Concussed

The phone call comes at 3.30 on the last afternoon of term. An unfamiliar voice speaks: ‘I have your boy here. He came into the shop and collapsed.’
The woman’s voice is concerned, competent: ‘He wants to get back onto his bike and ride home but I won’t let him.’ The woman gives the address, a shop on busy Centre road, Bentleigh.
 
The mother of the child calls the boy’s father, cannot contact him, drives towards the place in Centre Road. The heavy Friday afternoon traffic races, stops, starts, unpredictably. The mother suppresses her urge to speed, shakes her head: ‘What if he’d collapsed in this traffic!’ Alone with her fear, she calls her father, doctor to the injured boy. She gives her father the bones of the story, adding: ‘He told the lady in the shop he was hit in the head earlier today. She says he’s talking but he’s not making sense. He couldn’t remember my number. Didn’t know the password to his phone. She rang the school and they put us in touch… I’ve nearly arrived. I’ll call again once I’m with him. ‘Bye.’
 
At 3.50 the doctor’s phone rings. His daughter’s voice, the boy’s, an unfamiliar woman’s voice, traffic sounds, snatches of conversation – ‘Dad, I’m with him now. He’s awake. He’s seeing double… Yes, thanks, in the back here. Sorry Dad, the lady who’s been looking after him is helping me get the bike into the car. He lost consciousness a couple of times. What does it mean that he’s seeing double? And he wants to vomit?’
 
Forty-eight hours earlier the doctor saw a boy in Resuscitation at the Royal Children’s Hospital. The boy had been hit by a car. He lay on a trolley, his body a gangle of bones, on his face a large bruise and the dopey smile of a child with no memory of the car that hit his head. The doctor-grandfather spends a lot of time with injured children in Emergency Departments. The doctor knows what double vision means, he knows what vomiting means. The grandfather in the doctor avoids the question, asking some of his own: ’Has he had a head injury?’
‘Yes Dad. A kid at school swung his locker door open and belted him in the head. He went to sick bay for an ice pack. After school he rode to the shops.’
The boy’s voice pipes, indistinctly, the phone set on speaker. ‘Saba, when I look at anything I see two of everything.’ The child slurs the words.
‘What part of your head did the locker hit, darling?’
‘What do you mean, Saba?’
‘Was it the front or the back or the side?’
‘Are you joking, Saba?’
‘No darling. What part of your head was it?’
‘Above my ear, a bit in front of it.’
 
Just in front of the ear, in the temporal region, runs a vulnerable artery which shelters behind skull bone thinner than elsewhere.
The doctor instructs his daughter to drive directly to Monash Medical Centre which is not far distant.
‘I don’t know the way, Dad.’ The father-grandfather-doctor is notorious for his lack of sense of direction. He directs the daughter, hoping. ‘I’ll call Emergency at Monash, darling, so they’ll expect you… Take a book with you. You’ll be there for hours.’
‘Dad, he’s just vomited. Now he’s falling asleep. Does that matter? Do I need to keep him wake?’
‘Try to keep him talking, darling.’
The grandfather speaks to the child: ‘Darling you’ll go into the hospital and they’ll look after you until you’re better. Then they’ll let you go home. You probably won’t be staying in the hospital.’
‘Saba, what will happen to me?’ The voice quavering:’ Will I be alright?’
‘Dad, where will I park?’
‘Drive straight to “Ambulances Only”. At the moment you are an ambulance.’
 
At 4.10 the doctor calls Monash, asks to be connected to the Consultant in Emergency. A young voice, informal: ‘Emergency, Preeti speaking.’
‘Hello Preeti, I’m sending you a child with concussion. I’m his GP. Are you the consultant?’
‘Yes.’
The doctor briefs the young voice. She listens, asks a couple of questions, says, ‘Thank you. We’ll be expecting him.’
‘Thank you, Preeti. I’m quite concerned… He’s my grandson.’
 
When the doctor’s phone rings the time is 4.40. It rings as he’s hurrying to the toilet to pee, the third time in twenty minutes. He stands still, commands his bladder to wait.
‘Dad, I dropped him and they took him straight in. Doctor Preeti was waiting. I’ve just come back, I had to move the car. My phone’s about to die.’
‘Darling, Shabbat is about to start. But I’ll answer the phone if you ring. Someone will lend you a phone. If you need me, call me, even though it’s Shabbat.’
‘’Bye, Daddy. I love you.’
 
The old man puts the finishing touches to his Shabbat table. His wife is away, visiting their Sydney daughter and Joel and Ruby.
He covers the loaves of challah, races to the bathroom, showers, dresses, recites the Afternoon Prayer, racing the setting sun. He finishes, checks the time, realises he’s just too late to light the Shabbat candles: he won’t make fire on the Sabbath. Ordinarily he won’t use the phone. During Shabbat he’ll allow the phone to ring, enjoying freedom from the i-tyrant, celebrating the sample of paradise that is the Sabbath. But tonight he’ll answer it.
 
Darkness falls. The old man recites his Evening Prayers, rich with poetry from the mystics of Safed and the Golden Period in Spain. The dying of the day, the passing of the workaday week, the beauty of the sung hymns, all these have always found him susceptible; since childhood the eve of Sabbath makes him prey to tender feeling.
 
He looks across at the table, set for two. He recites the She’ma Yisrael prayer, inserting, by old family custom, an improvised prayer. He prays: ‘ Heal the boy and all who love him.’
 
The old man sings the hymns, he welcomes the Ministering Angels, he praises his wife – “A woman of Valour, who can Find? Her Price is above Rubies” – then he sings the Kiddush dedication, drinks his grape juice, washes his hands and sits to break bread. Before him, chicken soup with noodles and kreplach, four salads, slow cooked lamb shanks, potatoes. He eats alone, wolfing the feast he prepared for two. His elder daughter won’t be finished at the hospital until very late.
 
The food is good. He’d made a great effort for this meal with his daughter. He eats and gives thanks. Afterwards he reads. He reads three newspapers then opens the political biography a friend gave him. Deprived of sleep as he always is by Friday, he doesn’t expect sleep will come quickly tonight.
 
At 8.00 the front door opens. His daughter enters and they embrace. The boy is well. He’s back home with his brothers and his father. Surprised by her early arrival, the doctor listens to his daughter: ‘Dad, they asked him questions, they checked his eyes and his pulse and his blood pressure again and again. They tested his balance. He improved and they let us go. They said once four hours had passed the danger was much less. They timed it from when he collapsed in the shop.’
 
While the mother speaks the father prepares a salad to replace the four he wolfed. The child-mother eats with relish. ‘I’m sorry I spoiled our meal, Dad.’
She toys with the lamb shanks that come cold to the table. ‘Dad, I can’t eat any more. It’s been a big day.’
Father and daughter look at each other. No words are spoken, none needed; each knows the content of the other’s mind. The father looks away, knowing without looking how his child’s lip trembles and her eyes fill.
 
A minute or two of quietness, then the daughter smiles: ‘By the time we were leaving ED his speech was perfectly clear. He was saying he wanted junk food. Then he said, “Let’s ring the kind lady in the shop and thank her.”’

Writing as Healing

The mother of identical twin boys sent me this story by Ranjava Srivastava.

 

“Losing my twin baby boys for ever changed the way I treat my patients.

I will never know the kind of doctor I would have become without the searing experience of being a patient, but I like to think my loss wasn’t in vain.

‘My obstetrician’s tears stunned me but also provided immediate comfort. They normalised the mad grief that had begun to set inside me.’
Around this time 10 years ago, I was poised to start my first job as an oncologist when personal tragedy visited in a way that would forever change the way I would practice medicine.

I had returned from my Fulbright year at the University of Chicago, blessed with only the joys and none of the irritations of being pregnant with twins. Landing in Melbourne, I went for a routine ultrasound as a beaming, expectant parent. I came out a grieving patient. The twins were dying in utero, unsuspectedly and unobtrusively, from some rare condition that I had never heard of. Two days later, I was induced into labour to deliver the two little boys whom we would never see grow. Then I went home.

If all this sounds a little detached it is because 10 years later I still have no words to describe the total bewilderment, the depth of sorrow and the intensity of loss that I experienced during those days. Some days, I really thought my heart would break into pieces. Ten years later, the din of happy children fills our house. But what I have found myself frequently reflecting on is how the behaviour of my doctors in those days profoundly altered the way in which I would treat my patients.

An experienced obstetrician was performing my ultrasound that morning. Everything was going well and we chatted away about my new job until he frowned. Then he grimaced, pushed and prodded with the probe, and rushed out before I could utter a word. He then took me into his office and offered me his comfortable seat. Not too many pregnant women need a consultation at a routine ultrasound.

“I am afraid I have bad news,” he said before sketching a picture to describe the extent of the trouble. I thought for a fleeting moment that my medical brain would kick in and I would present him with sophisticated questions to test his assertion that the twins were gravely ill. But of course, I was like every other patient, simultaneously bursting with questions while rendered mute by shock.

I was well aware that doctors sometimes sidestepped the truth, usually with the intent of protecting the patient. I knew he could easily get away with not telling me any more until he had more information but I also knew that he knew. I read it in his face and I desperately wanted him to tell me.

I asked the only question that mattered.

“Will they die?” 

“Yes,” he said, simply holding my gaze until his tears started.

As I took in the framed photos of children around his office he probably wished he could hide them all away.

“I don’t know what to say,” he murmured, his eyes still wet. 

Until then, in 13 years of medical training, I had never seen a doctor cry. I had participated in every drama that life in bustling public hospitals offers but never once had I seen a doctor cry.

My obstetrician’s tears stunned me but also provided immediate comfort. They normalised the mad grief that had begun to set inside me. Yes, the doctor’s expression said, this is truly awful and I feel sad too.

“You are sure?”

“There is a faint chance that one lives but if you ask me, things look bad. You know I will do everything I can to confirm this,” he said.

The obstetrician had told the unflinching truth and in doing so almost surgically displaced uncertainty with the knowledge that I needed to prepare myself for what lay ahead. I had test after test that day, each specialist confirming the worst. I think I coped better because the first doctor had told the truth.

Two other notable things happened that week. Among the wishes that flowed, another doctor wrote me an atypical condolence note. His letter began with the various tragedies that had taken place that week, some on home soil and others involving complete strangers. “I ask myself why,” he wrote, “and of course there is no answer to why anyone must suffer.”

Until then, everyone had commiserated only at my loss – and I was enormously grateful – but here was someone gently reminding me that in life we are all visited by tragedy. All the support and love in the world won’t make you immune to misfortune, he was saying, but it will help ease the pain.

Finally, there was the grieving. I lost count of the pamphlets that were left at our door to attend support groups, counselling sessions and bereavement seminars but we were resolutely having none of it. My midwife called me out of the blue – it was a moving exchange that taught me how deeply nurses are affected too. But I didn’t need counselling, I needed time. I valued the offers but I knew that my catharsis lay in writing. I wrote myself out of suffocating grief, which eventually turned to deep sadness and then a hollow pain, which eventually receded enough to allow me to take up my job as a brand new oncologist. How I would interpret the needs of my patients was fundamentally altered now that I had been one myself.

Cancer patients are very particular about how much truth they want to know and when. I don’t decide for them but if they ask me I always tell the truth. A wife brings in her husband and his horrendous scans trigger a gasp of astonishment among even the non-oncologists.

“Doctor, will he die from this?” she asks me.

“I am afraid so,” I answer gently, “but I will do everything in my power to keep him well for as long as I can.” 

It is the only truthful promise I can make and although she is distressed she returns to thank me for giving her clarity. Sometimes honesty backfires, when the patient or family later say they wanted to talk but not really hear bad news. I find these encounters particularly upsetting but they are rare and I don’t let them sway me from telling the truth.

Oncology is emotionally charged and I have never been afraid of admitting this to the very people who imbue my work with emotion. I don’t cry easily in front of patients but I have had my share of tears and tissues in clinic and contrary to my fears, this has been an odd source of comfort to patients. In his Christmas card, a widower wrote that when my voice broke at the news that his wife had died he felt consoled that the world shared his heartbreak.

It can be tricky but I try to put my patients’ grief into perspective without being insensitive. It’s extraordinary how many of them really appreciate knowing that I, and others, have seen thousands of people who are frightened, sad, philosophical, resigned, angry, brave and puzzled, sometimes all together, just like them. It doesn’t diminish their own suffering but helps them peek into the library of human experiences that are catalogued by oncologists. It prompts many patients to say that they are lucky to feel as well as they do despite a life-threatening illness, which is a positive and helpful way of viewing the world.

I will never know what kind of a doctor I might have become without the searing experience of being a patient. The twins would have been 10 soon. As I usher the next patient into my room to deliver bad news, I like to think that my loss was not entirely in vain.” 

……… 

I read this story with alarm. It made me feel anxious because I have and love a pair of identical twin boys. I felt involved because, like the writer’s doctor, I am a doctor who cries; and like the writer, Dr Srivastava, I am a doctor who writes. Finally we two are products of the same medical school (Monash) – Dr Srivastava graduated at the top of her class, in the present century, I graduated at the opposite end of my class, in antiquity (1969).

A final point of commonality was her reassuring remark that ten years after her doctor wept her home is full of the noise of happy living children.

I found the piece helpful. Dr Srivastava identifies and untangles the strands of her experiences with surgical deftness. Her doctor weeps, her colleagues show support and care and empathy and she heals. As a trained observer, the writer dissects her experience of grief, lays out its anatomy and reflects upon its organs and parts.

Like the writer, I find relief and understanding in the act of writing. I suspect that a part of this relief results from word search. The writer is obliged to seek the precise word for the experience. In my case this forces me to test and taste a number of words. Perhaps a dozen words might work more or less passably, but the acts of searching, of choosing, of trialling, help me to clarify what my feelings were not quite like. I mean I discover what I mean. Perhaps this functions as a working through, a self-conversation, something between analysis of an experience and re-imagining it. In my case too, the pleasure of words is an aesthetic joy that comforts me.

Medicine is a pursuit conducted with the living in the shadow of death. It is a pursuit packed with anxious questions: what is wrong with me, will I die, what can be done, will it hurt, how much, how will I know the answers, when will I know? This crying doctor feels the patient’s fear and his own and has to know the border that divides the two. My fears are for the patient, of the patient, of failure, of failing a person of flesh and feeling. My fears include the terror that strikes me when I see my patient slipping away, the knowledge of my mortal inadequacy.

The writer who lost her twins precisely names the elements in her emotional experience. With remarkable poise she traces the costs and the benefits of the loss. So coherent are her reflections I could feel myself learning as I read. I learned about her life and her work, how the two are not the same but never severable. I learned more of how a doctor feels, who she is, who I am.

Not Running with the Devil

The longest night in the southern calendar, June 21, gave birth to a splendid and frigid morning in Traralgon. By the time we started running the temperature was four degrees celsius, a good deal cooler than Boston where, a couple of months earlier, self-pity and hypothermia had congealed within me. Wiser this time, I enclosed myself in layers. A Michelin Man, I set off, discarding layers as I warmed. The layers were, I realised, like geological striae, those stripes in a rockface that are time’s memorial. First to go at twenty five metres in was the remarkably ugly tangerine rain jacket (discarded in Boston by another runner who decided wetness and cold were preferable to Adidas’ ugliest.) Next to go were the elegant little white gloves that cocooned my fingers during winters in the eighties when we’d run the alps of the Diamond Valley. (Ahh, my friends, my friends…) At the twenty kilometre mark I left my stripy thermal top (Kathmandu, 2014) and the Stepping Strong top that honours Gillian Reny, the young dancer whose legs were shattered by a Tsarnaev bomb (Boston, 2013). At 35 kilometres I divested the Miles for Michael shirt (Boston 2013). This left a salted wreck whose overheated genitals must abide within undies (Leigh Creek supermarket, c. 1999), olive green tights (Kathmandu, 2000) and New Balance running shorts, veterans of seventeen marathons (Leigh Creek, 2008). 

In the dawn no wind blew. Silent and shapely, six plumes rose pink against the indigo sky. Delicate and pretty the smoke of Loy Yang poisoned my world. 

 

I ran the first half hard with legs confident from last weekend’s fast training run from Babinda to the Boulders and back, a distance of fifteen kilometres, longer than one third of a marathon. My wristwatch read 74 minutes. This absurdly quick time suggested I’d regained some speed. I reckoned in Traralgon I’d take a full hour off the Personal Worst that was Boston. I ran first with Leanne, a shrivelled fifty-year old, light of step, a lean machine. I kept up with her, keeping myself honest. Leaving her behind I chased a rounder matron who took a bit of catching. She said, I just want to finish. We swapped names; the matron’s name was Marlene. Keeping pace with Marlene did me good – in the moral sense. I had to reach deep for Nobility and Courage. After Marlene left me behind with benediction, I ran alone for a while, this time on a stony dirt track. Mother earth beneath my feet, hard but fair, took me back to childhood in the country. My reverie – have I been dreaming, have I slowed? – was interrupted by busy footfalls pattering behind. Light of foot my pursuer spurred my own feet and I worked to stay ahead. Three kilometres later the pattering feet drew alongside and they belonged, not as I expected, to a female but to a bloke named Duc. We exchanged the lead a few times before I sent Duc on ahead with my blessings.

 

Next came Sam. Short like me, bearded like me, his fleshy face a crop of smiling peaches, Sam didn’t look like he was made for distance running, his well-fed body the antithesis of the ascetic distance runner’s. But Sam too left me behind. I would see him again as I approached the turn and once again, much later, as I staggered past the 41 kilometre mark; Sam, smiling still, had finished a full hour earlier.

 

At the halfway mark I met the Devil. In fact he’d run with me all the way, quietly waiting his moment. (In Judaism the Devil is not personified much; if anything he is The Adversary. He lives, not in hell but within us as desire, ‘the evil inclination’, which is ordinary, domestic, human weakness. As such the Devil doesn’t really earn his capital letter.) The devil was up and about early in Traralgon.

 

With my friend Nick and his febrile son Darcy waiting for me with love and drinks at the Half, I paused. The sun shone in a windless sky as the devil murmured in my ear, congratulating me on my time, which, while not the blinding brevity of Babinda, was quickish, respectable even. The devil suggested I needn’t knock myself about so much. He counselled me, drink slowly, recharge your energies. It might be wise, he insinuated, to hold something in reserve. He whispered something to my bones, to my thighs, something I didn’t catch. He reminded me the turn wasn’t really halfway; the second half doesn’t start until 32 kilometres, when you’ve got ten more to go. The sun was soft now on my face. It felt good. And so I jogged. 

 

Jogging isn’t running. When you run you leave the devil behind. Jogging along past kilometre marks that came and went agreeably, time did not count. I looked at the sky and followed the flight of ducks. I looked long at the smoke stacks of Loy Yang, pondering my own complicity. I smelled the cows. Runners passed me and we’d exchange congratulation and encouragement. A large vehicle came up behind, slowed and swerved close. Two female faces shone with enthusiasm and screamed you are awesome! Never mind these words have been bled white of meaning in a million million facebook ‘likes’, these girls transfused the words back to life. I felt wonderful. Just ahead the girls called the same to a much speedier runner who just grunted. Wonderful girls, aren’t they, I said. He grunted again, his face a mask.

 

I jogged on. When I turned into Black But Road the devil slouched over to me with some advice: the stones underfoot here on this unmade track can hurt your feet. Best to walk here. A little walk can’t hurt… Over the remaining fourteen kilometres I enjoyed a number of little walks. They didn’t hurt at all.

 

I turned back onto the Traralgon-Maffra Road where busy cars sped past at their full entitlement of one hundred kilometres per hour. I crossed the Latrobe River, where, in all twelve of my previous Traralgon Marathons, my skyscanning eyes have sighted a sailing pelican, my white bird of hope. Always, gazing across to the chimneys, I’ve thought of the Ancient Mariner:

 

Nor dim nor red, like God’s own head,

The glorious Sun uprist:

Then all averred, I had killed the bird

That brought the fog and mist.

‘Twas right, said they, such birds to slay,

That bring the fog and mist.

 

Today, for the first time, I saw no white bird.

 

At thirty five kilometres I sighted the white car of Good Friend Nick. He accepted my sweat-laden shirts in exchange for my drink of Coca-Cola-and-orange-juice. This dysenteric-looking concoction contains sugar, potassium salt, sodium chloride and caffeine. And water. Ever since the turn my dry lips had been telling me I forgot to load up with water before the race. Now I loaded up with every molecule known to aid a depleted body.

Darcy, no longer feverish, looking at me, wanted to know, is it hard? His Dad looked at me and laughed. I said, yes Darcy it is. That’s why we do it.

Running slowly ahead of me, his aged body skew-wiff, his pace dogged, we sighted a Spartan as he pressed steadily onward. Over the next seven kilometres of straight road I saw his singlet of emerald green, a flag of courage that reminded me of my own lack of that quality.

 

Nick drove off to hide my final bottle of dysenteric elixir for me at the 40 km mark before hurrying back to Melbourne to watch his elder son play footy .

 

Now walking, now shuffling, now jogging, I pressed on. I knew a full-bodied run would hurt intolerably. I knew this because the devil told me so. Runners continued to pass me, every one of them urging on this bent wreck. Voices said, looking good. And, great effort. Not long now…

 

A small parcel of sinew and strings drew alongside. I recognised the woman’s face, full of years and resolve. I recognised the voice that hectored me for ten kilometres in 2013, before its owner hurried away to assist others with her wisdom. Now the voice said, I know you. I ran with you here once before. Today she didn’t not linger to advise, or assist, or direct or instruct me. Perhaps it was something I said.

 

I felt the caress of fingers dancing lightly on my left shoulder. I looked up to see an able body, young, upright, light of foot. I saw a face buried in a forest of auburn beard. In the depths of the forest I saw a smile and from them a voice blessing me, extolling me, praising my effort. The dancing fingers left a sensation that abides still, twenty-four hours later.

 

Here and there the Traralgon-Maffra Road undulates. From the 38 kilometre mark to 39 kms in a flat marathon course the road rises steadily. As I sailed downhill early in the outward half I marked this well, resolving I would not stop, nor even slow, during my return. Brave promises those, the promises of legs that feel fresh, of resolve not yet tested. Walking now I saw the road rise ahead of me. I stopped and took a deep breath and cranked my limbs into a shuffle. And then a slow run. Putting the devil behind me I ploughed uphill. I reached the top and turned and started the downhill run home. Now my legs started cramping. Earlier, when they’d have excused me from trying to run at all, I’d have welcomed these cramps, but not now. I decided to ignore them.

I ran studiously down the hill attempting a judicious balance between speed and cramp. Footsteps behind me, soft voices, closing on my left shoulder. The runners drew alongside, a bloke in his fifties, and a much younger female. Her face had the puppy fat of childhood. They saluted me and passed. I saw the child wore a pair of floral shorts. The freshness of her being, the stream of approval and encouragement flowing from her father, the sweet amity and unity of the two, these lifted my spirits and distracted me from pathetic thoughts and tremors.

 

Approaching the 40km mark I decided I wouldn’t stop for my drink. Here I was, maintaining a precarious run; if I stopped I mightn’t start again. So it was with mild puzzlement but no regret that I sighted no bottle at the 40 km marker. Ahead a marshall smiled and directed me to the second last turn, calling, you’re doing well, Howie. “Howie”. How did she know me? Now her little boy approached me, near to blocking my path. His outstretched hand held a small bottle of brown fluid.

Small kindnesses, these, potent with grace. I recalled other moments, over my previous forty five marathons. Crossing the Line at the finish of the New York Marathon in 1988 I heard a sweet voice singing. It came from a fellow runner, a student of opera at the famed Julliard School. He asked my name: Pheidipides.

Ah, Pheidipides. Reverting now to Greek he recited that runner’s dying words: ‘Rejoice my brothers, ours is the victory’.

 

On Patriots Day in Boston, Athens of the New World, a river of grace flows during its Marathon. Of three million Boston citizens fully one million come out – and stay out – to cheer on the runners, both the fleet of foot and the unfleet. They cheer us, they feed us – everything from bananas, to segments of orange, to candies to barbecued sausages dripping fat – they love us. When two explosions destroyed the ceremony of innocence that is a marathon, overwrought Bostonians overflowed with tender concern for their thwarted guests.

 

Together with every runner in the world I watched the telecast of the Olympic Marathon in Barcelona. In the final brutal kilometres as the runners raced up the slope of Monjuic, one of the lead bunch of five missed his drink at the drink stop. With a medal in sight and no time to be lost, he ran on without it. A rival passed his bottle and the two shared it.

 

I was one of a generation inspired by John Landy’s act in the 1956 National 1500 Metres Championship. A young Ron Clark fell at Landy’s feet. The champion stopped to assist him than ran on and won.

 

I ran my first marathon in Traralgon. On that occasion achilles tendonitis and unremitting cramps forced me to walk from the 30km mark to 40kms. I contrived a pathetic run for the last stanza, hobbling into view of the football club where all the other 140 finishers were enjoying refreshments. One caught sight of Pheidipides approaching in the gloom. To a man, my fellow runners abandoned their scones and passionfruit sponge cakes and sausage rolls to applaud the runner who ran on an hour after they’d finished.

 

After my mother-in-law-in-law survived Auschwitz she dedicated her life to fighting racism. A tiny woman of immense will, she was never scared to take me to task. She challenged me once with the folly of the ‘disordered’ (her term) pursuit of marathon running. Shortly afterwards I ran the New York Marathon and found my answer: my life is a marathon, an undistinguished passage through time and space; it is a passage made rich and significant by the people who run their race at my side.

  

Postscript: Yesterday in Traralgon I set a new PW of five hours nineteen minutes. My time of 5.13, Boston was a sprint in comparison.

 

Happy Breathing

Earlier this year I wrote of the man who, when a youthful slave in a Nazi slave camp, wished he’d been sent to Auschwitz. He’d been envious at that time of the greater food rations allowed to slaves at Auschwitz. When I met him, seventy years after liberation, the man was shackled to an oxygen cylinder.
We bumped into each other again today. “Where’s the oxygen tank, Jan?” The skull that is Jan’s face split into a grin: “I am supposed to use oxygen sixteen hours a day. Outside of home I am free. I enjoy my free hours. My wife and I will drive sometimes to the city. We walk around, we are away from home longer sometimes than eight hours, sometimes ten.” Big skull-splitting smile. Big lung-filling gulps of ordinary ambient air.
“I see you are watching my breathing, Doctor. I like breathing. It is easier, of course, with oxygen.” Jan leaned forward, confidingly, sharing one of life’s large jokes: “You know, Doctor, oxygen can be addictive…
“I used to smoke, but never heavily, and I stopped many years before now. Yet my lungs are quite wrecked. Our greatest teacher is our body. Of course we ignore it , we abuse it. Of course life is not even. It has its up and its down. But you accept… I have not any complaints.”
“We have our little span of life, we humans. Surprising that we humans rule the planet. Insects of course have been here first, well before the human. The insects are our seniors. They should rule the planet. They would do a better job.” When Jan uses words like ‘job’, he soften the hard letter ’j’ so the word comes out as ‘chob.’ ‘The insects doing a better chob’ – delivered with the Jan smile and punctuated by the heaving of the shattered chest – becomes a fanciful idea of unexpected weight.
‘’First we had ‘The War to End All Wars’. Soon after we finished that one we started to prepare for the next, which was worse. Now of course, we see them preparing for the Third.”
“You think so, Jan?”
“It is inevitable. They are grooming for it. It will happen because Man’s stupidity does not end.”
“How did you come to settle in Australia, Jan?”
“In 1944 I made myself useful to the Americans. I spoke, of course, Czech, and naturally Hungarian, also ‘Cherman’. The Americans in ‘Chermany’ needed intelligence about the Jerries they held. My languages were helpful. And so I improved my English. And the Americans paid me.”
“I returned to my own country, to my city, and the Communists were there. They decided I was interesting to them. Some kind person told the Commies my family used to have shops. So we were Capitalists. I was nineteen and the Commies decided I was an Enemy of the People. This had a familiar look, an uncomfortable look. I had been an enemy before. Also some helpful Jerry told the Commies I was slippery, an escaper. A friend said, ‘They will come for you tomorrow morning at four.’ So I left. I took a train.”
“To Vienna?”
“No, they closed that border. I went East, to Bratislava. From there, west again, to Prague.”
Another grin of bones. Throughout Jan’s discourse, in which his breezy phrases alternated with king tides of respiration, Jan stopped frequently to smile, either at his own serpentine cleverness or at the great joke of existence. “So I made my way from Prague to the border, which of course, our Commie friends patrolled. So I waited until dark and I watched and found a place in the wire furthest from the sentry posts. And I went under the wire.
And I left Comrade Stalin behind me forever. I came to Australia and visited Sydney.”
Jan’s wife, who knows these stories, who has heard them now for longer than the six decades of their marriage, listens actively, nodding, beaming, a happy audience. At this point she reminded Jan: “That’s where we met.”
“Yes, I met this girl but I did not settle then in Sydney. The government was sending men to the Snowy River but I went north and became a cane cutter.”
Jan is short and slight. In his old age he is bent like a banana. Work on the canefields is tough for the most robust and the humid heat is brutal. It is hard to picture Jan at this work.
“On the coast I saw a traditional Pacific Islander sailing boat, hollow, with an outrigger. My own country has no coast. I decided I would learn to sail. With an Aboriginal friend I found a tall straight tree and chopped it down and hollowed it with an axe. I made a boat and I sailed it to Sydney. I stopped here and there to work when I needed money. I stopped further south and there was this same girl and I took her to South Mole Island…”
Jan embarked for Sydney on December 26, 1951. He arrived in Sydney on December 26, 1953. Jan enjoys recalling precise dates. There were newsreel cameramen filming his arrival. “I was quite famous.”
Jan spoke of his work laying railway tracks, of his initiative in reinforcing curved sections to prevent derailments. The smiles flashed, signalling pride in serious work perfomed well. He married ‘the girl’ and they settled in sugar cane country where they raised red pawpaws and four children Jan spoke of his generations, of his ‘tribe of fifty.’
“You have fifty descendants, Jan?”
“Yes, they number fifty; children and grandchildren, and grandgrandchildren. Some from my children, some from step-grandchildren: it is not different, all the same, all my tribe. When we come together, all are the same. All are one.”
As I sat and listened to Jan, our heads bowed close to allow his soft words to breach my hard ears, I tasted his ideas of peace that ends to soon, of insects that should rule; I reflected how a life that started in Old Europe – “I am a relic the old Austro-Hungarian Empire” – flowered in this new country, how a sole person now has a tribe of half an hundred. I thought of my grandchildren and his ‘grandgrandchildren’, all of whom who must grow in this world. I thought of Jan’s eighty-eight years of living and breathing and smiling. Somehow this spirited man radiated a joy that quite defeated glooms past and pushed away gloom to come.

A Message of Love Smuggled into a Suitcase

We live in a world in pain. In that world dark deeds, harsh words, inhumane policies are normal. God is conscripted and deformed in every form of violence. Truth is lost, our planet poisoned.
Seeing all this, hearing it, feeling it,a person might surrender and despair.
Then life sends a message.
This is the message that came to me today.

  
Miles spent two weeks pocket money on this gift for his mother.

We Don’t Know their Names

An internet friend sent me some thoughts last week about the writing of the 2014 Nobel winner Patrick Modiano and his preoccupation with the lost. At the same time I was steaming towards the end of ‘Kamchatka’, a novel of the Disappeared in Argentina. Modiano wrote of Rita Bruder, a young French Jewess who went missing from her safe haven in a convent during the German occupation of Paris. Modiano is driven to search out the child’s fate. He cannot let the past and the lost rest unpursued.

I found myself acutely vulnerable to my e-friend’s story of stories. Partly it was the menace quietly gathering in ‘Kamchatka’ of the inevitable disappearing of a loved one; but more, the Modiano quest brought home a long overdue quest of my own: my destined search for my mother’s lost cousins. My knowledge of the cousins in question is slight and fragmented. It shifts in memory’s half light, lacking solidity, its textures diaphanous with the partial attention I must have paid in early childhood to a story my Mum told me. Seventy years after their presumed deaths in Auschwitz I feel the weight of silence.

My mother’s parents died of natural causes in her early adolescence. Somehow the orphan never lost her faith in living or her relish in it. Failing her Year Ten examinations she left school, trained as a bookkeeper, went to work and saved. In 1939, at the age of twenty-one Mum travelled alone to France where she had good clean fun. She spoke of dining with the Captain and the young officers on the Dutch ship which took her to Europe. She spoke of the beauty of Bali, then a Dutch outpost, almost untouched. On my mother’s return to Australia her younger sister Doreen asked her: ‘Are you still a virgin, Yvonne?’ ‘Yes,’ came the reply, ‘But it wasn’t easy.’ Mum made friends with men wherever she went, two of whom would bob up in our Leeton home while I was still too young for school. The two men, to the best of my knowledge, never knew each other. Their visits were separate and apparently independent events. We’d form a threesome for picnics by the river, the respective Continental, Mum and Howard, her four-year old chaperon. The men’s mysterious names – ‘Syd Viberow’, ‘Romain Hudes’ – intrigue me to this day. Googling has not relieved my curiosity.

These matters I recall well. I recall the smooth Continental gentlemen basking with my young and attractive mother on the riverbank. On one of those picnics we ate kedgeree. On another was it curried hard-boiled eggs? Europe was – I am confident – earnestly wooing; Mum remained Mum, Plato on the riverbank. I mean platonic; Mum might well have enjoyed being admired, but assuredly she liked her good fun clean. My memories are scatterings. Atmospheres are clearer than some factual details. Mum’s prudent inclusion in the picnics of an attention-hogging four-year old was strategic.

More scatterings: In Paris Mum’s tight black curly hair excites the admiration of a German hairdresser who marshalled her best English to compliment her: ‘You have vonderful viskers, Mademoiselle’; Mum’s accounts of the anxious urgings of the family back in 1939, to ‘come home now! There’s going to be a war.’ Mum is in no hurry. She spends time in France with her young cousins. Eventually she sails for home: ‘We slept on deck that last week, half expecting every night to be sunk by a U-boat. We arrived in Fremantle on the day war was declared.’ More good fun.

Much less clearly come memories of Mum’s cousins. The names are feminine and French, that I recall. Or I believe I recall it. They must be the daughters of Mum’s mother’s cousin. In 1939 they are teenagers, while Mum is twenty-two.

Mum says nothing to us children touching her cousins’ fate. But she must have known. I know that from the international telegrams that sped across the world late in1944; from Melbourne to Paris, from New York to Paris, with mounting anxiety. From Paris silence. From Melbourne to New York, from New York to Melbourne, in tones of deepening dread, cousins ask for word. There is no word. “Oed’ und leer das Meer”, ‘empty and waste, the sea.’ I know Mum knew; I found these telegrams among her papers after she died.

Mum and Dad bring up their four children very Jewish in the Riverina. In Leeton we children never hear of the Holocaust. We are as far from Auschwitz as Jews can be. Only three hundred miles south of us, Melbourne, thronging with survivors, is as close to Auschwitz as Australia can be. At the age of nine and a half I am translated from the Riverina to Mount Scopus in Melbourne. There, in a classroom full of Jewish children I am one of very few with living grandparents. I experience myself as a Jew whose family was safe, intact.

I regret now that innocence. A child who sat at the side of his father every Ninth Day of the Month of Av, listening to Dad as he lamented the destruction of the Temple and the sack of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, knew nothing of Europe only a few years earlier. We sat on the thin, scratchy carpet of our dining room floor, the house lights turned off, a single candle our only light as Dad chanted the Book of Lamentations in its distinctive moaning and sighing melody. Dad translated and together we bewailed the ‘breach of my people’ at the hands of Rome. Sixty-plus years later I can feel that carpet itching my thighs. But the Third Reich never touched me.

Why was Mum silent? Assuredly she cared for ‘Sophie’ and ‘Josephine’ – names that lurk just beyond memory’s outer fringe, names that might even be true. Assuredly Mum knew. But she said nothing. No stranger to closer loss, Mum could and would speak of her beloved parents, tenderly but with a composure that unnerved this small child. Strangely disconnected from grief, Mum thrived as an orphan, much, much later as a widow, and even managed to live on in joy after losing her one lifelong companion, her sister Doreen; and after Doreen Mum lost her firstborn son. From her early years Mum knew loss but managed to keep sorrow a stranger.

At what cost, I wonder. I read Modiano and I understand the Nobel judges’ remark about ‘his art of memory.’ My mother practised her own arts of memory. Did she survive a life that was punctuated by loss by excision of sorrow? Perhaps what started as a young girl’s strategy led to atrophy and involution of the organs of sorrow. In that case my own memories of Mum’s account of Europe might be actually complete: do I in fact recall the entirety of the particles that Mum allowed herself?

I bless Mum for her faculty of joy. And now she is gone I must investigate my own faculty for grief. I want to find my cousins.

Intimacy 

First I used to sleep with my older brother, later with my sister, finally with my younger brother. I liked the closeness. Nowadays I sleep only with my wife and with persons whom I pay for their services. 

These latter liaisons occur infrequently. I enter a smallish room where my hostess – or as it sometimes plays out – my host, invites me to remove some of my clothing. I lie down in whatever posture my companion suggests. There my companion applies lubricant liberally and proceeds to caress my breasts. Of an instant my nipples leap to nuggety erection while the echocardiographer’s probe performs its ultrasonic mysteries. In the course of these intimacies I invariably fall asleep. In this way I have slept with a lady scientist from Shanghai, an earnest Adventist from Portland and a courtly Zoroastrian gentleman from Persia. (Noting the ritual fringes beneath my shirt, that gentleman and I compared notes on our respective holy undergarments.)

Following these pleasant liaisons I wipe my breasts, get dressed and visit my cardiologist to learn the bad news.

In his Saturday column last weekend Philip Adams wrote: ‘… when Qantas sat the first lady beside me I can still see Mrs Howard’s expression of distaste. “Don’t worry, Janette,” I soothed, “I’m passing out.” And, popping on the eyeshades, I did. But couldn’t resist telling listeners that night: “I just slept with the prime minister’s wife.”’

The story reminded me of another journalist, invited to cover the Concorde’s one and only trip to Australia. As part of the media gaggle the reporter sat in the body of the plane, with notables seated further forward. Among the notables was then prime minister, Gough Whitlam, a large man. (Malcolm Fraser, asked once how he’d compare himself to Whitlam, responded: ‘I’m taller, he’s wider.’)

In the course of the flight Whitlam wound his way down the aisle in the direction of the reporter, slowing as he neared. The reporter felt intrigued and excited: Why me? – he wondered. Whitlam came to a stop at precisely that row, and, turning away from the reporter, leaned forwards to speak to another media person seated in the opposite aisle. The ample prime ministerial posterior moved ever closer to the reporter’s face. The conversation went on for a good while. Eventually Gough straightened and returned to his seat. After sitting in a state of prolonged near-intimacy the reporter wondered: ‘Has any citizen ever been so close to his leader without exchanging words?’