” The child’s grandfather, an eminent psychiatrist, harrumphed, ”Bah! Humbug!”

Sometime later the mother – my niece – took that child to a pizza parlour where he took a bite of a sesame bun. He chewed once, he chewed again, he gasped, he scratched frantically at his now reddening skin. Then he stopped scratching – and breathing. His mother called 911 and gave him a shot with the Epi-pen. The ambulance arrived shortly afterwards and found the child breathing.

Back to the over treating over-diagnosing doctor who advised: “There could be multiple allergies.” He tested and found anaphylactic allergies to sesame and also to egg, and to tree nuts. Lesser allergies were found to zucchini and squash, pollens and dust mites. The doctor tested for sensitivities to antibiotics. He said, “Well you can’t kill the boy with zucchini or squash, but you could with a cephalosporin. That’s an antibiotic.”

The parents decided to have another child. The younger brother was born and before he had a chance to meet a sesame seed he was tested too. This little feller had his own anaphylactic allergies – to wheat, and to the gluten in barley, rye and spelt, as well as to egg and kiwi fruit. Pollens and dust mites were allergens of a lesser order.

My niece added three to seventeen-point-five and realised nature had dealt her a tricky hand: what one child could eat safely might kill the other. And verse-vica. She and her chocolate-allergic husband have raised these two diabolically matched and unmatched children to twelve and nine years respectively. They subsists on celery and prayer, in Boston, a good place if you have complicated health: they have lots of typical American doctors there, all over-diagnosing and over-treating and keeping kids alive and well.

Now the kids are visiting us in Melbourne. They stepped into our danger kitchen. Their very-great-aunt asked what they’d like to drink. “Water , please, Aunty.”

My wife poured tap water into two surgically clean tumblers. The boys drank as we stood by, Epi-pen in hand.

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You are Invited

Once upon a time a redheaded warbler sang a song to a crowd of people gathered to hear her and readings from a book about two redheaded twins. As she sang the crowd chewed on antithetical foods – carrots and Jaffas, small, red spheroids of joy.

The singer was Clare Bowditch, songwriter, mother of twins-plus-one, social activist, actor, philosopher and articulate introspector.

The reader was Howard Goldenberg, author, marathon runner, marathon eater, marathon talker. He read (affectingly) from his new book, a novel about “Jaffas” and his identical twin “Carrots”, two boys who grow with souls enmeshed. One is kidnapped and the two must struggle to find how to lo live as individuals. The author makes them and their parents suffer; he makes the reader suffer; and after adventures in the Aboriginal outback (in ‘country’), Howard allows all (or almost all) to trace an arc of redemption.

The crowd had come to Readings in Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn, not to eat lollies, nor to chew on root vegies, but to hear and see Clare, to be near her in the intimate space (one of Melbourne’s sacred sites) of Readings bookshop.

Why Clare? Becauser of her twins? Because of old friendship between singer and author going back to her teen years? Because the singer – like the boys in “Carrots and Jaffas” lost a sibling in early childhood? Because of red hair?

The true reason is the Bowditch heart, the same that pulled in the crowd. The heart that can say, “I’ve had enough claps” and “I’ve always drawn from the pool of suffering for my art.”

As Emily Dickenson says: I like a look of suffering/because I know it’s true.

Clare Bowditch sings true songs. In the same way “Carrots and Jaffas” is a true story.

Did I say the event has taken place? That part was not true. It is still to come:

READINGS HAWTHORN, THURSDAY 22 MAY AT 6.30 FOR 7.00 PM. ALL WELCOME

You Can’t Chop your Momma Up in Massachusetts…

In January 2002, I went to Boston to cut a deal. The deal, a covenant really (in Hebrew, a brith), originated between God and Abraham. Abraham was the first to cut the deal. My job in Boston was to renew it in the flesh of my eight-day old great-nephew. When it was all over bar the feasting, all present joined in the heartfelt prayer: Just as he has entered into the brith, so may he enter into the Torah, into the nuptial canopy and into good deeds.

Then we joined in heartfelt feasting.

In the next room the baby, newly named Elisha, slept quietly. Quietly too, he bled into his diaper*.

When we checked on him we found him – as in the vision of the prophet Ezekiel – languishing in his blood. I applied pressure. This works nine times in ten. Elisha bled on. I sutured a little bleeder and waited. The baby boy bled on.

His mother and father and I bundled him up and raced him down the January street to the pediatrician’s* office. Boston is cold in January but we didn’t notice. The paediatrician’s nurse applied a tight bandage, saying reassuringly: ”Pressure always stops this sort of oozing.” Really?

Elisha bled on quietly. He remained pink and warm and peaceful.

An ambulance raced us across town, bells and siren ringing, to the Boston Children’s Hospital. Bearing all the authority of my years and my professional status, expressing myself with composed urgency and gravity, I gave Elisha’s history to a triage nurse; then to a nurse practitioner; after her to a surgical nurse and then to a medical student. All took notes, all reassured us pressure would do the trick, the ooze was slight, it would settle, Elisha looked well. All disappeared without trace.

Finally I met an Accident and Emergency physician from Iran and a Urology Resident from Israel. Beaut fellows both, they understood and honoured the Covenant of Abraham. The Israelite confided the story of his own son’s recent Brith Millah. And he spoke to the truism which comforts all surgeons: Healthy blood will always coagulate.

Meanwhile the sleeping baby boy oozed on. It was midday now, three hours after the Brith. A test gave Elisha’s blood count at forty percent. He slept on. And trickled away.

My brother surgeons took Elisha to the OR where, with the aid of the operating microscope, they ligated some minute bleeders. They invited me into OR where they demonstrated with some pride, a pink rosebud of glans, surrounded by a coronet of catgut sutures. “Look, no ooze”, they said.

No ooze is good news.

It was now three pm and I had missed my flight to the West Coast.

I hung around for an hour longer. At the next diaper change we saw the slightest pink loss. The same at the next change. And the next.

All the clinicians pronounced Elisha well. Cured. I should fly home, confident his little problem was fixed.

Misgiving, guilty at my surgical failure, I flew to LA and rang my niece from the airport. “He looks good, Unc. Hardly any ooze at all.”

I flew home to Australia.

A day later, Elisha’s mum called: “Elisha has haemophilia*, Uncle. The bleeding wasn’t your fault, not anyone’s fault, a mutation.”

Within weeks it became clear Elisha’s haemophilia was graded severe. Every second day of his life, Elisha has an intravenous injection of Clotting Factor Eight. On this regime he’s a healthy fellow.

Last week the World Haemophilia** Congress was underway in Melbourne with Elisha’s mum in attendance. She brought Elisha with her, together with his non-haemophiliac younger brother. Although I haven’t checked the pink rosebud I last saw in OR, the Elisha I see looks brilliantly healthy. Next January his multi-continental kin will gather in Boston to celebrate as, in fulfilment of our prayer, Elisha enters into the Torah at his barmitzvah.

· *In America they spell it thus.

· ** In Oz we spell it this way.

More Mother’s Day Thoughts

After my experience last Sunday I’ve decided I like Mothers Day. I enjoyed sharing vignettes of my old Mum. One of the first that I ever published, appeared in my first book, a memoir which I called “My Father’s Compass”. The vignette, a story about my 92 year old father battling the extinguishment of his great powers, and my mother battling nothing and accepting all, was titled: Falling gums.

“The phone rings at midnight. I walk towards the answering machine and listen for an urgent message. I do not pick up the receiver because it is Friday night, my Sabbath – Shabbat – when my soul visits paradise. When I am in paradise I do not answer the phone. There is no message.

Though puzzled – who would want to speak to me at midnight if it were not an emergency? – I begin to relax, then the phone rings again. Once again my machine offers to take a message, once again the caller is mute. I grab the phone. Dad’s voice says, ‘Mum is on the floor …’

‘I’ll come now,’ I say, and hang up. Dad and I have responded to the situation with the least possible desecration of the Sabbath.

Minutes later I let myself into my parents’ house. There, on the bedroom floor, in a tangle of limbs, is my mother. ‘Hello darling,’ she says. She looks up at me and gives me a grin. Recently, Mum’s front teeth have begun to desert her. Those teeth that remain are a picket fence, stained and in disrepair. Mum’s former serene smile has given way to a seven-year-old’s grin – all mischief and careless abandon.

I peer down at Mum’s legs. They are thin, too thin, except for her ruined knee which is swollen and misshapen. In the half light her skin is ivory. I crouch and put my hand on her leg and feel its cool and its smoothness. I touch my mother’s skin and I am her small child again.

A short time passes. ‘Does any thing hurt, Mum?’

‘No darling.’

‘Can you move your limbs, Mum?’

Dad’s voice breaks in: ‘Mum’s not hurt – she didn’t fall. She was reaching for the commode chair and she pushed it away instead of holding it still … she just slid gently onto the floor … I couldn’t stop her falling …’

Dad’s voice subsides. He sits on his bed and holds his head in his hands.

Mum speaks: ‘I’m quite comfortable, darling. It’s quite a nice floor, really.’ Another grin. I look at my mother. Her limbs are splayed and folded beneath and before her like so many pick-up-sticks. I wonder how I will pick them up.

‘If you like it on the floor, Mum, would you prefer to stay there until the morning?’

‘If you wish, darling.’ She extends a hand and pats my face.

I bend and begin to take her weight, my hands beneath her arms. Dad gets up to help but I knock him back because his heart is worn out and failing.

He recoils, recedes and sits down opposite me, his face wrought of grief and care. I feel a pang for my abruptness.

An in-drawing of breath, a grunt and Mum is aloft, her legs a pair of white flags hanging limply beneath her. Her arms are around my neck and we are locked in our accustomed embrace that has become so familiar since she began to suffer a series of strokes.

We know this moment well; each of us knows the sweetness of this slow dance. Neither of us would readily trade it, not even to make Mum whole again.

A moment later Mum is in her bed, covered up, wheezing, speaking breathily, her voice ravaged by stroke and by time: ‘Thank you, darling, what a treat!’ – and beaming with the simple pleasure of ­being tucked into her bed.

Dad, contrite, distressed, is saying, ‘I am sorry, darling. I hate to disturb you.’ And I am saying how pleased I am to come, and how come he didn’t speak into the machine when he rang. And Dad says, ‘I don’t know.’

‘Shabbat Shalom,’ I say, kiss them both goodnight, and go home.

Back home, but not yet in paradise, I sit a while and recall a conversation my friend Lionel reported to me. While driving with my father in the Flinders Ranges, Lionel asks this indestructible old man a singular question: ‘What are you afraid of in this life, Myer?’

My dreadnought father has fought all his sixty-seven years as a doctor against illness and injury. Of all diseases, I know that cancer and stroke fill him with terror beyond naming. And I recall, too, Dad confiding to me his fears for Mum: ‘I am grateful for every single day that I have her; and I am so frightened of the day that …’ He falls silent, his voice drowning in the grief of his imagining.

When Lionel asks his question, Dad looks up and out and away from inside him, and he sees those silent, massive and beauteous living things, so inviting in the outdoors and so treacherous. He answers, ‘Falling gum trees.’

The day after the ‘fall’ Mum and I are alone in the kitchen when she begins to laugh. The sound has a gasping quality. You have to pay close attention to discover whether she is choking again, or simply amused. She laughs louder then tries to speak at the same time.

Her voice is a concerto for bagpipes and windstorm. I lean close, into the teeth of the storm, and Mum says, ‘When I was on the floor last night, and I couldn’t get up, I started to laugh, and I couldn’t stop … and Daddy was furious!’”

Mother’s Day – or Mothers’ Day or Mothers Day

This announcement was born as a boast but I make it today as a confession: I DON’T BELIEVE IN MOTHER’S DAY.* I don’t honour it, I don’t observe it (unless with quizzical disdain), I don’t respect it, (excepting as a smart marketing exercise. What began as a means of selling greetings cards in the off-season found eager recruits in floristry and in restaurantry – as well as in cafetery and lingerie. Mother/s Day has all the hallmarks of Hallmark and the hallmarks of the pulsing of empty cultures in new countries and guilty sons in the pub, at the footy, at work, at play – at living outside extended family.)

Climbing down from my lofty position of cultural oversight into the kitchen of my own life, I can identify a serious gap: my mother and I have not spoken to each other for almost five years.

I have dreamed of her. I have dreamed she dreams of me. Mum died in June 2009 and I miss her. I do not mourn for Mum: I grieve for my loss, for the delight of her company. Mum always made me smile. Always. In her breathless dying week I watched as Mum suffered one particularly horrifying attack: she gasped at air. It went on and on, as her lungs filled higher and higher with the fluid that would drown her at week’s end. I called a nurse, Nurse squirted a diuretic into Mum, the breathing slowed and Mum pulled off her oxygen mask, grinning: “You thought I was going to croak, didn’t you, darling? Well” – Mum was cackling now in the hilarity of the merry joke that was all her existence – “I didn’t, did I?”

In my kitchen of now, I fry tomatoes and eggs and red kidney beans with onions fried in oil with garlic and smoked paprika and cumin. I serve this and avocado bathed in fresh lime juice and garlic-infused olive oil on a mountain of fresh bagels and specialty breads. All is prefaced by a glass of orange juice squeezed by my grandchildren. We serve this to the children’s grandmother and great-grandmother. Everyone gives gifts, festoons and cards (handmade, unHallmarked) to the old ladies. And I watch, a non-combatant. I look at my mother in law, fulfilled, filled with years. I come in, in from my chill principles, and I celebrate with them all.

*I’ve always felt the same away about Fathers Day and Valentines Day too.

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