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)

 

The Erratic Reader – II


Bloody newspapers! Having settled into my summer of crime I had little patience for newspapers or the news. The Weekend ‘Australian’ felled a forest in my palm. I looked sourly at the ‘paper’s unrelenting jaundice, directed uniformly in denunciation of the new mob who will steal government from the present mob. In this mood the ‘Australian’ deplores democracy. Deploring busily myself, I turned to the non-news. This is to be found in ‘Review’, the newspaper’s excellent weekly look at books and pictures and movies and dance and music and television shows.  In short, the arts.

 

 

Looking cursorily I leafed through the pages. As I did so I felt cursory; the accursed ‘Review’ was full of attractive material. I came to poems. Poems are hard, like algebra. Unlike algebra the trick is not to try to solve a poem, first listen to the music. Here (‘Review’, page 22) was Barry Hill, himself guilty of poetry, reviewing a book by another poet, Paul Kane. No, I hadn’t heard of him either. Kane’s book, ‘A Passing Bell: Ghazals for Tina’, is a lament for the poet’s wife, Tina, who died a few years ago. Barry Hill likes the book; I loved Hill’s review. I want to give you a taste of Hill on Kane on Tina, but what to choose? Better, what to omit? Not a word is dispensible. Here, at random:

 

It comes in the form of ghazals, the ancient lyric common to the Sufi poets writing in classic Persian (or Arabic, Turkish or Urdu), whose lines fell down the page in couplets that came to rest with a fresh mention of the beloved or the Beloved (sometimes called Master).

In any case, the Sufi exalted the visible as a song to the invisible.

 

 

Hill’s language is pregnant, heavy with knowledge and understandings, gravid with a scholarship I can only envy. Hill chooses the following lines by Kane:

 

“He never meant to write this, it simply took shape and wouldn’t let him go until it was over. But it will never be over for him, his heart inscribed with the name of the beloved, Tina”

 

and:

 

“At night I lie awake and call to you,

but you don’t reply, except in silence.

The night bird is not silent but sings

A simple single note. His mate does not sing back.

I do not understand this silence, as if God

Has departed and taken you with Him.

I have no words to form a prayer

That could reach you or Him.

Two wine glasses sit on the counter top –

One is full then only half full.

Without emptiness the glass could not exist.

If you should speak, Tina, the glass would shatter.

 

And back to Hill:

 

…Meanwhile, the ghazals, their pace and suspension, create a sense of time stretched to some mysterious limit, or of language floating on the waters of emptiness. “What words are these that well up like tears not shed?”

 

 

It took me quite some time before I could go back to Peter Temple’s ‘Dead Point”, my first Jack Irish novel. My first, definitely not my last. And now I’m on to Jane Harper’s ‘The Dry.’ Bloody crime writers writing literature. It’s enough to drive a man to Algebra.

 

The Erratic Reader


Every so often I feel the urge to tell the world what I’m reading. I’ve thought, I’m going to write and tell the world about this essay, that novel, this poem, but I’ve almost never done so. The explanation is I’ve been too busy reading to jot down my reactions to the written material. And now that I’m actually beginning, it’s not because you need to know what I read and what I think, but because I need to nudge someone in the ribs and say, golly, wow, how beautiful, how sad, how simple and true, how complex and elusive!  In short I enjoy a treasure most richly when I can share it. The loneliest person in the world must be he who looks up and regards El Capitan and has no companion to share the wow.

 

 

Let’s start:

 

 

I’ve found the most effective way to make someone yawn is to read a poem aloud. This doesn’t stop me from doing it; the power and beauty of a poem so often compels me. 

 

 

My day starts with a package of poems. These are psalms, attributed to David, the poet-warrior king of ancient Israel. I read these religiously. Like all actions that are ritualised, the ritual intended to enhance meaning can bleach it out of sight. I regret how often I bleach out beauty through simple inattention. But when an accident of biorhythm or a pang of piety actually slows my recitation I can stumble across purple passages* like this:  

 

Praise God from the heavens

Praise Him from the heights

Praise Him all His angels

Praise Him all His hosts

 

Praise Him sun and moon!

Praise Him all starry lights!

Praise Him the utmost heavens!

 

 

****

 

 

Leviathans and all deeps

Fire! Hail! Snow and Mist

Wind of storm

All work His word

 

 

The mountains and all Hills

Fruit tree and all cedars

Carnivore and Behemoth

Creeping thing and bird on the wing

 

 

Earthly kings and all nations

Potentates and all earthly judges

Youths and also young girls

Old men together with young lads

 

Let them praise the Name of the Lord…

 

 

While you yawn let me tell you how I love this tumbling catalogue of beings and phenomena, its plenitude, its richness, as the poet, God-drunk, calls the roll of the universe; how he brings into chorus every voice (Creeping things! Snow! Leviathan! – did David imagine what we now know and record – that the great whales sing?) – his imagination fires his love into hyperbolic song. After King David I had to wait for Gerard Manly Hopkins for such spiritually excited verse.

 

 

As I remarked above, golly. 

 

*The translation is my own. Don’t blame King James.

Running from Office

The following verse followed me from the city and found me where I am working in remoter parts:

I had written him a letter which I had, for want of better

Knowledge, sent to where I met him down the ‘bidgee, years ago,

He was doctoring when I knew him, so I sent the letter to him,

Just `on spec’, addressed as follows, `Goldie, Doctor of The Overflown’.

And an answer came directed in a writing not unexpected,

(And for sure the same was written with that horrible doctors’ scrawl)

‘Twas his running mate who wrote it, and verbatim I will quote it:

`Goldie’s gone to Queensland doctoring, and we don’t know where he are.’

In my wild erratic fancy visions come to me of Goldie

Gone a-doctoring `down the Cooper’ where the Western doctors go;

As his flock are slowly sitting, Goldie runs past them singing,

For the bush doctor’s life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.

And the bush hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him

In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,

And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,

And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.

I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a not so stingy

Ray of sunlight struggles not so much between the buildings tall,

And the foetid air and gritty of the dusty, dirty city

Through the air con floating, spreads its foulness over all

And in place of lowing cattle, I can hear the fiendish rattle

Of the tramways and the ‘buses making hurry down the street,

And the language uninviting of the gutter children fighting,

Comes fitfully and faintly through the ceaseless tramp of feet.

And the hurrying people daunt me, and their pallid faces haunt me

As they shoulder one another in their rush and nervous haste,

With their eager eyes and greedy, and their stunted forms and weedy,

For townsfolk have no time to grow, they have no time to waste.

And I somehow rather fancy that I’d like to change with Goldie,

Like to take a turn at doctoring where the seasons come and go,

While he faced the round eternal of the drafting and advising —

But I doubt he’d suit the office, Goldie, ‘Doctor of The Overflown’.

Nicholas Miller, legal practitioner and versifier, has doctored Paterson’s ‘Clancy ‘

Let Me Die! Help Me!

The right to die has found its voice. Past generations heard little of that claim, the cri de coueur of our day.

I imagine we never wanted to die so much as we do now. In previous times when life was short, brutish and mean we struggled to stay alive. But now Medicine has taken over. Deaths are prevented, delayed and deformed. Few families in advanced societies have been spared the grotesque spectacle of a loved one subjected to medically prolonged dying.

Because we enjoy better health we live longer lives. Because we reach old age we accumulate the mutations that overwhelm our defences. Cancer results. The cancer epidemic is the trophy won for us by medical advances. And so Medicine sets out to fight its ugly daughter. We cut out tumours, we poison them with chemotherapy, we shrink them with X-Rays, we outwit them with genetically engineered antibodies. Many are the gains, great are the costs.

Eventually dying happens.

Death frightened me when I was younger. Now I can see death as a sometimes friend. John Keats nursed his brother through the long death of tuberculosis. Then Keats himself became tubercular. He knew what lay in wait for him: cachexia then death. The terminus he contemplated was like late–stage cancer, the body self-starved, the mind too aware, the complexion ghastly pale, the skin empty, disfigured:

                                                The weariness, the fever, and the fret 

                                                Here, where men sit and hear each other groan; 

                                                Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs, 

                                                Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies; 

                                                Where but to think is to be full of sorrow 

                                                And leaden-eyed despairs –

 

 

Keats wrote dreams of an easy death (in his Ode to a Nightingale):

                                                           Darkling I listen; and, for many a time 

                                                           I have been half in love with easeful Death, 

                                                           Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme, 

                                                           To take into the air my quiet breath; 

                                                            Now more than ever seems it rich to die, 

                                                           To cease upon the midnight with no pain, 

                                                           While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad 

                                                           In such an ecstasy! 

                                                           Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain— 

                                                           To thy high requiem become a sod. 

 

When recently I posted ON EUTHANASIA I anticipated readers might react strongly. I was right: most who responded – on–line and off-line – experienced my thoughts as a wound. I learned how a doctor is expected to relieve all suffering. A doctor is a trusted friend. Once the doctor denies his patient her right, she feels he has betrayed her. The wounded person’s gaze is not directed here to the doctor as a moral agent, not as a person entitled to moral autonomy, simply as one who could help, who now, abruptly, at this last critical and defining moment, acts selfishly.

I wrote that changing a law does not necessarily serve wisdom. The reality here is no conceivable law can resolve all of the problems of our competing needs and values. We need relief. We need a doctor who respects our autonomy. We need a doctor who will not sit in lofty judgement.  We need a doctor who will protect life and now we need one who will take life. And we need to know he’ll protect when he should and take when we seek it. The forgotten need is that of the doctor to reconcile those parts of his work. Putting it a different way, if the doctor, in trying be all those things, violates her own being, inevitably she disintegrates. She must give away her integrity. And then all lose.

I read the responses. I felt them, the tremor of the soul that prompted brave, naked, passionate disclosure of self.  My mind went back to deaths I have known, deaths I have conducted. I recalled the baby who aspirated meconium in the birth canal. The baby’s chest heaved as it worked to ventilate lungs clogged with a material of the texture of bitumen. We ventilated him, he did not improve, he did not die. He would not die. Morning after morning I entered NICU and there he was, his skin marbled, his chest rising and falling in obedience to our machine. His life felt like a reproach. We had turned on the machine. I learned then that the decision to bring in the technology is more onerous than to withhold, to wait.

I recalled the first person to ask for my mercy. That person was my mother, the one who had given me life. Mum would have been sixty, I thirty. ‘Darling’, she said, ‘I have high blood pressure, I have high cholesterol; one day I’ll have a stroke. When that happens, I want you to slip me a mickey.’

I understood Mum’s reference to ‘a mickey finn’ – a lethal draught.

‘Mum, NO!’ – was my instinctive response, which I quickly softened with promises to read favourite literature to her.

Twenty or more years later Mum duly suffered stroke after stroke, the final one devastating. My son and I carried her up the stairs one day and I asked her whether she recalled our conversation. She did, clearly. I asked Mum whether she regretted my failure to ‘slip her a mickey’. Mum’s blithe response did not surprise me. Whichever way she might have responded would not prove any argument, would be particular, not general, would not resolve the next sufferer’s dilemma.

I sat with the heat and the passion and the pain of this debate. Having little faith in lawmakers to solve the problems of human existence and oblivion, I searched for some useful fragment to proffer. I recalled those numerous patients who had made written Advance Care Directives. For the simple doctor these expressions of your wishes are a godsend. I read them and I am ruled by your refusals. Some decline ventilation, some explicitly forbid ICU, some decline antibiotics or feeding by tube. Many directives are less specific: ‘Do nothing more than keep me comfortable.’ ‘Let me die with dignity.’ These last call for my deepest self-search. They challenge me to imagine what  comprises and what violates your dignity. They draw my mind into the unknowable tomorrow. But these directives too are helpful. Your opaque request demands my vision of your humanity. It’s a big ask and it’s a fair one. My parents asked of their children that we allow them to die with dignity. We did our best and we saw Mum and Dad pass more or less peacefully from us with our honest best. It’s a big ask but I feel equal to it.

So that’s my first suggestion: COMPOSE YOUR THOUGHTS, EXPRESS YOUR WISHES, WRITE THEM DOWN, GIVE THEM TO YOUR DOCTORS (IN THE PLURAL), TO YOUR LOVED ONES, TO YOUR LAWYER.

No guarantees.

The second idea came to me as I wondered about by own expertise in the matter of ending life by intent. I must do it unerringly. You don’t want to wake up mute and paralysed after I have botched it. Your family doesn’t want to see you struggle or convulse or vomit then inhale, gag and gasp. I’d need training. Then it came to me: the legalized euthanaser must be trained, supervised and certified. You’d want him to know the relevant law, the protocols. The euthanaser might benefit from ethical training. I am sure the practitioner will need pastoral support and peer supervision. He’ll need to be able to recognise and resist the opportunist heir-designate who wants Aunt Nancy knocked off before her care costs consume too much of the inheritance. (I had to do this once.)

So here’s my second suggestion, this to the lawmakers: A PERSON MUST BE LICENSED TO END LIFE. THE LICENSE WILL ASSURE THE COMMUNITY AND PROFESSIONAL PEERS THAT THE PRACTITIONER IS TRAINED, COMPETENT, HONEST AND WILLING. That final adjective might save many patients from the painful disappointment of denial of help by a doctor not prepared to end a life. (That doctor might be me.) You might or might not be able to respect the difficulty of a doctor who feels torn between your need and his vanity/arrogance/integrity/different sense of defining mission, but you need not suffer a humiliating rebuff in your extremity of need.

As I wrote earlier, a change of law cannot resolve everything.

Keeping Quiet

A young poet friend shared a poem with me. Gabriel Garcia Marquez declared the poet – Pablo Neruda – to be the twentieth century’s “greatest poet in any language.”

Such an accolade claims plenty poetic licence: does Mister Marquez read Sanskrit? Korean? Swahili? Arrernte?

Never mind: I think Mister Marquez is a good judge.

What is this power of the artfully selected offering of words?

This power that rivals music?

Read the poem; best of all, have someone read it aloud to you while you sit with your eyes comfortably closed:

Keeping Quiet Pablo Neruda

 

Now we will count to twelve and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth, let’s not speak in any language; let’s stop for one second, and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment without rush, without engines; we would all be together in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea would not harm whales and the man gathering salt would not look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars, wars with gas, wars with fire, victories with no survivors, would put on clean clothes and walk about with their brothers in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused with total inactivity. Life is what it is about; I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving, and for once could do nothing, perhaps a huge silence

might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us as when everything seems dead and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve and you keep quiet and I will go.

Paint Me As I Am

A poet sent me this poem. It is a poem I could never write. It is the poem of a spirit stronger, freer and bolder. When a poem as true as this comes my way I feel I know the poet, I’d recognise him by the beauty of the poem. I marvel at the freedom he claims and I rejoice for him, while holding my breath as he skelters along life’s unseen edge. My timid spirit prays, ‘o let him not fall off the edge.’ 


Paint Me As I Am


Why don’t you paint me as I am?             

Running and reading, with waves and

Sand tangling in my hair.

With fire in my hands. 

Paint me as a surfer, catching opportunities like a wave.

 

Paint me without dark paint, for I am not

only shades of grey.  

Paint me somewhere else, where dew moistens leaves

and the chilly air circulating around me that

makes every fibre of my being feel alive.

 

Paint me with my wrinkles, for those are signs of me laughing.

Paint me so my tears and scars don’t show.

 

Paint me with my nightmares but most of all, paint me with my dreams.

                           – Miles, aged 11