How are You?

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?

Empty in Bali


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

Thank you Colin & Wayan

Letter to an Old Friend

Friend,

I write to you from quarantine. My wife and I have been ordered to isolate ourselves. 

Old friend, you and I are old. We have passed the threescore and ten years of the Psalmist. A short time ago we were heading confidently full steam ahead for one hundred. So we proposed. So life seemed to promise. But now, this virus.  

Man proposes, Virus disposes. The virus has disposed of thousands. In Spain overnight, three hundred. Overnight in Italy, 800. I’ll write that more plainly. Three hundred persons. Eight hundred persons.At the start of the year all eleven hundred would have been steaming ahead. I imagine them looking confidently to the future as recently as the start of the month of March. By the close of the equinox all were dead. Few will be those who follow their caskets to their burial.

While going about my work in the past weeks I’ve found the most worried people have been those with the least to fear. Young parents have been terrified for their young children. Truly that suffering has been unnecessary. For most people younger than forty, COVID-19 is a milder illness than the ‘flu. I have heard of no deaths of children anywhere in the world. That should bring blessed relief, but although those facts are widely known, the fear for their young extinguishes parents’ peace of mind.

Curiously, we old ones need fear not so much for our young, as from them. The theory runs that children are unhygienic creatures that act as vectors for this novel virus (they certainly do that service for the influenza viruses), and they endanger and infect us older, more vulnerable subjects. That is why I am writing.

If you are over seventy, go inside now, close the door. Shun your children, ban the grandchildren. Ours is the age group in which most of those hundred of persons died. Ours is the sector at greatest risk of the pneumonia that fulminates and kills. Ours is the group who will not receive respirator treatment and Intensive Care when those services are rationed.

This is cautious advice that might later be seen to be over-cautious. As the W.H.O. Chief of the Ebola response advises, ‘Go early, go hard’ when it comes to responding to pandemic. There will be no second chances for us once we catch this catchiest of germs.

My wife and I passed a weekend of grotesque denial of the love between us and our grandchildren. Encounters were fleeting, spatial remoteness was enforced, no-one kissed, no-one cuddled. Time and again, puzzled children approached instinctively, loud voices repulsed them. Astonished, the children felt every instinct of love denied; and the deniers were precisely those wrinkled figures who ever doted and dandled. Suddenly loving behaviour was wrong.

My resolve wavered. My wife, the softest being in our family constellation, commanded austerity. One of my children has a newborn; we cannot visit, cannot cuddle, cannot relieve exhausted parents at 2.00 in any morning. Our daughters, both recovering from surgery, wait on us, rather than the reverse. The fibres of parenthood are warped and strained by fear of a new virus. And it is precisely those deprived adult children who direct us: go inside, stay inside, keep the world away. ‘‘We’d sooner miss out on you both for weeks or months than miss you forever.”

Old friend, I won’t be with you this Friday for lunch. We won’t see each other at the coffee shop in the mornings. Our house of worship is forbidden to us. Seeing each other as faces on a screen is a cold change after years, after decades of warm touch. I don’t know when we’ll be together in those old ways again. I reckon our best chance of those old pleasures again, some day on the far side of this fear and horror, is cold resolve today.

Until then, old friend, until then,

Yours at a distance,  

Howard

Moments of Reprieve

In times far, far darker than ours, Primo Levi called these, ‘moments of reprieve’. The Nazis set up the death camps as places where morality would be inverted. It was dangerous to be good. Every man for herself. We saw that here in the all-in toilet-paper wrestling.

But there’s a softening abroad, a gentling of human intercourse. We wash our hands today, not of each other, but for each other. Commerce has slowed, people have time, give each other time. Working here in the central business district of a great city, I find us breathing our minutes and our days as folk do in a country town.

In the foyer of a giant apartment building, in a far distant town, this notice appeared:

Its author is seven-year old Dash Unglik, of New York City.

The Cruelty of Children


 

My elder brother is six. He goes to school and I stay at home. I stand inside the front gate and wait for him at lunchtime. Our front gate is a loose mesh of plaited green wire. It’s not so much a barrier as a hint of private property. I stand inside the gate and wait.

 

 

Some merry schoolgirls approach, big kids of six or seven.

Hello little boy, says one. What’s your name.

Howard.

Poke out your finger, little boy.

I poke my finger out through a gap in the gate..

Suddenly my fingertip hurts.

Ow! – I yell.

I catch a glimpse of a pin in the hand of the girl who told me to poke out my finger. The girls all laugh loudly.

The speaker finishes laughing and says again, Put out your finger, little boy.

No. You’ll hurt it again.

No I won’t. Put out your finger. Nothing bad will happen.

I poke out my finger.

It hurts again.

I start to cry as the girls laugh loudly again, and run down the street, past the Catholic Church, in the direction of the Courthouse.

 

 

 

Every afternoon we swim in the town pool which is filled with water from the irrigation channel in the street outside. The water is warm and brown but it tastes okay. There are lots of leeches in the canal, and plenty of them dine on our blood while we swim in the pool. We learn to catch them; there’s a simple technique which we master quickly.

 

What to do with a captured leech?

 

You find a bobby pin on the ground near the Girls’ Changerooms and you thread the leech onto the pin, inserting it in the leech’s back end. This turns the leech inside out.

 

What to do with an inside-out leech?

 

 

The walls of the change rooms are built of galvanized iron. Those tin sheds heat up considerably in the summer sun. You press the the everted body of the leech against the hot metal and its mucoid flesh quickly adheres and fries in the afternoon sun.

 

 

 

I don’t remember this, but Mum told me the story often enough:

When she brought her second son into the household, the firstborn, Dennis, loved his baby brother so much he piled all of his toys into the pram on top of the new baby.

 

I’ve seen a photo of that pram, a sizable conveyance constructed of wood panels and wheels as big as those you see on adult’s bike. The pram dwarfs my elder brother captured in the picture, standing next to it.

 

 

As Mum tells the story, Dennis would push the pram in the garden and it would overturn, spilling the baby brother Dennis so much loved onto the concrete path. I gather this happened more than once. 

 

 

 

We travel from Leeton to Melbourne to observe the High Holydays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We stay at my grandparents’ house, which is big and dark. It’s scary at night. The house has a downstairs and an upstairs.

 

 

A lady comes to the house to clean before the festivals, She hoovers the carpets with her noisy machine. Dennis and I sit on the top stair and watch the lady as she hoovers. Her name, we learn, is Mrs Briggs. One of us discovers Briggs rhymes with pigs.

Dennis and I create a chant:

MISSUS BRIGGS IS A PIGS

MISSUS BRIGGS IS A PIGS

 

The Hoovers sings loudly and we sing too. Mrs Briggs Hoovers on. Now she turns the machine off. She hears us as we sing:

 

MISSUS BRIGGS IS A PIGS

MISSUS BRIGGS IS A PIGS

 

 

Mrs Briggs appears highly annoyed. She tells us to stop.

Dennis and I sing on.  Mrs Briggs grabs the straw broom and rushes up the stairs, waving the broom at us in a violent manner. We retreat and slam the door in her face.

 

 

We stand on the other side of the door, panting and palpitating. Soon we hear the sound of the Hoover.

 

Dennis and I emerge and resume our song.

 

 

 

 

A cat wanders into our garden. It’s a bit smaller than I am. I don’t know the cat. My hand reaches out and grasps the cat’s tail. My hand hoists the cat in the air.

The cat yowls.

I am not used to cat sounds. My hand now swings the cat and the yowling is a siren that follows the Doppler effect.

My mother emerges from the house. Seeing what her small son is doing, she says: Stop doing that, Howard. That’s cruel.

 

I stop doing that.

Mum goes inside.

 

 

My hand reaches out. It grasps the cat’s tail. The hand whirls the cat in a circle, round and around.

The cat yowls.

 

Character


 

I heard Michael was a goatherd. I heard he was an ostrich farmer before that. Ostriches are tough, durable creatures, goats are the same. Michael’s country on the border between New South Wales and Queensland is hard and dry. Michael was tough and leathery and just as stubborn as his animals. I heard he’d visit a city with reluctance. Quickly restless in urban places, he’d be quick to flee. He spent half a day in Melbourne then bolted. Michael, I understood, was a character.

 

 

I learned the goat business wasn’t complicated: you’d drive a few hundred kilometres to relieve someone of their feral flock; you’d drive a good distance in another direction to buy another herd and you’d bring all the creatures back to his farm near the small town of Texas. Later you’d drive many more kilometres and sell the consolidated mob to someone who wanted to export them to Muslim countries to the north. So long as the selling price sufficiently exceeded the price of purchase that was a sound business. And, goats being droughtproof, Michael would survive through the long dry.

 

 

Doubtless there were goat traders somewhere in the city who used computers and create spreadsheets. Michael would scribble figures onto the back of an envelope; the back pocket of his work pants served as his filing system. It worked.

 

 

When I met Michael it was at his house in Texas, on a grassless property at the end of a dirt track that led from a narrow road that twisted and turned just inside New South Wales. He was a large man, older than I. When we first met, a smile as large as Texas wrapped itself around his face as his large hand wrapped itself around mine. He shook my hand gently as he looked down from his long and rangy frame. I don’t know what Michael saw but I suspect he’d made up his mind already: he was going to like me on account of my being a friend of his daughter. Twice  a week that daughter’s landline would ring. One person only called on the landline, and that was her father. The voice would speak, always somehow astonished, always  joyful; Hello beautiful! How are you going? It wasn’t hard to like Michael; everybody liked him. Or just about everybody. He carried himself with utter authenticity. He had no time for formality, no time for insect authority in the noisy flapping of its wings.

 

 

After a long epoch of rooflessness, Michael’s high house had only recently been reroofed. After the storm that tore off roof, the insurer was in no hurry. So Michael and his wife Lisa lived there for a year without a roof, waiting for the insurer to come good on the policy. I looked at the high house; you entered it at the top of a high staircase. I took a breath and climbed the stairs. Afterwards I reflected that climb demanded fluid joints and I misgave for Michael. I reckoned Michael’s old skeleton couldn’t possibly last in that house much longer. Likewise driving truck across the breadth of Queensland and New South Wales was surely beyond him. Better and safer to accept reality and stop driving altogether. But that would be the thinking of retirement inside the township, the thinking of a life spent indoors, life in a nice unit somewhere on a nice street that was paved, with new neighbours close. That was the thinking of a life that would be death, and Michael turned his back on it and kept on driving and buying and selling and climbing those stairs.

 

 

Years later I visited again. The stairs were just as high but Michael was not defeated. I met Elisa, a small woman from the Philippines whose will and durability were a match for Michael’s. Elisa and Michael managed to cater kosher for their new Jewish friend and Halal for the local doctor, a Muslim. I met their sons, a pair of pocket Hercules. The young men are body builders. Powerful bodies are all the go in Michael’s tribe.

 

 

Michael came down to Melbourne to watch his sons compete in a bodybuilding championship. I saw Michael breakfast at an outdoor table with his family around him and an old mate at his side. The mate was a rough scrubber, jovial withal. The men shared an enduring love for the bushman each saw in the other. They laughed over wild old times, wild days, wild nights. I looked at Michael and I saw Falstaff:

We have heard the chimes at midnight, master Shallow.

That we have, that we have, in faith John, we have… the days we have seen.

 

 

Bits of Michael’s body stopped working, important bits like his heart and his lungs and his kidneys. The local doctor, himself an individual tenacious in his faith, could recognise and respect another tenacious believer. He must have misgiven mightily as the goatherd kept on, regarding his body as he might regard his old truck: roadworthy or not, Michael would keep it on the road and keep on driving it. Late last year Michael bent to hitch a heavy steel trailer to his vehicle and something snapped in his spine. Unable to move, in agony, he took to his bed and endured. No, he would not go to hospital, certainly not in the capital, hundreds of kilometres distant. Bloody Brisbane? Be buggered!

 

 

Soon Michael was delirious with pain. In and out of consciousness he came to in a modern city hospital where every mode of doctor and specialist and every modality of imaging and investigation was brought to bear. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men… His descendants descended upon his sickbed from all parts and wept and prayed and wept, and looked to ever more doctors and ever-clever technology to – to do what? – to keep Michael alive? Amongst those closest to Michael the wiser ones saw what he would see. Love torments the lover; the lover must long for a recovery that she knows to fear.

 

 

Michael’s mind hovered, wavering between calm lucid periods and the opposite. In clear moments he’d hear a loved one reminisce upon a life lived on its own terms, a life hard and long. These were precious moments of calm understanding. After a time his mind stopped rebelling against his body and he inhabited a limbo, while all the time his family kept vigil. Days and nights, nights and days passed. All held their breath. At last Michael stopped breathing.

 

 

Almost a year has passed. A year in which my friend’s landline has not rung. In Texas – desolation; in all the places of their dispersion, among his loved ones, the silence weighs upon an emptiness. Michael was a big man.

 

 

I met Michael but a handful of times. I’d draw up and he’d smile hugely. Knowing him fleetingly, I experienced how deeply his character left its mark upon another. I saw his son-in-law, his grandsons, I saw how Michael’s being seized them, how they loved him, how character tells. How deeply they respect him still.

 

 

Early Spring

The date comes up on his screen, September five. Instantly he sees a round face, lightly freckled. Her wavy hair is light brown.

He’s known her two brothers for years and her two elder sisters, both of them young ladies in their late teens. But this is the first summer  he and she have noticed each other: she’s 11 years old and he’s fourteen. While the slow afternoons make everyone else drowsy, the two go for walks to nowhere in particular. They talk comfortably about their mums and dads  and their brothers and sisters. They both come from large families and there’s lots to tell. Last week it was his birthday. Hers is in spring. One afternoon they find themselves at the far end of the island. There in the long grass they sit. Something tells him to move closer. He kisses her. Soon after they walk back to their families on their neighbouring boats.

 

The next afternoon he looks for her, but she and her mum have gone shopping in town on the further shore.

He doesn’t find her the next day either.

On the third day her elder sister says she went back to Geelong with Dad to buy her schoolbooks. He confesses to the elder sister he’s missing her. Her response surprises him:  Sometimes a young girl can feel confused if she has feelings she’s never felt before. It can scare her.

 

Summer ends and they don’t meet again. Most years he thinks of her on September five.

 

He’s about sixty when he buys a book by John Marsden. Its title is ‘This I Believe’. In it he reads the credos of one hundred eminent Australians. One essay is written by a woman shortly before she dies, too young, of breast cancer. A companion essay is written by her eminent daughter. He doesn’t recognise the surnames of the two women. The essays move him. He notes the dates of birth and death of the  mother. She has been dead now for some years.

 

Every year, on September five, he thinks of her.

Suddenly, last Friday

A latecomer entered a mosque in Christchurch and he saw, among the larger human forms, a child.

The NZ Herald reported:

Mucad Ibrahim.

 

At just three years old, Mucad Ibrahim is thought to have been the youngest victim of the massacre.

The toddler had gone to the al Noor mosque with his father and older brother Abdi when the family were caught up in the deadly attack. Mucad was lost in the melee when the firing started, as Abdi fled for his life and his father pretended to be dead after being shot. The family searched in vain for the toddler at Christchurch Hospital and later posted a photograph of Mucad, smiling with Abdi, along with the caption: “Verily we belong to God and to Him we shall return”.

 

 

Rachid was the one I thought of first. I sent him a note.

 

Stunned with grief, Rachid, we reach out to you and to your family with love.

In the synagogue today, a great and heavy solemnity.

Someone offered a public prayer for “our cousins” in NZ. 

It came to me as I stood and mourned I was glad my father was not alive to hear and know this.

How much more so, your father, the peace-loving Mufti .

Asalaam aleikum

Shalom

 

Rachid wrote back:

Thank you Goldy.

How true about how our fathers would have felt about this.

What a beautiful gesture from inside your synagogue.

 

Rachid.

 

 

I wondered whether Farooq’s parents knew of the attack.

Yes, my parents heard about it back in Iraq. They were upset.

I wondered, Aren’t they used to that sort of thing? Fifty killed – that wouldn’t be so rare, would it?

No. No, it’s not. Sometimes many more. Once six hundred died; a truck loaded with bombs drove into the Mall.

Three storeys collapsed. Six hundred – burned. But this, last Friday, we all feel upset.

I said quietly, I’m sorry. Everyone I know is sorry. We feel sad.

Farooq said, It helps.

 

 

 

The bloke on the phone, quoting on my car insurance, said: The premium would be sex hundred and sexty-two dollars…

I said, I’m sorry about the events in Christchurch. Everyone I talk to is staggered. In grief. We’re a nation shaking our heads.

The phone fell silent. A throat cleared, a voice followed, now hoarse: Excuse me. You caught me off guard. Hasn’t been easy being the chirpy salesperson these last few days… You know, we’re a close team here, we’re all nations, all creeds, one of us a Moslem.

He can’t work at present. We sent him home.

 

 

 

I sent a text to Waleed: I have nothing I can write, nothing adequate for the need. Nothing equal or useful or valuable

in any way beyond the human need to share the wound. To express my grief. I need my cousins to know I am with them.

Waleed replied: Thanks for sending it. The human need to share the wound is among the most important, most civilised needs we have. So that act of civility means an unbelievable amount. Thanks, cousin.

 

 

 

Speaking on TV, Waleed said: I know what the worshippers were doing in the moments before the attack. I know because I go to the mosque on a Friday. I know the prayers, the quiet, how far they were from this world, in the meditation, in the perfect quiet, in the peace inside the Mosque.

 

 

 

A mosque called Al Noor – ‘the candle, the light.’ So close to the Hebrew of my prayers. I thought of bodies bowed, of backs turned to an intruder, of those moments of innocence when the worshipper turns away from the world, turning inward in faith. As I entered my synagogue from the rear I saw anew how, in those sublime moments, we all are children, all undefended. In churches too, the faithful face forward, turning trusting backs to any entering latecomer.

 

 

 

***

Suddenly we all were Kiwis. Suddenly a change; we gasped, we shook our heads, we wept. We saw Al Noor, a light. Suddenly the Moslem was not the stranger. 

 

What will follow?

 

 

 

 

 

Family, Therapy

I’ve been seeing a doctor who is a family therapist. It all started around 1982 when my family and I were going through an epoch of change; it made sense to me to consult a family therapist. In the 1980’s family therapy was enjoying a vigorous infancy and Brian was one of its champions and very well-known in his field. I suspect Brian’s aura of celebrity was an attraction for me.

 

 

I saw Brian again today, as I have done at intervals ever since 1982. I continued seeing Brian long after I learned celebrity is illusory. You could say I see my doctor now for his aura of ordinariness.

 

 

The family events of the 1982 epoch were decidedly ordinary, but to me they felt momentous: a loving father and his doting daughter found themselves in conflict at bedtimes. Every single night! Tears overflowed from a deep well of love. Leapfrogging shouting matches, feelings wounded on both sides. Bewildering. The child’s parents brought her to Brian with whom she had a private consultation that lasted thirty minutes. The parents were then invited to join therapist and naughty daughter. From that day the loving father has loved and the naughty daughter has doted and they’ve never fought like that again.

 

 

 

I kept seeing Brian. He diagnosed an overdose of compliance. He suggested I cared too much for the expectations of others. He prescribed delinquency. It must have worked because my father remarked: Howard, you’ve changed. I felt troubled and liberated. At the age of thirty-six I’d entered adolescence.

 

 

 

In 1983 my father in law was diagnosed with advanced cancer. He was not old and he wasn’t ready. None of us was ready. We went, four of us, to see Brian. Brian helped us – a family foundering, a frightened cancer sufferer who would not see his grandsons’ barmitzvahs, a shocked wife, a daughter trying all she knew: how to support a father, to comfort her mother, to mother her own distressed children? And a son in law out of his depth.

 

 

 

 

How did Brian help? What did he do? What did he say? I cannot say. But he helped: through the fear, through the dying, through the disfiguring grief in all its forms. Somehow I didn’t cry. I loved my father in law, called him Dad. But when he died my eyes stayed dry. I felt myself shallow. A year later the family was doing well. I watched a TV mother spreading margarine onto white bread. I saw her TV family eating, children dancing around  the mum. The voiceover said, You ought to be congratulat-ed.  And I started to cry. So I went to see Brian.

 

 

 

Perhaps it was Brian who cured my sadness. Perhaps he helped me to know my sadness and to make room for it in my life. For a time we stopped seeing each other. I left his consulting room taking with me the gift of tears, accessible again now after a drought of three decades.

 

 

 

But before too long I was back. I was doctoring as well as I could, I was fathering and brothering, I was a son. And I was doing my best at all of these. I was husbanding too, an amateur at the job. All these jobs, so important! To fail at any of them? Unbearable thought! I needed some help for a problem I couldn’t define. In my sessions with Brian I must have received help without quite being able to name it. I heard myself say once, I measure my life in coffee spoons. It was busy-ness I was suffering from, jamming too many important things into too few frail minutes. For sixty minutes every month or two I’d breathe out. I’d hear Brian ask a question and I’d pause and think and answer slowly. Brian would hear me. I’d hear myself.

 

 

 

And so it went on. Family kept happening: this one married, that one became unwell, another distressed. Parents aged, their bodies failed, their willpower arrayed in fierce battle against any help. Grandbabies were born, astonishing joys, swamping strains, grandparents stretched to thinness. A parent died, a brother died, finally the remaining parent. Family, the furnace and theatre of my life, kept happening; so, naturally did my therapy with Brian. By now Brian knew this family, in its longitude and its latitude, in its occasional depths, in its many heights, as few outsiders could.

 

 

 

Brian never seemed to say much. He’d sit and think and nod. Silences would stretch open and I’d feel comfortable within them. When Brian spoke I’d hear an affirmation – my feelings, Brian’s words – and something more, some new molecule of extension or understanding. It was never portentous but it would sink into me and I’d leave lighter.

 

 

 

As the years became decades I began to recognise distinctive elements in my visits to Brian. Prompted by the remark of another who works in mental health, this seems more like a friendship than therapy, I conceded that partial truth. I heard too unspoken echoes of purists: what sort of family therapy is it when only one family member participates? Fair enough, but not far enough; these thoughts never outweighed the heft, the lift, of one person meeting with another, of a person encountering himself through narrative and counter-narrative; of knowing himself respected, accepted, safe to extend himself and to develop. I could see this as it had become, a friendship. I could sense the fear and the sneer of Authorities that decree that a doctor who is also a friend must be less of both. That absurdity is the zeitgeist, the fruit of the self-distrust which has become normative in all professions. Deeply I know it to be untrue of my friendship with my doctor.

 

 

 

At some stage, perhaps twenty years ago there entered a new element, love. It happened like this: Brian closed his professional rooms and began to see patients in his home.

That home is a Victorian building with a central corridor leading to private rooms. One room serves as waiting area; you enter and find it littered with books and magazines. Comfortable chairs invite a guest to sit and browse. Nothing you pick up is familiar, everything is novel or intriguing. Too soon, the appointed hour arrives and the guest who-is-the-patient enters Brian’s consulting room. Here bookshelves extend from floor to lofty ceiling. Brian appears, offers coffee, I decline, he disappears to prepare his own cuppa and leaves me to the books. I know no library to match this cornucopia. Books of poetry, books of biography, of history, of ideas, of beauty and cultures. Every author I know or have heard praised is in that room. There’s not a book here that I own or would not wish to own. I browse until Brian returns with coffee and spoils it all. I put down the book, passing some remark. Brian says, borrow it if you like, Howard. And I do.

 

 

 

A book lover meets a second book lover in a book bower every couple of months. I meet Rilke and, never understanding a word, I fall into a trance. Brian recommends fellow physician, William Carlos Williams, whom he calls a satyr.

 

A dawning realisation: I wish never stop this “therapy.” I must never cease visiting these books. What’s more I need to continue. Divorce, a stranger to my family story, breaks down walls that were built of my children’s love and faith and hope. The bricks and the timbers fall hard and heavily onto my little ones. The floor buckles beneath them. They are thrown about hard. Will they be broken? Unlike that epoch of my wife’s father’s death, now I know  my pain, I shed my tears, I ache as one aches for the pain in the heart of one’s tenderest. I act strong; I become bricks, timber, floor. How durable am I? Bricks, timbers, floors do not complain. But Brian hears all of this, he nods, he murmurs. He understands. Perhaps he says something that shifts the picture; some light gets in. At the end of the hour I get up and I leave that old room of books, thanking the therapist and riding fast to work. The puffing and the sweating help. I arrive at work feeling encouraged, a bit lighter. 

 

In the calms between the storms we speak of work, mine and Brian’s. What does it mean to labour where we must always fail? What is the call? How to answer the call? I speak of legacy. What have I received? What does it call me to do, to be, to become? What do I pass on? And how? We speak too of a shared passion. Brian and I know the one eternal truth of any great love: love means loss means grief. It is the love of the Collingwood Football Club in whose depths we know this truth.

 

I write and I publish books, articles, opinion pieces. I share many of these with Brian. I present him with a copy of each of my books, inscribing each one in thankfulness. Thankfulness for what? I think I’m giving thanks, in the final analysis, for Brian knowing me. My inscription boils down to, Thank you Brian; I feel known. Brian never congratulates me, never approves the writing. For once I’m not looking for praise or admiration or congratulation, those junk foods of a ravenous ego. It is enough that Brian knows that I write and I am serious.

 

In years past a patient would say to me, I’ll make an appointment to see you first thing next Tuesday morning.

Well, no you won’t. First thing next Tuesday I’ll be seeing my own doctor…

Why so coy? Where’s the shame in saying I’m seeing my psychiatrist?  So I start to say that and it alarms people. They search my face, hoping for a joke. So I explain. By and large people prove equal to learning that every human needs help from time to time. I’m one of those humans who gets help.

 

I reach the age of seventy years and Brian and I speak of retirement. It’s an idea that remains an idea, an abstraction. It sits over there on a shelf, within my view, but dimly, while my work burns brightly, and I continue. So, after his fashion, does Brian. For years now he’s taken no new patients, continuing with a rump of which I must be one. He won’t abandon us. Eventually he expects it must end; he’s ready but are we?

 

Three more years pass. Family keeps happening. Visits to the family therapist continue. Late in 2018 Brian and I appoint to meet again in February 2019. February arrives. Brian asks of my outback experiences and I tell him of the familiar joys, the familiar frustrations, the shocks against which time cannot shield. I speak of family, how once again I’ve been feeling the urge to dash to the rescue of this loved one or that other. We speak of that impulse which is a reflex which has become a habit. I know in my being that habits ossify. What used to work will not work forever. I used to jump to catch my little ones as they fell. Is this what I must do in this late phase, when my little ones are grown and stronger than I know? A habit becomes a pathology, I know. Brian listens, ponders, offers no directive. I’m not looking for instruction. I receive what I need, what always I’ve received from Brian, an attentive listening. I hear my voice, Brian hears it, a quietness settles around us. A seed of thought falls, to germinate and take root and grow.  We’ll talk of it at our next session, or at some session later.

 

It’s nearly time to finish. I speak of Collingwood, of how we came so near to glory, of defeat in those last moments. Brian mourns: remember it ever; speak of it never. A Brian pause, then: we reach a point when we look back and see where we’ve been… how far we’ve come… how far short we’ve fallen. What have we done, what remains to be done? What can we still do?

 

My ears, attuned still to the Collingwood near-triumph, detect an alteration in tone, a new note. It is of valediction that Brian speaks, a farewell, a long farewell to all this richness. He goes on: it is not ours to finish the work, nor are we free to desist from it. I murmur, Hillel, The Ethics of the Fathers.

 

We rise. I pull out my diary to appoint the next visit. “No, Howard. This was our final session.” So it was! I had managed to forget.  Brian escorts me to the door and waves a goodbye. He’s still standing by the doorpost as I jump on my bike. I ride to work, not hurrying, not sweating, just thinking, thinking and feeling. I’m seventy-three years of age. Brian has been my doctor for thirty-six-and-a-half of those years.

 

My Friend the Policeman

Working here in this large regional hospital in the Kimberley not a day passes without a call to the care of drunken patients.

More often than not the patient arrives in the company of a pair of police officers. More often than not the patient is abusive. Frequently she swears at her captors, often roaring at the them. The custodians stand calmly, quietly watchful, gentle, as I do my work and the patient does her worst. The police officer is here as a guardian, my guardian, the hospital’s, the patient’s. I wonder at this patience.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

When I was very small my parents brought me to the city for the High Holydays.

Mum took me to Collins Street, a river different from those I knew in our small riverine town.

Collins Street flowed, a fast human current that would sweep up a small boy, sweep him away, never again to see his loving kin. I looked up and about, legs everywhere, legs striding fast, eddies, rips, king tides. 

I gripped Mum’s hand tighter. “Mum said, don’t be afraid, Howard. The Police will look after you. If you ever get lost find a policeman. The Police are your friends.”

 

 

Back in my hometown I knew this to be true. A man pulled my pants down in the park. A couple of days later I told my parents about the man’s strange behaviour. Mum looked at Dad and Dad looked at Mum and a few hours later Sergeant Stewart arrived at our house. 

We walked together into the park. I led him to the place and answered his questions. “Look around the park, Howard. Can you see the man?”

I couldn’t but I didn’t want to disappoint the officer. I pointed out a man dozing on his picnic rug: “That’s him”, I said. Sergeant Stewart said, ‘It’s a very serious thing to make false accusations, Howard.” I learned a new word that day. 

 

 

Another time I found a ten shilling banknote in the street. Briefly I was rich. Mum said, “‘It’s lost property, darling.”

“No it’s not Mum. It’s found.”

“You report lost property to the Police and they look for the owner.”

I walked to the top of Wade Avenue, past the courthouse and around the corner to the Police Station. Sergeant Stewart opened a book dipped a pen into an inkwell and asked, “What’s your name Howard?”

“Howard.”

“Do you have any other names, Howard?”

“Jonathan. Goldenberg”

Sergeant Stewart’s thirsty nib drank again and again at the inkwell as he recorded my address and my parents’ telephone number. “Leeton two eight, isn’t it, Howard?”

Six months passed, an age. Our telephone rang and Constable Bulley said something to Mum. Mum thanked him and hanged up. “Go to the Police Station, Howard. No-one has claimed the ten shillings.”

I went and said I’d come for the money. I signed the policemen’s book and I left, a rich man.

 

 

 

On one occasion I tested Police probity. Leeton sat in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, fruit bowl for the nation. Fruitfly was the feared enemy that could wipe out the industry, it might destroy livelihoods and the local economy. You weren’t allowed to bring exotic fruits into the MIA. If you wanted bananas or pineapples you had leave the Irrigation Area and drive to Narranderra, nineteen miles distant. One Sunday we did just that and gorged on those tropical fruits. To my surprise, my law-abiding parents embarked on a criminal career and brought the surplus home.

After lunch the next day I was loitering outside our house in Wade Avenue when Sergeant Stewart strolled past. The Sergeant is my friend; I should offer him the pleasure of conversation:” Hello Sergeant.

“Hello Howard.”

“We’ve got bananas at home.”

The officer smiled.

“And a pineapple.”

“Good afternoon, Howard.”

 

 

 

***

 

 

Ten years ago I met Detective Inspector John Bailey (retired) in Albury. He spoke of his father, the police officer who, unarmed, braved an armed murderer, who shot him. Bleeding from his wounds Bailey Senior grappled with his assailant, pinning him beneath him. Bailey died, the only police officer known to have arrested his own murderer. Bailey – the son – showed me the George Cross, awarded posthumously to his father. I hefted the weighty silver medal in my palm, while the old officer looked down at me between ptotic eyelids: “It’s a great thing, a George Cross, but it’s not a substitute for a father.” The orphaned son followed his father into the force, entering in his teens, retiring a much-decorated and admired servant of the community.

 

 

 

***

 

Every night in the Kimberley police officers bring in their freight of broken and bleeding humanity. Their charges reel with the effects of alcohol, their heads, faces, limbs bloodied. Many are handcuffed. Invariably the officers tower over the injured prisoner. Sometimes the prisoner-who-is-patient shouts in a crazed manner, offering abuse to nurses and coppers alike. The officers remain calm, their manner respectful, even, I should say, kindly. Gently they lead the injured miscreant to care. I see this, time and again. I see it and I marvel.

 

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

I never became separated from Mum in Collins Street River. I never needed police succour until the day came when an arsonist set fire to my motor cars parked in the street outside my home. The policeman, Commander Kim West said, “When someone sets fire to your car they’re saying they can burn your house. They’re saying they can burn you.” The Commander asked me about my children. He gave me a significant look. He wrote some digits on the back of his card and handed it to me: “That number will get me night or day, Howard.” 

 

 

 

Twenty years have passed since the Commander gave me his card. A few months ago Kim returned from Europe where he’d visited with his wife. He buttonholed me: “We went to Auschwitz.” A shake of the massive West head: “Shocking. Shocking. When I tell people that, they say,Who’d want to go to Auschwitz?  I tell them, Everyone should go to Auschwitz!  Soon after our chat, Kim became unwell. Tests showed cancer, advanced and widespread. Very quickly he died. At the close of his funeral the minister said to the congregation: “The last prayer Kim recited was at the former concentration camp at Auschwitz. There he and his wife read the Jewish Prayer for the Dead. Rise please and read this with me: Yitgadal ve’yitkadash shmei rabah…” 

 

 

Portrait of Kim West by Dr Harry Unglik for the Archibald Prize