Drawn Toward the Portals

I’m seventy-five. Seventy-five, a thankful number, and a thinkful one. Anyone who reaches this stage knows – with me – that we are closer here to the exit than the entry. Anyone who follows my writing will note how my mind drifts toward death, dying and the dead; toward memory and memorial.

A friend observed thirty years ago, ‘You know Howard, all this writing you are doing is a just means of coming to terms with your mortality.’

I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about. 

I smiled the kindly smile you give to the clueless friend who means well.

I know now my friend was right, dead right.

When I was a child the fact of death frightened me. To be annihilated – unthinkable! Literally, I was unable to think what the world could be like without Howard Jonathan Goldenberg. In my adult life I’ve experienced a similar disability of thinking: I find myself simply unable to think of an afterlife. I don’t deny the possibility, I just can’t relate to the concept.

So I live this life as if it’s my only one. I think now that death is a good idea. I don’t feel frightened anymore of annihilation. It’s my loved ones who fear my death, especially the grandchildren. The more I love them, the more they love me, the more vulnerable I make them. That’s a dilemma for me. I have felt at times, almost irresponsible, for becoming close and precious to children whose frailty I know so well. For myself, I can reflect how this planet, our species, did alright before Howard Jonathan Goldenberg arrived; once he’s gone, there’ll be one polluter fewer.

But just as the exit has always exercised my mind, the opposite portal called me irresistibly. As my own life ebbs, at the opposite portal an opposite tide of new life always rises. That portal has admitted nine grandchildren into life, into my life. The nine have broadened and deepened my late years. Those years feel more intense, more vivid, more life-stained than the years before.

I used to work at the portal that admits newcomers to life. I delivered babies. I was the intimate outsider, the guest who was invited to attend the birth of a family. Looking back, gazing over my shoulder towards that portal, that screaming gateway, I see blood and shit and tears, I see babies who gasped and roared, I see other babies who had to be coaxed into breath, I see some who would never breathe. I see women shaken, transfigured by the sudden knowledge of their enormous power. I see placentas stuck, I see the lifeblood ebbing, I feel once again the terror…

Two portals long have drawn me, twin doorways of universal truth.

My day starts with prayer, followed by some tablets to lower my blood pressure washed down with strong coffee to raise it. I plug in my hearing aids, I put on my specs, I stretch my shrinking spine and try to stand straight. These small acts, the adjustments of a seventy-five year old, as he moves ever backward, ever closer to the portal marked Exit.

I remember a book my wife’s father gifted me, an anthology of sorts, with odd bits of writing. One story ran something like this: 

A man went for a walk in the high mountains. Entranced by the grandeur that he saw all around, he jumped when he heard a loud roar from behind him. Looking back, he saw a snow tiger. The giant creature would very soon overtake him. The man ran, and as the tiger sprang the man reached the summit and leaped. 

The man looked down at the valley floor far below. Turning in mid-air, he reached and just managed to grab an overhanging branch of the small sapling that grew at the edge of the fall. The man swung from the bough, his fall broken. Looking up he saw the slavering tiger regarding him. Looking down he saw the unbroken fall. The man heard a groaning sound. Looking behind, he saw the sapling slowly coming away from the peak. Swinging, he looked at the cliff face, and saw, just beneath the sapling, some strawberries growing there. The man’s free hand plucked some strawberries and he ate them. How good the strawberries tasted.

Suspended between the portals of truth, a seventy-five year old enjoys the taste of strawberries.

DROUIN, SCOPUS, SCOTCH

The Drouin High School graduate phoned the former Mount Scopus college boy in early March. He said: “It will be fifty years next week, since we met at Monash and started Medicine. We should all get together.”

Monash University was three years old in March 1964 when the Drouin boy and the Scopus boy met and became friends, together with Mirboo North Boy, Malayan Girl and Scotch boy.
One week previously, Scopus said to his Mum: “I think I’ll drive out to Monash and look around.”
His mother said:”I’ll come and have a look too.”  She added, “Incidentally, you pronounce the name wrongly.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s pronounced Moan-ash, not Mon-nash.”
“No it’s not Mum.”
“Yes it is, darling.”
“Look Mum, three thousand students go there every day of the academic year, and one thousand academics, and they all pronounce it as I did. They all say ‘Mon-nash.'”
“Do they darling? I must be wrong then. It’s just I knew the family and they all pronounced it ‘Moan -ash'”.
Last Friday Scopus and Drouin and Scotch met at a cafe and compared illnesses, diagnoses, remedies, side effects and grandchildren. They knew already about each other’s wives and children.
At first Scopus did not recognise the stocky, aging man seated reading the paper. He looked more like Scotch’s late mother than the thin gangler of 1964. That boy soon became a distinguished specialist with a gift for translating medical jargon into words of crystal clarity. His patients crossed the state to see him. Scopus sent all his relatives to him. All swore by him. Now Scotch wintered in the south of France where his French was too refined for the young to follow.
Drouin was there, a shadow of his spheroidal middle aged self. A self-repaired diabetic who turned away his car and walked and rode everywhere, and worked for 90 minutes a day in a gym, Drouin retained the sardonic humour of 1964, the wife of 1973, the free-ranging facility for mastery in both Sciences and Humanities that had impressed Scopus in 1964. Drouin studied English Lit. in first year Med: Scopus, who loved and excelled at English, had never heard of Jean Anouilh. He envied Drouin’s facility. Scotch’s too. Those two graduated from Monash near the top of their class.
Scopus was there, resembling his father in looks and in religious habits. Proudly he showed his friends a flyer for his latest book, his maiden novel. They were happy for him. Scopus knew his friends always valued and respected him, despite – perhaps for – his peculiarities and eccenticities. They never condescended.
The three talked a little of the past, much of the present and not at all of the future: not in a prognostic sense. They knew that they knew something precious, friendship that endured. Doctors all they knew it would not endure forever.
It had been eight years since they last sat and talked.They arranged to meet again soon, together with Mirboo North and  Malaya and one or two others.
Soon. Soon.