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)
In the early years of my life I dwelled in a paradise called Leeton. Leeton is a small country town in south-west New South Wales, designed by Walter Burley Griffin. Irrigation and imagination provided the infrastructure for small boys to live a life of freedom and adventure. However, quite abruptly, at the age of nine-and-a-half years, I was kidnapped by my parents and transported to a city where I have lived in captivity ever since.
It never occurred to me until recently that this abruption might be a trauma. But ever since I have contrived to escape the city for short intervals, to breathe cleaner air, to look at horizons, to listen to the silence. It is during such an escape that I am writing this. This escape is different from the many which have preceded it; my beloved is here with me.
Together my beloved and I have journeyed around the sun almost fifty-three times, but it is only today that we will visit my hometown together. It was here, in this small town that I spent my seed time. Here the seeds germinated; it is from this soil and this sun that the shoots of my whole life spring. The roots persist and grow and they sprout, ever green. This town, those times haunt me. They haunt my loved ones too, to their puzzlement.
Today, perhaps, my beloved will feel her own enchantment. And perhaps she will not. A small town in the country is, after all, a commonplace thing. You can walk the wide streets and find them empty of sound or movement, unremarkable and untouched by charm. Perhaps the charm lies solelyin memories which I have watered and cherished and improved over a lifetime of years.
What will I show her, my beloved? How to water her imagination?
Of course, we’ll visit the old house. The new owner gave us permission to explore alone, trusting us with his own new love. She’ll see the bathroomwhere, behind a locked door, we played Murder in the Chookhouse. I’ll show her the hallway where my younger brother was circumcised. She’ll see the space where we sat in the Succah and celebrated Tabernacles. On the front doorpost we might find the scars of Dad’s mezuzah. I’ll show her the odd, circular window high in the wall of Dad’s old consulting room. That’s how the light got in.
But the obvious landmarks in town, such as the school, the kindergarten, the hospital, the olive oil factory that Dad built, do not call to me as loudly as certain unexpected sites. Will we visit the railway bridge under which we chose to play, drawn by the special allure of the forbidden? Here we’d come into the domain of the locomotive, hot and blackand noisy, the very embodiment of implacable power. On one occasion we were playing under the bridge as the train entered, with its noise and its smoke. Too thrilled even for terror, we spent perhaps thirty unforgettable seconds in intimate relation to the monster, amazed dumb. I’ve never spoken of this escapade. My beloved will learn of it before you who read this.
Before we sight Leeton, we’ll pass Wamoon, where I’ll stop and we’ll walk across the bridge over the fatal canal. What will she see, what will she feel, this person who knows me so deeply and so long?
I’ll take her into the great park across the street from the old house. I’ll show her where the man lounging on a picnic rug with his girlfriend and a bottle of beer accepted my challenge to wrestle, one slow Shabbat afternoon. Here he pulled down my shorts. I’ll show her the Police Station just around the corner, where, a few days later, I went to report that strange event. Sergeant Stewart walked me to the spot and bid me look around. He asked, ‘Can you see the man you wrestled with?’ I could not, but to oblige the sergeant I pointed to a man at random. Sergeant Stewart observed: ‘Making a false accusation is a serious matter, Howard.’ The officer enlarged my vocabulary.
I’d like the two of us to climb the high boundary wall of Number Two Jarrah Street and peer over into the odd, kite-shaped backyard of my first friend’s home. That home was as much a refuge and a place of love for me as my own home, twenty yards distant. Through one rare day of soaking rain, that friend and I played in a room filled with enormous cardboard cartons, large enough to walk in. When, years later, that house was stolen and became a pizza shop I knew the meaning of sacrilege.
On the morning of our departure in 1955, my friend’s mother stood on her front step and took me and my elder brother into her arms and embracedus. She held us there and she delivered her benediction: You two boys have the duty to become the finest Jewish gentlemen ever – because of what your parents are giving up for you.
My parents? Did they suffer their own trauma? Did this commandment from our gentile friend shape my life?
Perhaps such memories are too strong for others to feel or know. Perhaps, in time, they can become malignant. Perhaps, on the other hand, I need to share them, to lay them bare to new eyes, to exorcise a haunting from the life I share with my beloved.
My beloved came, admired, and fell, quite charmed.
I’ve known Goldenbergs for over one hundred years.
The couple from Palestine, they were the first. He was Joe and she Millie. He called her Mil.
Joe was restless, a striver, full of energy and ideas. He was a shouter. Millie would say timidly, I’m not deaf Joe. Later in her life Millie became deaf. Perhaps that was her defense.
They must have been young when they married. Their first son was born in 1910, when Millie was just 21 and Joe slightly younger.
Was that firstborn conceived on me? I don’t recall. They had me built to order, me, together with a companion dressing table, two bedside tables and a swing mirror. There was a tall wardrobe too. All of us pieces were french-polished and elegant. We were expensive, craftsman built, well beyond the means of young immigrant battlers. In the dim bedroom of that dark house, we would have shone. Our lustre, our sheen would have declared to the world, these Goldenbergs, they’ve arrived.
How could Joe possibly afford us? The only way I can imagine would be a big win at the trots. Joe had trotters, I recall. I heard Joe confide to his first son, Myer, something that made me think. It was only a snatch of conversation, mind. I could be wrong. Joe told his son how he instructed the trainer on the eve of a race in which his trotter was the favourite, ‘not to wear the horse out’. Perhaps Joe planned for his own trotter to lose – against the odds. Perhaps he bet against his own horse and won big. Who knows?
In any event, I arrived at that big house at Number 6 Goathlands Street, I and the entire suite. I do recall Joe testing me for structural strength. In case his weight might not have been a severe enough test, Joe lay down together with Millie. That was early summer, I remember. In August the second baby, Abraham, arrived. Everyone loved Abe. Of the three Goldenberg sons, I knew Abe best because he never really left home. I mean long after he grew up and married Clara, he came back to that house, every day, to see his parents. I suspect he came back to bring some comfort to his mother, some softness. Joe was out in the world, Millie at home. Joe would come back home, full of the tensions of the day, he’d shout at Millie. Sometimes I’d hear her cry.
But they weren’t always like that. They had their better times, particularly on a Friday night. Those happier times bore fruit. The third son, Phil, was the last fruit of Millie and Joe. I know: I was there at his conception.
As Millie and Joe aged and as the boys grew up and left home, the big house at Number Six became quieter. The big bedroom where I’d reigned took on the air of a secret place, not frequented at daytime. Grandchildren arrived and explored and penetrated the gloom. Chirping as they approached, they’d enter and fall silent and sneak away. Perhaps Joe had roared at them. I don’t know, I couldn’t say. I do remember Myer’s second son entering one day. He opened the door, peered around and tiptoed into the room. Shafts of sunlight penetrated the gloom, heightening somehow the darkness of the wood, the sense of dusk at noon. He stopped, that skinny little kid, struck by the atmosphere. Was it the unnatural dark that frightened him? Or was it fear of his grandfather? I don’t know. Within seconds he was gone and we of the bedroom suite were alone with our secrets.
Years passed, decades. The three sons married and moved out. Late one night the telephone rang. The telephone was a daylight instrument in those days. A call at night was alarming. Joe answered: Hello! Hello! No! No… I’ll tell Millie.
I don’t know what Joe told his wife. I heard her wailing, saying repeatedly, I wanted to go before her, I should have gone first…
The big house watched Millie and Joe pass into old age. Joe smoked his daily sixty cigarettes and bloomed, while Millie withered from the inside. I thought at the time she was too timid to thrive. Perhaps she was too intimidated to live. Doctors said later that Millie died because her APC tablets destroyed her kidneys. But that amounts to the same thing; Millie needed all those painkillers for the headaches that life caused.
One day the empty old house filled with people. Some arrived early in the morning, big men, hairy, some with black beards, some grey, some white. Lots of sidelocks, big black hats. Joe and the boys – Myer and Abe and Phil – sat on low chairs every morning for about a week. I heard the beards chanting in a language that wasn’t English. Millie was not there. In the afternoon and in the evening the house filled to overflowing, the beards, women in another room, men whom the boys went to school with, even to kindergarten, faces from the early days, the days when Joe and Millie and her large family all lived in North Carlton. Days of richness without money, Abe said.
So many people, I heard crying, laughing, every day for a week. Then they all went home. The house was empty. Joe never slept on me again. He moved to the single bedroom, down the hall. I’d hear him crying in the night.
Then Myer’s second son started coming, Thursdays I think it was. He’d arrive after school and he’d stay the night. They’d sit in front of the TV, the old man and the boy, just the two of them. They watched until the close of transmission, around 10.30. The boy would go upstairs then ‘to study’ he said. And Joe would shuffle around, delaying his own bedtime.
It was good to feel life stirring, hear voices echoing in those dark rooms. I heard him tell the boy how he left school in the third grade to help support the family. We were poor in the old country. When there wasn’t enough food, my father’s new wife would feed her children first. The rest of us would go hungry. I went to work in the Turkish Post Office. The postmaster trusted me. One night I came home with the key to the Post Office. I wore only shorts. The key was big and heavy, made of bronze. I tucked it into my shorts but you could still see it. My father saw it and felt terrified. If anything went missing at the Post Office I’d be blamed and Father would pay. He sent me back with the key. He never let me go back. That’s when I started my own business. I became a watermelon seller. I sold melons to fishermen. I’d swim out into the sea, floating melons before me. Other boys did the same, but I made sure I swam out furthest. I’d be the first melon boy the fishermen would see as they sailed back to Jaffa at the end of the day. I knew they’d be thirsty and they’d pay.
Joe would lament to the boy about Millie. He’d recall old times, their younger days together, Millie’s beauty and allure. She had full, firm breasts…This left the boy lost for a response. I imagine he blushed.
Joe was liberal with his criticisms. He’d tell the boy, It’s a good thing your father is a doctor. He’d be useless at anything else…Then, He’s your father, I shouldn’t criticise him…but he’s my son so I have the right! He’s got no head for business…
There came a morning without words, without any sound or movement. Later there was the sound of a key in the lock. I heard Abe’s voice, Father! Father! There was no answer. I heard fast movements, doors opening, slamming, then Abe’s voice, Father! Father! Speak to me! Joe’s voice never replied. Not long after Myer’s voice spoke: He’s had a stroke, Abe. I’ll call an ambulance.
Silence followed. Nothing was heard for six weeks, then the house filled. I heard voices in all accents, old people, young, children. Crying, praying, chanting, laughing, people talking over each other, people from many places, from many times. People came and came. The front door never closed from early morning to after dark. Then after seven days silence fell.
I left the old house in a van. Together with the stately swing mirror, the bedside tables, the big, big wardrobe and the dressing table, I was taken to the small flat where Myer’s second son lived with his new wife. I was sixty years in the house of Millie and Joe Goldenberg.
Now begins my the next family era. There’s a new Goldenberg couple. I’ll spend the next half century under Annette and Howard. I’ll tell you some of their secrets presently…
Tonight I went to yoga as I have done just about every week since the start of the pandemic. When I say I went to yoga, on some of the occasions this was literally true: I’d run to the studio and I’d jog back – four kilometres or so each way. Frequently, however, when the germ shut the studio, I joined the class by zoom. ‘I went’ consisted simply, of turning the lights down and moving to the Persian rug on the floor. The rug feels a bit rugged (is that the origin of the term?) but it’s tolerable. I don’t imagine the Yogis of old purchased their mats from Lulu Lemon. They probably lay themselves down on bare boards or on a rug of knotted yarn like mine.
I lay down tonight and tuned into zoom on my phone. (No, I don’t have an i-pad. I don’t suppose the ancient Yogis did either.) I felt a frisson of pleasure at the the hopeful thought that tonight’s class, conducted on the eve of freedom, would be the last of enforced separation
I paid attention to the teacher. She instructed me to attend to the breath. I breathed and I attended. I like this teacher. I feel I know her well. She teaches yoga in a variety of modes, but she and I both know Yin suits me best, with its long, slow poses, its gradual transitions. She speaks: ‘Some of you will have rushed from your day’s work to this class. You might be unready immediately for stillness, so we’ll move into stillness, we’ll arrive at the unmoving state by movement, by active movement that will slow; and as we slow we’ll have the opportunity to attend to the slowing breath.
The teacher models the pose and the class follows. I gaze at my little screen. I remove my reading glasses for a clearer view. The teacher has fair curling hair with curls at the end of curls. Her skin glows peaches against her black sweater. I enjoy the sight of her.
I adopt the pose and close my eyes. My eyes remain closed through most of the following 50 minutes or so, even as, every few minutes, I move into the next pose as instructed.
Lying thus, with the senses turned inward, only the sense of hearing, of vibration, operates within my awareness. I become aware of a rhythmic percussion, a soft, recurring ‘boom’. If it’s a sound, it’s a sound too soft to actually hear. I feel this sound: boom, boom, boom, coming to me through the floorboards, eighty booms to the minute by my rough-reckoning.
The sound, the experience bears a sense of the long-known, the familiar. Eventually my ears that have worn a stethoscope for almost sixty years, recognise the soft boom, boom, boom:It’s heartbeat that I hear. This is a puzzle that solves itself when I open my mind’s eye. The sight that I ‘see’ is of my teacher, herself reclining on a mat, on a floor. Next to her is her mic through which she gives instruction. The mic picks up vibration through her floorboards and transmits the sound of the beating of her heart. I know it’s not the sound of the beating of my own heart; mine beats at forty beats per minute. I smile a smile of remembering. I remember that heartbeat. I used to listen to the beating of my daughter’s heart through the wall of her mother’s belly. I heard her heart before her mother did. Her heart beat in the womb at 120-160 beats per minute, twice the rate (in those days), of my own. It was the first way I knew her. It cued my love of her. Yes, my yoga teacher is my daughter, she of the peachy face, she of the yellow curls. I’m allowed to enjoy looking at her.
Tonight, on the eve of freedom, I hear my child’s heart, the working of her living body agitating the molecules inside the semicircular canals of my inner ear. Her living body moves my senses and once again cues love.
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.