Howard is a doctor, marathon runner and author. He has written two non-fiction books, My Father’s Compass (2007) and Raft (2009). Carrots and Jaffas (2014) is his first novel. His latest novel is A Threefold Cord (Hybrid, 2107)
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.
The box sits there, unopened, apparently intact, inscrutable, pristine, just sits there, outside the urinal at a truckers’ rest stop off the Refugee Road to Victoria. The word at the top reads ‘Mistral’. I know what mistral means; we learned about it at school in Form Four Geography. Mistral is the name of the strong wind that blows cold, dry air on Mediterranean coasts. But ‘Air Fryer’ is a new concept. What’s an air fryer for? Who would wish to fry air? The last time the air fried, we had those horrible bushfires that tore through this area and along our East. Pausing in passing, I examine the box. The lid opens readily, revealing an unfamiliar contrivance, presumably the device for frying air. Resting atop the device in the box, I note a number of smaller packages, gift-wrapped, addressed to Dear Colin and to Granny Nancy. I retreat hastily, conscious of invading privacy. The air outside the urinal is heavy and stale.
Back to the car where Annette and Nana await. It’s 6.30pm and at midnight they’ll close the border. We’ve driven the refugee road now for four hours, racing from Sydney where we’d barely unpacked, only to hear Mr Andrews speaking upon the radio at 2.00pm. He said he’d let us return to Victoria, and we wouldn’t have to quarantine, but only if we crossed from New South Wales before midnight. After that hour we’d be required to isolate at home for 2 weeks. By 2.15 we’d decided to leave. Kisses, hugs, sad looks, big squeezes with Ruby, whose eighth birthday celebrations have been twisted and shrunken beyond recognition. Nana and this household haven’t seen each other for fifteen months. During that time, all fear they’ll never see each other again. Covid, easily caught, kills old girls of ninety-four with diabetes. But no, Nana arrives in Sydney alive, she embraces her Sydney family, faces awash with tears. An intense forty six hours follow, rich with longing requited. Then Mister Andrews says come home quick. And we do. And somewhere two hours north of the Victorian border, a refugee with a full bladder jumps from a car and dislodges gifts chosen with love for Colin and Granny Nancy. The urinator races from urinal to vehicle and hurries south to beat the deadline. I’m hoping he or she crossed the border in time and – unquarantined, a Magus ungifted – spends a joyous Christmas with Cousin Colin and Granny.
The mother whom you are about to bring into being feels a pain in her belly. Your birth was due a couple of days ago but it doesn’t occur to the woman that she might be in labour. She phones her father, a doctor, soon to become a grandfather.
Dad, my tummy hurts. It’s been hurting all day. Could it be gastro?
Darling, you are pregnant. You have reached full term. Unless you have diarrhoea you’re probably in labour. Go to hospital.
The date is November 11, a date already doubly and indelibly significant for Australians. It’s the date you create a mother, a father, three grandparents, a great-grandmother, uncles, aunts, great-uncles, great-aunts. It’s the date you change our world.
All day you knock at life’s door. Day becomes night. In the Delivery Suite your mum-to-be squats and strains. In an adjacent waiting area, dimly lit, your yogi great-grandmother-designate squats and bears down, trying to birth you at a remove. The soon-to-be grandfather consults his wristwatch. This climactic second stage of labour has become prolonged. He knows a lengthy second stage imperils a baby. He sends a message to the obstetrician: Would you like an extra pair of hands in case the baby needs resuscitation?
The specialist says yes.
I enter and not long after, the door of life opens to you. You and I meet. You need no resuscitation. I hold you and I introduce you to the mother whom you have brought into being.
Thirty-six hours later I’m gazing at you, just a baby. You lie inside my pink cap. I’ve seen hundreds of babies, I’ve delivered hundreds, every one of them a miracle, every one of them scrutinised for irregularities by a clinical eye. You are no less imperfect than those hundreds. You are skinny, you look like an empty sock, your face isn’t quite symmetrical.
But some event or process, something visceral, something cosmic perhaps, is taking place and I am transmogrified: I am a grandfather; I love you. What is this joy? Your fingers curl and close around my finger and you grip me.
On the eighth day of your life you rest on the lap of your great-grandfather, I remove some skin and bring you into a Covenant. A drop of wine pacifies you. Your tribe jubilates. We know our long back story. Behold you! We see you and we behold our futurity.
Years pass, your parents send you to this grandfather to learn rituals, traditional melodies, ancient texts. At thirteen you are barmitzvah. Once again your clan rejoices and this time you can share it. You sense the power, the force field of love that is your extended family, the depth of our feeling. Profoundly you know belonging.
Life takes you through ups and downs. At eleven you walk with me, up, down, up and again down, to a distant lighthouse. A boy who buries strong feelings, you struggle and you achieve. You declare, I love you Saba. Later you say, I’ll bring my kids on this walk. And you add, I love you Saba.
Six years later, life is still up and down. We do that same walk again. This time it is the boy who stops and waits, and allows an aging Saba to catch up. Your words are few but they have not changed. The miles, the steeps, the struggle weld us once again.
This week you sit your last school examination. Your schooldays are behind you. We behold you, the first of your generation. Eighteen years have passed, enriched and intensified by your being. Eighteen years ago you gripped me, never to let me go.
A river flows through my childhood. I dwelt in that particular suburb of heaven which is a country boyhood. When I was nine-and-a-half years of age I was kidnapped by my parents and brought to a city where I have sojourned for 65 years. Very quickly I learned to embrace my new home. Over time I have learned to forgive Melbourne for not being Leeton. Every so seldom work calls me back to that riverine land. For the past three weeks I’ve been working in the blessed town of Cootamundra. Wide streets, unhurried citizens, verdant gardens, wide skies, a community without traffic lights, have nourished and refreshed me these three weeks. Road signs direct the motorist to nearby downs: this way to Tumut; close by is the drowned township of Talbingo; only two and a bit hours to Albury, where abides my oldest friend; down the road is Gundagai; turn right for Junee, railway junction to the entire state. Leeton (Leeton!) is not far; and down that road lies Wagga Wagga Wagga, so great they named it thrice.
The river flows through these parts. Its strong current could seize a body and drown it. It seizes me still and flings me backwards. Nostalgia is the practice of rejoicing in grief. It’s probably a malignant habit. But it reflects a truth, the truth of country, of homeland, a truth known to every territorial animal, including the human.
Sitting in my surgery I meet old farmers of a third or fourth generation on this land. Their attachment to country runs deeply, deep in struggle, deep in memory of drought and flood, in struggle to sustain family and to flourish. Their love runs deeper than mine, which is of the surface. Theirs is rooted in the earth. In Malaya they have a word for it: bumi putra – sons of the soil.
Wars have been fought here over territory. The professor of law who sits in my surgery tells me the local Wiradjuri fought the tribe that gave Canberra its name. The same professor declares, of course epidemics killed most Aboriginal people. The settlers spread them intentionally. They gave blankets to the indigenous, smearing them first with smallpox.Incredulous, I ask for proof.I can’t prove it. It’s part of Aboriginal narrative. Marcia Langton quotes it. Other historians too.
Drinking my morning coffee at Dusty Road Coffee Roasters I fall into conversation with a tall, pear-shaped woman of about fifty. She tells me she teaches in schools for the Red Cross.Do you teach the kids First Aid?No, cultural diversity. In particular, to accept and welcome migrants of all colours, from all places.Can you teach kids not to be racist?Yes, that’s not too hard. You can’t teach adults, though.I digest this for a while. The woman speaks again: Cootamundra Girls’ School was created to train stolen girls to be domestic servants. They were stealing girls as late as 1970. None of the girls came from this district. They were brought here as aliens. The old girls held a reunion here recently.The occasion brought together old friends, survivors together of loneliness, of seizure from country. On pain of physical punishment those girls were forbidden to speak in language. Coming together with old friends was somehow joyous.I ask our informant how long she’s lived in Cootamundra. This isn’t my country. My father’s people are Gunditjmara from near Warrnambool. My mother’s mother came from the Netherlands.The woman leaves us to go to her work, making non-racists.
The professor takes me to see the old girls’ school. It sits near the middle of town, a vast nondescript brick edifice on spacious grounds. Insignia on a placard inform us that a Cadet Corps uses the property. No sign of indigenous occupancy, no word or name to be seen , no-one would dream this is Wiradjuri country. The professor speaks: Many Indigenous people stay away from Cootamundra. Folk memory of this school is unbearable to them.I look around for signs of First People. Nothing here, nothing anywhere I’ve been these past seventeen days. I’ve run main roads and side roads, run to the cemetery, past the churches, past the handsome two-story buildings that house the banks, past the hospital, past the imposing old railway station, past the Council Chambers. I’ve lived across the street from the old Masonic TempIe. This is a town which honours its pioneer past. It honours the birthplace of Donald Bradman and preserves the little house that was his natal hospital. I haven’t noticed an Aboriginal Medical Centre, nor a Cultural Centre.
Until now I didn’t even notice the silence or the absence. So easy, so very easy, not to see, not to know, not to look or ask.
And this is Naidoc Week.
The river that flows through my childhood flows also through the entire time of European settlement. Those times are the recent shallows. The river we all claim, the river that claims us flows through all time and song and dance and story.
They were normal people who stopped us about thirty kilometers along the Hume Highway. The soldier wore a mask. The police officers wore masks and guns and bullet-proof jackets. All was customary. The soldier said it was a lovely day.
It was. The sun shone, spring sprang. The soldier asked, where are you going?
We’re going to Sydney.
We told him about the sickness and the surgeries and the complications and the pains and the parents and their children that needed our help. The soldier said he was sorry.
There was a pause.
My eyes stung a bit with his kindness. He said you wouldn’t have a Permit, would you?
We did. We showed him. The soldier said, go carefully. Go well.
In Wodonga the motel people were just the same, all masked. The familiar unfamiliarity was almost comforting.
Up early, still under curfew, we waited until 5.00 am before driving to the checkpoint at the border. More masks and guns and body armour, a roadblock, a fast car at the ready in case we made a break for it. All normal, familiar from the black and white war movie that is our life. We showed our papers. The officers – mine a female, Annette’s a male – photographed the barcode that isn’t a barcode but a blob, and told us to drive carefully.
So, Dear Victoria, we’ve been in New South Wales for twenty-four hours now. We had wondered how the people would be. We wondered how they’d react to our Victorian registration plates. Apart from the angry mob we encountered in Bathurst, people didn’t seem to mind. It turned out the Bathurst bunch were protesting about koalas. Some ratbag had suggested koalas be protected! We felt unsafe: they come for the koala today, tomorrow it can be the Victorian.We got out of there in a hurry.
At petrol stations we saw humans closer up. We could tell there was something different about them. What was it? Eventually it came to us: Noses! People here have noses. We remembered other people’s noses. We remembered the days when it was not only the persons in your household and persons in Renaissance paintings who had them. We remembered; four-year old Sadie probably would, but Marnie, aged only half a year would not. The old people who drop off food at her front door and wave at her, the old couple supposed to be her grandparents, are normal beings, noseless and masked.
While in quarantine here in the mountains, Annette and I will occupy ourselves with an online self-help book. We need to refresh old skills in preparation for grandparenting. The book is Cuddles, Hugs, Kisses: a Manual for Grandparents.
I was the second in a bunch of four kids. Including parents we were a family of six. That was then.
In 2003, Dad died; a few years later our eldest brother died, three years after him, Mum died. Now we are three. The anniversary of Dad’s death fell this week. I wrote to the other two survivors:
I wish us all many more years of vigorous good health
It has been an empty yahrzeit* no ceremony, no minyan** to respond to my kaddish*** just a candle burning and reciting the bedtime shema and recalling how Dad taught us and translated, the words echoing his love of the text, his love of the tradition, and his love of us, to whom he was passing it all on and reciting the psalm: ”yea even though my father and my father have forsaken me…” I thought of Dad at intervals through the day, but I didn’t build my day around acknowledging him
He was phenomenal – a brave man who made himself strong despite inner infirmity a man who inspired, a man to remember
we were blessed
Sister and brother wrote back, with their rememberings. Cousins wrote, and friends. It all felt mellow, a species of happy. There was a pleasure in remembering and in sharing memory. I found myself wandering around, singing a song I hadn’t sung or heard for perhaps forty years. I heard myself singing: he sipped no sup and he craved no crumb…
This was one of the many songs that Dad, a singing man, especially liked. When I realised what I was doing, I tried to recall one of Mum’s songs. Although Mum was a blithe old girl, she seldom sang. But a memory came of one song she did sing to me when I was very young. I remember her contorting her face as she sang, glee and hilarity bursting from her in self-parody, flinging the words from her with abandon: cigarettes and whiskey and wild, wild wine they’ll drive you crazy, they’ll drive you insane…
I decided to record myself singing my parents’ songs. You can hear their memorial concert by pressing play below.
*anniversary**a congregation***a memorial prayer, recited only in congregational worship
My friend wrote from the sunshine state. How are you doing in the pariah state? When it’s the caller from the electricity company asking how I am, I know she is not interested, so I answer simply and briefly, I’m dying. But when a friend asks I pause to think. He’s asking because he cares. How am I doing? In general I look about me for clues. How are my loved ones? If they are suffering, I know it before enquiring. I know it bodily. My waking thoughts and my restless dreams ache with loving futility.
Well, friend in the sunshine, my firstborn is about to undergo major surgery. The surgery will disable her for a couple of months. She’ll deal with pain whenever she moves her shoulder girdle. Merely to brush her teeth will hurt intolerably. Do you wish to know more? She won’t be able to care for her children. A sole breadwinner, she’ll be unable to win her bread. How’s she doing through it all? She’s dealing with thoughts of disfigurement. She’s alarmed by stories of unbearable pain. But she reminds us, ‘I’ve got the cancer gene, but this surgery is not cancer; it prevents cancer.’
My other children? Number two child has been locked down since February. He’s working from home and he’s loving his household of women, who range down in age from his wife, to his newest, aged four months. He lives in the joy of watching his offspring bloom, and he chafes that he cannot share his loved ones. He’s the bridge between generations. He wants to share his little ones with his elders. He grieves for deprived grandparents, for a great grandmother in her extreme age (‘How many years has Nana left to enjoy, to know her little ones?’); for his siblings too. He knows his little ones are deprived. He’s a bridge and a virus has closed the bridge.
Number three lives in Sydney. Six months have passed since she last saw or touched a parent or a sibling. Six months in the life of a person permanently in exile from family. During those months she’s been diagnosed with cancer, undergone surgery, been cured. In a few weeks she’ll undergo the same cancer-preventing surgery as the firstborn.She subsists with a dozen face time calls a day, but the loving flesh, the warmth of presence, the sharing and the feeding (we celebrate her as a baker and a chef), these she aches for. And as we plan and we cancel plans, and we plan again, the novel virus comes between us. In short she suffers minor cruelties daily; she’ll suffer major surgical cruelties shortly and, God willing, she too will be saved from the genetic cancers that haunt our womenfolk. Overall, good friend, too much detail? I apologise. Our children are brave and loving and they fret for their parents. For us. Golly! Perhaps that was your question. Perhaps you really asked, How are YOU doing? Once again I look about me. I see my wife, a Jewish mother responding to threat by overcatering. Between working at home and trouncing me at Scrabble, and caring for her mother, she overfeeds me and she cooks and packs endless meals for loved ones all about. I feel cared for and loved. I feel safe.
But how am I? In myself? By temperament I tend to be cheerful, optimistic, sometimes vacuously so. But nowadays periods of gloom descend, circumambient fear visits me. My work sustains me with a rewarding sensation of being useful. I enjoy the glow of self-worth. I run a lot and I purge fear and gloom. And I drink plenty of strong coffee which transforms me into a cheery genius.It feels absurd to pity myself in a time when so many suffer so much worse. But if – as the Talmud asks – among the cedars the firestorm falls, what can avail the mosses of the wall? If happy howard is downcast, how much more suffer the cheerless many?
An close elderly Aussie friend and his Balinese partner sent me the following. They are trying to save her family from hunger.
My partner Wayan comes from a part of Bali that frankly, with the onslaught of Covid, has turned to shit for some. The north east area of Bali is generally not well off, suffering from a poorer soil and dryer climate which renders it unsuitable for rice production. Wayan’s home village of Siakin is fairly typical of others in that part with pockets of extreme poverty. And now, due to Covid, those pockets are suffering greatly. In particular those without family support, no land to grow food on or run chooks and especially some of the elderly, certainly those who are widows and some others who have lost employment and have no back up. They need a leg up. We’d like to help some from the village of Siakin and also a few from nearby, some of whom are quite isolated and very affected by the general lack of income in Bali at this time, their families working in Denpasar but with children to feed and travel back to the village curtailed anyway in a rigid lockdown. Using only Wayan’s immediate family as the driving force. One brother, Pak Nengah is principal of the local secondary school and is highly respected throughout Kintamani and the other brother Pak Nyoman works at the nearby primary school in Administration. Also Wayan’s son Putu, niece Mitha and three nephews, Gede, Amon and Kadek will assist with packing and deliveries. The plan is to distribute small and very basic parcels of food. Beginning with 36 souls and sending out 5kg of rice, packets of noodles, cooking oil and eggs. Other than food purchase, a little for petrol and the occasional Ute hire there are no other costs involved. Receipts are provided and other records kept of frequency, purchases, deliveries etc.
We’ll set up a separate bank account and that will be transferred as needed to Bali for supply purchases. We hope this scheme is needed only for the duration of the present emergency. So far we’ve seeded it and have now run short of funds to continue except in a small way. Understanding that this is a difficult time for most we ask that those who are able may forward a small donation to the bank account. BSB 733018 / account no. 644291. If able to help in a small way your kindness will have the gratitude of hungry people. Some recipients, after a surprise delivery, have been reduced to tears. We have requested photographs of those receiving to indicate the level of need. Here are a few. On behalf of the battlers of Siakin
Around 1942, Myer Goldenberg asked Yvonne Coleman, ‘Will you marry me?’
Yvonne asked herself, ‘How high is Mount Sinai?’
Yvonne’s question was rhetorical. What she understood by Myer’s question was, ‘Do you reckon you can observe six hundred and thirteen commandments?’
In truth whatever the precise height of the mountain (2,285 metres), the answer would not influence Yvonne’s decision: Moses climbed up that mountain to receive the Torah. If old Moses could do it, she would. The Children of Israel, standing at the foot of the mountain, declared to Moses they’d embrace the Law, sight unseen: We will do it and we’ll hear it! – they shouted. Yvonne said to Myer, ‘I’ll do it.’
Yvonne’s response was wholehearted. On that understanding the two married.
Yvonne Coleman was born in 1917, in Perth, Western Australia, the daughter of a pearling captain (a son of the tribe of Levi), who sailed south from Broome to marry his bride, the daughter of French Jewish settlers who landed in Australia around 1852. In 1917, Perth was a long way from Mt. Sinai. According to family legend Yvonne’s grandfather and the Anglican Bishop of Perth were close friends. There is no legend that links Grandfather with the Rabbi in Perth. We do know the family attended synagogue. Strangers to the word, shule, they attended Synagogue regularly – on the three days of the High Holydays.
Yvonne liked synagogue. After the family removed to Melbourne, Yvonne joined the Melbourne Synagogue where her father’s family had been members since 1882. Although unschooled in Hebrew reading, Yvonne enjoyed the choral service and judged her punctuality by the particular choral items she recognised. Famously unpunctual her whole life through, Yvonne judged her arrival ‘early’ if before before the closing hymn, Adon Olam; and ‘late’ if after that hymn.
At the Toorak Road Synagogue the presiding Minister, Rabbi Brodie, (later to become Chief Rabbi of the British Empire), introduced Yvonne to the young Doctor Goldenberg. The doctor asked his question and Yvonne gave her question in reply. And Yvonne began her ascent of the mountain.
By the time I learned stories of Yvonne Coleman-that-was, she was a Shabbat keeping, Hebrew reading, kosher cooking, succah decorating, challah baking housewife in the small country town of Leeton in New South Wales. Yvonne was the sole Jewish ba’alath bayit (home-maker) inthe town, the mother of four observant and knowledgeable children.
Mum said she would do and she would hear; she never said she’d love the restrictions; but she observed them. Travelling on a bus with Mum one night, I asked her, ‘How do you like your life, with all the rules and restrictions, and the ‘thou shalt’ and the ‘thou shalt not?’’
‘I do like it, Darling. But if I were granted an interview with God, I’d say, ‘Look, Almighty God, if, after a meaty meal (Mum never came to terms with fleishig), you’ll allow me just a dash of milk in my coffee, I’ll swear on a stack of Bibles I’ll never seethe a kid in its mother’s milk.’
One precept in particular showed Mum to me in a distinctively devout light. This was lighting the candles before Shabbos and Yomtov. Mum would light, recite the bracha in the unfashionable Anglo-German ashkenazith pronunciation that Dad taught her, then stand in silence, with her eyes covered, for a long time. During these long minutes, we kids would wait while Mum stood, a fixture, unmoving like Hannah, mother of Samuel; only her lips moved. The silence felt sacred. Mum was praying for her loved ones, praying for every one of us, praying in detail, in secret, listing our individual needs, telling the Creator what she needed Him to know, and what she wanted Him to do.
After more than sixty years of marriage, Myer Goldenberg died, full of years, and was gathered to his people. Yvonne held his hand, still warm, in hers, and said in a voice wrenched with feeling, ‘He was a lovely man…’
Mum was now a widow. In 1942 she’d given her word – she would do and she would hear – and for sixty years she had kept her word. Now she was free. One son, looking perhaps to enjoying with Mum a more liberal future, asked, ‘Are you going to keep all those rules and restrictions now, Mum?’ Mum answered, gently, in her soft voice, ‘Why would I change now, darling?’
***Mum lived a further six years, keeping Shabbat, keeping kosher, keeping faith. She died just before her 92nd birthday, the day following Shavuoth, the Festival of the Giving of the Law at Sinai. Next Sundayher children will observe her yahrzeit. I might even find a congregation where I can recite kaddish. And a candle will burn in my house in her memory.
Someone called the Clinic the other day and left this message: ‘Alexa Rosa wanted to speak to the doctor who treated her mother a long time ago. And she wanted to buy your book.’ Did I know an Alexa Rosa? I thought somehow I should. A scene came back to me: a cold winter’s day in Melbourne, a young family in a front room, a sick mother, her worried husband, their adult daughter.
If this truly was my Alexa, then her story was strong and bright in my recall. I could never forget it. It was the winter of 1971. I had a new marriage, a new licence to practise medicine outside of the hospital and a brother about to marry in the United Kingdom. In order to raise the fares to the wedding I moonlighted as a radio locum. A radio locum installed a two-way radio in his car and travelled, like a taxi driver, to wherever the job called. On this occasion the call came to the Migrant Hostel in Kororoit Creek Road Altona. My bride, an able map reader, sat at my side and navigated.
Kororoit Creek Road in Atona was a long drive from everywhere else. When we arrived and parked in a vast car park, Annette (the bride) repeated the Controller’s directions, “Building 19, apartment 5.” I stepped outside. Here, at Melbourne’s western edge, you could see the setting sun disappearing beneath the horizon and the world darkening.
I didn’t feel happy leaving Annette there in the dark. I looked beyond the carpark toward the distant buildings. Would Annette be any safer in that lowering mass? Annette said, “I’ll be alright here. Just go.” Troubled, I went. How would I find building Nineteen where someone needed a doctor, someone who was suffering from something, possibly something serious? Having now reached the first of the buildings I could see my search was hopeless. The buildings were all great bulky cuboids of concrete. All were unli. And the dark was cold. I wandered and looked for numbers. No number nineteen anywhere, no five. I knocked on a door to enquire. The door opened, I asked, Can you direct me to Flat Five? A hand flew to the heart. The head shook: I not English. I sorry.
I felt sorry too. I turned dully away. Of course no English, everyone here newly arrived, everyone indoors, appalled, like me, by the cold. Movement in the shadow on my left. I hailed the shadow: Excuse me, do you speak English? The head shook no, while the face smiled a wide yes. The shadow, a young man, beckoned, and signed me to follow. I followed. He moved swiftly along cement paths, in and out between buildings, along corridors, until abruptly he stopped in his tracks, pointing and nodding furiously. The shadow knocked on a door, turning to me, smiling. Pointing towards the door, the shadow said, English! The door opened and a voice spoke: Good evening. How can I help you? Did you send for a doctor? No. Is this Apartment Five? No. This is seven. Is this Building Nineteen? No but I’ll take you to Number Five..
This was someone not lost in language nor in space. Feeling found, I followed. A building or two or three later, my guide stopped and knocked on a door. I noted a large numeral 5 next to the doorway and felt almost hopeful. The door opened and a pretty young woman appeared. Behind her stood a man, older than she; behind him a couple of small children, curious and fearful, clutched at the man’s legs and peeked. The young woman saw my medical bag. She told me her name and said, Come in Doctor. Thank you for coming. My mother is sick.
Mother lay on a couch. She did not look well. Her daughter explained: We arrived just today from Spain. During the flight Mother started to cough and it was hard for her to breathe. Now she has a fever. We didn’t know how to call a doctor. Thank you for coming.
I examined the lady. I thought I heard altered breathing sounds in one lung. I bent and listened hard. The air struggled into one side of the chest, it rattled and squeaked.This was bronchopneumonia. Ordinarily a hospital matter, this called for X-RAY, possibly intravenous treatment as an inpatient. How would this lady get to hospital? Would Medicare cover a new arrival? Would the ambulance take her? Was there another way?
I straightened and addressed the man through his adult daughter. Mother is sick. She has an infection in her chest. She needs strong antibiotic medicine, she might need to go into hospital. If you wish I can start some treatment here, now. And with luck she will improve quickly.
The daughter translated for her father. The two spoke with the mother, the three nodded. They had decided. The daughter spoke. Thank you doctor, yes, we would like you to treat her. Thank you doctor…we don’t want hospital. I fished out some penicillin – no, mother is not allergic – and gave the lady a hefty dose by injection. I wrote out a prescription for oral penicillin to commence the next day.
Leaving detailed instructions for a range of eventualities I prepared to take my troubled leave. I wished the lady well, I wished the whole family good health in Australia. The daughter reached for a purse. How much do we pay you, Doctor? I did not want payment. A doctor who deserted his sick patient didn’t deserve payment. I said something like, There is no charge. To myself I said, You have paid me, you’ve paid off my guilt. The young woman protested, No Doctor, we must pay you. We don’t know who sent you. How did you know we needed you? I didn’t know. Once again I wished them well and I left, my ears burning with blessings I could not accept.
Back in the car, I found Annette unharmed. I said, I couldn’t find my patient. And I told her the story.
It might have been six months later when I was called to the Delivery Suite for the birth of a baby. Birth was not expected for some weeks. Labour was well advanced when they called me and birth was imminent. I needed the mother to help. ‘Push, hard, push! The mother didn’t speak English. A masked figure at her side coached her, translating my words: Big, long push. Push….The mother pushed, her face turning deep red, the veins standing out on her forehead. Stop pushing now! Don’t push! Breathe, breathe…The mother breathed and with each breath the head advanced. The mother breathed her baby into this life, accompanied by fluids, red and clear and mucoid, and followed by the placenta and cries from the baby and crying from the mother. I counted fingers and toes and other parts and placed the baby on the mother’s chest and wished the new family joy. I pulled off my mask and thanked the person whose interpreting had made the birth smoother. I extended a hand, My name’s Howard. We have met, she said, removing her mask. I am Alexa.
Alexa explained she had come to visit her friend, now a new mother, in her ward. Abruptly, labour started and accelerated. The hospital discovered there was no-one to interpret for a Spanish speaker so Alexa volunteered. We chatted. She told me her own mother was well, recovery had gone smoothly. She, Alexa, was working as a wardsperson in this hospital. She told me she hoped to study nursing.
I said, I don’t know if you realised I had been called by an entirely different person on the day you arrived from Spain. I never found that person. I never discovered how I fund your Mum. I know, said Alexa. God sent you.
A few weeks later my father told me a new family had started seeing him as their local doctor. They’re from Spain, he said. They tell me you treated the mother for pneumonia.
Forty-nine years passed. Locked down, I’m doing Telehealth from home. A message arrived for me, asking me to contact an Alexa whom I had know years before. I rang the number. Alexa speaking, said a voice. The voice sounded Aussie. I told Alexa who I was. She asked, Do you remember us? If you arrived from Spain in 1971, then yes I do. How could I forget? We did. It was 1971. I guess you were about nineteen then. Exactly. So you’re sixty-eight now? Yes. And I did do nursing. I’m still nursing. We talked for a while. Mum is still alive. She’s ninety-three now. Dad only died last year. Do you remember what you said when you left us that night? What did I say? You said, I wish you health and happiness in this country. You blessed us and your words came true. I reminded Alexa of her words to me in the Delivery suite. You said, ‘God sent you.’ That’s right. God did send you. It’s the only explanation. That was the night I became a believer. I found God in the Hostel.
In the few days that have passed since Alexa opened the closed door on half a century, I’ve felt excitement and perturbation. I’m excited that Alexa and I will ‘meet’ again, that I’ll ‘see’ my pneumonia patient again, spry and vital; that I’ll meet the children and their father, that I’ll learn their stories. At the same time, some different, powerful feeling operates and unsettles me. It’s the thought of the power of a word, the reverberation of a small act. Alexa sees the hand of the Divine. Does that make me somehow an instrument in a plan? I cannot begin to recognise anything so lofty. I dismiss any idea of some special mission I might have; I find that sort of belief a burden, an embarrassment; it makes me want to run away.
But I’ve been moved to tears thinking how a simple act might lodge in memory, might germinate as a seed, might influence a life; that somehow, quite without intent or thought or awareness, a simple act could take root, help, lift, encourage, perhaps inspire. That thought brings with it a glow, the sense I have done as I know my father did before me – many times – some act of unwitting goodness that lived on afterwards. I’ve felt overcome with a feeling of blessing, perhaps of being a small link in a long chain that might continue on, in lives undreamed…