Howard is a doctor, marathon runner and author. He has written two non-fiction books, My Father’s Compass (2007) and Raft (2009). Carrots and Jaffas (2014) is his first novel. His latest novel is A Threefold Cord (Hybrid, 2107)
My friend wrote from the sunshine state. How are you doing in the pariah state? When it’s the caller from the electricity company asking how I am, I know she is not interested, so I answer simply and briefly, I’m dying. But when a friend asks I pause to think. He’s asking because he cares. How am I doing? In general I look about me for clues. How are my loved ones? If they are suffering, I know it before enquiring. I know it bodily. My waking thoughts and my restless dreams ache with loving futility.
Well, friend in the sunshine, my firstborn is about to undergo major surgery. The surgery will disable her for a couple of months. She’ll deal with pain whenever she moves her shoulder girdle. Merely to brush her teeth will hurt intolerably. Do you wish to know more? She won’t be able to care for her children. A sole breadwinner, she’ll be unable to win her bread. How’s she doing through it all? She’s dealing with thoughts of disfigurement. She’s alarmed by stories of unbearable pain. But she reminds us, ‘I’ve got the cancer gene, but this surgery is not cancer; it prevents cancer.’
My other children? Number two child has been locked down since February. He’s working from home and he’s loving his household of women, who range down in age from his wife, to his newest, aged four months. He lives in the joy of watching his offspring bloom, and he chafes that he cannot share his loved ones. He’s the bridge between generations. He wants to share his little ones with his elders. He grieves for deprived grandparents, for a great grandmother in her extreme age (‘How many years has Nana left to enjoy, to know her little ones?’); for his siblings too. He knows his little ones are deprived. He’s a bridge and a virus has closed the bridge.
Number three lives in Sydney. Six months have passed since she last saw or touched a parent or a sibling. Six months in the life of a person permanently in exile from family. During those months she’s been diagnosed with cancer, undergone surgery, been cured. In a few weeks she’ll undergo the same cancer-preventing surgery as the firstborn.She subsists with a dozen face time calls a day, but the loving flesh, the warmth of presence, the sharing and the feeding (we celebrate her as a baker and a chef), these she aches for. And as we plan and we cancel plans, and we plan again, the novel virus comes between us. In short she suffers minor cruelties daily; she’ll suffer major surgical cruelties shortly and, God willing, she too will be saved from the genetic cancers that haunt our womenfolk. Overall, good friend, too much detail? I apologise. Our children are brave and loving and they fret for their parents. For us. Golly! Perhaps that was your question. Perhaps you really asked, How are YOU doing? Once again I look about me. I see my wife, a Jewish mother responding to threat by overcatering. Between working at home and trouncing me at Scrabble, and caring for her mother, she overfeeds me and she cooks and packs endless meals for loved ones all about. I feel cared for and loved. I feel safe.
But how am I? In myself? By temperament I tend to be cheerful, optimistic, sometimes vacuously so. But nowadays periods of gloom descend, circumambient fear visits me. My work sustains me with a rewarding sensation of being useful. I enjoy the glow of self-worth. I run a lot and I purge fear and gloom. And I drink plenty of strong coffee which transforms me into a cheery genius.It feels absurd to pity myself in a time when so many suffer so much worse. But if – as the Talmud asks – among the cedars the firestorm falls, what can avail the mosses of the wall? If happy howard is downcast, how much more suffer the cheerless many?
An close elderly Aussie friend and his Balinese partner sent me the following. They are trying to save her family from hunger.
My partner Wayan comes from a part of Bali that frankly, with the onslaught of Covid, has turned to shit for some. The north east area of Bali is generally not well off, suffering from a poorer soil and dryer climate which renders it unsuitable for rice production. Wayan’s home village of Siakin is fairly typical of others in that part with pockets of extreme poverty. And now, due to Covid, those pockets are suffering greatly. In particular those without family support, no land to grow food on or run chooks and especially some of the elderly, certainly those who are widows and some others who have lost employment and have no back up. They need a leg up. We’d like to help some from the village of Siakin and also a few from nearby, some of whom are quite isolated and very affected by the general lack of income in Bali at this time, their families working in Denpasar but with children to feed and travel back to the village curtailed anyway in a rigid lockdown. Using only Wayan’s immediate family as the driving force. One brother, Pak Nengah is principal of the local secondary school and is highly respected throughout Kintamani and the other brother Pak Nyoman works at the nearby primary school in Administration. Also Wayan’s son Putu, niece Mitha and three nephews, Gede, Amon and Kadek will assist with packing and deliveries. The plan is to distribute small and very basic parcels of food. Beginning with 36 souls and sending out 5kg of rice, packets of noodles, cooking oil and eggs. Other than food purchase, a little for petrol and the occasional Ute hire there are no other costs involved. Receipts are provided and other records kept of frequency, purchases, deliveries etc.
We’ll set up a separate bank account and that will be transferred as needed to Bali for supply purchases. We hope this scheme is needed only for the duration of the present emergency. So far we’ve seeded it and have now run short of funds to continue except in a small way. Understanding that this is a difficult time for most we ask that those who are able may forward a small donation to the bank account. BSB 733018 / account no. 644291. If able to help in a small way your kindness will have the gratitude of hungry people. Some recipients, after a surprise delivery, have been reduced to tears. We have requested photographs of those receiving to indicate the level of need. Here are a few. On behalf of the battlers of Siakin
Around 1942, Myer Goldenberg asked Yvonne Coleman, ‘Will you marry me?’
Yvonne asked herself, ‘How high is Mount Sinai?’
Yvonne’s question was rhetorical. What she understood by Myer’s question was, ‘Do you reckon you can observe six hundred and thirteen commandments?’
In truth whatever the precise height of the mountain (2,285 metres), the answer would not influence Yvonne’s decision: Moses climbed up that mountain to receive the Torah. If old Moses could do it, she would. The Children of Israel, standing at the foot of the mountain, declared to Moses they’d embrace the Law, sight unseen: We will do it and we’ll hear it! – they shouted. Yvonne said to Myer, ‘I’ll do it.’
Yvonne’s response was wholehearted. On that understanding the two married.
Yvonne Coleman was born in 1917, in Perth, Western Australia, the daughter of a pearling captain (a son of the tribe of Levi), who sailed south from Broome to marry his bride, the daughter of French Jewish settlers who landed in Australia around 1852. In 1917, Perth was a long way from Mt. Sinai. According to family legend Yvonne’s grandfather and the Anglican Bishop of Perth were close friends. There is no legend that links Grandfather with the Rabbi in Perth. We do know the family attended synagogue. Strangers to the word, shule, they attended Synagogue regularly – on the three days of the High Holydays.
Yvonne liked synagogue. After the family removed to Melbourne, Yvonne joined the Melbourne Synagogue where her father’s family had been members since 1882. Although unschooled in Hebrew reading, Yvonne enjoyed the choral service and judged her punctuality by the particular choral items she recognised. Famously unpunctual her whole life through, Yvonne judged her arrival ‘early’ if before before the closing hymn, Adon Olam; and ‘late’ if after that hymn.
At the Toorak Road Synagogue the presiding Minister, Rabbi Brodie, (later to become Chief Rabbi of the British Empire), introduced Yvonne to the young Doctor Goldenberg. The doctor asked his question and Yvonne gave her question in reply. And Yvonne began her ascent of the mountain.
By the time I learned stories of Yvonne Coleman-that-was, she was a Shabbat keeping, Hebrew reading, kosher cooking, succah decorating, challah baking housewife in the small country town of Leeton in New South Wales. Yvonne was the sole Jewish ba’alath bayit (home-maker) inthe town, the mother of four observant and knowledgeable children.
Mum said she would do and she would hear; she never said she’d love the restrictions; but she observed them. Travelling on a bus with Mum one night, I asked her, ‘How do you like your life, with all the rules and restrictions, and the ‘thou shalt’ and the ‘thou shalt not?’’
‘I do like it, Darling. But if I were granted an interview with God, I’d say, ‘Look, Almighty God, if, after a meaty meal (Mum never came to terms with fleishig), you’ll allow me just a dash of milk in my coffee, I’ll swear on a stack of Bibles I’ll never seethe a kid in its mother’s milk.’
One precept in particular showed Mum to me in a distinctively devout light. This was lighting the candles before Shabbos and Yomtov. Mum would light, recite the bracha in the unfashionable Anglo-German ashkenazith pronunciation that Dad taught her, then stand in silence, with her eyes covered, for a long time. During these long minutes, we kids would wait while Mum stood, a fixture, unmoving like Hannah, mother of Samuel; only her lips moved. The silence felt sacred. Mum was praying for her loved ones, praying for every one of us, praying in detail, in secret, listing our individual needs, telling the Creator what she needed Him to know, and what she wanted Him to do.
After more than sixty years of marriage, Myer Goldenberg died, full of years, and was gathered to his people. Yvonne held his hand, still warm, in hers, and said in a voice wrenched with feeling, ‘He was a lovely man…’
Mum was now a widow. In 1942 she’d given her word – she would do and she would hear – and for sixty years she had kept her word. Now she was free. One son, looking perhaps to enjoying with Mum a more liberal future, asked, ‘Are you going to keep all those rules and restrictions now, Mum?’ Mum answered, gently, in her soft voice, ‘Why would I change now, darling?’
***Mum lived a further six years, keeping Shabbat, keeping kosher, keeping faith. She died just before her 92nd birthday, the day following Shavuoth, the Festival of the Giving of the Law at Sinai. Next Sundayher children will observe her yahrzeit. I might even find a congregation where I can recite kaddish. And a candle will burn in my house in her memory.
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…
Every morning a politician jumps out of bed, scheming, dreaming, thinking, what harm can I do today? Whom can I betray, traduce, diminish, promote? How to hide that lobbyist’s bribe? What principle or promise can I break, whose arse might I lick today? Perhaps I’ll knight a duke, maybe I’ll munch an onion.
Alternatively, every morning a politician wakes up, gets up, does the morning’s physiology, washes, dresses, buckles on the day’s armour, takes on fuel, paints her face to face the world – to face herself – lights his cigar, drops the kids off at school, her mind abstracted with the birthday CD she’ll buy her husband, with the vote in the House, with the speech he’s preparing for the School Fundraiser.
We get the politicians we deserve.
At those times when our leaders disappoint us, people make this assertion.
They do so with a grim satisfaction, almost with relish. It bespeaks a rush to judge, a refusal to wonder why. Over many years I’ve known politicians enough to judge them – that is, I’ve known them superficially and like electors everywhere, I’ve made my superficial judgements. I’ve found politicians to be pretty unextraordinary. Generally bright enough, usually public-spirited, not scared of hard work, usually more ambitious than enough. My mind wrestles with the contradictions we see between a politician’s avowed belief and actions. In particular, we’ve seen ostensibly active Christian people actively demonising asylum seekers. Where, I’ve been wondering, is the love?
The first person of power I knew was Oscar Washington, Mayor of Leeton in my early childhood. He lived a bit down Jarrah Street from my best friend Johnny Wanklyn. Oscar had a large belly and he smoked a large cigar. Oscar would smoke his cigar as he walked from his front door to the car. We’d smell the aroma lingering in Jarrah Street. I liked the music of his names, I liked the cigar smell so I liked our Mayor.
A good stretch of time passed before my next brush with one of the great, those who are at once our masters and our servants. This one was a Cabinet Minister, mother of young children. She first came to see me suffering a florid attack of hay fever. I treated her, saved her life, and she stuck. In the course of subsequent visits the politician and I have spoken of many things. She introduced me to the music and verse of Nick Cave. Newspaper editorials blamed her for failures in her department. I read and I wondered and I judged her to be conscientious and diligent.
Great Ones from all sectors passed through our waiting room. We’d bump into the Premier, into potentates of the Australian football League and its champion players. One of the leaders of the Opposition visited. I liked her. She drank too much, she carried a bit of weight, she worked too hard. Earlier, while in power, she’d been a member of Cabinet with a sensitive portfolio. Exercising ministerial discretion she made numerous decisions that favoured cronies. I judged those decisions corrupt.
When an economist friend married off his daughter he seated me at the reception next to a parliamentarian who held an Economics portfolio. Through the evening I watched and I listened. I watched him empty wine bottles and I heard how Economics was his ideology, his theology and his sociology. He welded his faith to his practice of politics. I was enlightened and impressed by the seamless content of mind and work. No splits.
One night I delivered a keynote address at an Awards ceremony for volunteers who worked in human rights. I spoke in passionate protest against my country’s treatment of asylum seekers. The standing ovation that followed amazed me. First on their feet in the audience were two Federal parliamentarians, one a backbencher, the other a very senior frontbencher. The two approached me, independently, requesting a copy of my text for their websites. The junior parliamentarian confided: You’ve said what we all want to say, but we can’t. There it was, the split, the active paring away of principle from action. I didn’t know the politician personally, but I knew his of family’s refugee origins.
I recalled one desolate day on Christmas Island where I worked in the Detention Centre. When off duty I’d run the tracks on the island’s hills and forests and beaches. At one lonely cove I sighted a small street sign that read, Tampa Bay. My legs stopped. I was back in the day of ‘Tampa Election’ when the arch-politician of the era saved his government by turning away those refugees. We will decide who comes to our country he said, a credo parroted by the Opposition leader. That was the day I first felt shame in my country. Many elections later that credo governs our policies still.
That same leader astonished me some years later when he promulgated a law of this land that ruled Australian Law, Australian human rights, would not apply in certain Australian places. The detention camps were to be Australian islands free of Australian rights.
How? Why? What force separates a human’s deeds from his core beliefs? In the case of a politician I think it’s fear. While a few succumb to the offerings – fame, celebrity, power, little bribes, big bribes – most stumble upon the fear of sacking by their bosses. An election can happen at any time. The electors are fickle, voters don’t want more Muslim terrorists, do they? And all those people, they’re all queue jumpers, illegals, aren’t they?
It’s not easy to function in your job while in fear of losing it. Those people we vote in to serve and to rule us, those ordinary, fearful individuals with their cigars and their families and their ambitions and ideals and drives, organise themselves into gangs. The gangs are called political parties. Parties appoint managers. Managers put their ears to the ground and listen for tremors from the electorate. They conduct focus groups. They survey voters to discover what they’ll punish. They learn we’ll punish congestion on our roads, we’ll punish job losses in mining.
Managers veto any policy softening on refugees and on climate change. The politician, having joined her gang, having outsourced morality and left her conscience at home, never learns that we voters regret these harsh policies. The politician, elected to lead us, follows instead, abiding byourlower instincts. That much is our own fault; we choose our politicians, we reward them for timidity, we don’t ask them to dream, to wonder how good this country can be. We too live lives of moral laxity. We split belief from policy. And as election follows election, the refugee languishes in our prisons.
Most evenings I read a chapter from ‘A Threefold Cord’ to my grandchildren in Sydney. I have to wait until they’ve brushed their teeth, then, like apparitions in pyjamas, Ruby and Joel materialise, chattering and excited, on my screen. The book from which we’re reading is the novel I wrote for children in 2013. In the late chapters of the story, three Aussie fourth-graders meet a much younger child named Samara, an orphan, and take her under their wing. Samara has an extraordinary story to tell: she is a boat person, sole survivor of her family who all drowned when their “irregular” vessel foundered off Christmas Island.
The painful tale that Samara tells of seeing her loved ones slip beneath the waves is taken from events that were life-true facts in 2013. After those drownings the real-life child who lost his entire nuclear family was denied the right to attend the family funeral on the mainland. The Minister for On-Water Matters ruled it out. At the time I felt shame. I decided to exclude that shameful pettiness from my novel. I did not want children readers to think badly of Australia. After reading of “Samara” to the children this evening, I came across the following: Prime Minister Morrison has issued enforceable physical distancing directives to protect everyone in Australia from infection, transmission and loss of life in the COVID-19 crisis in Australia.1440 people seeking asylum and refugees remain held inside the national immigration places of detention in crowded, communal living conditions, under constant guard and without personal protective equipment or medical oversight into their care.Medical professionals have warned a lethal outbreak is imminent which will endanger the public and place greater strain on health care systems…The former Minister for On-Water matters is now Father of the Nation. I’ve been impressed by his leadership during our present emergency, (I’ve written as much in this medium). He’s been firm, calm, calming. In my simplicity I have difficulty reconciling his religious posture with his previous management of ‘illegal’ asylum seekers. His iron-minded predecessor was likewise a man of conspicuous religiosity. Doesn’t their religion preach love, especially love to the leastamong us? Their political ministry was bare of love, seemingly at odds with any religious ministry. A friend of this blog is a Minister in the Anglican Church in this country. He wrote to me today, asking me reflect in these pages on the place of the Almighty in COVID-19. I smiled and I dismissed the idea. Theodicy is a steep slope; on those steeps, I’d just write idiocy. But now Samara calls to me. She calls to all of us, calling in the name of her God, whom she calls God, “Allah.” She calls to us on behalf of the fourteen hundred and forty, ‘the least of us’; she calls for the Father of the Nation to protect the fourteen hundred and forty. I don’t doubt the Fathers of the Nation have their better angels. In office the Fathers bind their angels’ wings. In private conversation with politicians of the backbench and the frontbench,I’ve heard them sigh and regret not feeling free to act differently. I see these people not as diabolical but as captive. They are captive to their fear of us, the electors, who would punish them for acting not on platform but prompted by love. It is for the nation as a whole to give the fathers courage, to free their angels, to free the captives, to bring them into their love.
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.
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.
In times far, far darker than ours, Primo Levi called these, ‘moments of reprieve’. The Nazis set up the death camps as places where morality would be inverted. It was dangerous to be good. Every man for herself. We saw that here in the all-in toilet-paper wrestling.
But there’s a softening abroad, a gentling of human intercourse. We wash our hands today, not of each other, but for each other. Commerce has slowed, people have time, give each other time. Working here in the central business district of a great city, I find us breathing our minutes and our days as folk do in a country town.
In the foyer of a giant apartment building, in a far distant town, this notice appeared:
Its author is seven-year old Dash Unglik, of New York City.