Once, on a cold day in Melbourne

Someone called the Clinic the other day and left this message: ‘Alexa Rosa wanted to speak to the doctor who treated her mother a long time ago. And she wanted to buy your book.’ Did I know an Alexa Rosa? I thought somehow I should. A scene came back to me: a cold winter’s day in Melbourne, a young family in a front room, a sick mother, her worried husband, their adult daughter.

If this truly was my Alexa, then her story was strong and bright in my recall. I could never forget it. It was the winter of 1971. I had a new marriage, a new licence
to practise medicine outside of the hospital and a brother about to marry
in the United Kingdom. In order to raise the fares to the wedding I moonlighted as a radio locum. A radio locum installed a two-way
radio in his car and travelled, like a taxi driver, to wherever the job
called. On this occasion the call came to the Migrant Hostel in Kororoit Creek Road Altona. My bride, an able map reader, sat at my side and navigated.


Kororoit Creek Road in Atona was a long drive from everywhere else. When we arrived and parked in a vast car park, Annette (the bride) repeated the Controller’s directions, “Building 19, apartment 5.” I stepped outside.
Here, at Melbourne’s western edge, you could see the setting sun
disappearing beneath the horizon and the world darkening.

I didn’t feel happy leaving Annette there in the dark. I looked beyond the carpark toward the distant buildings. Would Annette be any safer in that lowering mass? Annette said, “I’ll be alright here. Just go.” Troubled, I went. How would I find building Nineteen where someone needed a doctor, someone who was suffering from something, possibly something serious? Having now reached the first of the buildings I could see my search was hopeless. The buildings were all great bulky cuboids of concrete. All were unli. And the dark was cold. I wandered and looked for numbers. No number nineteen anywhere, no five. I knocked on a door to enquire. The door opened, I asked, Can you direct me to Flat Five? A hand flew to the heart. The head shook: I not English. I sorry.

I felt sorry too. I turned dully away. Of course no English, everyone here newly arrived, everyone indoors, appalled, like me, by the cold. Movement in the shadow on
my left. I hailed the shadow: Excuse me, do you speak English? The head
shook no, while the face smiled a wide yes. The shadow, a young man,
beckoned, and signed me to follow. I followed. He moved swiftly along cement paths, in and out between buildings, along corridors, until abruptly he stopped in his tracks, pointing and nodding furiously. The shadow knocked on a door, turning to me, smiling. Pointing towards the door, the shadow said, English! The door opened and a voice spoke: Good evening. How can I help you?
Did you send for a doctor?
No.
Is this Apartment Five?
No. This is seven.
Is this Building Nineteen?
No but I’ll take you to Number Five..

This was someone not lost in language nor in space. Feeling found, I followed. A building or two or three later, my guide stopped and knocked on a door. I noted a large numeral 5 next to the doorway and felt almost
hopeful. The door opened and a pretty young woman appeared. Behind her stood a man, older than she; behind him a couple of small children, curious and fearful, clutched at the man’s legs and peeked. The young woman saw my
medical bag. She told me her name and said, Come in Doctor. Thank you for coming. My mother is sick.

Mother lay on a couch. She did not look well. Her daughter explained: We arrived just today from Spain. During the flight Mother started to cough and it was hard for her to breathe. Now she has a fever. We didn’t know how to call a doctor. Thank you for coming.

I examined the lady. I thought I heard altered breathing sounds in one
lung. I bent and listened hard. The air struggled into one side of the chest, it rattled and squeaked.This was bronchopneumonia. Ordinarily a hospital matter, this called for X-RAY, possibly intravenous treatment as an inpatient. How would this lady get to hospital? Would Medicare cover a new arrival? Would the ambulance take her? Was there another way?

I straightened and addressed the  man through his adult daughter. Mother is sick. She has an infection in her chest. She needs strong antibiotic medicine, she might need to go into  hospital. If you wish I can start some treatment here, now. And with luck she will improve quickly.

The daughter translated for her father. The two spoke with the mother, the three nodded. They had decided. The daughter spoke. Thank you doctor, yes, we would like you to treat her. Thank you doctor…we don’t want hospital.  I fished out some  penicillin – no, mother is not allergic – and gave the lady a hefty dose by injection. I wrote out a prescription for oral penicillin to commence the next day. 

Leaving detailed instructions for a range of eventualities I prepared to take my troubled leave. I wished the lady well, I wished the whole family good health in Australia. The daughter reached for a purse. How much do we pay you, Doctor? I did not want payment. A doctor who deserted his sick patient didn’t deserve payment. I said something like, There is no charge. To myself I said, You have paid me, you’ve paid off my guilt. The young woman protested, No Doctor, we must pay you. We don’t know who sent you. How did you know we needed you? I didn’t know. Once again I wished them well and I left, my ears burning with blessings I could not accept.

Back in the car, I found Annette unharmed. I said, I couldn’t find my patient. And I told her the story.

***

It might have been six months later when I was called to the Delivery Suite for the birth of a baby. Birth was not expected for some weeks. Labour was well advanced when they called me and birth was imminent. I needed the mother to help. ‘Push, hard, push! The mother didn’t speak English. A masked figure at her side coached her, translating my words: Big, long push. Push….The mother pushed, her face turning deep red, the veins standing out on her forehead. Stop pushing now! Don’t push! Breathe, breathe…The mother breathed and with each breath the head advanced. The mother breathed her baby into this life, accompanied by fluids, red and clear and mucoid, and followed by the placenta and cries from the baby and crying from the mother. I counted fingers and toes and other parts and placed the baby on the mother’s chest and wished the new family joy. I pulled off my mask and thanked the person whose interpreting had made the birth smoother. I extended a hand, My name’s Howard. We have met, she said, removing her mask. I am Alexa.

***

Alexa explained she had come to visit her friend, now a new mother, in her ward. Abruptly, labour started and accelerated. The hospital discovered there was no-one to interpret for a Spanish speaker so Alexa volunteered. We chatted. She told me her own mother was well, recovery had gone smoothly. She, Alexa, was working as a wardsperson in this hospital. She told me she hoped to study nursing.

I said, I don’t know if you realised I had been called by an entirely different person on the day you arrived from Spain. I never found that person. I never discovered how I fund your Mum. I know, said Alexa. God sent you.

A few weeks later my father told me a new family had started seeing him as their local doctor. They’re from Spain, he said. They tell me you treated the mother for pneumonia.

***

Forty-nine years passed. Locked down, I’m doing Telehealth from home. A message arrived for me, asking me to contact an Alexa whom I had know years before. I rang the number. Alexa speaking, said a voice. The voice sounded Aussie. I told Alexa who I was. She asked, Do you remember us? If you arrived from Spain in 1971, then yes I do. How could I forget? We did. It was 1971. I guess you were about nineteen then. Exactly. So you’re sixty-eight now? Yes. And I did do nursing. I’m still nursing. We talked for a while. Mum is still alive. She’s ninety-three now. Dad only died last year. Do you remember what you said when you left us that night? What did I say? You said, I wish you health and happiness in this country. You blessed us and your words came true. I reminded Alexa of her words to me in the Delivery suite. You said, ‘God sent you.’ That’s right. God did send you. It’s the only explanation. That was the night I became a believer. I found God in the Hostel.

***

In the few days that have passed since Alexa opened the closed door on half a century, I’ve felt excitement and perturbation. I’m excited that Alexa and I will ‘meet’ again, that I’ll ‘see’ my pneumonia patient again, spry and vital; that I’ll meet the children and their father, that I’ll learn their stories. At the same time, some different, powerful feeling operates and unsettles me. It’s the thought of the power of a word, the reverberation of a small act. Alexa sees the hand of the Divine. Does that make me somehow an instrument in a plan? I cannot begin to recognise anything so lofty. I dismiss any idea of some special mission I might have; I find that sort of belief a burden, an embarrassment; it makes me want to run away.

But I’ve been moved to tears thinking how a simple act might lodge in memory, might germinate as a seed, might influence a life; that somehow, quite without intent or thought or awareness, a simple act could take root, help, lift, encourage, perhaps inspire. That thought brings with it a glow, the sense I have done as I know my father did before me – many times – some act of unwitting goodness that lived on afterwards. I’ve felt overcome with a feeling of blessing, perhaps of being a small link in a long chain that might continue on, in lives undreamed…

Mercedes, aged 92 years
Alexa and son

The Hero

My father was a doctor. In his small town where we lived he was adored. As a boy I saw Dad as a hero, standing against illness, repairing broken bodies, relieving suffering. One morning a grownup came to the front door, his hand wrapped in a bloody towel. His horse had bit his hand. I looked up and I saw the blood dripping. I called Dad, who took the man into the Surgery and closed the door. After a while the man walked out, his hand in a spotless white bandage. Dad had repaired him. Dad, the hero.
Fourteen years later I entered the Oratory Competition at my city school. I spoke about doctors and I called them ‘society’s noblest sons.’ My father read my speech and said, ‘Darling, I’m afraid that’s not true. Doctors aren’t so noble.’
I had been reading ‘The Story of San Michele’, the memoir of a Swedish doctor who worked in fin de siecle France. A cholera outbreak in Naples saw the young doctor leave the safety of Paris to work among the Naples poor. In the plague hospital the doctor worked alongside a nurse. The nurse was young, beautiful, a nun. With death all about them, the two young people felt the call of their vital flesh. I read the old doctor’s account, modest, intense and arousing. I saw the two walking with eyes open, day after day, into the valley of death. How could I not see them as heroes? I did not alter those words. My speech convinced the judges and I won the contest.
Today the plague rages about us. At the outset, before contagion struck down the many, the principal of my clinic offered to release from duty any clinician who feared catching the virus. I felt shocked. We had worked through AIDS, when any pinprick might mean death. (I did in fact suffer a needlestick injury at the hands of one of my infected patients.) We had worked though the Swine Flu and through SARS. That was our job, our calling. How could I leave and sit it out at home?
Today I sit at home. I have closed the door, closed myself and my wife in, closed the world out. I feel like Noah might have, as, closed in his Ark, he saw the waters rise upon those locked out.
Meanwhile my younger colleagues work on. They all have spouses, aged parents, small children, whom they might infect. With eyes open they work on.
Friends and relatives send me emails, congratulating me, thanking me, for taking good care of myself. My children thank me. Each letter, every approbation for my prudent (read, ‘cowardly’) retreat heaps burning coals upon my head. Praise appals when you know it to be false. No hero, I know heroes when I see them. If in these days of plague, you consult a doctor, if you are treated by a nurse, you will know them too.

Letter to an Old Friend

Friend,

I write to you from quarantine. My wife and I have been ordered to isolate ourselves. 

Old friend, you and I are old. We have passed the threescore and ten years of the Psalmist. A short time ago we were heading confidently full steam ahead for one hundred. So we proposed. So life seemed to promise. But now, this virus.  

Man proposes, Virus disposes. The virus has disposed of thousands. In Spain overnight, three hundred. Overnight in Italy, 800. I’ll write that more plainly. Three hundred persons. Eight hundred persons.At the start of the year all eleven hundred would have been steaming ahead. I imagine them looking confidently to the future as recently as the start of the month of March. By the close of the equinox all were dead. Few will be those who follow their caskets to their burial.

While going about my work in the past weeks I’ve found the most worried people have been those with the least to fear. Young parents have been terrified for their young children. Truly that suffering has been unnecessary. For most people younger than forty, COVID-19 is a milder illness than the ‘flu. I have heard of no deaths of children anywhere in the world. That should bring blessed relief, but although those facts are widely known, the fear for their young extinguishes parents’ peace of mind.

Curiously, we old ones need fear not so much for our young, as from them. The theory runs that children are unhygienic creatures that act as vectors for this novel virus (they certainly do that service for the influenza viruses), and they endanger and infect us older, more vulnerable subjects. That is why I am writing.

If you are over seventy, go inside now, close the door. Shun your children, ban the grandchildren. Ours is the age group in which most of those hundred of persons died. Ours is the sector at greatest risk of the pneumonia that fulminates and kills. Ours is the group who will not receive respirator treatment and Intensive Care when those services are rationed.

This is cautious advice that might later be seen to be over-cautious. As the W.H.O. Chief of the Ebola response advises, ‘Go early, go hard’ when it comes to responding to pandemic. There will be no second chances for us once we catch this catchiest of germs.

My wife and I passed a weekend of grotesque denial of the love between us and our grandchildren. Encounters were fleeting, spatial remoteness was enforced, no-one kissed, no-one cuddled. Time and again, puzzled children approached instinctively, loud voices repulsed them. Astonished, the children felt every instinct of love denied; and the deniers were precisely those wrinkled figures who ever doted and dandled. Suddenly loving behaviour was wrong.

My resolve wavered. My wife, the softest being in our family constellation, commanded austerity. One of my children has a newborn; we cannot visit, cannot cuddle, cannot relieve exhausted parents at 2.00 in any morning. Our daughters, both recovering from surgery, wait on us, rather than the reverse. The fibres of parenthood are warped and strained by fear of a new virus. And it is precisely those deprived adult children who direct us: go inside, stay inside, keep the world away. ‘‘We’d sooner miss out on you both for weeks or months than miss you forever.”

Old friend, I won’t be with you this Friday for lunch. We won’t see each other at the coffee shop in the mornings. Our house of worship is forbidden to us. Seeing each other as faces on a screen is a cold change after years, after decades of warm touch. I don’t know when we’ll be together in those old ways again. I reckon our best chance of those old pleasures again, some day on the far side of this fear and horror, is cold resolve today.

Until then, old friend, until then,

Yours at a distance,  

Howard

Something Old, Something New

Two epidemics: Covid-19 and Community Panic Disorder.

We are feeling our way. This is new territory for all. The last time was in 1919, when the epidemic of Spanish Flu came, burned itself out and left scarsin memory. It’s those same scars, and earlier ones, back to the Black Death and beyond, that we are feeling now. In 1919 we needed someone to blame: that time it was the Spanish, this time the Chinese.


New experiences every day, new government edicts, new behaviours. Our governments are leading, not following public opinion. This blog has never before found anything kind to say about our governments. (I missed an opportunity to praise our leaders for the National Disability Insurance Scheme.) I offer praise now. According to the experts in public health, those appointed to advise government, no-one in power is playing politics with their advice. Government offices send daily bulletins to doctors, bringing us up to date. We are segregating corona suspects from non-contagious patients.We’re doing this methodically and with sensitivity. Contingency planning for various crisis scenarios is advanced. The planning has been rapid, decisive, bold. The War on Drugs has not made us safe; the War on Terror has made us less free; but the War against COVID-19 makes sense to me.

What have we learned? The Coronavirus numbers suggest the following: Infectivity is high, mortality is low. COVID-19 is easily caught and generally safely survived. If you are old your risks are higher.If you are a child or a baby your chances seem better. This is unexpected and so far unexplained.We can expect the numbers of infected persons in our community to mount and to mount further. So far Australians are far, far likelier to encounter a person with influenza than coronavirus infection.

What follows?

I think it’s a numbers game.

Think before you travel.

Don’t go to Iran (corona) or to Syria (bombs).

If your immune system is poor or if you are old, avoid peak hour public transport, avoid mass gatherings, including at your house of worship.

Work from home if you can.

If you develop a fever or flu symptoms, CALL UP YOUR LOCAL DOCTOR before arriving. Don’t just lob.

Don’t read the newspapers. Yesterday the national broadsheet called it the Killer Virus. That is unhelpful and misleading. And of course, irresponsible.

Trust the advice of the Chief Medical Officer.


Be thoughtful about contact with your touching professionals.These are your barber, your manicurist, your physiotherapist, myotherapist, osteopath, chiropractor and sex worker. And your doctor.We professional of touch take the greatest risks and are potentially the most dangerous to you.


Finally, kissing is a high-risk act. Do it only in emergency. Handshaking is forbidden in NSW. Various alternatives have been suggested. One is the mutual forearm grip, where your palm rests on the inside of your shakee’s elbow. Now that we are urging everyone to cough into the elbow recess, this grip offers you the best chance of a handful of fresh snot.

Which Epidemic?

Here are some facts about Australia’s epidemic.
In 2019, Australia had 300,00 proven cases of influenza. The true number of cases was probably in excess of 900,000. (The numbers of cases exceeds the number of tests, because most doctors recognised the flu without sending off swabs for laboratory confirmation. Further, not all flu sufferers saw a doctor.)
Since the start of 2020, there have been 12,713 PROVEN cases of influenza in Australia.

8000 Australians died of influenza in 2019.

In the course of the Vietnam War we lost 521 soldiers killed.
Those are the facts of our true epidemic. In 2019 despite the epidemic, despite the death toll, you could buy toilet paper, you could buy pasta and rice.In 2019 no-one panicked.In 2019 no-one thought of boycotting Chinese restaurants.
In 2019 we had no panic and we had no recession.This year we have a limited outbreak of a viral infection which is less contagious than influenza. Xenophobia comes into full flower.In our formerly happy country we now have an outbreak of racism. Chinese restaurants stand empty.
The swastika flies in Wagga.

Dead Girl Comes Home


The Director of Nursing smiles and shakes my hand in welcome. She’s younger than I, taller and wider. I’m drawn to her bucktoothed grin and her informal look. ‘You’ve arrived at a sensitive time’, she says. ‘The body of a young woman who died a few months ago returned on the same plane as yours. She was very young, eighteen years, and she died here, suddenly, of unsuspected heart disease. It was a coroner’s case of course. Now she’s back, the community will all view the body this afternoon. Some here – only a few – blame the hospital. Best keep well clear of the mortuary today.’ The boss sweeps her hand, indicating the morgue. It stands directly on the path between my quarters and the hospital. On arrival I noted with distaste the sturdy steel mesh that encloses the doctors’ house. Protection of that order speaks of past violence.

 

 

 

***

 

 

I start work in Emergency. ‘Hello, my name’s Howard. What’s yours?’

The woman looks up from her phone. She gives me that information without warmth.

‘How can I help you?’

‘He’s sick.’ The woman indicates the chubby baby stretched out on her shoulder, asleep.

I ask for details.

‘He’s been sick for a week, coughing.’

I touch the child. His face burns.

I lift the shirt: the round tummy rises and falls fast, with rib muscles sucked in with every inbreath.

 

 

Nurses attach a metallic clasp to a little finger. Numbers appear on a screen: his oxygen saturation is normal at 98 percent, but he’s working hard to maintain it.

‘Has he been drinking normally today?’

‘What?’ – head bent over the phone.

‘Has he taken fluids normally?’

‘Not much.’

‘Can you give me an idea how much?’

‘He doesn’t want to drink.’ – defiantly.

‘Has he had any medicine for the fever?’

A shrug: ‘We ran out.’

‘Has he wet nappies normally today?

I suppose so – somewhat grumpily, as if questions were accusations.

I ask a nurse to give the baby some Panadol.

I pull out my stethoscope and retreat to the baby’s chest. I can’t hear much, none of the squeaking or rattling that might give answers.

 

 

I draw a breath.

More figures appear on the screen.  The baby – I learn from his chart his name’s Oscar and he’s fifteen months old – breathes too fast and his heart is beating too fast. I don’t know how long he’s battled like this or how long he can keep it up. And I don’t know what’s wrong. I don’t have enough information. Oscar and I have been together for fifteen minutes and I’ve haven’t heard a cough. A cough itself would be information. Mother is a woman in her thirties. Her manner is combative, she doesn’t waste her smiles, she’s thrifty with eye contact.

 

 

‘Has Oscar ever had breathing problems before?’

‘What?’

‘Has he ever been treated for bronchiolitis? Or croup?’

‘He always gets bronchiolitis. He was flown out just a month ago. Still not better.’

‘Flown out’ would have been to the regional hospital, six hours drive and eight thousand dollars’ flight away. If this is bronchiolitis again, why can’t I hear the fine rustling crepitations in his chest? I decide to treat Oscar with a steroid, which can be helpful in his age group. But the steroid won’t work quickly and Oscar needs help now. We set up an asthma pump to deliver a mist of molecules that might open up narrowed breathing tubes.

 

 

We apply a mask to Oscar’s face.

‘No!’ – says Mum, pulling it away – ‘He doesn’t like it.’

Instead Oscar’s mother holds the mask at a close remove. The mist drifts to his face and he breathes surrounded by a white cloud of medicated mist that drifts uselessly away.

 

 

 

At this distance any benefit he’ll receive will vary inversely as the square of the distance between mask and face. In other words, the treatment is sabotaged and I’m worried. I know this, but to share this knowledge will require a collision of wills, a struggle for authority. Wondering what experience with doctors or hospitals has created Oscar’s mother’s mistrust, I apply the stethoscope again. This time I’m able to hear sounds, moist sounds at the base of Oscar’s left lung. We have an answer: Oscar has pneumonia, dangerous enough in any person, especially so in an Aboriginal child. I order a powerful antibiotic.

 

 

An hour passes, two, and Oscar’s breathing remains fast. But his temperature has fallen and his racing heart has slowed. We give him some formula and he drinks it greedily.

I ask Mum would she like a cup of tea.

‘What?’ She looks up from the phone. She’s been playing Patience.

She takes the drink from my hand without words. Oscar remains in his perch, sitting up now and looking around. His hair is dark and wavy, quite beautiful. He has the face of a cherub. But still his chest heaves as he breathes.

 

 

The hour is late in the Emergency Department. Baby Oscar sleeps on his mother.

‘I think we should keep you both in hospital until Oscar’s better.’

‘You said he was better an hour ago.’

‘Yes, he is better than he was, but he’s still not breathing easily.’

‘Why didn’t you say so an hour ago?’

A sigh escapes my pursed lips.

Mother accepts our hospitality.

 

 

Next morning I’m in the ward checking on Oscar at 6.00. He sleeps and he breathes, lying in the arc of his mother who enfolds him in her sleep. It’s a comforting sight.

 

 

I return at 10.00. Both mother and infant sleep on.

 

 

At noon mother is up and restless: ‘We’re going home now.’

Oscar sits astride their bed, his face buried in a Vegemite sandwich, an upturned bottle, drained of formula, rests on the bed beside him. Before him on a dish lie the remains of mince and mashed potato. I gather from the cutlery these were his mother’s lunch.

 

Eating well and drinking well are unspoken testimony. You can’t suck and swallow, chew and swallow, if you’re a baby and you’re too short of breath. Oscar’s temperature and oxygen levels and heart rate have remained normal and stable. But he still breathes fast and still I hear the rustling sound of air moving through infected mucus.

 

 

‘We need to wait for an x-ray’, I say.

‘When will that be?’

‘At 3.00’.

‘Why not now?’ – belligerently.

‘The x-ray person won’t be here until then’ – placatingly.

 

 

 

At 3.00 the chest x-ray shows opacity where mucus is filling a corner of the lungfield. I show the film to Oscar’s mother: ‘Germs have got into Oscar’s chest there. We’re giving him antibiotics by mouth to kill those germs. He’ll need that medicine twice a day for five days, maybe longer. His next dose is due at 7.00 this evening’.

‘We’re going home.’

‘We can’t make you stay here, but if you go, please be sure to give Oscar his medicine at seven tonight and seven in the morning. It’s very important.’

 

 

It occurs to me I haven’t seen Oscar’s mother give him Panadol or his antibiotic. She hasn’t given him bottles or changed a nappy. She stands back and nurses act. This is a mother who has waged war on the nurses who care for Oscar, and against the doctor. Clearly militant towards us, she keeps herself distant from him. Do we make her feel self-conscious? Does she lack confidence? A clever nurse asks, ‘Would you like us to give the medicine this evening?’

Mother nods. She’ll leave the medicine with us for safekeeping.

 

 

 

Seven o’clock comes, but no mother, no Oscar.

At 7.00 next morning, no show. We don’t know Oscar’s whereabouts. His medicine remains uselessly here with us.
We phone mother’s mobile, but there’s no answer.

No answer that evening, none the next morning.

 

 

A nurse asks me, ‘Do you think Oscar is at risk?’

‘I do.’

As I speak these words I know what they mean. From the time of Oscar’s first, belated arrival three evenings ago I’ve felt a heaviness, a sinking. In advance of any decision I might make, I’ve felt a self-accusation. It falls to me to make Oscar safe, and the legal means is to refer the family to Child Protection. Child Protection is, of course, a heavy instrument and a blunt one. Child protection is the present incarnation of State, the lineal descendant of governments that stole children ‘for their own good.’ That same state massacred people in this district during the 19th and 20th centuries. There’s a weight of history here. Additionally, I realise I don’t like Oscar’s mother. I know those are the reasons I’ve delayed taking action.

 

 

I tuck a note beneath the door of my bucktoothed boss: I’m worried about Oscar. I don’t think he’s safe. Can we talk about local resources to help his family? Some informal arrangement?

 

 

I return home and prepare for the day, the second-last of this week-long locum placement. Around mid-morning I come across Oscar and his mother in the waiting area. The Police have located her and asked her to come in. I see Mother before she sees me. She’s talking on her phone, while Oscar toddles at free range. I note he’s managing to walk without gasping.

 

 

 

I stand before Oscar’s mother, waiting for her conversation to finish. She looks up and continues talking. I stand quietly for some minutes while the conversation continues. From time to time Mother’s eyes registers me in her face. She speaks to her interlocutor: ‘OK, see you later.’

My turn to speak: ‘Hello, it’s good to see you both.’

A stare, no response.

‘How’s Oscar today?’

‘Alright. He’s still coughing.’

I examine Oscar. He is indeed alright. He’s not hot, his breathing is comfortable and the moist sounds of his pneumonia are quieter.

‘Oscar’s much better, isn’t he?’

‘That’s what I said.’

‘Have you given him his antibiotic medicine this morning?’

‘No. How could I? You had it here.’

‘That’s a worry. We’ve been worried about Oscar. He’s missed all his treatments. That’s not safe.’

‘He’s better. You said so yourself.’

‘Yes, he is better. That’s good… You know we couldn’t find you. We had to send the Police.’

‘No you never. He’s been safe with me.’

‘I’m really happy to see how much better he is. But you promised to bring him back two nights ago and you didn’t.’

‘Not my fault… Family things.’

While a nurse gives Oscar his antibiotic, mother returns to her phone.

 

 

 

The Director of Nursing describes an informal service in the community which provides support to families. A nurse shows parents how to give medicines and how to use a thermometer. The nurse visits in the days after discharge from hospital, and contacts the family every week to chat and quietly keep an eye on a child’s wellbeing.

 

 

 

I like the sound of support and tactful surveillance. I look past the Boss and out her window, out towards the mortuary. The girl who arrived back here when I did, one week ago, died of unsuspected heart disease. Her sorry business continues. The hospital didn’t know how ill she was, the community nurse didn’t know, social supports never knew. My mind comes back to Oscar. He’s making a remarkable recovery on the strength of a single dose of antibiotic, but he’s not yet cured. He’ll need a further X-ray, he’ll need to see specialists at the regional hospital, he’ll need lung scans and breathing tests. He’s likely to need close medical surveillance through his childhood, possibly life-long.

 

 

I make my decision. I return to my office and call Child Protection. We speak for a long time. I complete the forms and return to Oscar and his mother.  She’s engaged with the phone. I reckon she’s spent most of our numerous hours together face-down and screen-bent. The face rises to me, tightly closed. I speak: ‘I’ve been thinking about Oscar and how to make sure he gets better and he stays better. I think it’s too hard for you and us together to keep him safe. We need help so I’ve notified Child Protection.’

Mother sits up straight: ‘What?’

‘I told them he has breathing problems and it’s too hard for his family to keep him safe without help.’

Mother looks shocked. She summons strength, looks defiant: I’ll talk to Child protection. Don’t you worry. I’ll tell them.’

Her long hard stare seems intended to threaten.



It’s time for me to leave the hospital. I’ll only just manage to catch the plane out. Before we part, I need to join with Oscar’s mother. I tell her my simple truth: ‘You and I want the same thing for Oscar: we both want him to be healthy.’ My simple truth leaves no impression on the wrathful mother. I leave and I fly away, and I cannot know whether I have done Oscar good or ill. 

Hope

The Unexpected Uses of Yeats

 

 

Annette and I set out on our travels in the northern spring of the year 2019 without any thought of deep time. This was to be a pleasure trip, to celebrate an event that took place in 1949. Annette was to have a big birthday and for some time I had pressed her to name a place she’d never been and which she’d dreamed of visiting. Greek Islands was her eventual answer.

 

 

 

 

We found a cruise that would begin and end in Rome, visiting Greek Isles and numerous Italian ports. So we signed up. Before the cruise we celebrated Passover, the Festival of Spring, in Israel. After the festival we set out on our cruise full of thoughts of geography and its delights, not the moral swamps of history. But History jumped out and ambushed us. History chooses often to show a face that’s beautiful or graceful. But behind the handsome face History is no more moral than the humans who make it.

 

 

 

So much, so general. To understand my particular timorousness, my constitutional alertness to risk, to possible harm, I need to insert a lengthy parenthesis: I’ve spent a lifetime in health; I grew up in a doctor’s house. In childhood I’d open to a knocking at our front door and before me I’d find the milkman holding his bleeding fingers (his horse had bit him!) or the man with his forearm in a tourniquet (a snake had bit him). From earliest days I knew the reality of savage misadventure. From earliest days I feared harm coming to me or to my loved ones. In time I went into Medicine in my own right and ever since I’ve walked those fearful paths of human hazard. All that has changed over the decades has been the measure of breadth and depth. I care more broadly and I care more deeply.

 

 

 

 

In the late seventies when my children were still small I knocked on the door of an old farmhouse that stood distinctive among the modern houses surrounding it. The area had been covered in orchards only a generation earlier. I asked the owner if he’d sell me his house.

It’s not for sale, he said, smiling in surprise. But as you’re here I’ll show you around.

The house was everything I imagined – high ceilings, large rooms, shady verandahs, grounds overgrown with fruit trees and vines. And there, lying beneath a cast iron trapdoor the owner showed me a cavernous cellar, its walls lined with bottles of wine.

Would you consider selling it? – I persisted.

Not likely. Why do you want it?

I like everything. Most of all, the cellar.

Are you a wine enthusiast?

Not really. Thanks for showing me around.

 

 

 

I left him my phone number against the day he might change his mind and we parted. I drove past that house every morning on my way to work and again every evening when I returned. And every time I passed I thought of that wine cellar and how it might keep my children safe in the event of a nuclear war.

 

 

 

 

Forty years on I still search for a shelter, but now it must be large enough to protect not just my children, but their children and their spouses, as well as our extended families, and everyone I know. And everyone I don’t know. All, I find, are my children.

 

 

 

So it is I find myself vulnerable when I contemplate History’s reality. T S Eliot suggests I’m not alone: Humankind cannot bear very much reality.

As the years pass, as my loved little ones enter a world that can be hard, as I see them multiply and grow, as I see them stumble; as I look upon those suffering adults (who in reality are still children), who come to doctors who cannot cure their loneliness, their confusion, their fears; as our planet heats up and I see how fellow species perish; at all these trembling times I look about me for salve. I listen for the still, small voice, I watch, I search for acts of kindness or courage.

 

 

 

 

I need to preserve belief. I look for signs that we humans are good. In the course of refereeing the endless, internal moral wrestling match conducted in my mind between human goodness and badness, I’ve been surprised by the use I’ve found in the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. The poet had struggles of his own. In much of his poetry the older Yeats struggles with the arbitrary hardness of experience. He yearns for life’s lovely fullness, he’s baffled by disappointing reality: 


Some think it a matter of course that chance
Should starve good men and bad advance

 

 

Yeats concludes that old men are alive to this reality and it can drive them mad:

 

Observant old men know it well;
And when they know what old books tell,
And that no better can be had,
Know why an old man should be mad.

 

 

 

 

And so it came to pass that Annette and I stopped at Santorini and at Mykonos, then in Athens. In all these places we kept a fraternal eye open for Jews, alive or dead. The dead predominated. The Lonely Planet mentioned an ancient synagogue in Santorini but gave no details.  We never found it.

In Mykonos, no sign, but no matter: the beauty, the sunblissed radiance was all, and it sufficed.

 

 

 

 

We phoned the synagogue in Athens. No you can’t just visit, said the voice on the telephone. You need to send us an image of your passport and your email and we’ll let you know. We did all that and the voice said we could come. Be here at eleven, said the voice. Time was short, the bus line we needed ran both ways and we had no idea which was the correct one. Passers by offered confident, clear and contradictory directions, so we took a cab.

 

 

 

 

 

Sinagoga? – said the driver. I take you close, but to Sinagoga I cannot arrive. It is closed.

The driver dropped us and pointed somewhere indistinct. We looked around, sighted a narrow street whose entry was obstructed by barriers and bollards, and we made our way. Standing in the cobbled roadway we could make out two sinagoga. On our left a contemporary-looking structure declared itself Beth Shalom, the House of Peace. On our right stood a modest, older structure, seeming to shrink from our gaze. This was EtzChaim, the Tree of Life. The Tree of Life would remain closed to us. The House of Peace would open to us, carefully, ever so carefully, under armed guard.

 

 

 

 

From a booth stepped a fit-looking, youngish man wearing a handgun at his hip. A colleague, also young, also armed, eyed us closely from the booth. We stated our names and business, showed passports and won a smile. Yes, we expect you. But do not go in now. After thirty minutes you enter. Please now walk to the gardens at the end of the street, the Holocaust memorial gardens.

 

 

 

We walked fifty metres and found ourselves in a small area of scrubby shrubbery. High on a skinny pole a notice read, The Holocaust Memorial in Athens. Low to the ground a piece of creamy rock said nothing, but next to it burned a Yahrzeit (memorial) Candle. Close by, on a bronze panel were lines in Hebrew I recognised from Lamentations:

 

Righteous is He, our Lord:

Hear, now, all peoples

And see my pain –

My maidens, my young men

Have gone into captivity

 

 

 

Tucked behind another shrub, closer to the footpaths and plainer to the sight of passing Athenians, we found a steel plaque attached to a block of marble. It read:

 

Pause a while as you pass by,

Close your eyes and remember.

Remember the time when here or near here,

Men, women, children – our own fellow creatures –

Congregated in peace and trust, only to be arrested, humiliated, deported and murdered in Camps that shall forever shame our civilization.

Because they were Jewish, six million people

were denied the right to be free, happy, to hope,

to smile, to pray and finally, the right to live.

Remember them, their anguish and their death.

Do not recoil at such horror; do not descend into despair at man’s inhumanity to man.

Just remember. For by remembering we honourtheir deaths, and we save them from dying again – in oblivion.

 

 

Elie Wiesel

 

For the Holocaust Memorial in Athens, May 2016.

 

 

 

(2016! – was Wiesel still living? We checked; he died two months after the stone was set. Were these words the dying testimony of Elie Wiesel – he who embodied for my generation the anguish, the loss, the surviving remnant?) Standing in this broader street, bathed in Mediterranean sunshine, with heads bowed, we sighed and sighed again.

 

 

 

 

The guards said we could go in now. Entering Beth Shalom we found we were not the only visitors. A rabbi addressed a group of thirty young people. He showed them the Ark, the Torah scrolls, the various ritual implements. These were university students, enrolled in a subject of a vaguely cultural nature. This would be a surface encounter only, a fleeting crossing of intersecting orbits. Unless the students were, whether by chance or by design, to follow the cobbled path and to pause in the shrubbery and to absorb the words of Ecclesiastes and Wiesel. Or will the students gravitate perhaps to a neofascist group named Golden Dawn which already commands seven percent of the popular vote in Greece?

 

 

 

 

Hidden away in a narrow street elsewhere in Athens we found the Jewish Museum of Greece. Behind gates of steel, guarded by cameras and electronics, up a narrow flight of steps, a watchful person examined our passports and our faces before admitting us. Inside, poignant relics told their stories of Jews who found shelter from vengeful Christendom in these formerly Ottoman places. In time the tides of history turned, and turned again; the Turk retreated, independent Greece arose, Italian Fascists invaded, succeeded by genocidal Nazis. The War against the Allies might well be lost, but the War against the Jews must still be prosecuted. With feverish haste, even as the Nazis retreated from the Allies, they hunted out local Jews for deportation. Communities of great antiquity, some of them older than Christianity, faced their end. Before the War Greece’s Jews numbered around 80,000, with the greatest population in Thessaloniki. By the end of the War about 10,000 remained alive. Why did these thousands survive, how did they survive? The Museum held answers to these questions, answers that surprised and cheered us.

 

 

 

 

Well before the War, Greek Orthodox clergy and orthodox Jewish Rabbis were befriending each other. When the Nazis arrived, late in 1943, the cross-faith ties held strong. Across the Greek Church, priests, known as Metropolitans, acted to protect and save entire Jewish communities. Upon the eve of deportations from Thessaloniki, the supreme cleric Archbishop Damaskinos was about to undergo throat surgery. Putting off his operation, he wrote to the German commanders, begging clemency for the Jews in the name of Christian mercy. He rushed to the puppet Prime Minister of Greece bearing open letters from priests, from the Bar Association, from the Academy and the University of Athens, and from the Actors’ Guild, all in support of Greece’s Jews. 

 

 

 

 

In all, twenty-eight institutions of civil society in  Greece pressed the PM to act. In the face of this pressure he did intercede, albeit without success.

 

 

 

 

All over Greece Nazi commanders ordered local priests and mayors immediately to create lists of all local Jews in preparation for imminent deportation. In town after town, in island after island, priests resisted, delayed and deceived the Nazis, while urging Jews to hide or flee, to change their names, to affect Christianity, or to join the partisans.  Delay by even a single day saved many. Priests urged their parishioners to hide Jews, to keep safe their treasures, to pass Jews on to the Free Greek Army.

 

 

 

 

In this way the Resistance spirited Chief Rabbi Barzilai into a succession of mountain villages of increasing remoteness and inaccessibility. The Nazis were desperate to find Barzilai, but he was kept safe.

 

 

 

 

On the island of Zakynthos the Germans arrived and demanded of the Mayor and the Priest the usual complete list of all the three hundred or so Jews, all their possessions, all their addresses. The list was to be handed in, complete, within twenty-four hours. The two officials handed in a list with but two names – those of the priest and the mayor. All of Zakynthos’ Jews were saved. And what of Luth, the German Commander? He never pursued the matter. For his pains Luth was replaced by the Nazis, arrested and detained.

 

 

 

 

I read all these testimonies, affirmed by rescuers and confirmed by the rescued, and a great swelling of thankfulness rose within me. I felt grateful to the brave Metropolitans of Athens, of Volos, of Zakynthos, of Arta, of Dimitriada, of Didimoteicho, of Thessaloniki, of Thiva and Livadia. Also of Ioannina, of Corfu and Paxi, of Corinth and of Halkida, Xirohori and the Northern Sporades.

 

 

 

 

Were all Jews saved? Clearly ninety percent perished. But he who saves but a single life, saves a whole world. In the case of this tearful visitor to a tiny museum, those Christians had saved my whole world.

 

 

 

 

Some days later our ship stopped briefly at Chania, a pretty port city on the island of Crete. We had read how the Nazis had captured the entire Cretan Jewish population of nearly 2000, and herded them aboard a ship bound for the mainland. A British warship, recognizing the vessel as German, torpedoed and sank it, with the loss of all who were aboard. After two thousand years of stubborn survival had Jewish life on Crete been snuffed out? Almost, but not entirely: we had read of a small synagogue that had been found in Chania and restored by American Jewish donors. Trip Advisor spoke of poignant services conducted by the tiny numbers of local Jews (returning descendants of Cretan Jews who’d been absent from the island at the precise time of the deportation) as well as the odd Shabbat visitor.

 

 

 

 

Annette and I resolved to find the synagogue. Once again the taxi driver said: To the sinagoga I cannot arrive. I drive and then you walk. It is close. It is down there – an airy wave – and then more down, leftwards. We went down there, and more down, we turned leftwards, and we followed a winding little cobbled street of shops and cafes and B and B’s. Time flew, embarkation hour neared and our faint hopes flickered.

 

 

 

 

 

Abruptly Hebrew lettering among the stones announced our arrival at the Etz Chaim Synagogue.

Since its restoration Etz Chaim has suffered two separate terrorist attacks. Expecting high securitywe fished for our passports and crossed the threshold hesitantly. Seated in a sunny little garden courtyard a cheerful man with a cheerful rubicund face waved away our documents and waved us in. Welcome, come in, please look around – through there is the synagogue, beyond it the mikve, and in the rooms, many documents and records.  

 

 

 

 

We had twenty minutes for twenty centuries. Unforgettable minutes they were. Unforgotten the two thousand who drowned, unforgotten the two thousand years. As we left we bought a cookery book of old Jewish Greek recipes from the young woman attendant. Her English was precise, her accent not Greek. We asked her, Where do you come from?

Austria.

You are Jewish?

Christian. A smile.

Why are you here?

Because my nation, my people have never acknowledged, never repented. Austria today chooses to be a victim of the Nazis.

What are you doing here?

I research, I document the Jewish life here. From our small church young graduates travel to many small communities, where each of us spends one year.

 

 

 

 

One whole year! One year of the twenty or so of a bright young life. Humbling, inspiring, a salve.

 

 

 

I must have arrived in ‘the Ancient World’ with a nasty case of Weltenschmerz. I had not realized its severity. I had not anticipated relief.

 

 

 

 

I have been writing these recollections in the remote northern town of Broome where my grandfather and his three brothers came to dive for pearls. Here, unexpectedly, they found other Jews who came together at Festivals to express their remnant Jewishness.

 

 

 

 

When I am free of work duties at the hospital I run along the endless miles of Cable Beach. In my ears recorded poetry plays. Yeats reminds me I am not alone, not the only old man that the world might make mad.

 

 

 

 

Back at the hospital a young nurse asks me where I’m from. Where am I from? I’m from Melbourne, I’m from Leeton, I’m from Broome, from England and France – and before that from Poland and Russia. And in the end, which is the beginning, I’m from Israel. In return the young woman says, my family comes from Holland. My grandmother was five when the Germans came. Her parents took in a Jewish family and hid them. Oma was only five but she never said a word. Nazis moved in and out while the Jewish guests stayed safe in the attic.  

 

 

 

 

“Nature, bad, base and blind,

Dearly thou canst be kind,

There, dearly then, dearly

I’ll cry thou canst be kind.”

 

(Gerard Manley Hopkins)

 

Family, Therapy

I’ve been seeing a doctor who is a family therapist. It all started around 1982 when my family and I were going through an epoch of change; it made sense to me to consult a family therapist. In the 1980’s family therapy was enjoying a vigorous infancy and Brian was one of its champions and very well-known in his field. I suspect Brian’s aura of celebrity was an attraction for me.

 

 

I saw Brian again today, as I have done at intervals ever since 1982. I continued seeing Brian long after I learned celebrity is illusory. You could say I see my doctor now for his aura of ordinariness.

 

 

The family events of the 1982 epoch were decidedly ordinary, but to me they felt momentous: a loving father and his doting daughter found themselves in conflict at bedtimes. Every single night! Tears overflowed from a deep well of love. Leapfrogging shouting matches, feelings wounded on both sides. Bewildering. The child’s parents brought her to Brian with whom she had a private consultation that lasted thirty minutes. The parents were then invited to join therapist and naughty daughter. From that day the loving father has loved and the naughty daughter has doted and they’ve never fought like that again.

 

 

 

I kept seeing Brian. He diagnosed an overdose of compliance. He suggested I cared too much for the expectations of others. He prescribed delinquency. It must have worked because my father remarked: Howard, you’ve changed. I felt troubled and liberated. At the age of thirty-six I’d entered adolescence.

 

 

 

In 1983 my father in law was diagnosed with advanced cancer. He was not old and he wasn’t ready. None of us was ready. We went, four of us, to see Brian. Brian helped us – a family foundering, a frightened cancer sufferer who would not see his grandsons’ barmitzvahs, a shocked wife, a daughter trying all she knew: how to support a father, to comfort her mother, to mother her own distressed children? And a son in law out of his depth.

 

 

 

 

How did Brian help? What did he do? What did he say? I cannot say. But he helped: through the fear, through the dying, through the disfiguring grief in all its forms. Somehow I didn’t cry. I loved my father in law, called him Dad. But when he died my eyes stayed dry. I felt myself shallow. A year later the family was doing well. I watched a TV mother spreading margarine onto white bread. I saw her TV family eating, children dancing around  the mum. The voiceover said, You ought to be congratulat-ed.  And I started to cry. So I went to see Brian.

 

 

 

Perhaps it was Brian who cured my sadness. Perhaps he helped me to know my sadness and to make room for it in my life. For a time we stopped seeing each other. I left his consulting room taking with me the gift of tears, accessible again now after a drought of three decades.

 

 

 

But before too long I was back. I was doctoring as well as I could, I was fathering and brothering, I was a son. And I was doing my best at all of these. I was husbanding too, an amateur at the job. All these jobs, so important! To fail at any of them? Unbearable thought! I needed some help for a problem I couldn’t define. In my sessions with Brian I must have received help without quite being able to name it. I heard myself say once, I measure my life in coffee spoons. It was busy-ness I was suffering from, jamming too many important things into too few frail minutes. For sixty minutes every month or two I’d breathe out. I’d hear Brian ask a question and I’d pause and think and answer slowly. Brian would hear me. I’d hear myself.

 

 

 

And so it went on. Family kept happening: this one married, that one became unwell, another distressed. Parents aged, their bodies failed, their willpower arrayed in fierce battle against any help. Grandbabies were born, astonishing joys, swamping strains, grandparents stretched to thinness. A parent died, a brother died, finally the remaining parent. Family, the furnace and theatre of my life, kept happening; so, naturally did my therapy with Brian. By now Brian knew this family, in its longitude and its latitude, in its occasional depths, in its many heights, as few outsiders could.

 

 

 

Brian never seemed to say much. He’d sit and think and nod. Silences would stretch open and I’d feel comfortable within them. When Brian spoke I’d hear an affirmation – my feelings, Brian’s words – and something more, some new molecule of extension or understanding. It was never portentous but it would sink into me and I’d leave lighter.

 

 

 

As the years became decades I began to recognise distinctive elements in my visits to Brian. Prompted by the remark of another who works in mental health, this seems more like a friendship than therapy, I conceded that partial truth. I heard too unspoken echoes of purists: what sort of family therapy is it when only one family member participates? Fair enough, but not far enough; these thoughts never outweighed the heft, the lift, of one person meeting with another, of a person encountering himself through narrative and counter-narrative; of knowing himself respected, accepted, safe to extend himself and to develop. I could see this as it had become, a friendship. I could sense the fear and the sneer of Authorities that decree that a doctor who is also a friend must be less of both. That absurdity is the zeitgeist, the fruit of the self-distrust which has become normative in all professions. Deeply I know it to be untrue of my friendship with my doctor.

 

 

 

At some stage, perhaps twenty years ago there entered a new element, love. It happened like this: Brian closed his professional rooms and began to see patients in his home.

That home is a Victorian building with a central corridor leading to private rooms. One room serves as waiting area; you enter and find it littered with books and magazines. Comfortable chairs invite a guest to sit and browse. Nothing you pick up is familiar, everything is novel or intriguing. Too soon, the appointed hour arrives and the guest who-is-the-patient enters Brian’s consulting room. Here bookshelves extend from floor to lofty ceiling. Brian appears, offers coffee, I decline, he disappears to prepare his own cuppa and leaves me to the books. I know no library to match this cornucopia. Books of poetry, books of biography, of history, of ideas, of beauty and cultures. Every author I know or have heard praised is in that room. There’s not a book here that I own or would not wish to own. I browse until Brian returns with coffee and spoils it all. I put down the book, passing some remark. Brian says, borrow it if you like, Howard. And I do.

 

 

 

A book lover meets a second book lover in a book bower every couple of months. I meet Rilke and, never understanding a word, I fall into a trance. Brian recommends fellow physician, William Carlos Williams, whom he calls a satyr.

 

A dawning realisation: I wish never stop this “therapy.” I must never cease visiting these books. What’s more I need to continue. Divorce, a stranger to my family story, breaks down walls that were built of my children’s love and faith and hope. The bricks and the timbers fall hard and heavily onto my little ones. The floor buckles beneath them. They are thrown about hard. Will they be broken? Unlike that epoch of my wife’s father’s death, now I know  my pain, I shed my tears, I ache as one aches for the pain in the heart of one’s tenderest. I act strong; I become bricks, timber, floor. How durable am I? Bricks, timbers, floors do not complain. But Brian hears all of this, he nods, he murmurs. He understands. Perhaps he says something that shifts the picture; some light gets in. At the end of the hour I get up and I leave that old room of books, thanking the therapist and riding fast to work. The puffing and the sweating help. I arrive at work feeling encouraged, a bit lighter. 

 

In the calms between the storms we speak of work, mine and Brian’s. What does it mean to labour where we must always fail? What is the call? How to answer the call? I speak of legacy. What have I received? What does it call me to do, to be, to become? What do I pass on? And how? We speak too of a shared passion. Brian and I know the one eternal truth of any great love: love means loss means grief. It is the love of the Collingwood Football Club in whose depths we know this truth.

 

I write and I publish books, articles, opinion pieces. I share many of these with Brian. I present him with a copy of each of my books, inscribing each one in thankfulness. Thankfulness for what? I think I’m giving thanks, in the final analysis, for Brian knowing me. My inscription boils down to, Thank you Brian; I feel known. Brian never congratulates me, never approves the writing. For once I’m not looking for praise or admiration or congratulation, those junk foods of a ravenous ego. It is enough that Brian knows that I write and I am serious.

 

In years past a patient would say to me, I’ll make an appointment to see you first thing next Tuesday morning.

Well, no you won’t. First thing next Tuesday I’ll be seeing my own doctor…

Why so coy? Where’s the shame in saying I’m seeing my psychiatrist?  So I start to say that and it alarms people. They search my face, hoping for a joke. So I explain. By and large people prove equal to learning that every human needs help from time to time. I’m one of those humans who gets help.

 

I reach the age of seventy years and Brian and I speak of retirement. It’s an idea that remains an idea, an abstraction. It sits over there on a shelf, within my view, but dimly, while my work burns brightly, and I continue. So, after his fashion, does Brian. For years now he’s taken no new patients, continuing with a rump of which I must be one. He won’t abandon us. Eventually he expects it must end; he’s ready but are we?

 

Three more years pass. Family keeps happening. Visits to the family therapist continue. Late in 2018 Brian and I appoint to meet again in February 2019. February arrives. Brian asks of my outback experiences and I tell him of the familiar joys, the familiar frustrations, the shocks against which time cannot shield. I speak of family, how once again I’ve been feeling the urge to dash to the rescue of this loved one or that other. We speak of that impulse which is a reflex which has become a habit. I know in my being that habits ossify. What used to work will not work forever. I used to jump to catch my little ones as they fell. Is this what I must do in this late phase, when my little ones are grown and stronger than I know? A habit becomes a pathology, I know. Brian listens, ponders, offers no directive. I’m not looking for instruction. I receive what I need, what always I’ve received from Brian, an attentive listening. I hear my voice, Brian hears it, a quietness settles around us. A seed of thought falls, to germinate and take root and grow.  We’ll talk of it at our next session, or at some session later.

 

It’s nearly time to finish. I speak of Collingwood, of how we came so near to glory, of defeat in those last moments. Brian mourns: remember it ever; speak of it never. A Brian pause, then: we reach a point when we look back and see where we’ve been… how far we’ve come… how far short we’ve fallen. What have we done, what remains to be done? What can we still do?

 

My ears, attuned still to the Collingwood near-triumph, detect an alteration in tone, a new note. It is of valediction that Brian speaks, a farewell, a long farewell to all this richness. He goes on: it is not ours to finish the work, nor are we free to desist from it. I murmur, Hillel, The Ethics of the Fathers.

 

We rise. I pull out my diary to appoint the next visit. “No, Howard. This was our final session.” So it was! I had managed to forget.  Brian escorts me to the door and waves a goodbye. He’s still standing by the doorpost as I jump on my bike. I ride to work, not hurrying, not sweating, just thinking, thinking and feeling. I’m seventy-three years of age. Brian has been my doctor for thirty-six-and-a-half of those years.

 

My Friend the Policeman

Working here in this large regional hospital in the Kimberley not a day passes without a call to the care of drunken patients.

More often than not the patient arrives in the company of a pair of police officers. More often than not the patient is abusive. Frequently she swears at her captors, often roaring at the them. The custodians stand calmly, quietly watchful, gentle, as I do my work and the patient does her worst. The police officer is here as a guardian, my guardian, the hospital’s, the patient’s. I wonder at this patience.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

When I was very small my parents brought me to the city for the High Holydays.

Mum took me to Collins Street, a river different from those I knew in our small riverine town.

Collins Street flowed, a fast human current that would sweep up a small boy, sweep him away, never again to see his loving kin. I looked up and about, legs everywhere, legs striding fast, eddies, rips, king tides. 

I gripped Mum’s hand tighter. “Mum said, don’t be afraid, Howard. The Police will look after you. If you ever get lost find a policeman. The Police are your friends.”

 

 

Back in my hometown I knew this to be true. A man pulled my pants down in the park. A couple of days later I told my parents about the man’s strange behaviour. Mum looked at Dad and Dad looked at Mum and a few hours later Sergeant Stewart arrived at our house. 

We walked together into the park. I led him to the place and answered his questions. “Look around the park, Howard. Can you see the man?”

I couldn’t but I didn’t want to disappoint the officer. I pointed out a man dozing on his picnic rug: “That’s him”, I said. Sergeant Stewart said, ‘It’s a very serious thing to make false accusations, Howard.” I learned a new word that day. 

 

 

Another time I found a ten shilling banknote in the street. Briefly I was rich. Mum said, “‘It’s lost property, darling.”

“No it’s not Mum. It’s found.”

“You report lost property to the Police and they look for the owner.”

I walked to the top of Wade Avenue, past the courthouse and around the corner to the Police Station. Sergeant Stewart opened a book dipped a pen into an inkwell and asked, “What’s your name Howard?”

“Howard.”

“Do you have any other names, Howard?”

“Jonathan. Goldenberg”

Sergeant Stewart’s thirsty nib drank again and again at the inkwell as he recorded my address and my parents’ telephone number. “Leeton two eight, isn’t it, Howard?”

Six months passed, an age. Our telephone rang and Constable Bulley said something to Mum. Mum thanked him and hanged up. “Go to the Police Station, Howard. No-one has claimed the ten shillings.”

I went and said I’d come for the money. I signed the policemen’s book and I left, a rich man.

 

 

 

On one occasion I tested Police probity. Leeton sat in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, fruit bowl for the nation. Fruitfly was the feared enemy that could wipe out the industry, it might destroy livelihoods and the local economy. You weren’t allowed to bring exotic fruits into the MIA. If you wanted bananas or pineapples you had leave the Irrigation Area and drive to Narranderra, nineteen miles distant. One Sunday we did just that and gorged on those tropical fruits. To my surprise, my law-abiding parents embarked on a criminal career and brought the surplus home.

After lunch the next day I was loitering outside our house in Wade Avenue when Sergeant Stewart strolled past. The Sergeant is my friend; I should offer him the pleasure of conversation:” Hello Sergeant.

“Hello Howard.”

“We’ve got bananas at home.”

The officer smiled.

“And a pineapple.”

“Good afternoon, Howard.”

 

 

 

***

 

 

Ten years ago I met Detective Inspector John Bailey (retired) in Albury. He spoke of his father, the police officer who, unarmed, braved an armed murderer, who shot him. Bleeding from his wounds Bailey Senior grappled with his assailant, pinning him beneath him. Bailey died, the only police officer known to have arrested his own murderer. Bailey – the son – showed me the George Cross, awarded posthumously to his father. I hefted the weighty silver medal in my palm, while the old officer looked down at me between ptotic eyelids: “It’s a great thing, a George Cross, but it’s not a substitute for a father.” The orphaned son followed his father into the force, entering in his teens, retiring a much-decorated and admired servant of the community.

 

 

 

***

 

Every night in the Kimberley police officers bring in their freight of broken and bleeding humanity. Their charges reel with the effects of alcohol, their heads, faces, limbs bloodied. Many are handcuffed. Invariably the officers tower over the injured prisoner. Sometimes the prisoner-who-is-patient shouts in a crazed manner, offering abuse to nurses and coppers alike. The officers remain calm, their manner respectful, even, I should say, kindly. Gently they lead the injured miscreant to care. I see this, time and again. I see it and I marvel.

 

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

I never became separated from Mum in Collins Street River. I never needed police succour until the day came when an arsonist set fire to my motor cars parked in the street outside my home. The policeman, Commander Kim West said, “When someone sets fire to your car they’re saying they can burn your house. They’re saying they can burn you.” The Commander asked me about my children. He gave me a significant look. He wrote some digits on the back of his card and handed it to me: “That number will get me night or day, Howard.” 

 

 

 

Twenty years have passed since the Commander gave me his card. A few months ago Kim returned from Europe where he’d visited with his wife. He buttonholed me: “We went to Auschwitz.” A shake of the massive West head: “Shocking. Shocking. When I tell people that, they say,Who’d want to go to Auschwitz?  I tell them, Everyone should go to Auschwitz!  Soon after our chat, Kim became unwell. Tests showed cancer, advanced and widespread. Very quickly he died. At the close of his funeral the minister said to the congregation: “The last prayer Kim recited was at the former concentration camp at Auschwitz. There he and his wife read the Jewish Prayer for the Dead. Rise please and read this with me: Yitgadal ve’yitkadash shmei rabah…” 

 

 

Portrait of Kim West by Dr Harry Unglik for the Archibald Prize

Paul’s Passing

An attentive reader of this blog will recognise the name Paul Jarrett. Paul was my friend. He died last week aged ninety-nine years and eleven months. We had known each other by email for ten years. By the time we met in the flesh Paul was ninety-four. We were together in the flesh but thrice, and spent but five days in each other’s company. Yet his friendship enriched me. So long as my mind knows the truth Paul Jarrett will be with me.

 

 

 

Every day Paul sent out numerous emails to his friends and family, who numbered about eighty souls. I became one of those fourscore followers. By the time we became

e-friends Paul had retired from Surgery, he’d ceased piloting aircraft, he was living alone with his memories and his collection of ragged stray cats. The TV news fed his active mind, which would turn often to past world events. He’d recall those as well as people from his private life, teachers, relatives, colleagues, friends, and most keenly of all, his deceased wife Beverley. Paul would send emails, four or five or six in number. I read them all.

 

 

 

 

I came to know a man who believed in God, who attended his Methodist church every Sunday, who voted Republican, who supported gun ownership, who disliked Obama and who loathed Hilary Clinton and who loved cats. Paul described himself as a conservative. He said, I’m to the right of Barry Goldwater and he showed me a photograph of the two, taken around the time of Goldwater’s run for the Presidency. Goldwater was far to the right of any US president of my lifetime  (with the exception of the present incumbent, whose position can only be the fruit of daily conjecture and of analysis of the tea leaves of his Twitter account). Characteristically Paul never mentioned to me that Goldwater intended to appoint him to his Cabinet as national chief of Health.

 

 

 

 

I was none of those things that Paul was, yet a friendship grew. Paul and I both entertained a veneration of our late fathers and mothers that bordered on ancestor worship, we both loved Medicine, we cherished old friendships, we preferred the burnished past to the distasteful present, and we could smile at human error and laugh at ourselves. I’d read Paul’s emails and I’d enter a different world; I learned about earlier eras, I met remarkable people, I was challenged with novel viewpoints (frequently opposed to my own), I relearned Medicine I’d long forgotten. I knew I stood in Paul’s shadow but he saw me in my own light. I’m sure I felt flattered that such a man would treat me as his equal.

 

 

 

Paul and I shared a real friendship. I’d challenge him when his politics got up my nose and, unoffended, he’d defend his position. Paul’s penultimate year was spent grieving for the America he loved. He detested the Democrat candidate and felt offended by the Republican. He knew duty would call him to cast his vote. In his distress Paul’s agony was spiritual in its intensity. He would not shirk his duty. He must serve his country. Patriotism, that quality that cynics dismiss as the refuge of the scoundrel, burned brightly in my friend and he suffered for it. 

 

 

Let me share with you some of Paul’s very many letters. 

 

 August 2, 2015

My mind returns to the days when I would, by my mood and demeanor, sour a bowl of honey.

Beverley, who was acutely attuned to my moods would pinch my cheek, give me a pixyish

smile and say, “Be Happy”!

At first this would annoy me, then I realized that she never acted like I did, so there must be some choice in presenting a foul mood.

Some of us pull an ill disposition around us like a protective blanket.

Not Bev.  She was as careful about her demeanor as she was about her appearance.

 

August 11, 2015

I am not sure where the admonition to, “Feed My Sheep” ends and Backshish begins.

Never have I seen such a drive and competition for charitable funds nor such a constant demand for our attention so that we can be hit-up.  By phone, by mail, by door to door solicitation, through the Media and other advertising.  The sheer volume makes one suspicious that such an army of petitioners can not contain only those with charity in their hearts.

And all of this attention is not devoted toward appeal for charitable donations.  The phone just rang.  It was a canned message.  It said, “How are you?  Good.  Can you hear me all right?  Good.  (I had not said a word.)  Congratulations are in order, you have just won a vacation trip with two guests, all expenses paid, all you can eat—“  At this point I hung up.  That automatic dialer will call me back tomorrow.  Hopefully my automatic answering machine will converse with their automatic dialing machine and transcription.

Saturday I received 5 pieces of regular mail, 4 of which were appeals for money and one an advertisement for a Mexican Restaurant. 

I will admit that I could be a more cheerful giver, but in addition to wanting to hang on to my money, I am beginning to question whether or not I am getting my money’s worth?

We are living in times that can only be described as “Devious”.

 

 

 

“Now the Day is over, Night is drawing nigh.  Shadows of the Evening steal across the sky”.

And what a day it was.  The temperature hit 117 in the shade, and to add to the disasters brought in by August, Beverley’s Grandmother clock jammed the chain on the weight that powers the clock itself when it ran down.  My vision is not sufficient to fix it any more.  It has happened before and I have been able to get it going again, but my vision is no longer capable of accomplishing this.  Her clock was amazingly accurate, and I enjoyed hearing it chime the hours and quarter hours, during the day and through the night.

I have eaten a frozen dinner prepared for me by Ann, and am about to settle down in front of the television and nap before time to go to bed.  This is the daily routine.

A gracious good evening to all of you.

G’nite!

 

 August 16, 2015

It promises to hit 117 again this afternoon.

The poor cats do not have refrigeration, but they have cool spots under the shacks

and have thrived in this heat for many years. Sylvester as spokesman for the Etudiants,

scolds me for not permitting them to come inside where it is cool, but this falls on deaf ears when I consider the life of Riley they lead, and the amount of fur they leave behind.

I try and keep the bed outside the Breakfast Nook moist when it comes into the shade in the afternoon, which is the only air conditioning they are going to get.

When you stop and think about it, it takes some temerity to lecture me about the weather, and Sylvester may be spending some time in attitude modification in the near future.  He has lost a lower right canine tooth (if cats can have canine teeth), but I have observed no loss of appetite.  They are eating me out of house and home.

I worry about them though when I am called to my reward (whatever that may be).

 

 

 

 

 August 29, 2015

I was thinking about some unusual surgical cases I found myself involved with without adequate training or experience.  A surprise after opening the patient.

Having no other source of help in the urgency of the moment I prayed urgently and silently.

That ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things with God’s help, I can affirm.

 

 

 

October 11, 2015

I received a call from Bob and Dianne at the Cabin with Nikki this week-end.

Bob has the knowledge and ability to provide Satellite telephone service up there, and it works well.

They have had a lot of rain, the Pack Rat problem appears to be under control and the weather is nice with Fall in the offing.  Bob reports that the road up to the Cabin is in need of repair from rain damage, and he will be able to do that with his new tractor.  I think they return tomorrow.  There are some apples that are ripening and they will bring some for me.

Those Western Delicious yellow apples from Stark’s Nurseries are the best I have ever tasted, although late freezes make them available about once in ten years.

It is warm here, although comfortable.  We have what my Mother would call a “Buttermilk Sky”.  Little sun, a slight breeze and a great day to sit on the Patio and smoke a cigar.

It looks as if I may be around another Christmas, and I am making plans to prepare envelopes for my Family to insure their delivery.

The cats have made me a present of the head of a Roof Rat which they laid out on the Patio door mat.  I discarded it because I have no recipe for Roof Rat heads, although I appreciate the gesture.

 

 

 

Paul Jarrett has died. America has lost one of its big men, a patriot, a man of substance and integrity. Medicine has seen the passing of the last of his kind. A congregation has lost a faithful worshipper. We who were Paul’s friends have lost a wise man, a sort of prophet. Phoenix has lost an ornament. But whatever his greatness in the wide world, it was in the little corners of life where I saw Paul Jarrett’s meaning writ clear. It might be seen in his solicitude for the unpromising cats he succoured, in the empathy and in the respect he extended to those battered living things. Born into an era where males were born to rule, Paul esteemed women higher. 

 

 

 

Paul was the son who honoured his father and his mother; of two brothers Paul treasured and measured the greatness of the one, and cherished the second in his deformity. Paul was the husband who never ceased to love and to sing the praise of the wife he outlived for so many lonely years. Paul was the father proud of those stalwart sons, adoring of that dandled daughter; Paul was the grandfather who inspired grandson Benjamin to follow him into the guild and bond of medicine; Paul was the Methodist whose whole heart could celebrate his great-grandson’s bris. The measure of the man, Paul Jarrett, was the honour he paid to those he loved.  

 

 

 

More than once Paul wrote, “Great was the celebration in Heaven when Beverley arrived.” Such was the simplicity of Paul’s faith. Mine differs. But it gives me pleasure to imagine how great might be the celebration for that good and faithful man.