I call and invite myself to visit with my friends David and Nancy in Pittsburgh. Nancy is a paediatrician and David a paediatric psychiatrist. Their lives in work are an inspiration to me. I get onto David. He’s welcoming and hospitable as always. ‘We’ll love to have you. What are your dates, Howard?’
‘Last week in October.’
‘That’s unfortunate’, said David, ‘I’ll be attending the meeting of the Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at that time, in Seattle. You couldn’t come to Seattle, could you?’
I can come and I do. And so I don’t go to Pittsburgh.
In Seattle, a sizeable city where the rain falls, coffee shops and bookshops abound – as in Melbourne. The coffee is good, just about good enough to compensate for the weather. Like Melbourne, Seattle is a UNESCO World City of Literature. I feel at home in Seattle’s mists and drizzle, with Seattle’s coffee and bookshops, and in the city’s richness of cultural endowment.
I attend the conference and I soak up the latest research into adolescent mental health. I see how my friend David knows everyone, how they cherish and venerate him, how the younger researchers find him inspiring. Over thirty years’ leading child psychiatry in Pittsburgh David has contributed richly to his field. Adolescents without number he saves from death by despair. A few years back I see him at his work, one-on-one with kids whose lives are blighted from the start. I see and I marvel at the pioneering work that keeps these kids alive and helps them thrive.
It turns out the Academy are honouring David, choosing him to give the Plenary Address. On occasions like this Americans enjoy pomp and formality. The Plenary is a grand event. Every delegate attends. A great hall fills. David and his fellow Illuminati – numbering perhaps one hundred – occupy tiered rows of seats facing the audience. The audience of seven hundred delegates and their friends and spouses fills the remaining rows. Oratory bursts into flower, moving with the spirit from Grandee, to Honoree, to Celebrity, to Worthy Worker. As Yeats wrote, ‘…all’s accustomed, ceremonious’.
I sit in the front, opposite my friend, myself aglow in his glory. David sits, pregnant with the words that will distill his wisdom. But before he will speak, we must hear from a Traditional Leader of the Peoples native to this area. Her name, we read, is Connie McCloud. A short, stout woman rises to her feet before us. She is not young. I notice her heavily tinted spectacles. You don’t need sunnies in Seattle; perhaps her sight is impaired. The woman does not move until a younger man with brown skin offers an arm, which she accepts, and she descends ponderously to the lectern. The President of the Academy introduces the speaker: ‘ It is an honour for me to present Connie McCloud to offer us her Blessing and her Welcome. Miss Mc Cloud has led her people, the Puyallup, for over thirty years.’ Someone adjusts the microphone to her height. Connie McCloud stands and regards us, visitors to her lands. She thrusts a fleshy arm upwards and she gives voice.
The voice is at one moment strong, freighted with pride and feeling, the next moment faltering beneath that heavy freight. The woman tells us proudly of her country, of its sacred mountain, its waters, its nourishing salmon, its deer, its skies and clouds and forests. ‘We have always been here! Despite all attempts to bring that to an end, we have always been here!’ The voice rises and the woman declares, ‘And God damn it, we are still here!’
She flings her stout arm backward and upward: ‘Our sacred mountain, which you will be told is Mount Rainier, is Tacoma. A newcomer named it for a friend of his, a magistrate named Rainier. Mister Rainier never visited these lands. He never saw our mountain.’ I’m reminded of Alice Springs, named for Alice Todd, absentee wife of the telegraph surveyor. The true name of that place is Mpartwe.
The speaker speaks of her lineage. She names her father, names his, then traces both to the brother of Great Chief Seattle. (As far away as Australia we’ve know that name for the lines attributed to him upon the imminent surrender of his lands: ‘Every part of the earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.’)
At length Connie Mc Cloud says, ‘Here is my blessing. Here is my prayer for your success here in our lands. Here is my prayer that your wise people, your leaders, will find a cure for this suicide that takes away our young people.’ Oratory comes to its end as Connie Mc Cloud bursts into song. None of us non-native persons has heard song such as this. An ageing woman’s voice rises and falls, consonants and vowels sewn together into a strange fabric of slow rhythms and novel patterns, make their way into our stilled being. A sense of something solemn, something authentic and ancient and potent, penetrates us. The song rolls along, a river of sound that flows, from age to age, with steady pace, to its last syllable. We know a serious peace. I look up. David is mopping his eyes even as I do the same.
When at length David does speak, it is of death – of the premature loss of our young at their own hands. David is not a morose person. His rubicund features glow with ready playfulness. The life and the play reside alongside the gravitas of the protector of young lives. David’s theme this evening is ‘Saving Holden Caulfield.’ The reference is to Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, in which Holden Caulfield imagines himself as the catcher of children who tumble helplessly over a sheer cliff at the edge of a ryefield. David and his colleagues are the catchers below the ryefields from which our true life teenagers leap.
David begins with a light-hearted remark that I don’t catch. He twinkles and his audience relaxes. Then it’s down to business: ‘After all these years we’re seeing not a fall in teenage suicide, but a rise. After all these decades of research and treatment we’re not winning. It’s not as if we don’t know what works: research has shown us what works; we’re simply not implementing it. After these many years in the field my mind turns to retirement, to enjoying the grandchildren. But there’s that graph’ – David points to the rising line of trend on his slide – ‘and I’d like to see it point downward before I leave the field.’
David flies back to Pittsburgh, to Nancy and his children and his grandchildren. His house stands 500 yards from The Tree of Life Congregation where a family gathers on Shabbat to name their eight-day old baby boy. A man posts on Facebook, ALL JEWS HAVE TO DIE. The man enters the congregation and the following are named among those who die:
• Joyce Fienberg, 75, of Oakland;
• Richard Gottfried, 65, of Ross;
• Rose Mallinger, 97, of Squirrel Hill;
• Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, of Edgewood;
• brothers Cecil Rosenthal, 59, of Squirrel Hill, and David Rosenthal, 54, of Squirrel Hill;
• married couple Bernice Simon, 84, of Wilkinsburg; Sylvan Simon, 86, of Wilkinsburg;
• Daniel Stein, 71, of Squirrel Hill;
• Melvin Wax, 88, of Squirrel Hill;
• and Irving Younger, 69, of Mount Washington.
Thank you Howard for such a touching piece about your friend David.
As for the tragedy at the congregation, I still can’t wrap my head around why some humans do such things.
Love to you and the people who bring kindness and goodness to our world.
Carol David Davey
You bring plenty of kindness and goodness to my world
I find this unbearable. It doesn’t feel as though humanity will even make progress. It makes so little sense when there are such wonderful people in the world, such as your friend David, working so hard to make things better.
Unbearable seems the correct word, Hilary
What does it mean?
Where does it end?
I think of Cain
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Another beautiful piece in a tragic setting. Thanks Howard
I have no words, Howard. Naomi has summed up the tragedy of hate and ignorance. But who can fathom the loss of hope and despair in the young, that they take their own lives? Not me. But perhaps the two types of event have some common denominator- lostness,
Thank you for writing from your invariable location of love and the altitude of your thought.
Truly I felt the link between the two strands of this post was a slender one.
Perhaps you have named it.
I believe the 97 year old lady, Rose, was a Holocaust survivor. It’s unimaginable to me that after surviving those atrocities, born of hatred and ignorance, she lived to pray in a free country, where she was finally massacred by the same ugly hate and ignorance…Tragedy upon tragedy. What frightening times these are.
“Those who have not learned from history are doomed to relive it”. So said someone. Rose lived to see that and died knowing it.
Love and love