Howard is a doctor, marathon runner and author. He has written two non-fiction books, My Father’s Compass (2007) and Raft (2009). Carrots and Jaffas (2014) is his first novel. His latest novel is A Threefold Cord (Hybrid, 2107)
The following post may distress some readers. Before reading, please ensure you have any supports you might need.
This hurts the most.
If only, if only…
It happens and it hurts and the hurt can’t be helped; it can’t be talked away; it can’t be redeemed.
And when you lose the next one in this way, it finds you again unprepared, defenceless, bewildered.
When I count those lost to me by their own hand, I find the tally low: three, three in over fifty years. These three, and two more who tried and who fell, falling, astonished into my outstretched arms.
The wound is not to my pride. The wound goes deeper. Petty pride stings at slights, but this is not slight. This one trusted me, that one looked to me, they stood before me in their naked grief and I tried to clothe them in my regard: You matter. Your life has value. Your unique being has meaning.
I have been talking, I discover, to those who are beyond hearing. My words vibrate and pass, and unclothed and alone, the three take their leave.
The first died for beauty. Believing herself dysphorically to be disfigured, she could not see the beauty all others could see in the photos her despairing husband took and showed her. Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes. She takes her leave, she takes her life. Her husband cannot take my calls.
The second died for lovelessness. Born a late child into a family already too full of children, born whole into a constellation deformed by the severe deformity of an elder brother, this one was never deemed to have needs. He called out for notice: Mum, I’ll be good! Mum, I topped the class! Dad, I was best and fairest! Mum, Dad they made me School Captain! Mum… Dad…
They never noticed. All their time, all their energy they spent on the other one, the one who couldn’t run, who would never read. Mum and Dad had no love to waste. The unloved one made himself lovable. I never met a more winning man. I noticed him, I regarded him. He won me. But mine was not the love he lacked.
Being lovable, being good, being the one who’d always try the hardest, he tried all I suggested; he took the medication, and the next medication. He accepted the referral to a psychiatrist, he engaged with the therapist, he accepted admission to hospital. He convinced the specialist he was recovering. He left hospital and he kept his appointment with me. He spoke to me in warm appreciation. He took his leave and, leaving me in false assurance, he took his life.
Twenty years pass and still I shake my head in bewilderment. So vital his being, so warm his blood, so much greater than both, his pain.
Of the last I write least. Two years on it remains too raw. Another who died for beauty. Ugly only in her own eyes, ‘unworthy’ of the lavished love of her parents. Unable to bear the hope with which I’d inoculate her, she separated herself from me in her final months. She died by her own hand. She died alone.
My feelings are not of guilt. Not being family to any of the three, I feel none of the woundof kin, none of that stab of accusation or anger. I cared for all three. They took from their scant stores of trust and they invested in me. I tried my best. It was not enough. We all lost.
“I’m serious, Raph. I see it as a moral test. If I fail it, I’ll realise it’s over: I’ll know I lack the moral strength.”
“What are you talking about, Dad?”
“Simply this. I’m confident my legs are strong enough. It’s my spirit that’s in question: do I have the drive or the staying power or…the spiritual reserve? My fear is I’ll tire and decide to walk, and if do I weaken and walk, I’ll know my marathon ambitions to be vain. Finished.”
“Walking a marathon is nothing to be ashamed of, Dad. Especially at your age.”
”Well, shame might be an over-reaction. But willpower has been my private point of pride. I wouldn’t feel proud if I walked, simply for a failure of will.”
Like every Australian boy I always wanted to shine at sport but, being timid and lacking drive, I didn’t. I absorbed sporting ideals, however. Inspired by Pheidipides I honoured endeavour; with de Coubertain, I decided the important thing was not to win but to try my best. Translated to distance running, this meant not to give up. If I could persist I would win self-honour. Through fifty-five previous marathons I’d gained sufficient self-honour to try a fifty-sixth, on this occasion in Traralgon. But an aged man is a paltry thing and I’m an alert witness to my own decay. This Sunday’s marathon could take me as long as six hours.
(My doubts in mid-2021 arise following twenty months of lying fallow. Covid cancelled all four of the marathons I’d planned to run in 2020. I’m out of practice, trained presently to run no further than 20 kilometres.)
Over the following days the conversation with Raph plays again and again in my mind. Today, in Traralgon, my legs ask their question of will. My Rwandan yoga teacher, Philbert Kayumba, happens to be tall, slim, fit, a gifted distance runner. Phil accompanies me to Traralgon as my support person. Traralgon, I tell him, was the site of my catastrophic first marathon,as well as my fastest marathon.
Today events conspire to help me. The good people who organise the event provide a special Early Start for the elderly and the unlikely. The weather forecast is for 1 degree Celsius. The Bureau adds, it will feel like minus1. In the event, the temperature starts at 8.7, rising to a windless 14 degrees at the finish. Gloved and cosy inside my six layers of shirting, I dance up and down skittishly at the Early Start. Phil instructs me to stretch, a religious ritual among runners that has always found me a disrespectful agnostic. Obedient today I do stretch. Colin, a friend of almost lunatic devotion, who has driven three hours through fog to photograph me at this early start, falls about laughing at the sight. He snaps his old marathon comrade actually stretching.
A short young man of rotund build joins me at the line. Luke, meet Pheidipides! Luke’s fist bumps my gloved hand. Good to meet you, Fylopidees! I regard my new comrade. At five foot tall and three feet deep, Luke looks like a serious rival for last place. He tells me his target time is six hours.
The Early Starter arrives late. Ready Gents? Go! The Starter clicks his phone and we go.
Four hours and 46 minutes later, I stop. This is the Finish but it will not be the end. The daunting corollary of gaining self honour today is the prospect of doing it all again in the future.
In the course of those hours and in the passage of those forty-two thousand and 188 steps, Phil drives to meeting points and provides me with drinks, carbohydrates and caffeine, all in calibrated quantities. He keeps up a relentless commentary upon my strength, my greatness. Bystanders cheer and Phil declares, He’s a machine.
During long intervals of running alone I enjoy the feel of the benign surface of this new route. The organisers have improved the long-famed event by routing runners along the Gippsland Rail Trail. The surface of soil topped lightly with gravel is ideal. The earth yields briefly beneath my foot before releasing it with a spring. Or that’s how it feels. Viewing Phil’s video of my old man’s shuffle alters all notion of springing.
Whatever the truth of my running form, Traralgon has provided the kindest surface I’ve encountered in fifty-six marathons, a runner’s benison.
On this foggy morning, Traralgon blesses the route with a shifting curtain, visible but impalpable, of filmy white mist; by turns the mist conceals then reveals the deep green of foliage and the bright green of pastures on either side. I run through a dim tunnel of quiet and peacefulness, faintly mysterious, with intermittent patches of brilliance ahead wheresunshine breaks through. The sights bring to mind the dark tunnels towards bright light described by people who think they have died and who ‘come back.’
Here memories of the lost arise to meet me. I think of Manny Karageorgiou, my friend, officially declared Legend of the Melbourne Marathon, one of only eight to have run every one of the first 41 Melbournes. I ran the fortieth of these at Manny’s side, knowing he was achieving the wildly improbable, Manny having literally emerged from his hospital bed to run. That was a day of glory. I shared the run with my friend, rejoicing at intervalswhen he’d be surrounded by his adoring family, all of them aware that their cherished Manny was doomed. Later that day I joined Manny’s circle of old friends and extended family at his home, where we ate and drank outside and rejoiced.
The agony of their love stays with me.
When Manny set out to run his forty-second Melbourne, he fell early. His nephew and I gathered him, bloodied, to his feet and he shuffled on. Minutes later, when his wife Dmitra sighted him, she gasped, took his arm and led him from the road.
When Manny died the Melbourne Marathon died for me. I never ran Melbourne again.
Phil’s video shows my starting form to be ponderous and stiff, with my neck bent absurdly forward, and my marionette body engaged in endless chase of that pendant head. Yet I know myself to running hard. So ‘fast’ am I, I realise I’m running with calculated imprudence. I’m following my plan to attack the first half of the marathon, to run at a rate I can’t sustain.As I haven’t run further than twenty kilometres in training, there is no pace I will sustain. So I set out at my recently improved training rate of six-and-a half minutes per kilometer.
For the initial ten kilometres I run alone with my thoughts. Phil appears before me on the track, radiating: I’m amazing, I’m looking strong, my form is impressive. In addition to these loving lies, Phil plies me with iced coffee and Black Forest chocolate. To drink without choking I must stop running. As soon as I put my drink down, Phil commands me: Keep moving, Howard. Don’t let your hips seize up. The respite is delicious, the resumption tolerable. Farewell, Phil, see you around 21ks.
Fast footfalls follow me, overtaking me swiftly. A tall male figure floats past, his strides smooth and strong. He’s the leading runner and he looks like a winner. A minute later runners Two and Three overtake me. They too look good. Admiration overtakes envy; such speed, such power and grace! Over the next quarter of the race, I have the opportunity to admire fifty or more runners faster than I. With every passing, runners exchange greetings, acknowledgement and encouragement. None of this is perfunctory. The respect is authentic. A runner knows the truth embodied in every passing comrade.
Keeping up this speed is getting harder. I negotiate with my legs, I put the hard wordon them: No excuses. I know you can do this. My legs plug resentfully on. Happily, every encounter interrupts such conversation. Volunteers cry out my praises. You can do this, they cry, as if they’d overheard my inward address to tiring legs.
Ahead on the track a tall figure waves to me. It’s Phil, meeting me somewhat before we arranged, around 18 kilometers. We’ll run together to the turn at 24 km and then back some distance. By then we’ll have reached 28 kms. Once there, with two-thirds of the distance behind me I’ll feel confident of finishing. It is at this stage that Phil tricks me. He leads me to the half-way and well past it without my realising. Never knowing I’ve reached that landmark, I forget to slow, and, thus deceived, I float on Phil’s oceanof goodwill without self-pity or ruminative arithmetic.
More chocolate, a draught of Coke, a peeled mandarine and Phil is off, leaving me in the company of a tall young woman whom I’ll call Louisa, who’s running her second marathon. Louisa shares my mandarine and keeps my mind distracted,telling me of her mother, who fights her recurrent breast cancer and her rheumatoid arthritis. We’ve gone plant-based and we’ve chucked away all the auto-inflammatories. Mum did a seven-day water retreat and now you wouldn’t know her for the woman she was. No pain, no drugs. Happy.
Louisa appears to be Mum’s sole support. Mum appears to be Louisa’s project. Dad’s back on the farm in Horsham, Louisa’s the carer child. I hear about the five failed IVF cycles. I gave up teachingand became a personal trainer. Did the study and got the qualification. All my work happens in early morning and in the evening. In between I have time for Mum. And this marathon stuff, that’s my outlet. No, there’s no partner. One day, when the stars align, we’ll find each other…I guess.
Arriving at the final drinks station I seize a cup of water and the opportunity for a breather. A voice announces, This is Pheidipides Goldenberg, everyone! Hello Pheidipides. It’s me, Barry Higgins! Huge grins, flesh shakes flesh. You’re going to write about this aren’t you? I nod. I always write my marathon and in Traralgon I send the Traralgon Harriers, who organise the event, a copy for their newsletter. Barry Higgins is the soul of this marathon, having run it more times than any other and having written a fine history of its first fifty years.
A bunch of marginally faster runners overtakes Louisa and me and edges ahead, stealing Louisa away. Left now to my own thoughts, I encounter Temptation. You’re feeling pretty weary, aren’t you?Wouldn’t those legs of yours enjoy a break? A little walk couldn’t hurt, could it?
The voices make sense. But this whole enterprise defies sense. A marathon runner is a grownup child at play. It makes no sense to run where you might walk. But watch the child at play, see how she gambols like the lamb in spring, like a newborn foal. We grownup runners defy sense, defy the years. Our legs remember the joy, the delight, of speed, and our brains, registering effort, imagine the body to be speeding.
My legs have posed their question. Will now responds in the negative. Dreadfully tired, I know I’ll not yield. I run on, tearful now, and joyous. I’ve passed my test. The sun shines, the mist has risen. I’ve removed layers of clothing as I’ve warmed, handing the sodden garments, one by one, to Phil, who bears them away. He reappears now, a beacon. He’ll run me home.
I run, awash with feelings of love and thankfulness for strength, for friendship, for the volunteers, for liberty, for this window in the pandemic, and for health. Especially for health. During the past week a message comes to me from Leni, Manny Karageorgiou’s daughter, telling me of the little boy born to her, whom she named Manoli in remembrance of Manny. Manoli is now aged three. He has been diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a rare and wicked malignancy of childhood. Manoli’scancer is Stage IV. In footage of Manoli, I see him gamboling for the simple joy of movement. His head is smooth, innocent of hair. When I report all this to my wife, my voice fails me. How is it I am so blessed while others must suffer?
The world smiles upon me as the distance to the Finish shrinks beneath my feet. Phil at my side, in my ear, sings his song of faith. You’re nearly there. Only two kilometres now. You’ve done a mighty thing. You’ve inspired me. I’ll run it myself next year. Keep going, Howard, keep it up. You’re running so strongly. We reach the final turn from the rail trail to the bitumen. Minutes later we come upon vehicles parked at the roadside. The Finish is just a few hundred metres ahead, at the top of a little hill. A hill! Read hell, not hill. Phil’s voice whispers a final blessing: I’ll leave you here, Howard. Only thirty metres, now. The crowd loves you.Go!
I go. The crowd does indeed care. They cheer as if I, Pheidipides Goldenberg, were their own. These people – runners long-finished, wearing their medallions, runners’ support persons, volunteers, organisers – these people have one voice that cries, together with Pheidipides of old, ‘Rejoice my brethren, ours is the victory!’
Footnotes: 1.Watch Phil’s video. I watched it and learned to respect my own absurdity.
For my first twenty years in general practice, I worked in partnership with a famous man who happened also to be a great man. I’d heard of him before we met. His name was Donald Cordner, famed as the sole doctor ever to win a Brownlow Medal in Australian football. I learned you win the Brownlow for being the fairest and best player. Those two adjectives epitomise the man.
Donald happened to be, in his time, the tallest player in the League. Together with that height he was broad in proportion. On my first morning with him, Donald performed a tonsillectomy on a child of eight. Disdaining a trolley, he hoisted the patient in his arms and carried her to the Operating Theatre before surgery, then carried her back to the ward afterward. Donald personified two valuable characteristics in a doctor – the personal touch and broad shoulders.
At about five feet and seven inches I could only look up to this very tall man. My initial awe gave way quickly to admiration, for I saw in Donald a quality I’d seen at close quarters through the previous twenty-six years as the son of another GP. That quality was the courage to feel the pain of another, to share it willingly, to shoulder it and to carry on with calm.
I saw Dad and Donald as they brought life into the world and as, inevitably, they walked closely with others to their final exit. They did this kindly and bravely. Every birth builds us, every death diminishes us. John Donne was right:
Therefore send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
Seated in close consultation with a young mother one morning in the village of Diamond Creek, I was interrupted by the insistent ringing of the telephone: Would I come urgently to the Treatment Room?
For the next thirty minutes Donald and I worked frantically to revive a six-month old baby who hadn’t cried that morning. Her anxious mother found her child inert, unresponsive, not breathing. We tried all we knew but the baby would not breathe. All through this time the mother stood at our side, fully, dreadfully aware. Through it all, the baby felt warm to my touch. That warmth was to haunt me.
I returned to my patient and took up our earlier conversation: Jen, how did you feel when he spoke to you…
My patient cut across me: Howard, you’ve just been attending to something terrible in the other room. You can’t just walk back in here and carry on as if nothing has happened. You have to give yourself some time.
Jen (not her real name) was right. Nobody had ever suggested a doctor too might need care.
Over the following twenty years the bereaved mother brought her surviving children to Donald and me. We shared our unbearable, unspoken knowledge.
Another young mother, Julie, became my patient around that time. Over the next decade I delivered her babies and looked after her children. I tried to help her when she became depressed following her final childbirth, and again when she came to me for help through her divorce. Julie was a dynamo whose many ailments frequently led to surgery, and few of her numerous operations went smoothly.
Julie saw in me capacities that I could not recognise. When she brought a problem to me she did so with inordinate trust in my powers. Howard would know. That trust must have generated the power she imagined. She demanded I become a better doctor, and her faith or some species of love brought that doctor into being.
When I left Diamond Creek she followed me to the city, travelling an hour each way to see me for her many incurable conditions. When Julie moved to a more distant country town the trip to see her trusted doctor took two hours each way. Her ailments were many and her visits not few. She’d seek my counsel in her wilful mother’s decline. She shared the joy of new grandchildren. Her bones began to crumble and she looked to me for guidance about the medication that should strengthen bone, but weren’t there cases where the jaw would abruptly crack?
When aged about sixty, Julie developed intractable abdominal pain. Specialists failed to find the cause and I struggled to relieve her pain. Through all of this Julie looked to me with that unwavering trust.
Belatedly we found the small malignancy that was the cause of Julie’s pain. Cure by surgery was not possible. Supported by her brave husband, Julie endured the full ordeal of chemotherapy. To the end Julie chased a cure: she would not give up her precious life. To the end she trusted her old doctor. I was humbled by her faith.
Over fifty-one years I’ve seen death undo so many. Not all deaths were tragic, some were a release. Inevitably, though, some die in cruel suffering. I remember Robbie (not his name), a tender soul, a deeply spiritual man who’d survived a harsh childhood, and who emerged with a love that overflowed. Robbie and I shared a love of literature. He’d hunt out books he knew I’d enjoy and gift them to me, inscribing every volume with a message full of feeling. To this day I’ll pick up an old postcard, a cherished book suffering neglect, and instantly, Robbie’s handwriting, the curved lettering, bring him back; his love visible in ink.
One day I rode with Robbie as he drove his teenage kids to school. He kissed his daughter as she left the car, then he kissed his blushing son. As I followed, rather than allow me to feel neglected, Robbie kissed me too.
Robbie worked in Student Services at a university, later as a chaplain in ICU at a major hospital. He would see forty percent of his patients die.
Robbie knew his own heart would eventually fail. Numerous surgeons had opened his heart and repaired or replaced valves, not all successfully. Robbie’s cardiologist assured him his passing would be smoothed: he would not suffer. This GP reinforced this advice. Robbie and his devoted wife trusted our words.
When his time came, Robbie exited life in a prolonged and desperate struggle for breath. He died at home with his wife at his side. Years later Robbie’s widow – herself my beloved friend – continues to suffer grief born of betrayal.
In the end that must come, all we doctors can offer our patients is our warm skin and our broad shoulders.
Reading Maggie O’Farrell’s acclaimed ‘Hamnet’ this afternoon, I was intrigued to come across an unfamiliar word. I like it when an author teaches me a new word; this one was whittawer. I reached for the nearest dictionary, The Concise Oxford. Whittawer did not appear.
I wasn’t surprised. The word looked archaic.
Next, I went to the Chambers Dictionary, a chunk of a volume, the fullest dictionary of its size that I know. Chambers offered saddler.
Later, a larger Oxford improved on the Chambers with, a person who makes whitleather. In later use also: a saddler or harness-maker, (from white plus tawer, i.e. a tanner who treats animal skins with alum or lime, which required an apprenticeship of at least seven years).
I put the dictionaries aside and I returned to ‘Hamnet’, where Hamnet’s twin laments his death of the Black Death at the age of eight years. The dying of the child and the grief that follows occupy much of pages 200 to 300. The death and the grief constitute the emotional heft of the novel. Both are particularised minutely. What might take a telegram, (Hamnet Dies, Judith cries), goes on and on, with awesome tread. For this reader not a word is wasted. The pace is meet. A death is one of the two great facts of all that lives. And every death is particular.
I looked up, seeking perhaps, respite from sorrow. There lay the Concise Oxford, the volume seventy years old, splitting now at its spine. Mum bought this book for her firstborn, Dennis. (She presented similar volumes to each of us three children who followed Dennis into the world of books and new words. To each of us Mum said, Look it up in your dictionary, Darling. That way you’ll remember the new word.)
I held Dennis’ Oxford in my palm. I had plucked that volume from Dennis’ large library of brainy books after he died at the age of sixty-three. Dennis’ Oxford is of singular construction, with a little demisphere of space excised from the page margin, in twenty-six places, creating a small lacuna for each letter of the alphabet. Mum’s four kids were guided by this ‘thumb index’ into the right spot in our dictionary for every word we sought. Today, in my search for whittawer, my thumb followed Dennis’. It led me back to that gigantic love of that son for his mother. At the physical tip of a bodily extremity I sensed my brother.
I returned to O’Farrell’s story. She gives her reader the bewilderment of the sibling, bereft: Judith puts out a hand and touches the cheek of her twin. Tears course down her face, chasing each other… such enormous tears, like heavy pearls, quite at odds with the lightness of her frame. She shakes her head, hard, once, twice. Then she says, ‘Will he never come back?’
And later, the child’s search for a self-concept in a family transformed by absence:What is the word, Judith asks her mother, for someone who was a twin and is no longer a twin? If you were a wife, Judith continues, and your husband dies, then you are a widow. And if its parents die, a child becomes an orphan. But what is the word for what I am?
I don’t know, her mother says.
(Judith): Maybe there isn’t one…
Fourteen years have passed since I succeeded to Dennis’ Concise Oxford. The thumb indices admit the edge of the pulp of my thumb. Fourteen years, and notwithstanding my wide collection of dictionaries, I still lack a word for ‘surviving brother’.
I’m seventy-five. Seventy-five, a thankful number, and a thinkful one. Anyone who reaches this stage knows – with me – that we are closer here to the exit than the entry. Anyone who follows my writing will note how my mind drifts toward death, dying and the dead; toward memory and memorial.
A friend observed thirty years ago, ‘You know Howard, all this writing you are doing is a just means of coming to terms with your mortality.’
I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about.
I smiled the kindly smile you give to the clueless friend who means well.
I know now my friend was right, dead right.
When I was a child the fact of death frightened me. To be annihilated – unthinkable! Literally, I was unable to think what the world could be like without Howard Jonathan Goldenberg. In my adult life I’ve experienced a similar disability of thinking: I find myself simply unable to think of an afterlife. I don’t deny the possibility, I just can’t relate to the concept.
So I live this life as if it’s my only one. I think now that death is a good idea. I don’t feel frightened anymore of annihilation. It’s my loved ones who fear my death, especially the grandchildren. The more I love them, the more they love me, the more vulnerable I make them. That’s a dilemma for me. I have felt at times, almost irresponsible, for becoming close and precious to children whose frailty I know so well. For myself, I can reflect how this planet, our species, did alright before Howard Jonathan Goldenberg arrived; once he’s gone, there’ll be one polluter fewer.
But just as the exit has always exercised my mind, the opposite portal called me irresistibly. As my own life ebbs, at the opposite portal an opposite tide of new life always rises. That portal has admitted nine grandchildren into life, into my life. The nine have broadened and deepened my late years. Those years feel more intense, more vivid, more life-stained than the years before.
I used to work at the portal that admits newcomers to life. I delivered babies. I was the intimate outsider, the guest who was invited to attend the birth of a family. Looking back, gazing over my shoulder towards that portal, that screaming gateway, I see blood and shit and tears, I see babies who gasped and roared, I see other babies who had to be coaxed into breath, I see some who would never breathe. I see women shaken, transfigured by the sudden knowledge of their enormous power. I see placentas stuck, I see the lifeblood ebbing, I feel once again the terror…
Two portals long have drawn me, twin doorways of universal truth.
My day starts with prayer, followed by some tablets to lower my blood pressure washed down with strong coffee to raise it. I plug in my hearing aids, I put on my specs, I stretch my shrinking spine and try to stand straight. These small acts, the adjustments of a seventy-five year old, as he moves ever backward, ever closer to the portal marked Exit.
I remember a book my wife’s father gifted me, an anthology of sorts, with odd bits of writing. One story ran something like this:
A man went for a walk in the high mountains. Entranced by the grandeur that he saw all around, he jumped when he heard a loud roar from behind him. Looking back, he saw a snow tiger. The giant creature would very soon overtake him. The man ran, and as the tiger sprang the man reached the summit and leaped.
The man looked down at the valley floor far below. Turning in mid-air, he reached and just managed to grab an overhanging branch of the small sapling that grew at the edge of the fall. The man swung from the bough, his fall broken. Looking up he saw the slavering tiger regarding him. Looking down he saw the unbroken fall. The man heard a groaning sound. Looking behind, he saw the sapling slowly coming away from the peak. Swinging, he looked at the cliff face, and saw, just beneath the sapling, some strawberries growing there. The man’s free hand plucked some strawberries and he ate them. How good the strawberries tasted.
Suspended between the portals of truth, a seventy-five year old enjoys the taste of strawberries.
The mother whom you are about to bring into being feels a pain in her belly. Your birth was due a couple of days ago but it doesn’t occur to the woman that she might be in labour. She phones her father, a doctor, soon to become a grandfather.
Dad, my tummy hurts. It’s been hurting all day. Could it be gastro?
Darling, you are pregnant. You have reached full term. Unless you have diarrhoea you’re probably in labour. Go to hospital.
The date is November 11, a date already doubly and indelibly significant for Australians. It’s the date you create a mother, a father, three grandparents, a great-grandmother, uncles, aunts, great-uncles, great-aunts. It’s the date you change our world.
All day you knock at life’s door. Day becomes night. In the Delivery Suite your mum-to-be squats and strains. In an adjacent waiting area, dimly lit, your yogi great-grandmother-designate squats and bears down, trying to birth you at a remove. The soon-to-be grandfather consults his wristwatch. This climactic second stage of labour has become prolonged. He knows a lengthy second stage imperils a baby. He sends a message to the obstetrician: Would you like an extra pair of hands in case the baby needs resuscitation?
The specialist says yes.
I enter and not long after, the door of life opens to you. You and I meet. You need no resuscitation. I hold you and I introduce you to the mother whom you have brought into being.
Thirty-six hours later I’m gazing at you, just a baby. You lie inside my pink cap. I’ve seen hundreds of babies, I’ve delivered hundreds, every one of them a miracle, every one of them scrutinised for irregularities by a clinical eye. You are no less imperfect than those hundreds. You are skinny, you look like an empty sock, your face isn’t quite symmetrical.
But some event or process, something visceral, something cosmic perhaps, is taking place and I am transmogrified: I am a grandfather; I love you. What is this joy? Your fingers curl and close around my finger and you grip me.
On the eighth day of your life you rest on the lap of your great-grandfather, I remove some skin and bring you into a Covenant. A drop of wine pacifies you. Your tribe jubilates. We know our long back story. Behold you! We see you and we behold our futurity.
Years pass, your parents send you to this grandfather to learn rituals, traditional melodies, ancient texts. At thirteen you are barmitzvah. Once again your clan rejoices and this time you can share it. You sense the power, the force field of love that is your extended family, the depth of our feeling. Profoundly you know belonging.
Life takes you through ups and downs. At eleven you walk with me, up, down, up and again down, to a distant lighthouse. A boy who buries strong feelings, you struggle and you achieve. You declare, I love you Saba. Later you say, I’ll bring my kids on this walk. And you add, I love you Saba.
Six years later, life is still up and down. We do that same walk again. This time it is the boy who stops and waits, and allows an aging Saba to catch up. Your words are few but they have not changed. The miles, the steeps, the struggle weld us once again.
This week you sit your last school examination. Your schooldays are behind you. We behold you, the first of your generation. Eighteen years have passed, enriched and intensified by your being. Eighteen years ago you gripped me, never to let me go.
They were normal people who stopped us about thirty kilometers along the Hume Highway. The soldier wore a mask. The police officers wore masks and guns and bullet-proof jackets. All was customary. The soldier said it was a lovely day.
It was. The sun shone, spring sprang. The soldier asked, where are you going?
We’re going to Sydney.
We told him about the sickness and the surgeries and the complications and the pains and the parents and their children that needed our help. The soldier said he was sorry.
There was a pause.
My eyes stung a bit with his kindness. He said you wouldn’t have a Permit, would you?
We did. We showed him. The soldier said, go carefully. Go well.
In Wodonga the motel people were just the same, all masked. The familiar unfamiliarity was almost comforting.
Up early, still under curfew, we waited until 5.00 am before driving to the checkpoint at the border. More masks and guns and body armour, a roadblock, a fast car at the ready in case we made a break for it. All normal, familiar from the black and white war movie that is our life. We showed our papers. The officers – mine a female, Annette’s a male – photographed the barcode that isn’t a barcode but a blob, and told us to drive carefully.
So, Dear Victoria, we’ve been in New South Wales for twenty-four hours now. We had wondered how the people would be. We wondered how they’d react to our Victorian registration plates. Apart from the angry mob we encountered in Bathurst, people didn’t seem to mind. It turned out the Bathurst bunch were protesting about koalas. Some ratbag had suggested koalas be protected! We felt unsafe: they come for the koala today, tomorrow it can be the Victorian.We got out of there in a hurry.
At petrol stations we saw humans closer up. We could tell there was something different about them. What was it? Eventually it came to us: Noses! People here have noses. We remembered other people’s noses. We remembered the days when it was not only the persons in your household and persons in Renaissance paintings who had them. We remembered; four-year old Sadie probably would, but Marnie, aged only half a year would not. The old people who drop off food at her front door and wave at her, the old couple supposed to be her grandparents, are normal beings, noseless and masked.
While in quarantine here in the mountains, Annette and I will occupy ourselves with an online self-help book. We need to refresh old skills in preparation for grandparenting. The book is Cuddles, Hugs, Kisses: a Manual for Grandparents.
I was the second in a bunch of four kids. Including parents we were a family of six. That was then.
In 2003, Dad died; a few years later our eldest brother died, three years after him, Mum died. Now we are three. The anniversary of Dad’s death fell this week. I wrote to the other two survivors:
I wish us all many more years of vigorous good health
It has been an empty yahrzeit* no ceremony, no minyan** to respond to my kaddish*** just a candle burning and reciting the bedtime shema and recalling how Dad taught us and translated, the words echoing his love of the text, his love of the tradition, and his love of us, to whom he was passing it all on and reciting the psalm: ”yea even though my father and my father have forsaken me…” I thought of Dad at intervals through the day, but I didn’t build my day around acknowledging him
He was phenomenal – a brave man who made himself strong despite inner infirmity a man who inspired, a man to remember
we were blessed
Sister and brother wrote back, with their rememberings. Cousins wrote, and friends. It all felt mellow, a species of happy. There was a pleasure in remembering and in sharing memory. I found myself wandering around, singing a song I hadn’t sung or heard for perhaps forty years. I heard myself singing: he sipped no sup and he craved no crumb…
This was one of the many songs that Dad, a singing man, especially liked. When I realised what I was doing, I tried to recall one of Mum’s songs. Although Mum was a blithe old girl, she seldom sang. But a memory came of one song she did sing to me when I was very young. I remember her contorting her face as she sang, glee and hilarity bursting from her in self-parody, flinging the words from her with abandon: cigarettes and whiskey and wild, wild wine they’ll drive you crazy, they’ll drive you insane…
I decided to record myself singing my parents’ songs. You can hear their memorial concert by pressing play below.
*anniversary**a congregation***a memorial prayer, recited only in congregational worship
Chapter I It’s 6.00 am. Curfew’s over for the night, we’re allowed out for a run. My grandson and I run through the darkness. The boy asks, ‘Saba, will you tell me a story? ‘I will. I search for a story I haven’t already shared, something new. “Toby, in Fourth Class at Leeton Public School, my teacher was Mister Jones. I guess he might have been in his mid- or late thirties, but to us, Mister Jones looked old. If he were alive today he might be in his late nineties. He might even be a hundred. I’ve been thinking about him recently, wondering if he’s alive, daydreaming of getting in touch. We haven’t seen each other since June,1955, which was the time I left Leeton. I left Leeton but Leeton never left me;it stays inside me in memories and stories. Recently Mister Jones has come back to me in a series of memories. “Toby, Mister Jones was kind and gentle. He was good to your Saba, but your Saba was not good to him. Now I daydream of tracing Mister Jones and contacting him. I’d like to tell him I remember him and his goodness, and confess my naughtiness. So here is a story. It starts out as a true story and then it escapes into the wild.”
*** The story of Mister Jones starts one year before he and I met. That year I am in Third Class, where my teacher is Mrs Savage. Mrs Savage is fierce. She shouts, and when she shouts she froths, and we are all frightened of her. I say to myself, Savage by name and savage by nature. She shouts and I sit still and behave, and I try not to breathe. At playtime we all go outside, where I breathe and I court the teacher’s daughter, Lynette Savage. Lynette is pretty; she doesn’t froth or shout. For one whole year I sit still in class and I behave perfectly.
Then we escape into Fourth Class. The new teacher is tall. In the eye in my mind Mr Jones has black hair which is starting to thin. He has a smile and a voicethat doesn’t shout. He is easygoing. Howard Jonathan Goldenberg has behaved too well for too long. It’s against his nature to be so good. Howard starts to misbehave and Mister Jones does not punish him. One morning Howard arrives quite early. He goes to the classroom where he picks up some chalk, walks to the blackboard and draws a large picture of a man. Between the man’s legs he draws a very long penis. He writes beneath the life-sized figure, Noel Henry Jones has a great big carrot hanging between his legs. The door to the classroom is open and so long as it stays open, the art work is covered up. The artist sits down and waits. He hears the whistle blow in the playground. The class straggles in, followed by Mister Jones. Mister Jones closes the door and, facing the class, he says, ‘Good morning, Fourth Class.’ Fourth Class gazes at the picture on the board and starts to giggle. Mister Jones tries to bring the class to attention, but the laughing grows louder as Fourth Class reads the words about the Jones carrot. At first Mister Jones is puzzled. Then he turns around and notices the blackboard.Mister Jones stands perfectly still, bent forward a little as he reads. As the teacher reads one guilty boy shakes a little in his seat. The teacher reaches for the blackboard duster and he rubs out the picture and the words. Mister Jones turns to face Fourth Class. ‘Class’, he says, ‘Today we’ll start to learn long multiplication.’
One day Mister Jones doesn’t come to school. For an hour or so we have no teacher. This seems like a good time to explore Mr Jones’ desk. I open his drawer and see a number of pens and I take one. It’s pretty special, a Parker pen. Late in the morning a substitute teacher arrives. He says, ‘Mister Jones won’t be in today. His wife has just had a baby, a girl.’ During the day I try out my new pen. The next day Mr Jones returns. He tells us his new baby is called Amelia. I like the music in the name. I decide her full name is Amelia Bodelia Jones. Mister Jones wanders around the classroom. He stops at my desk and he says, ‘Nice pen you have there, Howard’.’Yes, Mister Jones’.’Where did you get it?”My father gave it to me, Mister Jones.”Did he, Howard? That’s nice. Do you mind if I look at your pen, Howard?’I don’t want Mister Jones to look at the pen. He lifts it up, studies it for a moment: ‘It’s a Parker pen, Howard. Pretty special. Oh look, someone’s engraved names onto it.’ Mister Jones shows me the engraved names: Noel Henry Jones. He asks me, ‘Did your father have those names engraved on the pen for you, Howard?’ I have no answer. Noel Henry Jones walks away, with the pretty special Parker pen in his hand. He does not punish the Parker pen pincher. He does not tell my father.
One day Mister Jones teaches us about the ancient Israelites who live in the land of Canaan. He pronounces the name Cay’nan. I know that’s incorrect. It should be pronounced Cah-nah-ahn. I know that because it’s a Hebrew word. I read it aloud in Hebrew every morning when I recite my prayers, and that’s how it’s pronounced in Hebrew. I share my wisdom with my teacher. ‘That’s not how you say it, Mister Jones: it’s Cah-nah-ahn.”No, Howard, it’s Cay’nan. I correct Mister Jones once more.
‘If you say so, Howard.’ That evening I report Mister Jones’ mistake to my mother. Mum looks up Canaan in her Oxford Dictionary. ‘No darling, Mister Jones is quite correct. In English it’s pronounced Cay’nan. You should be gracious and apologise for correcting him.”What does gracious mean, Mum?’Mum explains. Next morning I recite my prayers and I pronounce the name Cah-nah-ahn. And when I go to Mister Jones’ class I am not gracious.
“So, Toby, now, all these years later, I’d like to be gracious. More than that, I’d like Noel Henry Jones to know I remember him. I’d like him to know I remember his kindness and his gentleness.””Saba , have you contacted him? ‘I’ve tried, Toby. I rang the Leeton Public School and asked for the Headmistress. I told her the story and requested the contact information of my old teacher. But the school held no records. I rang the Leeton District Hospital and spoke to the Medical Records Librarian. I told her the story. She said, ‘Mister Jones? He taught me in Fourth Class, back in 1980. He retired the next year.’ I told her how a baby girl was born in 1955 to a Missus and Mister Jones. ‘They called her Amelia Bodelia Jones’, I said.The librarian checked her records. ‘No luck’, she said.
“Finally, Toby, I’ve decided to ask the Internet.”’You can’t ask the Internet a question, Saba. You have to use a search engine.””What’s that, Toby?””Google is a search engine. Firefox is one. Safari is another.””I don’t think my computer has a Google, darling.””I’ll show you Saba.”Toby showed me. I googled ”Noel Henry Jones” and I found a jam manufacturer. I googled ”N.H. Jones, school teacher”, and I found a Latin teacher in Portland, Oregon. He was born in 1991. I remembered Mr Jones played the drums in the Leeton Drum, Pipe and Fife Band. I googled, ”Noel Henry Jones, drummer”. Google showed me the picture of a Rastafarian in Jamaica, who played the drums. He looked about thirty. He had too much hair and too few years to be my old teacher.
“Toby, I am an old man, seeking grace. As a last resort I’m asking my friends on my blog. Perhaps a reader might happen to know the whereabouts of my old teacher. Perhaps someone can tell me whether he is conscious and taking nutrition.
Anyone with any knowledge is asked to please respond in this blog, or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org
My friend wrote from the sunshine state. How are you doing in the pariah state? When it’s the caller from the electricity company asking how I am, I know she is not interested, so I answer simply and briefly, I’m dying. But when a friend asks I pause to think. He’s asking because he cares. How am I doing? In general I look about me for clues. How are my loved ones? If they are suffering, I know it before enquiring. I know it bodily. My waking thoughts and my restless dreams ache with loving futility.
Well, friend in the sunshine, my firstborn is about to undergo major surgery. The surgery will disable her for a couple of months. She’ll deal with pain whenever she moves her shoulder girdle. Merely to brush her teeth will hurt intolerably. Do you wish to know more? She won’t be able to care for her children. A sole breadwinner, she’ll be unable to win her bread. How’s she doing through it all? She’s dealing with thoughts of disfigurement. She’s alarmed by stories of unbearable pain. But she reminds us, ‘I’ve got the cancer gene, but this surgery is not cancer; it prevents cancer.’
My other children? Number two child has been locked down since February. He’s working from home and he’s loving his household of women, who range down in age from his wife, to his newest, aged four months. He lives in the joy of watching his offspring bloom, and he chafes that he cannot share his loved ones. He’s the bridge between generations. He wants to share his little ones with his elders. He grieves for deprived grandparents, for a great grandmother in her extreme age (‘How many years has Nana left to enjoy, to know her little ones?’); for his siblings too. He knows his little ones are deprived. He’s a bridge and a virus has closed the bridge.
Number three lives in Sydney. Six months have passed since she last saw or touched a parent or a sibling. Six months in the life of a person permanently in exile from family. During those months she’s been diagnosed with cancer, undergone surgery, been cured. In a few weeks she’ll undergo the same cancer-preventing surgery as the firstborn.She subsists with a dozen face time calls a day, but the loving flesh, the warmth of presence, the sharing and the feeding (we celebrate her as a baker and a chef), these she aches for. And as we plan and we cancel plans, and we plan again, the novel virus comes between us. In short she suffers minor cruelties daily; she’ll suffer major surgical cruelties shortly and, God willing, she too will be saved from the genetic cancers that haunt our womenfolk. Overall, good friend, too much detail? I apologise. Our children are brave and loving and they fret for their parents. For us. Golly! Perhaps that was your question. Perhaps you really asked, How are YOU doing? Once again I look about me. I see my wife, a Jewish mother responding to threat by overcatering. Between working at home and trouncing me at Scrabble, and caring for her mother, she overfeeds me and she cooks and packs endless meals for loved ones all about. I feel cared for and loved. I feel safe.
But how am I? In myself? By temperament I tend to be cheerful, optimistic, sometimes vacuously so. But nowadays periods of gloom descend, circumambient fear visits me. My work sustains me with a rewarding sensation of being useful. I enjoy the glow of self-worth. I run a lot and I purge fear and gloom. And I drink plenty of strong coffee which transforms me into a cheery genius.It feels absurd to pity myself in a time when so many suffer so much worse. But if – as the Talmud asks – among the cedars the firestorm falls, what can avail the mosses of the wall? If happy howard is downcast, how much more suffer the cheerless many?