It’s Not How Long You’ve Got, It’s What You Do With It

I’ve got six to twelve, the older man said.

The younger man said quietly, they give me three to six.

But you never know, said the elder, my count is down. A little. I might get longer. Doctors can be wrong…If the count keeps falling, I might last longer than the twelve; I might be able to take the family to Greece next year. I’d love to go…

The younger man said I want to get to my brother’s wedding in February.

Silently we did the sums. February will be after three months.

The elder man’s oval face creased. He said to the younger: maybe you can get into a trial. I’m on a trial drug. My count is down, a bit. Are you on a trial?

No. I’m not eligible. I don’t have the mutation.

The elder urged the other to do things, to try things, not to accept predictions as solid fact: They can be wrong you know.

The young man smiled his crooked smile, stretching the wasted side into momentary symmetry. I know, he said. At first they gave me twelve months. That was five years ago.

The elder man’s eyebrows shot up. Wow, he said, that’s beating the odds. His earnest face relaxed, happier now. Are you on chemo?

I have been. On and off. It’s stopped working.

I keep hearing about people who have their brain tumours removed. Couldn’t they try that?

They did. Twice.

Twice? The elder man winced. He was trying everything, fighting the younger man’s disease.

Whenever he spoke the younger man’s voice was quiet. A physiotherapist, he was trained in disability. Now it had come to him, kept coming, unfolding in his body. His brain analysed each stumble, he processed the growing weakness down the left side, every step was improvised, his studied speech experimental, not bitter.

I stumble too, said the elder man. Last week, I was only one kilometre into the marathon when I stumbled. The ambulance men would have taken me away but Howard here wouldn’t let them. It’s just the foot, it flops.

The younger man said you can get an orthotic to keep the foot straight. They work. They’re not comfortable but you won’t stumble.

The ‘stumble’ was a crash. Down he went, his heavy body accruing momentum that his muscles could not brake. Six of the last eight months in hospital had seen powerful tissues soften and shrink, proud muscles, muscles that had carried this man 39 times the full 42.185 kilometres and across the Line. One of the Legendary Seven, last Sunday he lined up for his fortieth. He walked, he trotted, he shivered wildly, then he fell. Bent forward at my feet the man groaned loudly. He crouched, his head folded under his belly and he groaned again. Blood oozed, first from his knees, soon from the heels of his palms.  Two tall young men materialised, one on either side of the fallen man. They asked questions, good paramedical questions. The athlete groaned. I said, He’ll be alright.

The ambos said, He doesn’t look too flash.

I said, I’m his doctor.

What’s his diagnosis?

Everything, I said. He’ll be right.

At the prospect of unwelcome rescue the runner hauled himself up the helping arms of his son and his doctor. His sister-in-law mopped blood. The tissue was soon soaked. He said to his son, I’m shivering. Can I have your jumper?

He started walking again. People in the crowd recognised him. He was one of the Seven. Good on you, they cried. Legend! Keep going!

The man kept going. So did his teeth, chattering violently now, drumming time with his gait. The doctor in me wondered about fever, the return of infection that had seen him in hospital again and again.

A little short of the Fitzroy Street landmark his wife intercepted him. She took his arm and guided him gently to the kerb.

***

The younger man and the elder had not met before, although each had heard me speak of the other, a person like him, another with a problem that doctors could not cure.

The younger man regarded the elder. This rotund man, this athlete, this grandfather who’d three times risen from his sickbed to run so far. He sat at a remove from his stricken body, his face alight in wonder.

I nudged the younger: tell him what you’ve been doing since your diagnosis. The younger man spoke a little in the voice I have come to know, the voice he always uses when speaking of his living while dying. The voice speaks softly, a grin riding above the speaking mouth, ironic knowing in the background. The elder sat and listened. He heard of the classes the younger man runs for children with disabilities: They’re the kids no-one can do anything for. I mean no-one can fix them. There’s no cure for their cerebral palsy or their intellectual deficit or their severe ADHD.

The younger man did not mention to the elder how he teaches children they can be anything, do anything. His own life is the textbook, held open to the kids.

How do they come to you? Do you advertise?

Not as such. More word of mouth.  And there’s the website*.

A smile dashed across the younger man’s face: We start off each time with a group hug. It’s more a gang tackle – they race across towards me and throw themselves onto me and we hold each other. It will be fun tonight. The younger man glanced at his failing left leg:  Until now my balance and strength have been fine. Tonight I’ll go down and I’ll stay down. He laughed. It was a merry laugh, no irony, just the laugh of a man looking forward to sharing with his small friends the joke that is his health. The joke that is all health that is broken or twisted or failing.

We ate, all of us suddenly hungry. The younger man’s left hand rested in his bowl of hot dhal. I looked down, wondering when he’d remove it. The hand stayed put. The brain that should have perceived and sent the message to the hand neglected its work. The brain has been invaded and the invasion continues.

I asked them both, Don’t you feel angry? (I felt angry.)

The older man said, Why would I feel angry? Look, I’ve lived, I’ve got my wife, my children, a grandchild. I have a lot, I’ve lived. I feel sorry for my mother. She rings me every day, every single day. She worries.

A moment passed while we thought our thoughts. I felt for the younger man sitting at the side of the elder and hearing of the joys of a life lived, of a man full with his generations.

The younger man said, I’m not angry about this. He pointed to his head. I just get angry when doctors won’t listen. I nodded. Some of my starchier colleagues are uncomfortable with a patient  who is more than his disease, one who charts his path, who travels his world so widely and deeply as my friend.

A week earlier I asked the younger man was he frightened of dying. He said no. Later, a characteristically quirky text appeared on my screen: On the way down in the lift I worked out why I wasn’t scared. Dying isn’t scary – if you get it wrong then you stay alive.

*www.camerongill.com.au

Magnified and Sanctified

It’s been ten years, Den, and only now do I feel I can say goodbye to you.

You were sixty three, I was sixty one. You died on Friday night. Your son brought the news to us at our shabbat table.

We buried you on the Sunday. We laid you to rest at an odd corner of the Jewish burial ground, beneath a young gum tree. I looked at the tree at that time and I remembered Dad’s fear of falling gums. I thought, here you are again, going against Dad’s prudent judgement. And I smiled.

You lie now, beyond the judgement of humans. Many were the people who judged you, fewer were those who tried to walk a mile in your shoes. They were big shoes.  Like everything about you, very big. Magnified, sanctified… People who did understand loved you extravagantly, in proportion to your extravagant life.

And now I can let you go. From the time of our final conversation I dreamed of you. The dreams were dreams of helplessness. You could not help yourself, I needed to help, I tried to help, but in those dreams, I could not. You called me that last time. The phone woke me from a dreamless sleep. Your speech rustled and crackled, the sweetness of your voice ruined by seven days with the breathing tube. You had rallied, they’d removed the tube; now, with your breathing failing, they needed to replace it. Your voice crackled: ‘Doff, they want to put the tube back. What should I say?’

I heard your breathing, a rasping, gasping sound. ‘Do as they say Den.’

‘Is it my best chance?’

‘Den, it’s your only chance.’

They returned you to your coma and they replaced the tube. Three days later you breathed your last.

At the cemetery we said, magnified and sanctified be the holy name.

One evening during the week of shiva my son led the prayers in honour of his uncle. He loved you Den. We loved you.

For ten years I dreamed of you, restless dreams, frantic. I was unable to help. Then I started writing about you and the dreams stopped. Now I sleep without the dreams. Sleep in peace beneath your gum tree, Den.

SCOOP INTERVIEW AND BOOK REPORT:

Literary Giants Hail ‘A Threefold Cord’

 

Since the quiet release of ‘A Threefold Cord’ last week, giants of literature and history have joined a lengthening queue to sing choruses in its praise. 

Leading the push is Leo Tolstoy who confided to your reporter: ‘I wish I’d written it instead of ‘’War and Peace.’’ Another writer remarked: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a child in possession of a love of stories will much enjoy this book.’
The author penned the novel in 2013 at the age of sixty-seven years. For that somewhat flimsy reason he decided the work would consist of precisely 67 chapters. When he told his daughter-and-publicist the title was, ‘A Threefold Cord’, she replied: ‘That’s got to be a working title Dad.’ ‘No, that’s the title, darling.’ ‘No kid will buy a book with that title,’ was her crisp retort. For the pleasure of defying his firstborn the author determined the title would stay. 
From its inception the author of ‘A Threefold Cord’ has always spoken of it very highly. ‘It’s a cracker of a story’, he told your reporter. 

Intended for shared reading between a parent and an adult of eight years and above, the novel has been trialled in readings to primary school classes across Victoria. 

‘Listening to early chapters, children laughed. Upon meeting the enigmatic and sinister Dr Vandersluys they gasped. Upon hearing the testimony of Samara, sole survivor of a refugee family whose boat sank off Christmas Island, children were moved to tears. That wasn’t entirely unexpected,’ said the author. But when teachers wept I was surprised.’

I wondered whether the book was too sad for children? ‘No, not for children, but it might be too sad for grownups. Children like it because the three friends who make up the Threefold Cord are so brave, and loyal and clever and inspiring. And FUNNY.’
But Doctor Vandersluys, I wondered, ‘Is he a he or a she?’
‘I ask the same question’, said the author. ‘I hope to find out in the sequel.’
‘THE SEQUEL! Will there be a sequel?’
‘Yes, I’ve already written the first twenty-three of seventy-one chapters’, replied the 71-year old author.

As an e-book A Threefold Cord is available from:

ITUNES:

https://itunes.apple.com/au/book/a-threefold-cord/id1237456156  
AMAZON:

KOBO:

https://m.indigo.ca/product/books/a-threefold-cord/9781925281415

ADVANCE COPIES OF THE PRINT EDITION OF  A Threefold Cord ARE AVAILABLE HERE NOW 

https://www.hybridpublishers.com.au/product/a-threefold-cord/
AUTOGRAPHED COPIES MAY BE OBTAINED DIRECTLY FROM THE AUTHOR

Striped Socks

In late 1969 the new doctor emerges half-baked from his progressive medical school. After graduation he spends three years in residence in major hospitals. He emerges from that great womb and enters family practice, feeling underdone still. But he blazes into his new work in a rural general with a few guiding verities. He will not create distance from his patients. He will not wear a white coat. He will wear bright socks, a signal to the young that he too is – was – is young. He will not hold himself aloof. He will not frighten children.

 

 

He starts his work and his feet are rainbows. When he treats children he sits next to them on the floor. Instinct rather than ideology guides the new doctor: he needs to be close; he wants to do away with barriers.

 

 

On his very first day, the ninth of April, 1972, the new doctor delivers a baby, a little girl. He becomes a long-term friend of the new mother. Every April ninth he remembers and often contacts the ‘baby’ – long after she grows, graduates, becomes a musicologist, a linguist, a creator of Aboriginal dictionaries.

 

 

He keeps changing his colourful socks but he does not change his ways. So long as his patients are, for the most part, young, the thin membrane that separates doctor from patient suffices for safety; the blurring of the professional and the human nurtures both the doctor and the doctored.

 

 

A young mother passes terrifying nights seated by her firstborn, watching him, willing his breathing as he gasps his inbreaths and wheezes his outbreaths. She brings the child to the new doctor. His concern comforts her. In time the boy’s asthma improves. The doctor meets and treats all three of that young woman’s children. He is drawn to the three, the thin boys gangling, the coal-eyed little girl, a faun. The children do not fear him. These too he befriends.

 

 

A few years pass and the young parents bring Grandfather to the doctor. The young family have taken the old man and Grandmother in to their home, thoroughly alarmed by the pneumonia he narrowly survived during the previous winter. Sixty years previously that man survived gassing in the trenches. His lungs are ruined, he might not get through another winter. Would the young doctor resume his care? He does, and further friendships grow.

 

 

Grandfather survives a dozen more winters in cheerful semi-invalidism, dying eventually in his late eighties. Grandmother, born in December 1899, lives to see three centuries and two millennia, living beyond all arithmetic probability, dying eventually, aged 104.

 

 

 

The father of the asthmatic boy likes to run. He’s a graduate in Architecture, a landscape artist who turns to teaching maths. He teaches at a school fifteen kilometres distant. Sometimes he runs those fifteen kms, up and down hills, across a couple of creeks to the school in the valley. The teacher shows his doctor friend the secrets and joys of running sandy country tracks. Up hills they run, sharing vistas of white, off-white, pale grey, deep grey, their breath white in the frosty mornings. Summer sees the two up and running before the heat strikes. Sweat-born raptures bind them in close friendship. The doctor showers and dresses for work in the en-suite bathroom of the aged matriarch. He tiptoes past the old lady lying asleep in her bedroom, greeting her after she has awakened. 

 

 

 

Years pass. Decades pass. All are older now. The Medical Board sends letter after letter to doctors, warning them to keep proper distance from patients. The Medical Board has never had the pleasure of being a country doctor. The doctor wears his garish socks still, unconsciously. He knows by now the byways of health, the pathways along which he and patients alike, stumble; ways that lead slowly or rapidly towards the universal destination. He knows his own vulnerability to the pain of others, the sorrows that seep through a thin membrane; and the power of hope to seep osmotically back. He knows too the cases where hopes of cure are cruel illusion. He seeks in these cases to be a guide, to keep company with his patient his friend. That a friend not pass, lost or alone, into finality.  

 

 

 

The running friend becomes unexpectedly breathless. Time passes and he cannot catch his breath. Tests show a shadow on a lung. Other tests reveal a tumour in the bowel. The years of torment begin. Surgery, chemotherapy, surgery again, scans and biopsies that show a third disorder, a serious chronic lung inflammation, nemesis now of three male generations. The teacher painter architect runner friend – what word can encapsulate a human person? – must take strong steroid medicines to stay alive, to breathe.

 

 

 

The breathing man works on a new painting. He paints a square-rigged ship negotiating a strait. He paints the ship then repaints it. His work reaches no finality. He shows the work to his doctor friend, who comes – as he used to in the running days – for breakfast. That’s a sound in New Zealand, a fiord really. It’s called ‘Doubtful Sound.’ Captain Cook came to the entrance, felt uncertain whether he’d get ‘The Endeavour’ out if he were to enter. He felt doubtful and he named the place for his doubt.

 

 

 

The painting shows a tall ship heeling before a strong wind. Its bow points bravely into the wind. The wind bears it towards the reef that guards the mouth of the sound. The rocks are a maw, open, baleful. The sails are close rigged. This is a ship under strain. Relieving that strain is a smaller boat whose heaving oarsmen pull the larger one towards safety. The doctor looks at the picture doubtfully. He was raised on boats. He’s negotiated dangerous narrows, but he had a motor to see him through.

 

 

 

That small boat, that’s a whaler. I used to row boats like that as a boy, on the Thames. In earlier times the master of a square rigger would launch the whaler to sound depths, but also, to help the mother vessel in places where the going was tight. When he felt doubt that he’d make it through.

 

 

 

The cortisone voice crackles, phrases punctuated by breathing pauses. The creator looks at his unfinishing work. Artful brushstrokes of blue, of greys, of white, create waves, wake, bow-wave. The ship holds its own. In all the stresses and forces it has not reached finality.

Twelve at a Dinner Table

The year was 1938. In November a coordinated series of pogroms across Germany and Austria saw the burning of synagogues and the shops of Jewish people, and the beatings and murders of Jews on a huge scale. The Night of Broken Glass, Kristallnacht, broke more than glass. It saw the destruction of hope among those German Jews who remained hopeful that this madness would soon pass. In its place a realization, completely new, at odds with the eagerness of the Jew for acceptance: They want to kill us all. If we stay they’ll kill us.   

 

Far away in Australia twelve friends enjoyed a convivial dinner. Long after they’d finished eating the friends sat and talked. A relaxed group,intimate and trusted. One pulled from his pocket a sheet of paper. This arrived in the post today. The stamp reads, ‘Osterreich’ – I think that’s German for Austria. The letter seems to be in German; no-one at work can speak or read German. We don’t know what to make of it. It is addressed to us apparently. That is, we think so. The first line uses our company name. The same on the envelope…

 

 

A hand reached across the table. A second voice spoke: Pass it here. I’ll have ago. I did German at school.

A brow furrowed. A quietness fell, the quiet of satiety and comfort among friends. Hey! This is horrible. Terrible – if it’s true. The German scholar translated. The quiet now took on an earnestness, an intensity, as twelve ordinary Australians grappled with facts that would unseat innocence. The reader’s voice slowed as she rendered the closing lines: Honoured Uncle Borer, Unless we can leave Austria, we will die. They will kill us. Unless you sponsor our admission to your country.

 

 

This story was told at my family dinner table towards the end of a recent Festival meal. At the table sat three generations of Jews, all but one of us born after WWII. We too had sat, sated, content, comfortable. It was the voice of my wife’s sister, Robyn telling the story. She continued: ‘This was a family that was desperate. Jews could still get out – if they had a visa. Australia would accept a certain number of Jews if they had a relative here who would sponsor them – that is if the family would guarantee their upkeep.

 

 

That terrified family in Austria recalled an obscure uncle somewhere in Australia. The only detail they recalled was the name the family had known him by, ‘Uncle Borer.’ Was Borer a first name or a family name? They were uncertain even of that. Where in Australia did Uncle settle? Was he still there? Was he alive? Would he help them?

 

 

Armed only with the ardent desire to live, the family somehow procured Australian telephone directories. They searched for the name Borer. Few were the families in Australia that answered to that name. But the family wrote to every Borer they found, explaining their situation and pleading for Uncle to save them. They never heard from Uncle Borer. But the Manager of a small Australian enterprise listed in the telephone directory under ‘White Ant and Borer Exterminating Company’ received a letter written in the German language, which he brought with him that evening to a dinner party in 1938.

 

 

No-one at that dinner table had relatives in Germany or Austria. None of them had friends there. The twelve absorbed the content of the letter. They contemplated its closing lines, they will kill us…and they heard the words that had reached them like a letter in a drifting bottle – unless you sponsor us.’

 

 

Robyn paused. Eleven of us, all Australian by birth, Jewish by heritage, reflected on our families’ stories of arrival. We knew by name those who sponsored us, we knew the dozens of families that our families had sponsored. The twelfth person among us, mother of Robyn and my wife Annette, was born ninety years ago in Danzig. She too arrived in1938. The matriarch at our table, Nana, our treasure, a brand plucked from the fire, was sponsored, saved. Nineteen Australian citizens, Nana’s descendants, are alive today. (A twentieth is expected).

 

 

Robyn resumed: ‘The manager of the borer company sponsored the family. We know that family, they are friends, but I never heard their story until now. And there’s one more thing – everyone at that dinner table sponsored Jews who needed to escape. Apparently forty people – or was it forty families – were saved by the borers and their ordinary Australian friends. Incidentally one of those twelve was a man named Harold Holt.’

 

 

Harold Holt! I remembered the prime minister from my student days. I remembered him as the conservative who sucked up to the USA in Vietnam. ‘All the way with LBJ’, was his catchcry. Harold Holt giving succour to asylum seekers was not how I imagined him. How old was he, I wondered, when he heard that letter to someone’s Uncle Borer? 
 

 

At our table that night I looked around, mentally counting: twelve, yes we too were twelve. Would we, I wondered – would I – sponsor a family of foreigners as that twelve did? But as matters stand, we twelve Australian adults are all impotent under our present laws to sponsor anyone, not even those who have escaped to Manus or to Nauru.

POSTSCRIPT:

So I looked him up in Wikipedia: “Harold Edward Holt, 5 August 1908 – 17 December 1967), was an Australian politician and the 17th Prime Minister of Australia from 1966 to 1967. He was born in Stanmore, New South Wales and won a scholarship to study law at the University of Melbourne. Holt went into business as a solicitor, during which time he joined the United Australia Party (UAP). In 1935, aged just 27, he was elected for Fawkner. Holt spent 32 years in Parliament, including many years as a senior Cabinet Minister, but was Prime Minister for only 22 months before he disappeared in December 1967 while swimming at Cheviot Beach near Portsea, Victoria, and was presumed drowned.
As Minister for Immigration (1949–1956), Holt was responsible for the relaxation of the White Australia policy.”
So here is one ordinary Aussie, aged thirty, a junior politician who acts and does a private good. Eleven years later, in his public capacity as minister for immigration, he recognizes the humanity of those humans whose skin is not white, transforming for the better a largely monochrome country.

Empty, Empty and Desolate the Sea

I can’t see Manny anywhere. I stand and fret in St Kilda Road. The spring gale blows a clatter of discarded plastic drink cups along the great boulevard. The cups fly and land and take flight again, baffling the redshirted volunteers who try to arrest them. In all the great sweep of road it is only the volunteers who run, no others: the marathon field has swept past me as I keep my watch and ward, as I wait and wait for Manny.
 

It is eight thirty-five. The marathon runners have passed, the half-marathoners too. Where is Manny? We’d arranged to meet at seven thirty. When we saw each other a week ago Manny told me he could run only two hundred metres without breathlessness. I was treating him for the respiratory infection that he’s prone to: whether it’s his cancer therapy or the cancer itself or a recurrence of pneumonia, he’s been unable to train. ‘Until the other day’, he says hopefully, ‘I did 10K on the treadmill.’ Then he concedes, ‘I had to walk and jog.’

 

Last night Manny sent a message: I’m hoping miracles do happen. This will be my thirty-ninth Melbourne Marathon. I am determined to start. I don’t want to embarrass myself. I hope I make it to the five kilometre mark. I’ll meet you there around seven-thirty I hope.

 

I have been watching since seven-fifteen, searching faces, peering into the throngs for sight of Manny’s familiar features, his labouring body. The road has been full, but empty, empty and desolate. So Manny has been defeated at last. After running thirty-eight successive Melbourne marathons, one of only eight people who have started and completed every one, Manny has admitted defeat. And it is not the event that has defeated him, but his illness. The wind howls in my ears, dust flails my face. I am almost relieved that Manny does not have to run into the gale.

 

I turn for home then look back over my shoulder. At the extreme of sight two figures are dimly seen. Their bodies are shapes, undefined. They seem to move: are they moving towards me or away? I wait. Yes, two figures, moving slowly, making slow progress in my direction down St Kilda Road. Can this be Manny and another, a support person? I wait my turn to become the next in Manny’s chain of supportive escorts. The figures approach, they gain definition. They move comfortably, they laugh and wave. They are young, female, they are not Manny.

 

Sombrely I jog back, keeping pace now with some lagging half-marathoners. Sloggers, these, a sub-sub-sub elite, united in dour resolution. These runners have the Manny spirit, the spirit that brought him through and home in the last two full Melbourne Marathons.

 

Back home I try to call Manny. No luck. I call his devoted son – all his relatives love and cherish him: no answer. I leave an anxious message. Restless, I await news. Day ends without word. I send an email.

Finally the following arrives: With help from my wonderful family I did the impossible and finished the thirty-ninth Melbourne Marathon.

I did the Cliffy Young shuffle and someone was with me all the way to help me along. I’m feeling very sore and tired.

I’m sorry I missed you. Hopefully we can run together next year.

‘Next year’. Two years ago Manny’s cancer doctor warned him against running: You fractured a cancerous rib just by coughing. You might have cancer in any of your bones. You can’t afford to run. But Manny did run. In 2016 with the same warning echoing, he asked his GP what he thought; this GP said, I’ll run at your side. And that was our plan again this year. But I missed him.
I missed him but Manny ran. He shuffled through the spring gales and he completed the full forty-two kilometres, plus the final terrible two hundred metres. And I missed witnessing one of the great athletic feats, one of the triumphs of the spirit over the flesh.

 

Next year, Manny, next year.

 

THE MCG STANDS EMPTY, THE SOLE RUNNER, LIKE PHEIDIPIDES OF OLD, ENTERS ALONE