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.

Dennis

 

 

When I was born my elder brother was two years and two months old. When my brother died he was sixty-two. Tonight my younger brother and I will remember our firstborn brother. We’ll recite Kaddish together in his memory.

 

 

 

When I was newly born Dennis filled my baby carriage with all of his toys, submerging me. I didn’t recall that; our mother told me of it. She said Dennis loved his new brother so much he wanted me to have all his toys. All of our lives Dennis gave away everything that was his.

 

 

 

Dennis and I always bathed together. When I was five years of age, and trusting, Dennis conned me into an act of fellatio in which he pissed in my mouth. I recall that clearly.

 

 

 

I’ll light a memorial candle tonight. The candle burns longer than twenty-four hours. When I walk into my night kitchen the small flame takes me by surprise. I stop and I remember. The small flame flickers and falls. It looks about to die, but then it rises and burns brightly.

 

 

I sit alone in the kitchen and the truth comes to me anew: we all flicker before we die. But Dennis! Dennis had such a force of life. I see him pushing Mum in her wheelchair along a steep winding path, pushing her up, up, to catch the sea view from a peak at Wilson’s Promontory. The tyres sink deeply into the sand but Dennis, by sheer force of will, propels Mum forward and upward.

 

 

 

Dennis the fearless. Dennis undaunted, never defeated. When his affairs took a reverse I’d worry for him, but he’d say, ‘It’s always darkest before the dawn.’  Dennis meant that, he believed it, he lived by it.

 

 

 

Life brought ease to the second brother, a harder path to the firstborn. Dennis rejoiced for me in all my little successes. He knew no envy, never felt usurped by the younger brother who got the birthright. He bought me a holy book and inscribed it with his heart’s blood: ‘For my brother Howard. God must be proud of you.’

 

 

 

Dennis had the gregariousness of the deeply lonely. I sit and leaf through his address book, an odd keepsake. The crammed pages teem with names, so many names, names of down and out people he’d find and succour. These people, themselves lonely, found in my brother a man who’d give away all his own toys. 

 

 

 

Dennis decided to undergo major surgery, hazardous surgery. I misgave. But he said, ‘Doff, It will cure my diabetes, I’ll get my life back.’  He had the surgery, his flame flickered and he died.

 

 

Eini, eini, yorda mayyim

My eye, my eye runs with water.

 

 

 

Ellul, 17-18, 5779.

Birth of a Pearl

My mother’s name was Yvonne but her sister’s children called her Bom. I believe that name was the gift of her toddler nephew for whom Yvonne was too large a mouthful. That scapegrace nephew entered Bom’s life before she had children of her own. From the first, the two treasured each other with the distinctive closeness of the boy who finds a second mother, and the sister (yet childless) who yearns to mother.

The aunt moved to the country town of Leeton where she promptly hatched a litter of her own, of which I was the second born. From time to time the nephew (it’s time to give him a name: let’s call him Barry) was sent to us in Leeton, where his sojourns were long and wild and wonderful. His parents sent him to us ‘for the country air’, ‘for his asthma’, ‘to recover from the injury when a stake went through his belly’. All understood the true reason: They sent Barry to us when his parents needed respite. Bom would take Barry to her bosom, and he thrived.

In Leeton Barry taught us the Facts of Life. I have found these Facts to be of enduring value. He taught us too, a game called Murder in the Chook House, which I have described fully in my book titled My Father’s Compass. But all wild things must end and eventually Barry would return to Melbourne.

Contrary to all prediction and expectation Barry reached the age of thirteen without being hanged. His family marked the occasion with a barmitzvah celebration in the grounds of their beautiful home. The heavens marked the occasion too, with the mercury reaching 112 degrees. A marquee appeared on the tennis court, glamourous women sprang up like so many flowering shrubs.  Barry behaved with mature grace, accepting gifts and tribute without complaint.

Among the adult company present that day one particular beauty stood out. She was a person, someone said reverently, from Channel Nine. We didn’t have TV but I’d heard of Channel Nine. This lady’s job was to be beautiful on television. Today she was being beautiful at Barry’s family home.

TV Beauty Brenda Marshall

I came upon her seated in a shady spot next to my mum.  The two were talking. Beauty was admiring a pearl suspended from my mother’s throat.

What a beautiful pearl, Mrs Goldenberg!

Thank you. Daddy found it at the bottom of the sea and brought it home and gave it to me.

How? I mean where..?

Daddy was a pearl diver in Broome.

How wonderful!

Yes. He taught us girls  – that’s Barry’s mother and me – this poem:

When the first drop of rain

Fell from the clouds

Into the deep blue sea…

Mum’s manner of speaking carressed the words into being. They’d tumble from her and flow sweetly to you. Ready to be embarrassed, I watched TV Lady anxiously. Channel Nine was leaning forward, her red lips parted. I saw the pearls that were her perfect teeth. She leaned and listened and she did not move.

She was tossed, small and wistful, by the waves.

How minute I am in all this immensity, she cried.

And the sea replied: Thy modesty pleaseth me.

I shall make of thee a little drop of light.

Thou shalt be the fairest jewel among jewels…

 

 

The TV lady turned slightly to look again at Mum’s pearl pendant.

Thou shalt even rule woman.

 

 

Mum stopped, looked up at her companion, smiled:

And a pearl was born.

Ecclesiastes, 12, 1

A letter arrived inviting me to join a panel of former students addressing a bunch of peers from my old school. Panelists were to discuss a number of questions which all boiled down to If you knew then what you know now, what would you have done differently?

The questions made me think about my schooldays. I loved school. I felt happy. I thought the brutality of our teachers was somehow just the way of things, neither wrong nor right, simply conduct that lay beyond judgement. I didn’t like it – in fact when I witnessed it I’d whinny with the ugly mirth of the unpunished; when I received it I felt I might vomit. But then I didn’t like winter either. Winter and corporal punishment were both unpleasant and both lay beyond lawmaking.

As I reviewed our jungle behaviour my older self felt sad and ashamed. I wished we had been kinder. An instinct revealed to us whoever was the most vulnerable. Arriving as a new boy in mid-term I was conspicuously vulnerable and the hounds duly bayed and pursued me. Being new was a temporary condition; others suffered perpetually. In my turn I identified one or two of these and I teased them with relish.

In time I saw how that fat child, this gay person, that person whose father belted her every day, attracted the crows, and I declined to join in the pecking. In time two of these three were to die by their own hand; the third tried and failed.

I wasn’t fat, or gay. My father didn’t beat me. My schooldays were happy. Inspiring teachers inspired me; loving mentors nurtured me. I suppose I blossomed.

Half a century and more have passed since I lived in that arena of mind-nurture and bloodsport. My eyes, clouded now with cataract, my knees grating, my hearing dimmed, my balance wonky, my farting – ever a reckless delight – now hazardous, what advice would I offer today’s schoolchild? Should I say Rejoice in the days of your youth before the evil days come when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”?

I watch those tender green shoots anxiously as they don school garb and they venture into their jungles. I hold my breath and hope. Will she make her way? Will she find a friend? What wise words might I proffer?

Instead of speaking words I hope I might hold my peace and let her be, and let her become.

Autumn Notes, IV

As I write this it’s still autumn. I need to point that out lest winter arrive before this is posted. You know how pedantic my blogmeistress can be.

Winter is lurking, waiting its moment. I left the hospital last night and walked into the dark and rain. Rather than wait in the wet for the correct tram I took another which would take me close to the station. ‘Close’ was actually a mile or two. I enjoyed a philosophical walk through the bleak, absorbing heaven-sent water through hat, jacket and leather shoes. Three jolly Chinese women sheltered in a doorway beneath bright umbrellae that flapped in the wind. Nice and damp by now, I thought of the umbrella, a found object, furled, resting in my bag. If ever I’d have an umbrella moment this would be it. I don’t like umbrellas – a prejudice from childhood dressed up as a principle. The umbrella stayed furled.

On the tram this morning three young women sat and consulted their screens. Melbourne passed by them, damp, dark, unnoticed. Their devotion was religious. One of the three wore an eskimo jacket, her face fur-framed, her free hand clutching two slices of vegemite toast. The bread looked like rye. A semicircular bite in the upper slice showed where the screen interrupted the young woman’s breakfast. Twenty minutes after boarding, eskimo-lady alighted, her neglected toast undepleted. I mention the breakfast because it looked hearty, just right for the weather.

At the hospital last night I ate the meal I brought from home, a soup described as ‘Tuscan Lentil & Grain Broth’. A woman I know found the recipe in one of the weekend magazines. The soup was new to me. Among the ingredients were carrot, celery, onion (of course), garlic (gratefully), tomatoes, lentils, barley and a green called cavolo nero. That’s Italian for kale. I saw through the disguise; I don’t eat kale, like umbrellae – a matter of prejudice. Well I ate the soup, hot and hearty. Oh what a moment! The soup warmed me and filled me so all the wet and wind and cold that followed could not dampen the love I felt for the soupmaker. I decided I wanted her to be my wife. Which, happily, she is.

The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted

Every so seldom I come upon a book to treasure. Every day I read. I inhabit a forest of books,

I sleep between towers of books, some read, some half-read, most unread. No day goes unbooked.

Some in my world of books inform or advise or enlighten. Others – not enough of them – delight or tickle me. Some inspire, some shock, others outrage and a few disgust me. Plenty bore me. But every so rarely comes a story that calls for that overused word, love. Robert Hillman’s ‘Bookshop of the Broken Hearted’ is a book to love.

What do I mean here by love? In two separate surveys carried out a decade or so ago, respondents were asked to name their most-beloved Australian novel. I saw listed many books I’d enjoyed, by authors I admire. Before reading the results I made my own nomination – Tim Winton’s ‘Cloudstreet’. I read the rankings, and there, topping both surveys, was Cloudstreet.’Just so: Winton’s characters, their stories, their rich and variegated humanness, are given to us in their fulness, given us to love. ‘Cloudstreet’ stays with the reader and is recalled with love. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is another such.

Ripe for adding to that list is Hillman’s ‘Bookshop’. It broke my heart and it healed it. I laughed (my guffaws this morning alarmed a tramful of screen-trapped commuters) and I ached for the child. And for the adults who saw this child and that child torn from them I felt a distress that has visited me only once outside of a book, when the (false) report arrived that my child had a fatal malignancy.

‘Bookshop’ left me hopeful but not complacent. I will cherish the simple farmer who is the protagonist and I will tremble for him so long as memory abides.

I invite you come to Readings Bookshop in Carlton, to hear Robert Hillman in conversation with this happy blogger at 6.30 pm next Monday, May 7th.

Love and Treachery

In the movie, ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’, the grown-up Christopher confronts his father who has commercialized the son’s persona: ‘You weren’t writing a story, you were doing research.’

A.A. Milne feels the force and truth of his son’s accusation. Lifelong the son would refuse to accept any of the vast proceeds of the stories and poems that grew from a father’s love of words and a boy.

Two years ago a friend confronted me in pain and in anger: ‘When we talked I thought we were

speaking as two friends. But you were there as a writer.’ I felt the force of his pain and the truth of my treachery. In time my friend gave me the great gift of forgiveness but a feeling of shame lingers.

My mother used to read the Christopher Robin stories to me when I was very young. Oddly I don’t recall reading them to my own children, but when my first two grandchildren were aged about three I’d push them to my mother’s house, where we four would eat cakes and pastries and I’d read aloud

the poems from ‘When We Were Very Young.’ My mother and I felt strangely moved. The children seemed to enjoy the ritual; they certainly enjoyed the cakes. The lines, Do you have a rabbit/

I do like rabbits/But they didn’t have a rabbit/Not anywhere there… always lumped up my throat.

I did not need to turn and look to know Mum’s eyes were misting as I read.

I imagine those lines will always bring back to those grandchildren some primordial sensation, some thrill or echo of my ancient loves: my love of words, my mother’s love for those words, our love of the

sharing, our love for those cake-stuffed tenderlings whom I held on my knee.

Those children are bigger now. Soon they will be grown up. And they’ll watch their grandfather the word lover as he plunders life and writes his loves, and struggles with his traitor’s heart.