I’m seventy-five. Seventy-five, a thankful number, and a thinkful one. Anyone who reaches this stage knows – with me – that we are closer here to the exit than the entry. Anyone who follows my writing will note how my mind drifts toward death, dying and the dead; toward memory and memorial.
A friend observed thirty years ago, ‘You know Howard, all this writing you are doing is a just means of coming to terms with your mortality.’
I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about.
I smiled the kindly smile you give to the clueless friend who means well.
I know now my friend was right, dead right.
When I was a child the fact of death frightened me. To be annihilated – unthinkable! Literally, I was unable to think what the world could be like without Howard Jonathan Goldenberg. In my adult life I’ve experienced a similar disability of thinking: I find myself simply unable to think of an afterlife. I don’t deny the possibility, I just can’t relate to the concept.
So I live this life as if it’s my only one. I think now that death is a good idea. I don’t feel frightened anymore of annihilation. It’s my loved ones who fear my death, especially the grandchildren. The more I love them, the more they love me, the more vulnerable I make them. That’s a dilemma for me. I have felt at times, almost irresponsible, for becoming close and precious to children whose frailty I know so well. For myself, I can reflect how this planet, our species, did alright before Howard Jonathan Goldenberg arrived; once he’s gone, there’ll be one polluter fewer.
But just as the exit has always exercised my mind, the opposite portal called me irresistibly. As my own life ebbs, at the opposite portal an opposite tide of new life always rises. That portal has admitted nine grandchildren into life, into my life. The nine have broadened and deepened my late years. Those years feel more intense, more vivid, more life-stained than the years before.
I used to work at the portal that admits newcomers to life. I delivered babies. I was the intimate outsider, the guest who was invited to attend the birth of a family. Looking back, gazing over my shoulder towards that portal, that screaming gateway, I see blood and shit and tears, I see babies who gasped and roared, I see other babies who had to be coaxed into breath, I see some who would never breathe. I see women shaken, transfigured by the sudden knowledge of their enormous power. I see placentas stuck, I see the lifeblood ebbing, I feel once again the terror…
Two portals long have drawn me, twin doorways of universal truth.
My day starts with prayer, followed by some tablets to lower my blood pressure washed down with strong coffee to raise it. I plug in my hearing aids, I put on my specs, I stretch my shrinking spine and try to stand straight. These small acts, the adjustments of a seventy-five year old, as he moves ever backward, ever closer to the portal marked Exit.
I remember a book my wife’s father gifted me, an anthology of sorts, with odd bits of writing. One story ran something like this:
A man went for a walk in the high mountains. Entranced by the grandeur that he saw all around, he jumped when he heard a loud roar from behind him. Looking back, he saw a snow tiger. The giant creature would very soon overtake him. The man ran, and as the tiger sprang the man reached the summit and leaped.
The man looked down at the valley floor far below. Turning in mid-air, he reached and just managed to grab an overhanging branch of the small sapling that grew at the edge of the fall. The man swung from the bough, his fall broken. Looking up he saw the slavering tiger regarding him. Looking down he saw the unbroken fall. The man heard a groaning sound. Looking behind, he saw the sapling slowly coming away from the peak. Swinging, he looked at the cliff face, and saw, just beneath the sapling, some strawberries growing there. The man’s free hand plucked some strawberries and he ate them. How good the strawberries tasted.
Suspended between the portals of truth, a seventy-five year old enjoys the taste of strawberries.
Thank you for sharing this special story.
You left a special mark in our hearts at our meeting of our 6 week old son that we took to the Royal children’s hospital; we were new parents, worried parents, that had been met with not a very good impression from the medical staffs in different clinics and we came to the Royal children’s hospital and had the luck to meet you, we were calmed by your professionalism and your calming voice, you took actions and followed through – now 2 years ago we have still not found a doctor that is like you, not even a little bit. I hope you will live forever, as people like you are very rare but necessary in this world. Thank you for everything and happiest birthday.
Thank you for writing so warmly
Your message takes me by surprise. It is unexpected and enormously significant to an old doctor at the stage when he asks himself, ‘What have I done? What does it mean?’
I have a favour to ask: would you kindly call the GP clinic at RCH and leave your name and phone number?
There are matters we might talk about privately that are unsuitable for this public blog.
With grateful feeling,
Happy birthday Howard. Aren’t we fortunate to have lived to see our grandchildren come into the world. I too think about leaving them, our youngest ones do talk about dying in relation to us, we seem so “old” to them. I just love them all the more, if that’s possible, and enjoy the “taste of strawberries”. You’re always able to put thoughts into words so well Howard. Thank you for sharing this beautiful piece. Love Janette
Thank you for sharing your personal and deeply moving thoughts and feelings with us Howard. For me, your words echo what my hopes are for the remainder of my days – yet…. Your writing reminded me of what is written on John O’Donohue’s (Irish writer/poet) gravestone.
May I have the courage today
To live the life that I would love,
To postpone my dream no longer
But do at last what I came here for
And waste my heart on fear no more.
Dear Howard, this is a beautiful piece. I too will miss you if you go before I do. But I just want to let you know that I don’t think you should worry about your grandchildren being too close to you and they will have to cope with your passing. Firstly they and their parents will love you and you will see that their parents will love the fact that their children love you. Secondly, we should not defend children from dealing with the grief of losing their beloved grandparents. As you know grief is the cost of being a human being. If all goes well, they will mourn your passing and they will emerge from their mourning and they will realise that all human beings mourn and that will help to create a bond between them and other people. The capacity to realise that we all mourn may make them gentler with other people and more able to see the divine spark of their humanity. Shabbat Shalom
Howard, I enjoyed your post, as always.
You remind me of Woody Allen who famously said:
‘I’m not afraid of death, ….I just don’t want to be there when it happens.’
I also hope you are not there when it happens.
Seventy five is the new twenty five Howard.
I love that story, Howard. I’ve read it in many forms, e.g. https://keithrosen.com/2009/11/the-experience-of-gratitude-and-the-richest-person-in-the-world-a-zen-parable-of-the-magnificent-strawberry/ I share your thoughts about endings and beginnings, and feel grateful for every day we can enjoy.
Belated Happy Birthday Howard!
I am one of those unable to think what the world could be like without you. 🙋🏼♀️