Death Visits

Death visited last week, snatching away a lady whom we’d expected would recover. She was 87 years of age, a little disorganised in her brain, not vigorous but not too ill. We admitted her to hospital in the morning for observation and nursing care. Her elder sister had dementia too. She visited in the afternoon, escorted by her carer, a slim Asian woman.
 
 
At 3.00pm our patient enjoyed her afternoon tea. At four she took a nap. While asleep she stopped breathing. Big sister called us. Her cardiogram showed a heart attack. Her end of life instructions read: NO CPR. NO RESUSCITATION. She died. I left the dead concealed behind curtains and approached the living. I leaned and spoke clearly: ‘Your sister has just died in her sleep.’ It was the carer who fell onto the shoulder of her client, crying. The elder sister comforted her: ‘Don’t be upset. You get used to that.’ The calm features of the Asian woman twisted in grief, her face suffused. What silent sorrow of her own had been roughly torn open?
 
 
 
Meanwhile death had been stalking another two of my patients for days. I could hear his tread closing on them, unhurried, inexorable. For the younger of the two, death – release from her cancer – could not come soon enough. She begged, 'Let me die. Help me to die.' We gave her all we had, our promises of kindness, the usual feeble half-answers. She lapsed into a dull quiet, defeated by our timorousness.
 
 
The elder patient was far from ready. She had lived through the Second War in Europe, had seen much. Late at night she grasped my hand, breathlessly contriving a voice that filtered feebly through her oxygen mask. She pulled me close: ‘What will happen to me?’
I looked at her aged face, searching her: ‘Are you afraid?’
‘Yes.’
‘What are you afraid of?’
’Dying.’ She looked hard into my face.
‘You don’t need to feel afraid. When the time comes you will fall sleep. You will not suffer. You will sleep and you will not wake up. We won’t let you suffer.’
The old lady brought my hand to her chest and gripped it hard, pulling me closer. We breathed together in the darkness. No voice. Her smile said her thanks.
 
 
I went to my quarters and fell fast into sleep.  My phone rang. When the screen read ‘Unknown Caller’, I knew it would be the hospital calling. Surmise told me death had arrived for one or other of my friends. No, not yet. A third patient, more peremptory, had summonsed death by swallowing two weeks’ medications. With one hundred and forty tablets inside her she dictated to the nurse the disposition of her possessions: ‘Give my good overcoat to this one. Give the money that’s coming to me to that one.’ 
 
 
Sleep was slow to return. I lay and calculated the effects of twenty-eight strong blood pressure tablets, and an overdose of aspirin. I must have slept, for the ringing of my phone disturbed me. ‘Unknown Caller’ again. No, no-one had died. A child had a red throat.
 
 
Over the following hours of darkness ‘Unknown Caller’ rang six times. Asthma, wet lungs, fever. No death. At dawn the call hauled me from deep sleep: ‘Come now! Cardiac arrest!’ A large inert body, a small nurse pushing down hard, again and again and again. A flickering trace on the cardiac monitor, a chain of us thumping an unwilling heart, injections of adrenaline, a failed electric shock. No pulse at the wrist. I called a pause, the hopeful triangles on the monitor fell into a flat line. No breaths, no heartbeat. The husband of the inert figure stood, watching, his hand on his mouth. We tried again.
 
 
After a time I called a second halt. I listened for a heartbeat. I listened and watched for breathing. I shone a torch into pupils and found them wide with death. I walked across the room to the husband and said, ‘Your wife has died.’ A massive man, erect, he crumpled into silent weeping. His heaving trunk was enveloped instantly in the embrace of a woman I had not sighted. I spoke into the bereaved man’s free ear, ‘She didn’t suffer. She was unconscious from the instant she fell.’ The embracer’s arm groping blindly, grabbed me, held me hard in the grieving ruck.
 
 
At length I extricated myself. The small nurse from Uganda wiped his eyes. Another nurse said hoarsely, ‘I was at school with the husband.’
After certifying the death and writing my notes I left the hospital. Outside, the chill of an Alice Springs morning felt welcome on my skin. I wandered to a park and attended to my dawn prayers, delayed by a death.

Hanky no Panky

A woman of my acquaintance declared herself ready to acquire a boyfriend. Having emerged from an emotional crash site, having brushed herself down, cheered herself up, adopted mindfulness and become a yogi, the woman confided, ‘I wouldn’t mind having a boyfriend.’ She meant me to understand ‘boy’ as a person in her own, non-juvenile age bracket. She comes, as she often reminds me, to a different – younger – generation.
 

 
The woman selected a promising candidate – fellow yogi, terrifically mindful, neither bankrupt nor lumbered with children, not a Trump supporter nor addicted. After the first date she favoured me with a report: ‘Charming fellow, good company.’ Yes, she’d see him again.
 
 
Following the second encounter I found her beaming. ‘He’s funny!  And considerate. I like him.’
 
 
The woman saw him on a third occasion. Following this
I heard no report. In due course the woman and I bumped into each other. ‘Well?’ I asked.
 
‘Well what?’
 
‘How are things with Mister Right?’
 
‘What are you talking about?’ A bit frosty. Irritated.
 
‘You know, Mister Funny, Mister Considerate, Mister…’
 
‘Him!  We’re not seeing each other. I’m over him.’
(That’s how she talks. That’s how Generation Alphabet talks.)
 
 
Nonplussed, I asked, was the matter settled, final? It was, utterly. Finally. Beyond redemption.
 
 
‘What happened?’
 
‘Nothing happened. He’s repulsive.’
 
‘Why?‘ I asked: ‘Bad breath?’
 
‘No. Something he did.’
 
‘What?’
 
‘Blew his nose.’
 
‘What’s do you prefer? Nosepicking?’
 
‘It’s not just that. He uses a hankerchief.’
 
‘What?’
 
‘He reached into his pocket, pulled out this square of folded fabric, buried his nose in it and blew.’
 
‘That’s all?’
 
‘No. After he finished, he folded up that precious bit of rag – some heirloom from his grandfather – and put it into his pocket!’
 
‘What’s the problem. His technique seems sound. Copy book, in fact. What would you suggest?’
 
 ‘A tissue.’ 'Since when did snot become so important that you need to carry a piece of material around just in case you need to blow your nose? Do you carry toilet paper in your pocket just in case you need to shit? And if you did, would you use it and then put it back in your pocket?'
 
 
This woman is not a doctor. She does not interest herself in the absorbing topic of how macrophages make their way to pathogens, how they engulf, destroy and wash them away. For her, it is not immune competence that matters, but style. Aesthetics. As a result the woman has no time for snot. I offered to enlighten her about the secret life of the albumen-born macrophage. ‘It’s not glamorous, but it is marvelous,’ I begin. She turned her face to me, sneering. From a person of her non-judging, all-accepting, mindful, universe-loving, recently renovated nature, that expression was alarming. And enlightening.
 
 
I persisted: ‘You know, we all make mucus. The membranes that line our hollow organs are named after it. That’s why they’re called ‘‘mucous membranes.’’ Their cells secrete a smoothing film of pearly fluid to keep things moving. Your nose does it, your sinuses, your eustachian tubes, your lungs, your bowel. And if you’ll forgive the expression, so too does your vagina. Snot makes the world go round.’
 
‘Not my world.’
 
“You’d be shot without snot.’
 
 ‘If you say so. I say, if you’ve got it, blow it and stow it, don’t store it.’
 
‘So, blowing your nose on a tissue is more elegant? Every tissue user knows the moist warm feeling of snot overflow drowning the tissue. Is that glamorous enough for you? Hygienic enough?’
 
‘Look, don’t give me your science. I just don’t want to be close to a man who keeps a clothful of old germs, and cold slime and green crusts in his pocket.’
 
The voice had climbed a few octaves and grown emphatic. Sober discourse and factual analysis were not what my friend was after. Aesthetics were the thing. And, as in all matters of taste, consistency is not the prize. It’s the vibe. I did not invite my friend to consider the content of the nation’s gussets, where innocent slime thickens and dries, its macrophages dying content with a job well done.
 
 
Troubled by thoughts of the man’s unfair dismissal, I appealed to proportionality, an element of justice; ‘So you deprive a person – a good person by your own description – of the sunshine of your company simply for possession of flannel and mucus?’
 
‘Certainly. I could respect him, but inwardly I’d shudder. I could never be intimate with someone like that.’

'It's also a symbol of his mindset. Who of my generation carries a hanky? Deep down he is obviously conservative, boring and predictable. The hanky says a lot about him as a person. If lunch hadn't been spicy I may not have found out about the hanky until it was too late.'
 
‘What if he treated you with tenderness and respect?’
 
‘Tenderness and respect? That’s exactly how he treats his snot. Reaches into his pocket, pulls out his damask, which he’s folded and refolded into a fussy little square, unfolds it, takes a big breath and blows. You look away, trying not to vomit. You hear the flow. He sneaks a little sideways peek at his ejaculate, tries to hide his satisfaction, folds up the hanky and pops it into his pocket.’
 
‘So?’
 
‘So, if he carries a hanky – no hanky panky!’
 

Mother’s One Hundredth Birthday Party 

I’ll invite my brother and his family and Mum’s nephews and nieces, her great-nephews and great-nieces, and my children and their children, as well as some of my friends who were also Mum’s friends. But Aly Ong won’t be there. He’ll be back on the plantation in Malaya. My sister Margot won’t be with us; she lives in New York so she’s excused. It was all Margot’s idea, really, this idea of a family party. She’s inviting her kids from New Rochelle and Philadelphia and Boston and all their children and they’ll tell stories and eat pavlova in Margot’s pavilion by the Hudson. And we in Melbourne will feast and reminisce by the Yarra. Well, within cooee of that river.
 
 
In their generation Mum and her younger sister Doreen were masters of the pavlova, grandmasters really. The meringue edge was firm, the interior light and mallow, the whole edifice of air stupendously high. When Dennis ran his restaurant he turned to Mum to bake pavlovas which he’d serve in massive slices topped with whipped cream and passionfruit and strawberries …. and lust. Now the mantle has passed to Margot.
 
 
Will it spoil the party that Mum won’t be coming? Well, it would be lovely if she were to attend, but it’s big ask. Mum will be there, though. She never really left.
 
 
(Let me tell you about Mum and Aly Ong. Back in the ’sixties Aly came to Melbourne under the Colombo Scheme, a government initiative whereby Australia would educate Asian students and send them back home to become leaders in their own, developing countries. Aly studied Accounting with my brother Dennis and the two were close friends. That meant Aly became an habitue at number 15 Atkinson Street, Oakleigh, eating pavlova and Mum’s form of fried rice that must have made him laugh. But Aly was too polite to laugh.
 
Aly was shy. Left to himself he’d never have raised the courage to ask Mum for the loan of her car. But having Dennis as a friend meant you were not left to yourself. ‘Mum, Aly needs to borrow your car tonight. He’s got a date.’
Aly blushed: ‘Oh, no Mrs Goldenberg, I really don’t need…’
‘Of course you can use the car Aly. With pleasure.’
So Aly took the car.
 
He returned a few hours later, looking shaken. I asked him what was wrong. He shook his head, saying nothing. I saw tears forming. ‘I must speak to Mrs Goldenberg, was all I could get out of him. Mum was in bed upstairs, in one or other of her various states of partial consciousness. I told Mum Aly needed to see her. He was in some distress.
 
 
Mum descended: ‘Hello Aly darling. Did you have a nice time?’
‘Mrs Goldenberg, something terrible has happened. I crashed your car!’
‘Oh, Aly, are you hurt?’
‘No, Mrs Goldenberg, but the car…’
‘Are you sure you’re alright, Aly? And your friend? Is she alright?’
‘’Yes, thank you Mrs Goldenberg, quite sure. But I’ve smashed your car.’
Mum’s car was new, brand new. It was a Holden Premier, top of the range, with iridescent green duco and beautiful tan leather seats, Holden’s first foray into luxury.
‘Oh, never mind about the car, Aly. Sit down and have a cup of tea and some pavlova.’)
 
 
Mum was born on June 8, 1917, and she did not have to wait very long to become acquainted with death. Her father died when she was twelve and she lost her mother three years later. Falling happily into the care of Gar, their miraculously liberated and liberating grandmother, the girls thrived. After her parents died Mum accepted the reality of death. On visits to Melbourne Mum would drive us past the Brighton Cemetery and remark, ‘Mummy and daddy are in there.’ It took me a while to work out what and who was ‘in there’, and why. It was disorienting to hear ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’, words I attached to living, loving, parents, indispensable supports of my being. But Mum’s tone was blithe. Death held no fears for her. Not personally, not for herself.
 
 
But for Doreen, Mum trembled. In her middle and later life Aunty Doreen fell sick often and fell hard. Once or twice I found Mum in tears: ‘I’ve told Dor I have to peg out first.’ In the event Aunty Doreen did Peg out before Mum, dying in her late eighties of heart disease that exhausted her will to live on. Then Dad died, and my younger brother Barry said, ‘Don’t you go getting any fancy ideas, Mum.’ Only two years later Dennis died, Mum’s firstborn and first loved. Mum said, ‘I’ve always known death is part of life.’ And I said, ‘Mum, don’t think you’re allowed to die.’
‘I’ll do my best not to, darling. I’ve never died yet.’
 
 
One week before her ninety-second birthday Mum’s best was no longer sufficient. She won’t be at her one hundredth birthday party, but we will excuse her dying. She can be forgiven one lapse.
 

Sadie

The baby slid into our lives one day earlier this month. I can’t recall exactly which particular day, but the day was particular for the sliding.

Doctors inspect, find all parts present and correct, a girl. Parents check: not simply present and correct, but perfect, their girl child. 

Grandparents arrive, enter the dimmed room, quieting exultation. They sight the child, suppressing gasps of joy. 

They behold, astonished by smallness, their newest beloved. Already, immediately beloved.  

Lips a circlet of pink, the baby in stillness. Parents drained – but for now – electric with joy, unaware of their deepening sleep deficit, aware only of baby, baby, baby, miracle, fact, miracle.  

What is this love that bursts into being? This finer, purer love, this love that seeks nothing of the child, this love that demands nothing beyond that she be? This love, this agape? The grandparents are certainly agape. At this child, this miracle, fact, miracle.

In the quiet and stillness, in this room, tenderness has her domain. This room contains a new human person who sleeps, whose lips flicker and semaphore mystically. She sleeps and she teaches love.

 

 
 

 

Once Upon a Poem 


Once, when two persons were walking together at day’s end, the elder of the two remarked on the sunset. He spoke and said:

 

the sky is burning

in my mind

 

Once Upon a Story

 

Once, when two were walking on the beach the younger saw a rock that looked like Leviathan and she said:

 

Last night I was here and that rock wasn’t a rock.

Last night I saw it move from the sea. It moved up the beach and it came towards me. It was a whale. It chased me up the sand and I ran and I ran and I didn’t stop running until I got home.

 

Once Upon a Song

 

Once, when two walked together a song drifted towards them. The song had no words. The sounds of the song reached them from somewhere higher or darker or hidden. The sound surrounded them. The flapping of wings, the whoosh of flight, made them think of birds. And the drift and drone, the rise and fall, the start and pause, mad them think of a breathing. Perhaps a person. Perhaps their planet.
Once and Always

 

The poem and the story and the song came and went, went and came, always different, ever the same. The song and the story and the poem bound the younger to the elder and both of them to all who came after and to all who came before.

 

Sometimes the two remembered or wondered or dreamed or knew: the song and the poem and the story had been there before they were, before the sunset, before the rock. Perhaps song, poem and story had brought the sunset and the rock and the flapping wings into being.

 

The two knew they could exist only in a world of story and poem and song.

 

 

 

December Seventh

As I left my house this morning, my hand drifted up, as it often does on my leaving home, to touch the mezuzah on the doorpost. I kissed my fingers, as I often do, but this time quite consciously. I was visited by unexpected thoughts: I hope this house is still here when I return. Will I find my loved ones safe and well this evening?

 

 

Musing, I walked to the tram.

 

 

It’s December seventh today. Indelible date. A baby in my arms, born three months ago, named Aviva for the season. Small, pink, warm, her lips a rosebud. We return from a week in the wilderness, wife, the two older children and the baby, two days ago. Back at home the hot water tap runs cold. And stays cold. We call the plumber, he calls the electrician, he replaces the thermostat.

 

 

December seven I am up first. I go to wash for the dawn prayers; a clanking in the pipes, steam issuing from the hot tap. I think little of it. Back in the bedroom I remove the wedding ring that bears Annette’s inscription: ‘Howard, with love, Annette. I enfold myself in ritual gear and recite sleepy prayers. The family is up now. Annette sits in an armchair, breastfeeding springtime baby, while the three-year old and the five-year old sit and wait for Sesame Street. Kisses goodbye and I am off to work, leaving my wedding ring on the dressing table. The hands on the bedside clock point to 0745. 

 

 

Work is busy, absorbing. Quickly I slip into country doctoring. Families, wives, children, snot, cut legs, bruised feelings, breaking hearts, then a phone call from our neighbour: ‘Howard, I think you’d better come up home. There’s been a small explosion.’ I know the neighbour, an excitable person. There’s no rush. I see a few more patients before a voice says ‘go home’. I do so.

 

 

It’s sunny and pleasant. The warmth beguiles me as I drive up the unmade road that twists and turns on the way to number 43, Deering Street.

 

 

I turn into the steep driveway. Ahead I see the carport, tall, stout, ugly. The carport is empty. To the left I see the brick walls of our home lying flat on the rough grass. Grey oblong bricks, Besser Bricks, they call them, I don’t know why. The wooden house frame hangs drunkenly, the roof sits skew-whiff above the frame. A moment of amazement. Then a warming, a drenching flood of relief. The carport is empty. No-one is home. Annette, the kids, they’re safe. We have lost a house but I have lost nothing.

 

 

In the hours that follow I trace Annette to her sister’s house and tell her. She has to drive, to arrive, to look, to sift through rubble before she understands the import of the excitable neighbour’s ‘small explosion.’ A mother has lost her children’s nest. Our son loses speech for the next six months. One goldfish has lost its life, the second survives in the millimetre of water that covers the floor next to the shattered fishbowl.

 

In the bedroom the bedside table is a shatter of toothpicks. Of my wedding ring, no trace. Ever.

Favourite Books

After he died, my brother Dennis’ lifetime collection of books was set out on tables and benches, in boxes and on shelves at our parents’ house, for family members to choose and keep. Revealed before us was a catalogue of the brilliant and searching mind of my big brother. Biographies, especially political, books on management, art books and book after book on music. And cooking books, books on sailing, on fishing. The study and the joys of a big appetite for life and ideas. Books of all sorts, but not much literature and very little fiction. 

 

Dennis always named his three favourite books as the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes, Kahlil Gibran’s, ‘The Prophet’, and Siddhartha’, by Hermann Hesse. I knew and loved the first of the three, I knew and liked (and mistrusted) the second, and – as for the third – I didn’t know Siddhartha from Hiawatha. 

 

Dennis would read my writings, shaking his head, unhappy with my obliquity and my complexity. ‘Read Siddhartha’, he’d say, ‘And learn the beauty of writing simply.’ Dennis admired narration that was free of ornament and artifice. ‘You make me think too much,’ he said. I felt flattered and confirmed in my path. And I did not take up Siddhartha.

 

‘Ecclesiastes,’ I read religiously, every year, entranced by The Preacher’s philosophic quest, as he tastes and tests every idea and temptation, as he broods and takes up and sets aside every sacred and profane thing. And the rhythms of the text, whether in Hebrew or in English, have always entranced: 

 

To every thing there is a season,

and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to break down, and a time to build up; 
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 
a time to cast away stones,

and a time to gather stones together;

a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to get, and a time to lose;

a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to rend, and a time to sew;

a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.

 

 

Dennis’ birthday falls on November 22. Each year on that day the stated gap between our ages would open up from two years to three. On November 22, 2016, Dennis would have turned seventy-three. But he never reached even threescore years and ten. He died aged sixty-three. Ten years later I pick up Siddhartha and read it, to mark his birthday and to honour the wishes of the older brother who always willed me to be better in the particulars that he selected. I read the work, too, to learn more of my brother’s questing soul.

 

I need to digress here, to my misgivings about ‘The Prophet’. I find it calming, pleasing, gently uplifting. It is as smooth as gravy, as sweet as the dulce de leche upon which my Argentine relatives were weaned. That’s my problem: ‘The Prophet’ lacks grit. You read and you wallow. As an essayist remarks in the New Yorker: ‘In “The Prophet” Gibran (mixed) a warm, smooth, interconfessional soup that was perfect for twentieth-century readers, many of whom longed for the comforts of religion but did not wish to pledge allegiance to any church, let alone to any deity who might have left a record of how he wanted them to behave. It is no surprise that when those two trends—anti-authoritarianism and a nostalgia for sanctity—came together and produced the sixties, “The Prophet” ’s sales climaxed.’

 

 

Raised as we all were, in a strictly Orthodox Jewish family, Dennis chafed against God the father and against our godlike father. He found the courage – indeed the compulsion – to rebel, but he never ceased to feel the pull and the lull of the old-time religion of his early nurture. He tried to relinquish Jewish restriction but the ritual would not let him go. Hence the enduring attraction to him of ‘The Prophet’, with its ‘anti-authoritarianism and its nostalgia for sanctity’.

 

Back to Siddhartha, another huge hit among those who were young adults in the seventies. When a book is so uncritically adored as this I start to feel uneasy. When I take up my newly purchased copy and discover that Paulo Coelho has written the introduction, my unease deepens. For – possibly alone among its millions of readers and adorers – I found the pretentious simplicism of ‘The Alchemist’ alienated me.

 

So you see, these works find me out as cynical.

 

But cynicism falls away as I read Hesse’s account of his searcher for enlightenment. Dennis sought enlightenment with his strong, rational mind. I recognise Dennis as the Buddha’s chastens Siddhartha: ‘You are clever…,’ said the Illustrious One; ‘you know how to speak cleverly, my friend. Be on your guard against too much cleverness.’

I see here Dennis, my too clever brother, the troubled searcher, endlessly testing his traditions, endlessly questing. This is the brother who embraced ‘Ecclesiastes’, in which The Preacher seeks but never finds a truth that satisfies. ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, all is vanity.’ It is an honest quest, brave and lonely. That was my brother Dennis, brave and lonely, longing, as his son remarked at the funeral, ‘to love and to be loved.’

 

But unlike the monk Siddhartha, Dennis did love: most particularly he loved our mother, and he loved me. And I loved him, and I miss him still.