Running with the Cows

One foot in front of the other. That’s how you do it, this running business. It’s not complicated, it’s not even hard, so long as you don’t do it too quickly or too many times. In the marathon I need to do it 42,185 times. My car finds that distance tiring and so do I. But Traralgon is where I ran my first marathon and – on a later occasion – where I ran my quickest. I try to run Traralgon every year. One of the many things I like about the event is the small field, which allows me to boast, ‘O, Traralgon, yeah, I finished in the first one hundred’.

 

 

 

 

In 2017 injury saw me miss the fiftieth running of the Traralgon Marathon. I was sorry my legs would miss out on history. The event is Australia’s oldest and it’s also The Victorian Country Marathon Championship. In 2018 I trained, I paid my registration and I injured my knee again.  Once again I missed out. But last Sunday saw me fit, I was new again, keen, and running faster than I have for five years. I had lost weight, I’d trained hard and consistently, I felt invincible.

 

 

 

 

The marathon taught me something I should have known: I am vincible.

 

 

 

 

I brought my own support team along. Philbert Kayumba from Rwanda is a natural runner. Being on the run from genocide brought him to Australia as a refugee, and Australia grabbed him, and my family grabbed him. Toby Wundheiler is my skinny grandson. He loves running almost as much as he loves his Saba, Pheidipides Goldenberg. The two believed in me, I believed in me, what could go wrong?

 

 

 

 

 

The lady at Registration peered at her spreadsheet and answered my enquiry: there are 105 starters in the full Marathon, she said. This was the first augury: I would have to beat five, or they’d have to get lost, or pull out or expire, if I were to finish in the first one hundred finishers. I looked around me at the start and I did not sight anyone who looked slow enough for me to beat.  

 

 

 

 

 

At the start I heard a couple of blokes speaking in refined accents, their English correct, grammatical. Must be foreigners, I deduced, and indeed they were. They were veterans of many Comrades Marathons. The Comrades is an event run over an appalling ninety (90!) hilly kilometres in South Africa. Respect! These boys looked stronger than their estimated fifty-odd years. We fell into conversation and the kilometres flew beneath my feet. A sparrow flying with eagles, I ran surprisingly fast, fatally fast. By the time I reached the 11-kilometre mark, the Comrades were well ahead, still in sight, if out of earshot, my breathing was hard and my legs felt tired. Only a quarter of the distance run and I had shot my bolt and I was not Usain.

 

 

 

 

 

Afraid I’d ruined my marathon, I took stock and nourishment. My nourishers on this occasion brought Coca Cola and belief. The nourishing duo were Toby and Philbert. I blessed them and heaved my frame into motion. Now the marathon looked better and felt better, as the route left the paved roadways grey and followed the rail trail. The trail is paved with gravel that springs the tired leg and cushions the sore foot. It runs through the native bushland that fringes the pastures. Amiable cows watch and munch and splatter as the runners pass.  A lone human now, I spent some time running steadily in bovine company; the cows and I established a comfortable fellowship, no words needed.

 

 

 

 

 

An apparition in red, a young woman, announced herself: ‘Hello, I’m your sweeper.’ The voice was sweet, the smile friendly, but I knew dread. The sweeper is the official who sweeps clean the Marathon Course of runners, once their allowed time has expired. Her arrival meant I was running in last place. She would keep me company until the fatal hour. I’d need to reach the Finish before 1.00 pm or I’d be swept. Sweep Lady introduced herself: I’m Vera. I told Vera I was Pheidipides. Vera looked at me jogging along. You’re running well, she said. Would it be rude if she asked me my age? I told her my age. You’re amazing, she said. In my turn I questioned Vera. She’d run Traralgon a number of times, finishing around three-and-a half hours. Today she’d volunteered, giving away her own swifter marathon in favour of the slowest.  

 

 

 

 

 

Vera spoke proudly of her daughters, aged 17, 14 and her boy, 11. All were mad about sports, the elder two being elite junior netballers. Vera drove the eldest to training in Melbourne two days a week. She didn’t mind spending four hours on the road. She was happy to keep doing it, until the day she says, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’. Then we’ll stop, no pressure.   

 

 

 

 

 

A second red blur appeared in my lateral field. The blur rode a bicycle. She introduced herself: I’m Lucy.  Lucy too had given up her marathon to share the sweeping duties. Had Lucy run Traralgon before? Sure have. I won it seven times.  My interrogation of Lucy revealed she held her Age Group World Record for a 200 kilometre race. A few of my records have been beaten, but I still hold the two hundred. Like Vera, Lucy taught at a local school. The two chatted about mutual friends. Maxine was doing better now her daughter was recovering. Therapy had made all the difference. Madeline was running today, the 10 K, not the marathon. She’d given that up to referee the hockey. Young Robert had been stood down by his school. Despite warnings, he was out. You couldn’t push a classmate into the urinal, you couldn’t pull his pants up while he was taking a pee. No respect. It didn’t make it better that the urinating victim was African. You need to have respect.

 

 

 

 

 

Kilometres passed pleasantly. So and so had a new job, closer to town. Such and such was working night shift at the hospital which allowed her to help the littlies at school with their reading. A third friend ran the Fire Brigade Coffee Truck. He gets up early Saturdays and Sundays and drives the truck to the local footy – both sexes, to the local soccer – girls and boys – to the netball, the basketball, then the AFL in the afternoons. The profits from the coffee truck go to buy musical instruments form the town Junior Band. The cows and I listened and learned.  

 

 

 

 

Even tired old legs retain some pride. My legs were tiring, certainly they were old, but here were Lucy and Vera, a pair of runners who’d dedicated their day to the slowest of all. Fleet-footed and vital, these two would recognise my flaccid morals if I stopped. I kept going, sustained by pride, bemused by gossip that spoke only good of their fellows.

 

 

 

 

A noise up ahead, a flash of black flesh, cries of Saba! Saba! You’re awesome, Saba! And Saba was me and the noises were Toby’s and the flash was Philbert. More Coke, more embraces, more sunshine pumped up my bum, and here we were at the turn, at the halfway point.

 

 

 

Phil and Toby saw me around the turn, where the Marshall cried, Pheidipides!  Pheidipides Goldenberg! I recognised Barry Higgins, this marathon’s historian. His splendid book, ‘In the Long Run’, records the history of this event and its fifty famous years. 

 

 

 

Toby loped and leaped at one side, Philbert glided at the other. I knew no pain. The halfway mark signals good tidings to the runner; the mind realises every step now leads shortens the road to the Finish; the legs know they can do it. The reality of twenty-one kilometres remaining somehow weighs less simply for having turned for home.

 

 

 

Toby announced: I’m going to run with you to the three-quarter mark, Saba. It’s only ten kilometres. He darted ahead. Vera observed, you’ve got a lovely grandson there, Howard. Lucy remarked, not quite beneath her breath, and your son Philbert’s hot!  ‘Yes, they are’, I agreed.  Hot Philbert left the gravel to retrieve the car. Lovely Toby ran on until, one kilometre later, he sighted the car and decided he’d keep Philbert company.

 

 

 

 

More of the same. Step followed step, perhaps a little slower. The sun shone palely, I discarded gloves, then a shirt, then a singlet. The legs found a rhythm they could tolerate, my brain separated itself from pain; I was spending time in pleasant company, passing though the wintry green. At some stage I must have fallen silent.

 

 

 

 

I heard a question. Someone was asking, are you retired, Howard?  I answered Lucy, who then asked, so you know all about the heart, then?

No.

Lucy pressed on: Have you heard of arrhythmia?

I had.

We had a long chat about arrhythmias, how a runner’s heart muscle might be strong enough to run two hundred kilometres in record time one day, but beat so irregularly the next that running was impossible. But arrhythmias could be treated.

 

 

 

Vera spoke of her youngest, a boy born dangerously premature. They’d prayed for the little mite. He was too sick for the local hospital and ambo’s speeded him to the Monash Children’s Hospital where he pulled through. Ever since, the little fellow had lived his lively life in a body small and frail; it never occurs to him he has a disability. Never mind he has to spend periods at home, never mind that he too is prey to a parlous heart irregularity – all the other kids played sport, so would he. The reality of a brave boy, running the marathon that is his life, made my own marathon a small affair. I was a child, running was my play; Vera’s child on the other hand, runs to the ‘Wall’ every day.

 

 

 

I listened to Vera and to Lucy and thoughts of fatigue never broke through. What was tiredness? Some petty experience, not admissible, lacking substance. Assuredly I was slowing all the time, but the sweepers assured me I remained a legend, I was certainly awesome, thoroughly amazing. You’ll easily arrive before they close the course. You’re way ahead, said Vera. I looked at my watch, but by this stage I was incapable of computation.

 

 

 

 

A small black car peeped between the bushes, and here, in a flurry and a roaring were Toby and Philbert bearing love and belief and Coke and a Mars bar. We’d reach the three-quarter mark. Numb in the brain, sugared into foolish cheerfulness, I picked up my feet and plodded on. At every road crossing and at every aid station, we found volunteers. I’d salute them and the sweepers would dismiss them: You’ve done your job. Thank you, thank you all. This man here is the last runner. I might have wept for thankfulness.

 

 

 

 

Off the gravel now and onto those pavements grey, as Yeats called them. Up a hillock, down another, head down, a dour business. Abruptly a pretty lady in blue burst into my threesome. She flung herself into the arms of my companions. Boadicea! How did you go, Bo?

Personal Worst.

You’re kidding! Boadicea, meet Philopities! Or Howard. He’s a legend. Ask him how many marathons he’s done.

The young lady in blue asked me how many.

Fifty two. This will be fifty three.

Boadicea affirmed I was a legend. I knew she had that back to front. I concentrated on not falling over and I said nothing.

 

 

 

We ran on. Four kilometres to go, four nasty, mean kilometres, each one of them longer than the one before. 

When a man’s afraid

A beautiful maid’s

A cheering sight to see. 

The lines from The Mikado bypassed my brain and came to my lips and I heard myself singing in the empty back streets of Traralgon. The ladies looked at each other. Charitable souls all, they said nothing.

 

 

 

Thus inspired I ran on. I knew I’d find Toby and Philbert in the final kilometre. We twisted and turned in empty back streets that quite befuddled me. Sandwiched between my colourful escorts, I followed wherever they led. I was a dumb machine, a mechanism of bone and gristle and muscle, an automaton untroubled by thought or pain. One limb faithfully followed its fellow, mine was a body as free of volition as if I were falling. I might easily have been asleep.

 

 

 

But here was familiar territory. Parkland, a creek, Traralgon’s sporting precinct must be somewhere near. A skinny stick figure in black tights and top materialised, a great grin flashed, a boy mad with love and joy flung his arms about me, imperilling my dodgy balance. The boy ran at my side, in front of me, across me, then sprinted away into the distance, shouting: See you at the Finish, Saba! Vera said, Toby’s gone the wrong way.

Philbert, smooth, quiet calming, ran at my side. He looked emotional. Next time I want to run this with you – the whole distance.

 

 

 

 

A minute later the sports ground loomed. We turned a weary corner and there, two hundred metres ahead, was the Finish. Go, Howard, said Phil’s quiet voice.

Go Howard, cried Vera and Lucy.

Go Philopities, screamed Boadicea.

So I went. I went fast. EmpIoying bundles of fast-twitch muscle fibres that I hadn’t used in the 42 slow-twitch kilometres that lay behind, I sprinted.

I felt fast. I felt liberty, release, the knowledge of an ending. I pumped my arms, I waved them, I flew and I crossed the Line and I fell into Toby’s arms. The clock read, 5 hours and 52 seconds. Two women in red and another in blue told me I was a legend, I was amazing, I was awesome, as they clapped my back and kissed my face.

 

 

 

 

Later Philbert sent me footage of the final sixty metres or so. I looked and I laughed. The video camera catches me in profile. Had I not known otherwise, I’d have taken the spavined biped in the picture as some strange clockwork creature in green tights. I invite the reader to view the footage and share my mirth.

 

 

 

On the way home Philbert drove and I stretched out and ate and drank. Philbert said, that will be my event. I’ll run Traralgon next year with you, Howard. I’ll run it every year. Toby said, You’re my inspiration, Saba. I’ll run it too. I’ll bring Mancha, I’ll bring Mami and Papi, I’ll bring Nana. Savta will come, my bothers too. We’ll all run.

 

 

 

 

 

Footnotes:

 

1.   Five hours and 52 seconds is not a fast time. It is, however, 30 minutes faster than my previous five or six marathons. By way of comparison, my first Traralgon (in which I ran last) took four hours, thirty-one minutes and thirty-one seconds. My best Traralgon took three hours and fifteen minutes. Today I finished last but I was the first runner over 73 years to cross the line. I am happy to claim the title, Victorian Marathon Champion (male), (over 73). And I have duly added that title to my CV.

 

 

2. Mancha is a Border Collie.

 

3. Savta is my wife, a walker, not a runner. Nana is her 92 year old mother, a Yogi, not a runner.

 

 

 

While in Israel

As my fingers hit the keys to write this, I imagine a reader shifting in her seat, adjusting, resuming a familiar position. If you squirmed a little on reading the title of this post, I guess the reason to be the word, the noun, the divisive name, Israel. When it comes to Israel everyone has a position. The position has been preformed, (too often prepackaged, bought cheaply off one shelf or another, marked respectively, ‘’Approve of Everything” and “Disapprove”.) ‘Israel’, the word itself, is derived from ‘struggle.’ The geography of the place, situated at the very crossroads of the ancient world, determines contest. The land sits plonked in a Valley that has seen every kind of Rift.

In my own way, I’m with you, squirmer; I too have opinions and sentiments. What follows is a list of happenings, little events. The reader can weave with these threads, as I do, the pattern of her choosing. I expect I might affront readers of every stripe.

While in Israel, travelling in the family caravanserai, a thirteen-year old grandson visited Yad Va’shem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, an emotionally hazardous experience for anyone. This is especially true for a child equipped with limitless empathy and less resilience. At the exit the child noticed a black book into which a visitor might register a reaction to the experience: Saba, wait! I want to write something. ‘Writing something’ took some time. A head of dark curls bent over the page, the pencil moved slowly, words were crossed out and replaced as a person of action and quick movement, slowed, stilled and searched within. At last he was done. Saba, you can read it now, he said. I read the following:

On December 15 last year I celebrated my barmitzvah. But here, today, I became a man.

I dedicate this to the person who prepared me for my Barmitzvah.

While in Israel we ate at a beachfront meat restaurant. In Israel ‘Meat’ and ‘beachfront’ both signal ‘expensive’. I decided to choose something affordable; on the menu, Turkey Testicles caught my eye. Do turkeys actually have testes? – I wondered.

No reason why not, I realised. They’d be very small, surely, if all were to be in proportion. More likely than true gonads, the ‘testicles’ would be some oblate spheroid of other flesh, colourfully named. I ordered them.

The family chose the safe and familiar, all the time speculating colourfully on my choice. Grilled meats arrived at table, chicken portions, sausages, kebabs. No surprises, nothing scrotal. Finally, five spheroids of dun flesh arrived on a plate. These would be mine. Breaths were held as I raised my fork, cameras sought, found and aimed as I impaled the first and smallest. It tasted meaty, turkeyish. My teeth struggled for purchase as the nimble little nugget slipped to one side or another. Finally trapped between a couple of molars, the testis yielded and collapsed, releasing a thin fluid (ejaculate, perhaps?) which was not entirely repulsive. The texture? I couldn’t decide. So I ventured a second of the near-spheres. This was unambiguously unpleasant – not the taste but the texture, which was of offal and quite awful. My mouth grappled for gristle, or fibre, for something chewable, but tongue, teeth and gums found only a slippery Gollum of near-solid goop. I cannot really commend turkey testicle. But don’t let me put you off.

While in Israel we went down to the Dead Sea. (Here some exposition of terminology is helpful: from abroad, one goes up to the Holy Land; within the land one goes up to Jerusalem. A spiritual ascent is intended.) But from anywhere on the surface of the planet you go down; the Dead Sea is the lowest point on Earth. We went down.

Nature too goes down to this sea. The Jordan flows from the snows of Lebanon (the name means ‘whiteness’) southward, ever downward, passing through Earth’s many trauma sites – Sodom, Gomorrah, the Cities of the Plain, where fire fell and brimstone rained – down, down to a sunlit sea. The sea is mineral-rich, life-poor. It kills all. All excepting the credulous, who bring their diseases to its waters for the Cure.

With the Negev Desert hulking above you on the right, you follow a road that winds down and down: you have entered and you now descend that storied Rift Valley. Arid Geography from schooldays comes alive in the dramatic silence of that descent. Huge tumbled sandstone cliff-faces on your right fling the gazing eye ever upward. Rugged, broken, appearing ever ready to break open afresh, to swallow you up like the biblical Korach, those Negev steeps keep their menacing silence. In colour the stones of the Negev resemble turkey testes (vide supra), while in sound they resemble nothing at all, so annihilating their silence.

And all the time we whizz and plunge car-bound, so many frantic ants, as if retreating from some dull terror that has no name. All about, on every side, the heat presses down, time pushes down, the brief moment of human history is swamped utterly.

And then the Dead Sea appears below you on your left, its silvery waters silent too, but this the silence of the ineffable serene. You look and you sigh. There on the far side loom the hills of Jordan. Before you on the water, an image of those hills lies reflected. All is still. You, the watcher, feel yourself stilled, your being subsides, the world of cares recedes, quiet rapture consumes you.

Later, as the day begins to die, the waters begin to colour. Pale blue opal appears, giving way slowly, slowly to deepening pinks as the unrippling waters darken and turn metallic. Night falls and your sated soul fills with contentment. Now the moon rises, near-full, and the sea shimmers once more.

Up betimes while the hotel slept, I wandered down to the beach, seeking more glimmer and shimmer. But cloud had settled upon the Rift overnight. I sought sight of the sun that should have been rising above Jordan. The merest glow in the grey was all I saw. The world lay beneath a muted light, lovely beyond words. I wished for a camera and the skill to capture a captured sun. I wished for words I would never find for this moment of deep peace. Alone on the beach I recited the dawn prayers and gave thanks for peace and for beauty.

Had I prayed for a camera and a photographer to operate it I might have found what then materialised, a man and a woman, Nordic blond upon the sand. They too had drunk deep of peacefulness. We greeted each other. I said the sea and the sky and the quiet were beyond capture by word or camera. The man, Johann, produced a telephone and captured these images. Johann and his wife, Gro (pronounced ‘Grew’, Norwegian for ‘Grow!’) were old enough to know we three had stumbled into unwonted moments of gift. The gift bound us in a web of memory. Weeks later, with few words shed, I feel those enduring bonds. The man had photographed shanti.

While in Israel we visited the Western Wall of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. The Kotel, as it is known, is Jewry’s holiest site. You go up to the Kotel. Going up with me were our two recent barmitzvah graduates, a pair of happy philistines who seldom have troubled their Creator with prayer. (They don’t like to impose.) But on visiting this location the sense of occasion, of significance, falls upon all. Would the boys feel lost? I made a suggestion: There’s no fixed prayer. There’s nothing you have to say. Some say the she’ma, which is the first prayer you boys learned. Or you could think of your dearest, secret wish or feeling. You could say that at the Kotel.

We stood before the Wall, its huge stones creamy in the morning sun. There was room to stand a nose-length from the stones. Antiquity, the weather, and a million kisses have all opened small cracks between the stones. Here worshippers have written down personal prayers and squeezed them in, little letters to God. My eyes closed and I whispered to God what He must already know. The boys were not heard, not sensed. At length I opened my eyes. One boy stood close, bending, posting something in a minute gap. The other was nowhere.

In due course we came together and we blessed each other, the three of us. Later I found written in my notebook, the following fragment, prepared for posting in a crack:

Hey God.

Please try to manage hate, discrimination and sad…

‘Try to manage’ – a modest enough way to couch a heartfelt plea – but my heart lurched to think of ‘hate, discrimination and sad’ hurting one of my tender ones. Did he find a crack?

There is a crack/a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in.

While in Israel, we visited the pavilion that honours the Anzacs at the charge of Beersheba. Here, British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers defeated the Turkish defenders of the strategic wells dug by my biblical ancestors the Patriarchs. The respective allied forces took distinct roles in the battle; it fell to Australian horsemen to attack Turkish gun emplacements on horseback in what is described as the last cavalry charge in history.

At the pavilion we bumped into an ocker individual called Colin, a volunteer guide to the place. Colin grew up in Melbourne and came up to Israel forty-five years ago. He’s older than I, taller than Goliath, rounder than Falstaff, utterly devoted to the place and its Australian heroes. He’s also rigorously honest and quite unwilling to gild any historic lilies in his narrative. He doesn’t need to. If you are Jewish or Australian, or if you’ve ever thrilled to the power of horseflesh at the gallop, I defy you to hear Colin’s account of the charge and to watch footage of the re-enactment and to emerge with dry eyes.

While in Israel my thirteen-year old twin grandsons and I accomplished in 45 minutes at Masada what took besieging Roman armies three years: we reached the top of this mesa on foot. The Snake Path takes its name from its serpentine coiling route up the rugged steeps from Dead Sea level. Only Ancient Romans and boys at puberty choose to make the climb on foot in that blazing desert. Others take the cable car.

While in Israel we visited a cousin whose incurable medical condition is so extremely rare most doctors have never heard of it. (I hadn’t.) Of the details of my cousin’s plight I have nothing to say here. Rather, it is of a community that so elevates the care of its disabled that I feel moved to write. I witnessed among Israelis a broad embrace. No-one is hidden away. In the synagogue, in the streets, at tourist sites, in all manner of public places, the ill-formed, the mentally ill, the amputee, the palsied, the intellectually deficient, alongside those extremely aged, ride their electric conveyances and live among their people. Tough Israelis, old and young, include their disabled with tenderness. I saw it on all sides and always I felt thankful and oddly humbled.

While in Israel, at the precise moment of our landing at Ben Gurion airport, the people learned of the results of their elections to the national parliament. We lugged and sweated our way through Immigration and emerged into the dazzle of Israel light. Our cab driver had no words for us; he was listening to the election news.

Mi nitzach (who won)? – I asked.

Bibi.

Our driver discharged himself of those two syllables – that were to comprise his entire conversation – without emphasis or feeling. It was a fact.

In Tel Aviv, on the beaches, in the streets and cafes, on the buses, neither excitement, nor surprise, nor exultation. I sensed a numbness, a resignation: Bibi had gained victory, but respect? Irrelevant question, it appeared.

(An aside, a quiz:

1. Who won five of the last six elections in Israel?

2. Who won five of the last six free, clean elections in the Middle East ?

Answers to 1 and 2: the same person)

While in Israel the New York Times cartoon appeared: Trump in a black yarmulke, led by dachshund–Netanyahu, wearing a Star of David. Oops, sorry, a mistake, said ‘The Times.’ Some readers were surprised, some shocked. I was one who felt both, personally, and deeply disturbed. A violence had occurred in my immediate vicinity; a newspaper like the ‘The Times’ is that territory of thought occupied by people of moderation, of contemplation, of liberal values.

The cartoonist pleads the absolute, inviolable sanctity of free speech. A week or so after ‘The Times’ published the cartoon, someone decided to attack a Jewish house of prayer and study in Poway, California. Only one fatality.

Barely seventy years have passed since the unspeakable. Few remember, fewer know. Memory does not prevent repetition. Where today does the Jew feel secure? As I write this news arrives of four hundred rockets fired from Gaza onto civilian targets in Israel. Illogically, in precisely that place where most attacks occur, a Jew feels safest. Ultimately there exists but one land where the Jew is not the stranger, not dispensible.

On an isolated beach south of Haifa I went running with a friend and colleague, an Israeli Paediatric Emergency Physician. Picking out a ragged path between clumps of ground cover I kept a sharp eye out for snakes. ‘Do you treat much snakebite in Israel? – I asked. ‘Not so much in the cities, but down south, around Beersheba, plenty.’

‘What species?’

‘Viper.’

‘What about scorpion bite?’

‘Plenty.’

I thought about our countries’ respective biters. Scorpion bite in the Australian outback is not common. I’ve not heard of any fatalities.

An old story came to mind; my friend had never heard it, so I told him: A frog was swimming in the Nile when a scorpion called to him from the bank.

Mum Interviews God

Friday, eighteen minutes before sunset. Mum stands before the candelabra, strikes a match, holds it to the wick, pauses and watches until a flame rises, blue at the wick, yellow at the fringe.  She applies the same match to a second candle, which obliges with a sturdy flame just in time for Mum to drop the match-end that was about to burn her. She lights the third and last candle. Again she watches briefly, now drops the match and holds her hands – cupped palms upward – above the dancing flames. Now starts the ballet I have witnessed and loved since earliest childhood, as Mum’s hands move up, then down, up again and down, then a third rise and fall, as she caresses air and brings up the light of Shabbat.

Mum’s hands move to her face and shield it from sight. I won’t see Mum’s face again until she completes her interview with God. She whispers a blessing. Then silence. What is she doing? Unlike us boys Mum does’t wear her religion on her sleeve, nor, for that matter, on her head. Mum’s discourse is free of theology. She is not one for external display. But this moment – these moments – she dedicates to One who is outside and above that world in which she cooks and reads and dreams and loves. 

I wait. We all wait. All of us, her four children, our father, smelling the smells of the sabbath meal, all suddenly ravenous. We’ve recited our prayers, we’re ready. But we must wait while Mum talks to God. Mum lowers her hands, turns to us, “Good shabbos, darlings.” Her eyes shine behind tears.

Eighteen minutes before sunset on a Friday, sixty-five years on. Mum stands before the candelabra, takes a match and strikes a flame. This is no longer a simple act: to do this, to light the candles one by one, to judge when to hold the burning fragment and when to drop it, Mum must release her grip on the kitchen bench. Since the haemorrhage that tore through the back of her brain, none of Mum’s motor functions is simple: to stand, to remain standing, to direct the fingers to strike a match, to light a candle, to articulate words, every act a challenge to be met and overcome. The three candles rise, yellowblue, to Mum’s wavering matchstick. She drops the match and now her hands caress air. Once, twice, three times, those slender hands, those long fingers still graceful, rise and fall. Now the hands rise to Mum’s face and hide it, and we hear her whisper the words. No sound now as we watch and wait.

After one of these lengthening quiets, I ask Mum what it is that demands so much of the Creator’s time. “What are you saying, Mum?” 

“I’m asking God to care for you all, darling.”

Mum has four children. She had a husband but he died a few years ago. She has grandchildren who have become adults, she has a rising score of great-grandchildren, she’s accumulated children-in-law, grandchildren-in-law. Every one is precious, each has individual needs, each must be singled out and presented to God for blessing. Blessings must be tailored: Heal this one, strengthen that one, protect that third, comfort him, calm her, bring them peace.  

We wait and we wait. Mum and God have much to discuss, as God’s old friend comes to Him again with her weekly agenda of love.  

Zeide

Tonight* my wife will light a memorial candle for her father. Her sister Robyn will do the same. Tonight will mark the anniversary of his death, in both the Jewish calendar and the secular. The two dates coincide only once in nineteen years; this is the second time they’ve concurred; Zeide died thirty-five years ago.

My father-in-law wore any number of names. In Russian he was Grigori (he’d sign loveletters to his children with “Gregory”), his wife called him Harry, friends called him Hershel, my children called him Zeide, and he asked me to call him Dad. That wasn’t difficult: it wasn’t hard to love a man who never had a son and who treated his sons in law like his own.
Harry adored his grandchildren. He was a natural grandfather. He had a gift for it. He showed me how I might do it, when the time for it would come.
Harry Novic burned with love of family. He loved Italian food, Italian clothes, Latin music. Harry loved his friends and he loved his Chesterfield cigarettes. His tobacconist alone knew how many he smoked and he assured Harry, when importation was to be halted, ‘You’re a very special customer. I’ll make sure you have them.” He told his daughters, ‘If you ever smoke I’ll break every one of your fingers.”
One day Zeide confided to his sister, ‘I think I’ve got “that thing”‘. He used the yiddish to name the un-namable, a tribal practice, as if to name it might be to bring it on. The medical name of the un-namable was mesothelioma. In less than a year Zeide had died.
Months later Zeide missed his first grandchild’s Batmitzvah. He missed two more batmitzvahs and three barmitzvahs, as well his grandchildrens’ many weddings. He never saw a grandchild graduate, he never knew his fourteen great-grandchildren. He died and he never saw his generations bud and flower.
The family grows and grows. We miss him – as my son remarked today – at every celebration, at every milestone..
What would Zeide think, If he were to come back tonight, if he were to stand alongside the evergreen Helen who was his bride, who became his wife, whom he made his widow? What would he say, what amazement would be his!
I think what I learn is how grandchildren need their grandfather, how a grandfather might be missed, how his memory is  a candle that burns.
*written just over a week ago

Only Connect

 

 

The marathon began, like all my best marathons – and like all my worst – after too little sleep and too much coffee. Even before I start I know I will learn something today. Every marathon brings its own teaching.

 

 

 

 

I run alone. I train alone. All my running comrades have aged and retired, some defeated by injury, others redeemed by family. Alone, but never lonely, today least so, with friends waiting at Mile 23 and wife and kin at Mile 25. My wife Annette had her fill of marathons decades ago. The novelty of travelling to an inconvenient, often inaccessible rendezvous and waiting there for some hours just to sight and greet and embrace and encourage a sweaty spouse has worn off. Yet today bears the promise of Annette.

 

 

 

 

Fifty thousand-plus of us runners moved by ferry and by bus to Staten Island, New York’s forgotten borough. All had drunk copiously from early morning, against the inevitable drying out of our bodies during the run. After 90 minutes on the bus we debarked, bladders groaning, seeking relief.

 

 

 

 

I looked around me. I saw bushes aplenty but of toilets I saw none. The official marathon booklet warned us runners (on pain of disqualification!) not to use the bushes. I found a very long queue leading to the portable toilets which bore the name Royal Flush. I jiggled, moving from one foot to the other. Looking up, I saw many others in this queue and in others adjacent, dancing the urinary gavotte.

 

 

 

(I know no way of reporting the grit of the marathon without dealing with the seamy reality of the body. When we mammals run our bodies heat up. To contain that heating, a dog will pant, but we human mammals sweat. By the end of the marathon the human kidney is under siege from breakdown of muscle protein, the circulation struggles to compensate for dehydration, toes purple and balloon as blisters fill with blood. Elsewhere, armpits and scrota shed skin, nipples bleed, bladder walls abrade each other and haemorrhage into urine already laden with albumin and urea. The runner eliminates a scant flow of disreputable gravy. Great runners are not immune: champions of major marathons have voided into their shorts, have shat themselves when their bowels outran them, and/or shed public menstrual blood on their way to victory. It’s not a glamorous sport.)

 

 

 

 

The morning was crisp and bright. The sun streaming through the window of the bus had warmed me luxuriously, but once out of the bus I crisped up nicely. Dunkin Donuts make a drink they call coffee and Americans pay good money to drink it. For us runners the drink was free. I welcomed it for the warming. My Wave in the marathon would not start for two hours, so I sat in the lee of a large tree and read the Book Section of the New York Times. A thin lady with fair skin, her freckles pale in the sunlight, wore a shirt blazoned with the dying words of Pheidipides, ‘Rejoice, my friends! Ours is the victory!’ The young woman claimed Pheidipides as her running inspiration. ‘Mine too’, I told her. She said, ‘I tell the story to my little girls, but I don’t dwell on his dying.’ Soon we were talking about books and favourite authors, and time trickled away pleasantly until Marshalls called my Wave to the starting corral. I suppose that was the story of my day; simple connection with another that would blind me to small things like tedium and pain and tiredness.

 

 

 

 

The day, like the poets, starts in gladness and ends in madness. Events, faces, sounds, sights and crowds merge into montage. Memory becomes a scrambled egg. A body starts out full of running, it sobers and slows, it falls into a plod, later it labours, only to speed up again, endorphin-fuelled. By the end of the race I remember all, but chronology blurs.

 

 

 

 

Every runner contemplates three distinct finishing times – the one most likely; the acceptable slower time; and the secret time, very fast, of the runner’s dreams. A couple of months ago I ran in Alice Springs with an injury. I completed the 26.2 miles in 344 minutes, equating to a mile every 13.13 minutes. Feeling fitter now and more hopeful, I dreamed of running this marathon in eleven-minute miles. A marathon is one of those things dreams are made on.

 

 

 

 

One thing certain: if I run more quickly than I can sustain I will regret it later. With my mind full of calculation, I heard a cannon fired somewhere in the distance. Runners shuffled forward towards a Starting Line none could see, the roadway rose beneath our feet and abruptly we were running up the long incline of the bridge over the Verrazano Narrows. I tried to forget how high we were above the waters. I tried not to run too fast. I noted with dismay the rough, harsh concrete surface that jolted my joints with every step.

 

 

 

 

I looked from one to another of my fellow runners in all their heterogeneity. (That’s another secret – distraction by the human landscape.) I saw we were thin, we were fat, we were tall, we were short, we were of all races; some of us were twisted, some wasted, some blind; one ran upon a metal spring in place of a foot; we were young, we were old – one runner older still, for on his back I read, ‘Born Before WWII.’ The man was weedy, his trunk narrow and his hair long and wavy, a white savannah. He radiated a perky energy, his marionette limbs jerking along effectively at roughly my own pace. After a time I lost him but we were to cross paths repeatedly over the coming hours.

 

 

 

  

We descended from the bridge into Brooklyn where the first of countless New Yorkers came out to bless us and feed us and celebrate us as we passed through their multifarious neighborhoods. Those New Yorkers held aloft signs. Some named their hero: ‘Daddy, we’re proud of you!’ ‘Miss Jones, Grade 4 think you rock.’ ‘Lucy, marry me. Please shower first.’ Others were philosophic: ‘Pain is temporary, glory is forever.’ ‘Pain is temporary, Facebook is forever.’ And, ‘Pain is just French for bread.’ 

 

 

 

 

And one sign humbled me with, ‘Stranger, I salute you.’ (The shock of the true. Who is this who speaks thus to my soul?)

 

 

 

I was dreaming I suppose when a sign told me I’d run three miles in 29 minutes. Too fast! I knew already my hope of a good time was ruined, the work of mutinous legs and wild ambition.

 

 

 

 

Bluetooth carried music through my hearing aids. Suzanne started me, followed by Sisters of Mercy, then Hey, That’s no Way to say Goodbye, So Long Marianne, and so on, through the Leonard Cohen songbook, eighteen songs over one hour and 18 minutes. From the Start on the bridge from Staten Island the entire album carried me into Brooklyn, but not beyond. This, I realised, would be a slow marathon of many albums. “Graceland” next.

 

 

 

 

Numerous young women brandished warning signs: ’Run faster, I just farted.’ (How rude.)

A tall black man at a pedestrian crossing held a sign that urged the endless passing stream, ’Speed up. I’m waiting to cross.’ (I larrfed.)

 

 

 

 

We runners too wove a legible thread, of words worn on our bodies, some playful, some sombre. I read tee-shirts as I ran. Cancer was condemned, Muscular Dystrophy unpopular, diabetes damned.  When I read ‘Pancreatic Cancer’ – remorseless killer of numerous close to me – I gulped. Quite a few runners simply wore the two names, ‘Martin Richard’, without elaboration. Those names rang a bell from Boston, 2013; Martin Richard was the 8-year old boy blown up by the gormless younger bomber. The photograph in the papers showed a child standing on the pavement, gazing outward; behind him a young man in a peaked cap, at his feet the fatal backpack. That was Memorial Day in Boston, 2013, the day our folly lost its innocence.

 

 

 

 

Other signs memorialized a friend or parent – ‘This is for you Dad’ – occasionally the name and likeness of a child lost to cancer. ‘Charlene 10/13/08 – 2/9/14.’ All lightness sinks when you run behind that shirt and you contemplate the heartsickness of the wearer. Others wore the names of the Pittsburgh Eleven. (I was one of those.) 

 

 

 

 

After I’d run a couple of hours an ugly low bridge loomed ahead. That bridge (by name, Pulaski)  obeyed New York’s Law of Concrete Bridges, which ordains a cement surface, pitted and rutted, intensely hostile to the runner’s foot, ankle, knee and hip. The bridges of New York City are many. Next comes Queensboro, the great bridge from Queens to Manhattan. Lying in wait are the Willis Avenue Bridge and the Madison Avenue Bridge. The five bridges of concrete reality.

 

 

 

 

The Pulaski marks 13 miles, the halfway mark. By all accounts Mister Pulaski was a good bloke: 

www.polishamericancenter.org

 

[Kazimierz Pułaski, (English Casimir Pulaski, born March 6, 1745, Warsaw, Poland—died October 11/15, 1779, aboard ship between Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, U.S.), was both a Polish patriot and U.S. colonial army officer, hero of the Polish anti-Russian insurrection of 1768.]

 

 

 

 

Good bloke or otherwise, to the runner, Pulaski means fatigue. By this point 13 miles felt to me quite sufficient. A tee-shirt ahead of me agreed: “Why didn’t Pheidipides fall at 13 miles?” Up, jolting and wincing, up Pulaski and over, and there, two-and-a -half miles ahead rose the great metallic arcs of the vast Queensboro.

 

 

 

 

In the company of The Boy in the Bubble I started the long climb. Into Graceland and beyond I climbed on. With Diamonds in the Soles of her Shoes I climbed still. Outside my earphones the world was quiet. Runners ran and breathed and grunted with effort. No crowds on the bridge, no wild animating distractions.

 

 

 

 

In the quiet I sensed my lips were moving, Hebrew words emerging. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” I am my sole self, again and ever the four-year old child reciting the creed. From that time I’ve recited that initial verse of the “she’ma”, twice daily. From that age I’ve known it to be the final prayer of the Jew at the moment of death. Why now? Why here? Perhaps it’s the relative isolation of these miles on the bridge, perhaps the mere mechanics of plod induce trance. I cannot say, beyond noting how, as I walk or run this earth, ancient prayer will surface unbidden. Liturgy-laced, my life has been framed by the times and seasons of the prayers.

 

 

 

 

I ran on and I heard my mouth say, “Uvlechtcha baderekh”, and I heard my father teaching us small kids, “And you shall repeat them unto your children, and you shall speak of them as you sit in your houses, as you walk upon the way, when you lie down and when you rise up…”

 

 

 

 

On and up, on and up, Under African Skies I ran, on and up, Homeless and joint-shaken until the top where the road ahead was blocked by a huge red firetruck. The truck revved us up, its deep horn blasting, booming, blasting. Legs took heart, the road sloped down and to the left, freewheeling I allowed my speed to pick up as I jolted the long mile down to Manhattan.

 

 

 

 

In four previous NYC Marathons, First Avenue always defeated bonhomie. Debouching from the Queensboro Bridge, we ran into an ambush of ecstatic goodwill in First Avenue, with crowds wildly excited at our arrival in Manhattan.  Manhattan! – a name to conjure with, name of the great centre of excitement that is New York. However, runner beware:according to an article in the New York Times, Manhattan is derived from the local tribal language word Mannahatta, with a likely meaning, “island of many hills.”

 

 

 

 

Erst, the excited crowds were brief and the Avenue long. Crowds would thin, muscles flag, spirits wilt and on we’d run, and on, towards a distant island of further desolation, The Bronx. No desolation today: today the crowds do not thin, enthusiasm blooms at every side, the sun shines upon spectator and hero alike. Spectators in wild array, in every mode and manner of dress, watchers in love with their particular hero, in love with this stranger that is within their gates. The sun warms them, large plastic beakers of lager cool them and their cup runneth over. 

 

 

I’ve claimed often I’m the world’s slowest runner, adding, ‘a good walker will beat me’.  Here at 18 miles I see my words made flesh. Striding at my left a compact young woman (they’re all young now) walks smoothly past while I runshuffle on.

 

 

 

 

And here’s music!  A bunch of schoolgirl drummers, exuberant in sky blue, drummed and danced us up First Avenue. Harlem, where runners’ limbs are leaden, boomed to the beat of rappers. Everywhere rock bands with driving guitars and belting vocalists shook us as we plodded along, revving us up. All music up-tempo. In Brooklyn a Spiritual choir outside a church (emblazoned with the Star of David – go figure) flung soaring soprano sounds into the heavens. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At twenty-two miles I overtook a young woman whose shirt read, ‘Running for Two.’ Apprehensively, wondering who she’d lost, I asked, ‘Will you tell me who else you run for?’ Her face lit up as she pointed to her belly: ‘My baby. I’m 10 weeks today.’ ‘Your first?’  (I meant the baby). ‘Yes’ – another bright grin – my doctor gave me the all-clear. (She meant the marathon.) The woman’s sheer delight infected me. Today, a maiden marathon, in 30 weeks a new human, born to love.

 

 

 

 

At length the golden light began to fade and the day cooled. At the same time my running slowed further and I too began to cool. I was heading up Fifth Avenue now, not that Fifth Avenue where every shop sells goods you don’t need and cannot afford, but a sylvan Fifth that curves and hides in the beechen green of Central Park.

 

 

 

 

Mile 22, mile 23, a steepish little uphill and I look around into the collar of crowd for a face I know. A doctor who has ministered to my family since my eldest daughter was 12 – that’s thirty-four years – has promised to meet me hereabouts with iced coffee. A voice roars from my left, ‘Howard!’and I totter over and accept a pint of the magic fluid.’ Brian and I shake hands, Onella beams, other voices from faces new to me tell me how great I am. And recharged with water, sugar and caffeine I’m of a mind to agree. Feeling at least a little greater I plow on, on toward another rendezvous.

 

 

 

 

 

The road curves and dips, the crowds are excited, solicitous, effulgent with love that seeks an object. ‘Nearly there! Nearly done!’ – they scream. People peer and read my shirt: ‘Australia! Australia! – seemingly exultant as their love is requited. 

 

 

 

The crowds bring me back in time to the marathons I ran with Melbourne Marathon Legend (his actual, formal designation) Manny Karageorgiou. The Melbourne crowds adored Manny, as he transcended his malignancy, time and again rising from his bed to run Melbourne, while his Greek soul dreamed ever of running the Athens Marathon –  the Marathon marathon. Manny died last year, his dream unrequited. Two weeks from today his son Panayioti will run Athens in Manny’s stead.

 

 

 

 

Mile 25, and when I sight upon my right a head of curls atop a short female form, I know I’ve arrived. My wife Annette runs from the verge, arms wide, smiling wide, and although there remain 1.2 miles to the Finish, I’ve arrived. I fall into those open arms and fold that small person and sob. A red head of curls at Annette’s right and a silver head at her left tell me my faithful sister Margot and my brother-in-much-more-than law John, are here too. Margot feeds me oranges that come all the way from China as I hold on to Annette, holding on for love, and holding so I won’t fall down. After a time I de-clutch and run on. And as in all my NYC Marathons, Margot runs alongside. The final mile and-a-bit are dull but painless. Nothing hurts as I crank the limbs into a jerky sort of sprint to the Line.

 

 

 

 

But someone else has fallen down. Mister ‘Born Before WWII’ lies face down on the bitumen. Gently, ever so gently, two large cops of the NYPD raise him from the road. His nose is bloodied but his smile is undimmed. ‘No, no, I don’t need a medic. No, I’m going to finish.’ With a cop cradling each arm, but under his own steam, the old man totters on. He will finish.

 

 

 

 

And as for me, my arrival happened before the Finish, back at Mile 25, back in Annette’s arms. I hurtle now across the Finish Line of diminished relevance, happy before I reach it. They give me a medal, they drape me in foil, they throw a blanket about me, but nothing hurts, nothing chills in this arrival, this return.

Appendix

And for the record Pheidipides Goldenberg, runner bib no. 57072, finished the  NYC Marathon in 5 hours, 34 minutes and 40 seconds, coming 118th of 231 runners aged between 70 and 75 years; 993rd of 1147 Australian runners.
The fastest Australian was Lisa Weightman (former Olympian, formerly Ondieki, nee Weightman), finishing in 2.29.11.
The fastest Australian male was Jarrod McMullen, finishing in 2.36.11.
The following day Jarrod crossed the North American Continent and the Pacific in 22 hours, seated next to Pheidipides Goldenberg, who crossed in the same time.

Why I Haven’t Written

This blog has been silent for a good while. I have been remiss. Happily, of the blog’s three-or-four hundred nominal followers, one only has complained. Perhaps she alone has noticed. The truth is a lot has happened: spring came to Melbourne; a surgeon cut my eyes open and melted my cataracts, bunging in a couple of new lenses; a dear friend has died; we experienced a hit-and-run road accident; and Bert the half-hearted came through his surgery and battles on.

I’ll start with the least material of these events, the road accident. I parked my wife’s pretty little red car outside a travel agency and went off to buy bok choi. I came back to find the front defaced and a note attached to the windscreen:

31 AUG 2018, 11:08 AM

CAR: WHITE HONDA CRV, YHO 815

LOVE,

FLIGHT CENTRE, SIX WITNESSES

I surveyed the alterations to my wife’s car, then entered the travel agency. The travel agents described the event, described the driver, wished me well in the manhunt and assured me they’d testify. They shared a lively indignation; the driver’s amorality offended them.

I post these particulars by way of invitation for the assailant to come forward, confess, throw herself upon my wife’s mercies and pay up. Under those circumstances we need not trouble the constabulary.

Surgery is one of the everyday miracles of life in a city like Melbourne. Two crazed lenses are literally melted in the eyes and sucked away like so much snot. New lenses are inserted and the world gleams. Then spring arrives. I see the green greener, and – thanks to the new hearing aids – the birds sing. (One of the saddest little lines in poetry closes Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci. The line of four words – and no birds sing – suffices for desolation.) Once again my spring sings.

Little Bert underwent his second heart surgery. His heart, sized like an apricot, was showing strain. A vascular detour improves his prospects. Inside Bert’s chest the so-called great vessels are like thin tubular spaghetti, cooked al dente. Somehow a surgeon cuts, stitches, reroutes, and attaches. Somehow blood flows through the pasta. And Bert breathes on. The praying continues.

In the mid-seventies I met a bearded maths teacher who took me on lengthening runs up and down the green hills of the Diamond Valley. His name was Dick. One day we paused on a high hilltop and watched the shafts of sunlight pierce the winter mists. A moment of silent communion followed as we share revelation. That was ten kilometers, said Dick. We breathed together, blowing out mist, thinking the same thought: If I can run ten, I can run a marathon. With Dick as my inspiration and my training partner, fifty-plus marathons followed. And a few weeks ago, Dick, who’d developed and survived lung cancer, Dick who never smoked, Dick died – of breathlessness. At his memorial service a large congregation paused and wondered: How is it we live? How is it we cease living? What is this miracle we call friendship? Which is the greatest wonder?

I write this aboard an aircraft from Phoenix, Arizona, where I’ve just said goodbye to friend Paul, struck down by a stroke on a Sunday morning late last year. I asked him had he felt fear. No, not fear. I found it difficult to dress for church with my right hand paralysed.

I’ve written previously of Paul, surgeon, aviator, morbid anatomist. Paul is a man of deep faith. He’s certain he’ll be reunited with Beverley, his beloved wife who died eighteen years ago. I noticed the words printed starkly on the band he wore on his left wrist: MEDICAL ALERT – DNR. Knowing his confident belief in rising again to bliss, I asked: Paul, does it make you sad to persist here in life? His voice of deep gravel remains strong and clear. His word choice carries all the old inventiveness, no stale phrases: After my stroke I’d awake in the mornings quite surprised still to be alive.

Paul and I sat outside in the heat of the Arizona afternoon while he smoked his daily cigar, holding it in his left hand. The right hand remains weak but to my astonishment the strength is returning steadily. Such vitality! I thought of the tiny trees growing in their cleft rocks at Fitzroy Crossing. Germinating from seeds dropped by birds, these miniature saplings force a root downwards through great basalt rocks, emerging into air as a tendril that dangles down to the river surface, down through the great waters to the muddy riverbed. His one-hundredth birthday falls early in 2019. After today I do not expect to see this marvellous man again. But on parting Paul asked, when will you come out this way again? The question was not facetious; he’s lived this long, why not a few more years?

Deaths, deaths. I write of them so often – naturally so, as I age and those I know slip away. In my work too, the farewells are many, and not all of them to elderly persons. Long ago a friend remarked of my writing that I what I was really doing was coming to terms with my mortality. At that time I didn’t see it. But I know now he was correct. I know too, death is not the worst thing.

Half-hearted and Nameless

A military man I know who is also a man of the cloth, recently fathered a half-hearted child. The child is a boy. Although the boy is now four months old I cannot tell you his name: as well as heart-deficient this boy is nameless. Into the vacuum where a name should sound and resound I have secretly named him Bert.

Bert was born with an Hypoplastic Left Heart. Of all the congenital heart defects consistent with life, this is the most severe. When early prenatal scans demonstrated the defect, doctors warned the mother and father: The child might not be born alive. Of all the cities in the world to be born thus, Melbourne might be the very best. For in this location the very worst heart enjoys the very best outcome. And Melbourne is home to the Royal Children’s Hospital, where the cardiac surgeons achieve results superior to other centres around the world. Paediatric surgeons from the greatest hospitals in the USA perform the same procedures but without the same success. Their specialists visit the RCH to learn how the Melbourne team does it.

When my soldier friend told me of Bert’s heart condition my own heart sank. Without an adequate left ventricle circulation is critically impaired, the baby is breathless and often blue. The situation is serious, prone to deteriorate rapidly. Surgery of the highest intricacy is needed with critical urgency. Further surgery will follow within months, and more still as the child grows. If the child grows.

But Bert’s family are strangers to despair. Their faith buoys them. They pray. Their large family prays, their congregation prays, sister congregations join in a tidal wave of prayerful hope. The soldier father sets about studying Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome. He interrogates the cardiologist, the cardiac surgeon, surgical texts and research papers in the learned journals. Meanwhile baby Bert lies in Intensive Care puffing mightily, as his too little heart labours to circulate oxygen-poor blood around his body – most crucially to his brain.

The baby undergoes his first operation. Some hold their breath. Others pray. Bert comes through.

The nurses ask, ‘What’s his name?’

The parents reply, ‘We haven’t given him a name yet.’

‘When will you?’

‘When he’s fit enough we’ll circumcise him and we’ll give him his name.’

The nurses are confounded. They’ve come to love this little baby who puffs and puffs and keeps pulling through. Love demands a name. Administration demands a name. A non-name is given, a name for nurses to love him by, a name for administrators to administer by. Obeying the same imperative, I looked at the bony little battler and secretly started calling him Bert. But his true name, the name that will come to him dynastically or by parental vision or by revelation is not known. The day is not yet come.

A close bond weaves itself among the team that comprises on the one side a mother, a father, bigger brothers, grandparents, uncles and aunts, and on the other, a cardiac surgeon from Belgium, a cardiologist with a Chinese name, ultrasonographers, physiotherapists, cardiac nurses. The father masters and explains to me the eye-watering anatomic detail, embryology, circulatory physiology and pathology as well as the sequence of cardiac surgeries that is needed for Bert to live and to grow. And (in the locution of the family), God willing, to undergo ritual circumcision and to receive his name.

When I visit Bert in Intensive Care, I find the usual grim intent of such a Unit softened. A tenderness prevails, a gentleness, the amalgam of a family’s faith and the distinctive ethos of the institution. It is in Paediatrics where you find the kindest clinicians, and human sensitivity at its highest. The Chinese cardiologist procures for himself a religious almanac so he can know the dates and times when the family will observe Sabbaths and Festivals. He doesn’t want to cause them needlessly to contravene the strictures of telephony at such times.

Bert learns to smile. An MRI searches for hypoxic and other brain damage and finds none. Bert learns to suckle, taking in nourishment made specifically for him, taking in too, mother love, mother touch, smell and sound. Bert lies at his mother’s breast and feels that heartbeat that reassured and made him through the months that he grew, until he came into the world without a fully formed heart. Bert’s bony cheeks begin to flesh out, but he gains weight painfully slowly. The cardiologist explains Bert’s heart has to work so hard it burns up almost all the energy he consumes. The date of the second surgical operation must be brought forward, lest a wonky heart valve be damaged further.

The soldier rabbi father and I became friends when he himself was a runted collection of skin and bones and spirit, aged four years. It was he who knocked on my door one Sabbath morning with a request from his mother to visit his sick sister in their house around the corner. That sister was sped to hospital that morning, never to return to her home. None of us has recovered from her ordeal and her loss.

Tomorrow, or as soon as an Intensive Care bed becomes free, the baby son without a heart and without a name will undergo his next surgery. If you are the praying kind, spare a prayer for him. You can call him Bert.