Doing the Cartesian Plod

The auguries are not favourable. In the cricket Australia has lost to the South Africans. In the footy Collingwood has lost to a bunch of nonentities. In the bedroom needed slumber has lost to an importuning bladder, that groans with pre-marathon hydration.

 

 

But truly my sleep has been under attack also from pre-race nerves. This particular marathon, in Broome, will be my first in the heat and my first on sand. I know I can run 42.2 kilometres, but I fear I’ll lack the moral strength to keep running in the sands as they deepen with the incoming tide, and the heat that will rise as surely as I slow.

 

 

 

At 5.00am it’s dark and cool down on Cable Beach, and wonderfully quiet. I stand beneath a crescent of moon, freshly born but days ago. The stars are few. The waves crash and the breakers break and I am a man alone in the vastness. At this moment, than this place there is nowhere I’d rather stand and nothing I’d rather do. How long I stand there watching the flashes of white foam light the darkness I cannot know. How do you measure the dimensions of enchantment?

 

 

 

 

The sky pinks slightly in the east. Time now to pray the Dawn Service. After I’ve finished those prayers and the Traveller’s Prayer, mandatory since the bombings in Boston, (Rescue us from any enemy, ambush or danger on the way, and from all afflictions that trouble the world), the beach starts to fill with runners, with fleeting flashes of light, with murmurs. All speak quietly, all discreet, decorous, in this, our secret convocation, as if noise were desecration. 

 

 

 

Thirty-two of us line up at the Start. The Race Director delivers his instructions and his directions, larded liberally with his benedictions: Have a good run, marathoners, enjoy yourselves, drink plenty, welcome, welcome, welcome, have fun. The event closes in six hours. Our sweeper will come by on a bike and tell you if you look like going over time… But you won’t. The tide is well out and will keep ebbing for the next 97 minutes. After that there’ll be a full six hours before high water. Go well, brothers and sisters, run well and enjoy yourselves.

 

 

 

 

The Broome Marathon might be the sole event in the running calendar whose date is governed by the moon. The organisers choose the Sunday closest in time to the winter neap. Today the sand is firm underfoot, while yielding. My racing feet love it. Our route takes us out five kilometres to the dinosaur footprints at Gantheaume Rocks, before the turn which will bring us back to the Start, which will later be the Finish. 

 

 

 

 

I spend those ten kilometres deep in superficial thought: How do you pronounce Gantheame? Looks French, should follow the rules of French pronunciation. But I’ve no-one seems to pronounce it that way…

 

 

 

And of truer gravumen, the self-question, How fast can I prudently complete the first ten kilometres? I know I can do the distance in an hour, but that pace would be unsustainably fast.

 

 

 

I raise my head from these cogitations and regard the young buttocks speeding ahead of me. I look back. To my surprise a half dozen or so runners plod along behind me. An unfamiliar sight, a puzzlement. It takes less than one hour for me to realise these are tortoises and I am a foolish hare, for the ten kilometres have passed and sixty minutes are not yet up.

 

 

 

But who could take these pleasures at a languid jog – at my left shoulder the rising sun (the sun came up upon the left, out of the sea came he), at my right the rolling waves, overhead the arching blue, and beneath that blue the turquoise waters? 

 

 

 

And so I run, fast at first, more slowly later, but on I run, alone, and ever in earnest conversation. First I address Rene Descartes. Rene says, I think, therefore I am.  (At least that’s what they say he says.) Finding myself so steeped in running delight might I not say, I run, therefore I am?  Of course that would reduce me to a pair of stubborn legs. But does life offer anything sweeter than this, this delight beneath absent clouds? I can, therefore I run. Here I am, running early in the event, later plodding, ever ruminating, doing the Cartesian Plod.

 

 

 

 

The Race Director directed us to run south all the way to the halfway mark at Coconut Wells. Here we’ll turn and head for home. I’ve never heard of Coconut Wells but I should know it once I arrive: there’ll surely be an oasis there; the entire marathon course is dotted by pop-up oases, where Staminade and water rest on trestle tables beneath shade. Here volunteers dole out encouragement and sustaining fluids. Each oasis is manned by members of a different local sporting team. The Jiu Jitsus water me first, then the Rugby Leaguers, followed by the Philatelists and here at the Halfway it’s the Water Poloists. Later, the Man Cave Vigoro Team, later still the elderly Chinese players of Mah Jong. Such patience, such good natures! 

 

 

 

 

In the five kilometres that stretch between the oases, all along the wide beach, people picnic or swim or cast their lines into the waves. Some sit beneath their portable shade and drink beer and gaze as inconspicuously as possible in the direction of unclad sunbathing women. The drinkers and the fishers and the swimmers and the picnickers look up as I pass and they assure me I am a champion and utter similar kindly falsehoods, so it’s roses, roses, all the way, roses strewn in my path like mad.

 

 

 

 

Just before the turn a voice breaks into my reveries: Howard! Howard! The voice is feminine; whose can it be? A slender figure approaches from the thicker sand high on the beach: Howard, it’s me, Mel. Ian’s partner. You’re doing so well! Is there anything I can give you, anything you need? I shake my grinning head. Sylph-like Mel, Mel who will join the orthopedic trade, Mel is what I needed without my knowing the need. The simple fact of being known – such a deep human satisfaction. Thanks, Mel. I’ll see you at work. And on I run.  

 

 

 

Now as I run I hear the voice and see the image of my younger daughter, she who has always held my joy in running in the balance against the hazards of running; she’s known how marathons have claimed and killed and stilled many runners, faster and fitter than her Dad, fathers no less beloved, no less unreplaceable. Before every marathon I’d hear the voice of that daughter, have a good run, Dad, and don’t come back dead. At the conclusion of every marathon over the last twenty years, it was that daughter whom I’d call first: I had a great run, darling, and I’m not dead. But after the fifty-second marathon that dialogue came to an end. Dad, said the daughter, I don’t want you to die but I know you will one day. Meanwhile you love to run and I love you and I want you to do what you love. And if you die doing what you love I’ll be sad but I won’t be mad at you.

 

 

 

 

If my daughter’s relationship with my running has been ambivalent, I might say the same of my glomeruli.Wikipedia will tell you that glomeruli form a network of small blood vessels in the kidney, through which blood is filtered to yield a filtrate of urine. The rate at which blood is filtered through all of the glomeruli, and thus the measure of the overall kidney function, is the glomerular filtration rate (GFR). A combination of increasing age, high blood pressure and family tradition has knocked my glomeruli about somewhat, and my filtration rate has fallen as a result. I consult a kidney doctor who advises me, somewhat ambivalently, to keep running marathons: overall it’s probably beneficial to you, but – and here he wags a finger and his gravel voice deepens to a rattling scree – don’t get dehydrated.  That’s like saying, you can run marathons but don’t get tired. So at every drink stop I drink, taking great camel draughts, one time of water, the next of an electrolyte drink. Have you ever drunk Staminade? If you’re fond of blue cordial you’ll like the look of it; if you enjoy drinking glomerular filtrate you’ll love the taste of it.  

 

 

 

Soon my left calf provokes a conversation. The calf has started to feel strange: What – I ask – do you mean by this hard, dead feeling? Didn’t we meet each other in 2013? On that occasion you forced me out of the Melbourne Marathon. Piss off now! Two kilometres later my calf feels fine. And I do not hear from it again. 

 

 

 

 

Never lost for thought, my nimble mind now enters earnest intercourse with the sand. Beaches in Australia are expanses of sand, this particular beach being vastly expansive. I look down and notice something new – striations in the sand. Between the predominant areas of cream, pink streaks appear. The pink is of such delicacy that I perceive it today for the very first time in the quarter century of my running here. Aah, beauty. O blessed day!

 

 

 

 

I interrogate this pink. Pink? Pink? Unheard of. What, where is the earth pink? Answer – the earth here is paprika-pink, rust red, burnt red all through the Pilbara, the Centre, the Kimberley. And whence comes the redness? From iron, that same red element that makes me red blooded. This peaches and cream earth and I are blood brothers. I am at home here, I belong here. Like Adam I am made from this earth. Carried now by this flooding of aesthetic pleasure I am far from the sensations that should affect me. Fatigue is a stranger, thoughts of labour washed away.

 

 

 

 

At this stage I discover I’ve reached the 25-kilometre mark, ordinarily the locus of a great groan of self-pity. The discovery, after three hours of running that I still have seventeen kilometres to run has always fallen heavily upon my morale. But today my being rejoices in all that is before me. Seventeen kilometres? How fortunate! I want this never to end.

 

 

 

 

 

I fill those seventeen kilometres with thoughts that should embarrass me, so deeply dorky are they. I will confide in you, dear reader, trusting to your discretion: I play a word game in which I choose a word of a few syllables, say, ‘catheter’; and using the letters of that word, try to name other words of four letters or more. I find lots of words that, being unwritten, circle and loop though my mind time and again. I will spare you the full list, mentioning just a few words that tickled my vanity practically to orgasm. Those words are theta and theca, followed by terce and tercet, the former denoting the third meditative Christian chant of the morning, the latter referring to a trio of lines in verse.

 

 

 

 

 

The mind is a magpie. My mind has no business knowing the name of an element in High Church liturgy, but it pecks around and picks up useless information prodigiously. If you want to know anything unimportant, ask me.

 

 

 

 

 

A being on a bike intrudes upon my word games. He wears black and he identifies himself as the Sweeper. The Grim Sweeper, the Broome Sweeper! 

I ask, Am I running last?

No mate, there’s a couple behind you still. You’re killing it.

How old are you, if I may ask?

I tell him my age and he says, You’re running like a boy, and I say, If I were your dog you’d take me to the vet and the Sweeper laughs and I laugh and he sweeps back to the laggards behind me and the world feels very nice.

 

 

 

 

 

The Sweeper has put his finger on something real. To run, simply to run, for no real purpose and to no material end, to run for play, is precisely what a small boy does, what a little girl does. Utterly useless, it’s a physical expression of delight in being. It’s the undying spirit of play in a dying animal. I still am, therefore I run; I still can, therefore I run; I run, therefore I am still that small boy. And, enjoying this conversation with myself, I run on and on, doing the Cartesian Plod.

 

 

 

 

 

So sweet, this frolic, I wish it never to end.  Running alone, I think of my mother’s father, who came to Broome in 1906 with his three brothers to dive for pearl. I never met that grandfather. I know he played polo, I know he built and played a one-string violin and performed for large audiences in Perth. I know he carved tortoise shell and pearl shell into objects of art. I know he was brave, plying his trade that carried a mortality rate of thirty percent. That grandfather, a laughing cavalier, died young of lung cancer, and I don’t know by what tender name I’d have called him if I’d known him.

 

 

 

 

 

So, communing with the dead grandfather and the dead philosopher, puzzling with words, rejoicing in all that befalls me, I come to the end. My marathon ends in a finishing time of five hours and seven minutes, six minutes slower than I ran five weeks earlier in Traralgon. Of course I’m jubilant, drinking deep of endorphin, floating on euphoria.  A crowd numbering perhaps five persons cheers me across the Line, and behind a phone is the face and form of Mel, taking photographs to record Pheidipides Goldenberg finishing the Broome Marathon in first place (Male, Ancient), there being no other runners aged over seventy.

 

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Running with the Cows

One foot in front of the other. That’s how you do it, this running business. It’s not complicated, it’s not even hard, so long as you don’t do it too quickly or too many times. In the marathon I need to do it 42,185 times. My car finds that distance tiring and so do I. But Traralgon is where I ran my first marathon and – on a later occasion – where I ran my quickest. I try to run Traralgon every year. One of the many things I like about the event is the small field, which allows me to boast, ‘O, Traralgon, yeah, I finished in the first one hundred’.

 

 

 

 

In 2017 injury saw me miss the fiftieth running of the Traralgon Marathon. I was sorry my legs would miss out on history. The event is Australia’s oldest and it’s also The Victorian Country Marathon Championship. In 2018 I trained, I paid my registration and I injured my knee again.  Once again I missed out. But last Sunday saw me fit, I was new again, keen, and running faster than I have for five years. I had lost weight, I’d trained hard and consistently, I felt invincible.

 

 

 

 

The marathon taught me something I should have known: I am vincible.

 

 

 

 

I brought my own support team along. Philbert Kayumba from Rwanda is a natural runner. Being on the run from genocide brought him to Australia as a refugee, and Australia grabbed him, and my family grabbed him. Toby Wundheiler is my skinny grandson. He loves running almost as much as he loves his Saba, Pheidipides Goldenberg. The two believed in me, I believed in me, what could go wrong?

 

 

 

 

 

The lady at Registration peered at her spreadsheet and answered my enquiry: there are 105 starters in the full Marathon, she said. This was the first augury: I would have to beat five, or they’d have to get lost, or pull out or expire, if I were to finish in the first one hundred finishers. I looked around me at the start and I did not sight anyone who looked slow enough for me to beat.  

 

 

 

 

 

At the start I heard a couple of blokes speaking in refined accents, their English correct, grammatical. Must be foreigners, I deduced, and indeed they were. They were veterans of many Comrades Marathons. The Comrades is an event run over an appalling ninety (90!) hilly kilometres in South Africa. Respect! These boys looked stronger than their estimated fifty-odd years. We fell into conversation and the kilometres flew beneath my feet. A sparrow flying with eagles, I ran surprisingly fast, fatally fast. By the time I reached the 11-kilometre mark, the Comrades were well ahead, still in sight, if out of earshot, my breathing was hard and my legs felt tired. Only a quarter of the distance run and I had shot my bolt and I was not Usain.

 

 

 

 

 

Afraid I’d ruined my marathon, I took stock and nourishment. My nourishers on this occasion brought Coca Cola and belief. The nourishing duo were Toby and Philbert. I blessed them and heaved my frame into motion. Now the marathon looked better and felt better, as the route left the paved roadways grey and followed the rail trail. The trail is paved with gravel that springs the tired leg and cushions the sore foot. It runs through the native bushland that fringes the pastures. Amiable cows watch and munch and splatter as the runners pass.  A lone human now, I spent some time running steadily in bovine company; the cows and I established a comfortable fellowship, no words needed.

 

 

 

 

 

An apparition in red, a young woman, announced herself: ‘Hello, I’m your sweeper.’ The voice was sweet, the smile friendly, but I knew dread. The sweeper is the official who sweeps clean the Marathon Course of runners, once their allowed time has expired. Her arrival meant I was running in last place. She would keep me company until the fatal hour. I’d need to reach the Finish before 1.00 pm or I’d be swept. Sweep Lady introduced herself: I’m Vera. I told Vera I was Pheidipides. Vera looked at me jogging along. You’re running well, she said. Would it be rude if she asked me my age? I told her my age. You’re amazing, she said. In my turn I questioned Vera. She’d run Traralgon a number of times, finishing around three-and-a half hours. Today she’d volunteered, giving away her own swifter marathon in favour of the slowest.  

 

 

 

 

 

Vera spoke proudly of her daughters, aged 17, 14 and her boy, 11. All were mad about sports, the elder two being elite junior netballers. Vera drove the eldest to training in Melbourne two days a week. She didn’t mind spending four hours on the road. She was happy to keep doing it, until the day she says, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’. Then we’ll stop, no pressure.   

 

 

 

 

 

A second red blur appeared in my lateral field. The blur rode a bicycle. She introduced herself: I’m Lucy.  Lucy too had given up her marathon to share the sweeping duties. Had Lucy run Traralgon before? Sure have. I won it seven times.  My interrogation of Lucy revealed she held her Age Group World Record for a 200 kilometre race. A few of my records have been beaten, but I still hold the two hundred. Like Vera, Lucy taught at a local school. The two chatted about mutual friends. Maxine was doing better now her daughter was recovering. Therapy had made all the difference. Madeline was running today, the 10 K, not the marathon. She’d given that up to referee the hockey. Young Robert had been stood down by his school. Despite warnings, he was out. You couldn’t push a classmate into the urinal, you couldn’t pull his pants up while he was taking a pee. No respect. It didn’t make it better that the urinating victim was African. You need to have respect.

 

 

 

 

 

Kilometres passed pleasantly. So and so had a new job, closer to town. Such and such was working night shift at the hospital which allowed her to help the littlies at school with their reading. A third friend ran the Fire Brigade Coffee Truck. He gets up early Saturdays and Sundays and drives the truck to the local footy – both sexes, to the local soccer – girls and boys – to the netball, the basketball, then the AFL in the afternoons. The profits from the coffee truck go to buy musical instruments form the town Junior Band. The cows and I listened and learned.  

 

 

 

 

Even tired old legs retain some pride. My legs were tiring, certainly they were old, but here were Lucy and Vera, a pair of runners who’d dedicated their day to the slowest of all. Fleet-footed and vital, these two would recognise my flaccid morals if I stopped. I kept going, sustained by pride, bemused by gossip that spoke only good of their fellows.

 

 

 

 

A noise up ahead, a flash of black flesh, cries of Saba! Saba! You’re awesome, Saba! And Saba was me and the noises were Toby’s and the flash was Philbert. More Coke, more embraces, more sunshine pumped up my bum, and here we were at the turn, at the halfway point.

 

 

 

Phil and Toby saw me around the turn, where the Marshall cried, Pheidipides!  Pheidipides Goldenberg! I recognised Barry Higgins, this marathon’s historian. His splendid book, ‘In the Long Run’, records the history of this event and its fifty famous years. 

 

 

 

Toby loped and leaped at one side, Philbert glided at the other. I knew no pain. The halfway mark signals good tidings to the runner; the mind realises every step now leads shortens the road to the Finish; the legs know they can do it. The reality of twenty-one kilometres remaining somehow weighs less simply for having turned for home.

 

 

 

Toby announced: I’m going to run with you to the three-quarter mark, Saba. It’s only ten kilometres. He darted ahead. Vera observed, you’ve got a lovely grandson there, Howard. Lucy remarked, not quite beneath her breath, and your son Philbert’s hot!  ‘Yes, they are’, I agreed.  Hot Philbert left the gravel to retrieve the car. Lovely Toby ran on until, one kilometre later, he sighted the car and decided he’d keep Philbert company.

 

 

 

 

More of the same. Step followed step, perhaps a little slower. The sun shone palely, I discarded gloves, then a shirt, then a singlet. The legs found a rhythm they could tolerate, my brain separated itself from pain; I was spending time in pleasant company, passing though the wintry green. At some stage I must have fallen silent.

 

 

 

 

I heard a question. Someone was asking, are you retired, Howard?  I answered Lucy, who then asked, so you know all about the heart, then?

No.

Lucy pressed on: Have you heard of arrhythmia?

I had.

We had a long chat about arrhythmias, how a runner’s heart muscle might be strong enough to run two hundred kilometres in record time one day, but beat so irregularly the next that running was impossible. But arrhythmias could be treated.

 

 

 

Vera spoke of her youngest, a boy born dangerously premature. They’d prayed for the little mite. He was too sick for the local hospital and ambo’s speeded him to the Monash Children’s Hospital where he pulled through. Ever since, the little fellow had lived his lively life in a body small and frail; it never occurs to him he has a disability. Never mind he has to spend periods at home, never mind that he too is prey to a parlous heart irregularity – all the other kids played sport, so would he. The reality of a brave boy, running the marathon that is his life, made my own marathon a small affair. I was a child, running was my play; Vera’s child on the other hand, runs to the ‘Wall’ every day.

 

 

 

I listened to Vera and to Lucy and thoughts of fatigue never broke through. What was tiredness? Some petty experience, not admissible, lacking substance. Assuredly I was slowing all the time, but the sweepers assured me I remained a legend, I was certainly awesome, thoroughly amazing. You’ll easily arrive before they close the course. You’re way ahead, said Vera. I looked at my watch, but by this stage I was incapable of computation.

 

 

 

 

A small black car peeped between the bushes, and here, in a flurry and a roaring were Toby and Philbert bearing love and belief and Coke and a Mars bar. We’d reach the three-quarter mark. Numb in the brain, sugared into foolish cheerfulness, I picked up my feet and plodded on. At every road crossing and at every aid station, we found volunteers. I’d salute them and the sweepers would dismiss them: You’ve done your job. Thank you, thank you all. This man here is the last runner. I might have wept for thankfulness.

 

 

 

 

Off the gravel now and onto those pavements grey, as Yeats called them. Up a hillock, down another, head down, a dour business. Abruptly a pretty lady in blue burst into my threesome. She flung herself into the arms of my companions. Boadicea! How did you go, Bo?

Personal Worst.

You’re kidding! Boadicea, meet Philopities! Or Howard. He’s a legend. Ask him how many marathons he’s done.

The young lady in blue asked me how many.

Fifty two. This will be fifty three.

Boadicea affirmed I was a legend. I knew she had that back to front. I concentrated on not falling over and I said nothing.

 

 

 

We ran on. Four kilometres to go, four nasty, mean kilometres, each one of them longer than the one before. 

When a man’s afraid

A beautiful maid’s

A cheering sight to see. 

The lines from The Mikado bypassed my brain and came to my lips and I heard myself singing in the empty back streets of Traralgon. The ladies looked at each other. Charitable souls all, they said nothing.

 

 

 

Thus inspired I ran on. I knew I’d find Toby and Philbert in the final kilometre. We twisted and turned in empty back streets that quite befuddled me. Sandwiched between my colourful escorts, I followed wherever they led. I was a dumb machine, a mechanism of bone and gristle and muscle, an automaton untroubled by thought or pain. One limb faithfully followed its fellow, mine was a body as free of volition as if I were falling. I might easily have been asleep.

 

 

 

But here was familiar territory. Parkland, a creek, Traralgon’s sporting precinct must be somewhere near. A skinny stick figure in black tights and top materialised, a great grin flashed, a boy mad with love and joy flung his arms about me, imperilling my dodgy balance. The boy ran at my side, in front of me, across me, then sprinted away into the distance, shouting: See you at the Finish, Saba! Vera said, Toby’s gone the wrong way.

Philbert, smooth, quiet calming, ran at my side. He looked emotional. Next time I want to run this with you – the whole distance.

 

 

 

 

A minute later the sports ground loomed. We turned a weary corner and there, two hundred metres ahead, was the Finish. Go, Howard, said Phil’s quiet voice.

Go Howard, cried Vera and Lucy.

Go Philopities, screamed Boadicea.

So I went. I went fast. EmpIoying bundles of fast-twitch muscle fibres that I hadn’t used in the 42 slow-twitch kilometres that lay behind, I sprinted.

I felt fast. I felt liberty, release, the knowledge of an ending. I pumped my arms, I waved them, I flew and I crossed the Line and I fell into Toby’s arms. The clock read, 5 hours and 52 seconds. Two women in red and another in blue told me I was a legend, I was amazing, I was awesome, as they clapped my back and kissed my face.

 

 

 

 

Later Philbert sent me footage of the final sixty metres or so. I looked and I laughed. The video camera catches me in profile. Had I not known otherwise, I’d have taken the spavined biped in the picture as some strange clockwork creature in green tights. I invite the reader to view the footage and share my mirth.

 

 

 

On the way home Philbert drove and I stretched out and ate and drank. Philbert said, that will be my event. I’ll run Traralgon next year with you, Howard. I’ll run it every year. Toby said, You’re my inspiration, Saba. I’ll run it too. I’ll bring Mancha, I’ll bring Mami and Papi, I’ll bring Nana. Savta will come, my bothers too. We’ll all run.

 

 

 

 

 

Footnotes:

 

1.   Five hours and 52 seconds is not a fast time. It is, however, 30 minutes faster than my previous five or six marathons. By way of comparison, my first Traralgon (in which I ran last) took four hours, thirty-one minutes and thirty-one seconds. My best Traralgon took three hours and fifteen minutes. Today I finished last but I was the first runner over 73 years to cross the line. I am happy to claim the title, Victorian Marathon Champion (male), (over 73). And I have duly added that title to my CV.

 

 

2. Mancha is a Border Collie.

 

3. Savta is my wife, a walker, not a runner. Nana is her 92 year old mother, a Yogi, not a runner.

 

 

 

Why I Haven’t Written

This blog has been silent for a good while. I have been remiss. Happily, of the blog’s three-or-four hundred nominal followers, one only has complained. Perhaps she alone has noticed. The truth is a lot has happened: spring came to Melbourne; a surgeon cut my eyes open and melted my cataracts, bunging in a couple of new lenses; a dear friend has died; we experienced a hit-and-run road accident; and Bert the half-hearted came through his surgery and battles on.

I’ll start with the least material of these events, the road accident. I parked my wife’s pretty little red car outside a travel agency and went off to buy bok choi. I came back to find the front defaced and a note attached to the windscreen:

31 AUG 2018, 11:08 AM

CAR: WHITE HONDA CRV, YHO 815

LOVE,

FLIGHT CENTRE, SIX WITNESSES

I surveyed the alterations to my wife’s car, then entered the travel agency. The travel agents described the event, described the driver, wished me well in the manhunt and assured me they’d testify. They shared a lively indignation; the driver’s amorality offended them.

I post these particulars by way of invitation for the assailant to come forward, confess, throw herself upon my wife’s mercies and pay up. Under those circumstances we need not trouble the constabulary.

Surgery is one of the everyday miracles of life in a city like Melbourne. Two crazed lenses are literally melted in the eyes and sucked away like so much snot. New lenses are inserted and the world gleams. Then spring arrives. I see the green greener, and – thanks to the new hearing aids – the birds sing. (One of the saddest little lines in poetry closes Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci. The line of four words – and no birds sing – suffices for desolation.) Once again my spring sings.

Little Bert underwent his second heart surgery. His heart, sized like an apricot, was showing strain. A vascular detour improves his prospects. Inside Bert’s chest the so-called great vessels are like thin tubular spaghetti, cooked al dente. Somehow a surgeon cuts, stitches, reroutes, and attaches. Somehow blood flows through the pasta. And Bert breathes on. The praying continues.

In the mid-seventies I met a bearded maths teacher who took me on lengthening runs up and down the green hills of the Diamond Valley. His name was Dick. One day we paused on a high hilltop and watched the shafts of sunlight pierce the winter mists. A moment of silent communion followed as we share revelation. That was ten kilometers, said Dick. We breathed together, blowing out mist, thinking the same thought: If I can run ten, I can run a marathon. With Dick as my inspiration and my training partner, fifty-plus marathons followed. And a few weeks ago, Dick, who’d developed and survived lung cancer, Dick who never smoked, Dick died – of breathlessness. At his memorial service a large congregation paused and wondered: How is it we live? How is it we cease living? What is this miracle we call friendship? Which is the greatest wonder?

I write this aboard an aircraft from Phoenix, Arizona, where I’ve just said goodbye to friend Paul, struck down by a stroke on a Sunday morning late last year. I asked him had he felt fear. No, not fear. I found it difficult to dress for church with my right hand paralysed.

I’ve written previously of Paul, surgeon, aviator, morbid anatomist. Paul is a man of deep faith. He’s certain he’ll be reunited with Beverley, his beloved wife who died eighteen years ago. I noticed the words printed starkly on the band he wore on his left wrist: MEDICAL ALERT – DNR. Knowing his confident belief in rising again to bliss, I asked: Paul, does it make you sad to persist here in life? His voice of deep gravel remains strong and clear. His word choice carries all the old inventiveness, no stale phrases: After my stroke I’d awake in the mornings quite surprised still to be alive.

Paul and I sat outside in the heat of the Arizona afternoon while he smoked his daily cigar, holding it in his left hand. The right hand remains weak but to my astonishment the strength is returning steadily. Such vitality! I thought of the tiny trees growing in their cleft rocks at Fitzroy Crossing. Germinating from seeds dropped by birds, these miniature saplings force a root downwards through great basalt rocks, emerging into air as a tendril that dangles down to the river surface, down through the great waters to the muddy riverbed. His one-hundredth birthday falls early in 2019. After today I do not expect to see this marvellous man again. But on parting Paul asked, when will you come out this way again? The question was not facetious; he’s lived this long, why not a few more years?

Deaths, deaths. I write of them so often – naturally so, as I age and those I know slip away. In my work too, the farewells are many, and not all of them to elderly persons. Long ago a friend remarked of my writing that I what I was really doing was coming to terms with my mortality. At that time I didn’t see it. But I know now he was correct. I know too, death is not the worst thing.

Autumn Notes 111

The ruler of this blog disqualified the title of my previous post. I’d proposed “Autumn Notes -III”, but the blogmeistress ruled that out. ‘It’s a book review, Dad, it’s nothing to do with autumn. You’ll confuse people if you call it that.’

I disagreed.

She insisted.

I demurred.

She overruled.

So here we ago again. I’m writing this in autumn. Brown leaves are falling, the air is chilling, malicious winds lash the streets. What’s more, I’m in the autumn of my days. And today when I visited my aunt I glimpsed Winter.

My mother-in-law is a beauty. At 91 years she dresses like my daughters and she’s still admired as a beauty. Her name’s Helen. As in Troy. Ma-in-Law Helen remarked to me once,   ‘Your Aunty B was the most beautiful bride I ever saw’. On a separate occasion Aunty B said to me ‘Your mother in law was the most beautiful bride I ever saw.’

I’ve seen wedding photos of them both and I can’t disagree with either of them.

Today I visited Aunty B. Family news had filtered through the dark: B isn’t doing well. I found her sleeping in her room, surrounded by her daughters and her doctor-granddaughter. I saw her, I saw that same face, beautiful still. I thought of Aunty B’s life of battles, of her buoyancy and grace, her good cheer. I remember how she took this bewildered country boy under her wing on lonely visits to Melbourne. Now Aunty opened an eye. Was that a smile? Her hand opened to my touch, the grip strong. My last surviving aunt opened her mouth to speak. No words. The eye closed and she slept. Like Hemingway’s Old Man (of the Sea), did she dream?

It’s not yet Winter but it’s coming.

Writing into the Silence

Ten years ago an extremely distant relative by marriage, an aged veteran of WWII, commanded me to send a copy of my first book to his wartime senior officer, who became his enduring friend. The book in question (‘My Father’s Compass’, Hybrid, 2007) tells of my relationship with my father, a righteous and loving man who has been my lifelong inspiration. The relative said, ‘Paul will enjoy that book.’

So I obeyed. Paul read my book and enjoyed becoming acquainted with my father, a man like Paul, of unwavering principle.

A correspondence followed. Seven emails a day informed me of Paul’s take on the news. He disapproved of Obama, and of his successor as President; much of Islam (as portrayed in the popular press) offended him as did illegal immigrants. He disapproved of gun control measures (‘if you take weapons away from the good people, we’ll be defenceless against the bad people’). He had a close relationship with God and the Republican cause. He loved humanity broadly. He loved his family with a proud particularity, and he nurtured tenderly the numerous stray cats and partially tame birds who adopted him.

My email feed from Phoenix Arizona included Paul’s never-dull reports on the weather – its extremity and its beauty – on mushroom toxicology, on rattlesnake behaviour and on the conduct of those human snakes who conducted relentless scamming campaigns aimed to impoverish him. He loathed millionaire TV evangelists. He warned Israel’s enemies that ‘Jews will not go quietly to the showers again’. He warned the dictator of North Korea of the obliteration of his country if he started military adventures against the USA. Paul loved his country and he suffered the fiercest extremes of spiritual agony when faced with the horrifying (to him) electoral choice between Clinton and her opponent. While many found that choice troubling, it distressed Paul, so seriously did he take his duties as a citizen.

In due course I met Paul in the flesh, enjoying his company in the house of his daughter Ann. Ann drove us to the sequoia redwoods nearby her California home, where she took a photo of those ancient trees towering over her ancient father, who in turn towered over me.

On a later trip I visited Paul in his Phoenix home where we sat on the porch enjoying the desert sun and where Paul smoked his constitutional cigar. I promised myself I’d visit again in February 2019 when Paul would turn one hundred.

A couple of weekends ago the emails from Phoenix came abruptly to a halt. Then the following appeared on my screen:

Good day all!

 

This is John Jarrett, Paul’s youngest son.

 

On Sunday, November 7th while Paul was getting ready to attend church, he suffered a pretty severe TIA, transient ischemic attack, which has put him under the weather. He has been having some difficulties in his daily routine so we have all been with him 24/7 until he recuperates.

 

Thanks for your thoughts and prayers and I know he’ll be back on the computer as soon as he can. He loves emails, so keep them coming!

 

John

 

 

I wrote to John, with my hopes and prayers for his Dad’s health.

John wrote back:

He had showered and was preparing to drive to Church this past Sunday morning when he became impacted by dizziness and faintness… He’s also “put up” with a heart condition that brought bouts of angina at times and he has been having these TIA’s for several years ongoing…  He has a stricture where his aorta connects to the main part of his heart and was told he was not a candidate for a stint procedure… So, he soldiered on some more…

He had one “spell” (as my sister call’s it) about 3 weeks ago when she was visiting that took 3 or 4 days to show improvement after being 99% speechless for several hours.  About 1 year ago, he was unable to speak while doing business at the banking teller window…  He was getting Christmas gift envelopes for his children and grandchildren.  He tried to type emails Sunday evening but was unable to make is fingers hit the proper keys… The speech problem impacts his typing too it seems… He hears with difficulty (as has been his hearing deficiency for years now) but understands all that he is able to capture in terms of sounds.

He might recover from this most recent bout but each time, full or even partial recovery is becoming increasingly difficult. We are all praying that he improve to the extent he can enjoy his patio, cigars and cats again!  He is extremely weak in his legs/torso and has been impacted by some by minor paralysis in his right hand and arm too…

Fifteen days have passed since Paul’s son wrote. Fifteen days of email silence. In the silence I picture Paul suddenly, taken suddenly mute at the bank teller’s window, as he tries to buy gift envelopes for his children and grandchildren.

Death Visits

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

Two Recipes for a Long Life

Recipe One
(Yvonne Mayer Goldenberg, 8 June, 1917- 7 June, 2009)

  
Eat only foods rich in butter and cream. Avoid any food that requires chewing, especially vegetables. (My mother was frightened by a vegetable as a child and never came near one again.)

Relax. Do not rush. Shun punctuality.

A lady who possesses the skill of changing a flat tyre should conceal such knowledge. ‘Why deprive some gentleman of the opportunity to behave chivalrously?’
(Mum believed in chivalry. As a child when instructed by her teacher to use the word ‘frugal’ in a sentence, Mum understood ‘frugal’ to mean one who saves. She wrote: ‘A lady was walking by the sea. A strong wind lifted her up and flung her into the waves. She could not swim. She saw a man on a white horse: “Frugal me! Frugal me!”, she cried. So the man leapt into the waves and frugalled her. And they lived happily ever after.’)

Rejoice in your kin; they are life’s benison to you. You will not have them forever. (Mum’s parents died in her childhood. Left with her younger sister in the care of her beloved grandmother, Mum cherished all her descendants with promiscuous undiscrimination.)

Smile. Nothing is so serious that it should furrow your brow – unless it hurt your little ones.

Talk to strangers, visit their countries. Walk the earth without fear. People are good.

Forgive your children their naughtiness. Indulge your adolescent children in their self-absorbtion. They owe you nothing; they give you all.

What you cannot cure you must endure – with a smile. (Mum’s hip was shattered in her twenties. For forty years she walked in pain, with a marked limp. She did not think to complain. Pain did not interest her. Likewise the disabling strokes she suffered in her last decades. ‘A stroke is boring’, she said.)

Decorate your life. Eat every day from your best china; use the good cutlery. (Which day will be better than today? Who better than the family to enjoy these things?)

Raise your boys to help. (‘Why should I be your kitchen slave? There is no pride in being a parasite.’)

Sex is good, sexual pleasure very good. Never boast of your conquests. Use a condom. (These last two dicta were delivered to her sons before the age of nine.)

Feminism is a mistaken impulse. (It arises from the absurd notion held by some that a woman could possibly be inferior to a man in any particular.)

Never open someone else’s mail.

Read. Meet new words. Look up every one in the dictionary. Read everything – the classics, the junk mail, the cornflakes packet.

Don’t fear death. Speak of it freely. (‘Death is a part of life, darling.’)

Do not fear harm. Fate is kind. Clothe your young in love but do not over-wrap them. Harm probably won’t befall them. Entrust them to the care of the universe.

Do not fear at all.

Recipe Two
(Myer Goldenberg, 5 December, 1909 – 10 September, 2003)

  
Fear everything. (Dad witnessed his friend die of electrocution when the stays of his yacht struck power lines. He operated on trauma patients without number. These events made him warn his children of the injuries that result from inattention or lack of care. One warning would never suffice. No number of warnings could suffice.)

Do everything. But take care. Sail, drive, use power tools. Never wave a knife around. Safety first. Safety last.

Fear nothing and no-one. No task is beyond you, no skill too hard to master, no knowledge beyond your reach, no person to be feared.

Eat vegetables. Overboil them first.

Be firm with children. Demand they meet your own high standards. Don’t coddle them in their minor ills. But if real harm come near, cross the country to protect or repair them.

Don’t let your children off lightly. But protect them ferociously from attack by an outsider.

Cherish your kin. Honour your parents. Honour your ancestry.

Honour your work.

Work hard. Keep going. Do not weaken.

Do not run marathons.

Be worthy. (Dad idolised his parents, particularly his father. Through his long life Dad wished always ‘to be worthy’. He meant worthy of his own father. Even in his eighties Dad fretted he was not worthy. I ached when I heard him speak so.)

Forgive. Never hold a grudge. Speak your anger then reconcile.

Never forget or forgive one who hurts your young.

Keep your words clean. Do not say ‘bum’, never say ‘bloody’. Forget ‘dick’. When you belt your thumb with a hammer, allow yourself ‘YOU BITCH!’

Exercise. Where you could drive, choose to walk. Walk fast. Your children can run to keep pace.

People are good. Life is good, health a blessing. Protect it with injections.

Do not fret about germs. They build resistance.

Breast feed. (‘They’re not just there to fill jumpers’).

Cuddle your children. Kiss them – the boys too. And not just in private.

Pass on your faith. Drill your young in ancient ritual and practice.

Tell the children Bible stories. Read those stories with passion and conviction. Pass on your heritage with love and pride.

Be proud. You are as good as anyone else. And no better.

Be authentic. Do not fear being different. Respect yourself and others will respect you.

Love your children. Succour them in your old age as you did lifelong when the need was real.

Show tenderness. A man can be soft and still be strong.

Tell the truth. Demand the truth. Nothing is more sacred than your word. Nothing nourishes better than trust.

Don’t arrive on time. Arrive early.

Never open someone else’s mail.

Work hard. Save for a rainy day. (Dad worked very hard. He practised medicine to the age for ninety-two and a half. To the end of his life he saved for a rainy day, never feeling the heavy rain upon him, never knowing the time had come to take shelter.)

Sing. Sing loudly. Sing with your children. Sing table hymns with your children on Shabbat; sing loudly in synagogue; sing sea shanties, sing nonsense songs. Opera is grand but Gilbert and Sullivan are brighter, more fun.

The compass needle on your boat flickers; at the poles the compass fails. Know your own True North. Follow it.

Embrace the sea. Sail, fish, and sing. Travel by boat at night, navigating by stars, chart and compass. Do not fear the sea. Never take it for granted.

Be vigilant. Experience the rapture of your mastery of an alien element.

Do not fear. Relax. Never relax your vigilance.

See the beauty, smell the ozone, relish this given world.

Thrill to the cresting wave, the heeling sailboat.

Surrender to the windless calm. Experience tranquillity.
Feel the caress of the sun, the bracing breeze. Both are good.

Give thanks. Be thankful.

Love your kin. Nourish them, work for them protect them, nurture them. Demand resilience.

Be brave. Be true.

When all is said remember the love.