Half-hearted and Nameless

A military man I know who is also a man of the cloth, recently fathered a half-hearted child. The child is a boy. Although the boy is now four months old I cannot tell you his name: as well as heart-deficient this boy is nameless. Into the vacuum where a name should sound and resound I have secretly named him Bert.

Bert was born with an Hypoplastic Left Heart. Of all the congenital heart defects consistent with life, this is the most severe. When early prenatal scans demonstrated the defect, doctors warned the mother and father: The child might not be born alive. Of all the cities in the world to be born thus, Melbourne might be the very best. For in this location the very worst heart enjoys the very best outcome. And Melbourne is home to the Royal Children’s Hospital, where the cardiac surgeons achieve results superior to other centres around the world. Paediatric surgeons from the greatest hospitals in the USA perform the same procedures but without the same success. Their specialists visit the RCH to learn how the Melbourne team does it.

When my soldier friend told me of Bert’s heart condition my own heart sank. Without an adequate left ventricle circulation is critically impaired, the baby is breathless and often blue. The situation is serious, prone to deteriorate rapidly. Surgery of the highest intricacy is needed with critical urgency. Further surgery will follow within months, and more still as the child grows. If the child grows.

But Bert’s family are strangers to despair. Their faith buoys them. They pray. Their large family prays, their congregation prays, sister congregations join in a tidal wave of prayerful hope. The soldier father sets about studying Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome. He interrogates the cardiologist, the cardiac surgeon, surgical texts and research papers in the learned journals. Meanwhile baby Bert lies in Intensive Care puffing mightily, as his too little heart labours to circulate oxygen-poor blood around his body – most crucially to his brain.

The baby undergoes his first operation. Some hold their breath. Others pray. Bert comes through.

The nurses ask, ‘What’s his name?’

The parents reply, ‘We haven’t given him a name yet.’

‘When will you?’

‘When he’s fit enough we’ll circumcise him and we’ll give him his name.’

The nurses are confounded. They’ve come to love this little baby who puffs and puffs and keeps pulling through. Love demands a name. Administration demands a name. A non-name is given, a name for nurses to love him by, a name for administrators to administer by. Obeying the same imperative, I looked at the bony little battler and secretly started calling him Bert. But his true name, the name that will come to him dynastically or by parental vision or by revelation is not known. The day is not yet come.

A close bond weaves itself among the team that comprises on the one side a mother, a father, bigger brothers, grandparents, uncles and aunts, and on the other, a cardiac surgeon from Belgium, a cardiologist with a Chinese name, ultrasonographers, physiotherapists, cardiac nurses. The father masters and explains to me the eye-watering anatomic detail, embryology, circulatory physiology and pathology as well as the sequence of cardiac surgeries that is needed for Bert to live and to grow. And (in the locution of the family), God willing, to undergo ritual circumcision and to receive his name.

When I visit Bert in Intensive Care, I find the usual grim intent of such a Unit softened. A tenderness prevails, a gentleness, the amalgam of a family’s faith and the distinctive ethos of the institution. It is in Paediatrics where you find the kindest clinicians, and human sensitivity at its highest. The Chinese cardiologist procures for himself a religious almanac so he can know the dates and times when the family will observe Sabbaths and Festivals. He doesn’t want to cause them needlessly to contravene the strictures of telephony at such times.

Bert learns to smile. An MRI searches for hypoxic and other brain damage and finds none. Bert learns to suckle, taking in nourishment made specifically for him, taking in too, mother love, mother touch, smell and sound. Bert lies at his mother’s breast and feels that heartbeat that reassured and made him through the months that he grew, until he came into the world without a fully formed heart. Bert’s bony cheeks begin to flesh out, but he gains weight painfully slowly. The cardiologist explains Bert’s heart has to work so hard it burns up almost all the energy he consumes. The date of the second surgical operation must be brought forward, lest a wonky heart valve be damaged further.

The soldier rabbi father and I became friends when he himself was a runted collection of skin and bones and spirit, aged four years. It was he who knocked on my door one Sabbath morning with a request from his mother to visit his sick sister in their house around the corner. That sister was sped to hospital that morning, never to return to her home. None of us has recovered from her ordeal and her loss.

Tomorrow, or as soon as an Intensive Care bed becomes free, the baby son without a heart and without a name will undergo his next surgery. If you are the praying kind, spare a prayer for him. You can call him Bert.

Sadie

The baby slid into our lives one day earlier this month. I can’t recall exactly which particular day, but the day was particular for the sliding.

Doctors inspect, find all parts present and correct, a girl. Parents check: not simply present and correct, but perfect, their girl child. 

Grandparents arrive, enter the dimmed room, quieting exultation. They sight the child, suppressing gasps of joy. 

They behold, astonished by smallness, their newest beloved. Already, immediately beloved.  

Lips a circlet of pink, the baby in stillness. Parents drained – but for now – electric with joy, unaware of their deepening sleep deficit, aware only of baby, baby, baby, miracle, fact, miracle.  

What is this love that bursts into being? This finer, purer love, this love that seeks nothing of the child, this love that demands nothing beyond that she be? This love, this agape? The grandparents are certainly agape. At this child, this miracle, fact, miracle.

In the quiet and stillness, in this room, tenderness has her domain. This room contains a new human person who sleeps, whose lips flicker and semaphore mystically. She sleeps and she teaches love.

 

 
 

 

A Lime

The doctor showed them the spine, the limbs, the minute digits. The heart in its cage, beating, beating, beating. Kidneys, liver, lungs, all manner of organs, organised and working against their day.
The watchers watched and listened and wondered. Their unborn, unknowing it was watched, moved, metabolised and grew. This watching, this lovecharged voyeurism through a window that opened only half a century ago. They saw their unborn, alone, confined, silent, breathing bathwater, drinking sewage, content withal. The watchers felt awe and hope. The man leaned over and held the woman and came away sticky with gel.
 
The doctor said, it’s the size of a lime. The man and the woman closed their palms against a mental lime. They saw with their hands how big, how small was their unborn. The woman giggled with delight.
 
They told me and I thought of the days I delivered babies – that age before ultrasound, when mother, father and doctor looked on the baby and the baby looked on them in equal discovery. Ultrasound alters human relation. Now fathering starts thirty –four weeks before the father is born into fatherhood.
 
I thought too of Judith Wright and her secret love and her poem:
Woman To Man
The eyeless labourer in the night,

the selfless, shapeless seed I hold,

builds for its resurrection day—

silent and swift and deep from sight

foresees the unimagined light.
This is no child with a child’s face;

this has no name to name it by;

yet you and I have known it well.

This is our hunter and our chase,

the third who lay in our embrace.
This is the strength that your arm knows,

the arc of flesh that is my breast,

the precise crystals of our eyes.

This is the blood’s wild tree that grows

the intricate and folded rose.
This is the maker and the made;

this is the question and reply;

the blind head butting at the dark,

the blaze of light along the blade.

Oh hold me, for I am afraid.
 

Not Immune

I remember a boy, Cain. I delivered him at four one morning. He was Jennifer’s third son. Cain was perfect. The year was 1976. We didn’t have a meningitis vaccine in 1976.

***

2013. A young mother sits before me. Lucy (that’s her name) leans forward in her chair, anxious, her newborn baby in a capsule at her feet. Lucy’s love for her baby ties her in knots that she can’t undo. She needs to protect her babe from all harm, from the harm of illness and from the harms of vaccines. Lucy asks me her questions, she needs me to affirm her dread – of the vaccines:

Vaccines are unsafe, aren’t they?

Vaccines are inadequately tested, aren’t they?

Aren’t they contaminated with foreign viruses?

Don’t they contain toxic additives?

Isn’t it true they weaken the immune system?

Aren’t homeopathic preparations just as effective?

Vaccines worsen asthma, don’t they?

I am unable to answer ‘yes’ to any of these questions. I am unable to meet her need. Lucy swallows unhappily. She has been seeing me since she was a young girl. I remember vaccinating her thirty years ago.  Through all sorts of troubles in her teens and in her adult relationships Lucy has come to expect comfort in my advice. But I have no comfort for her today.

Lucy tries again, appealing to me to relieve her dilemma: Infectious diseases aren’t serious anymore, are they?…Aren’t they virtually eliminated?

No, Lucy I wish they were. The truth is germs are becoming stronger, our antibiotics weaker. The germ honeymoon of your childhood and your parents’ is over. Treatments are failing, germs recovering. Only vaccination can prevent the harm that is frightening you. Only vaccines.

 

***

1977. Twelve months after his perfect arrival, Cain was feverish and crying. I could not diagnose his illness. After 48 hours he was no better, in fact he was worse. I sent him to the Children’s Hospital where they performed a lumbar puncture and diagnosed meningitis. Cain survived but was profoundly deaf ever after.

***

1985. Cain has a younger brother, Courtney. There are four boys now, all thriving. Cain attends a normal school where he gets by because his teacher and classmates have learned to sign. Jennifer taught them.

On the morning of May16 – it is school holidays – Jennifer packs her firstborn into the car and drives her husband Chris to where he left his car the previous night. Jennifer recalls Chris had been drinking and wasn’t fit to drive. She drops him at his car and returns home where she finds an ambulance in her street. Her brother-in-law is there and breaks the news.

That same morning in the school term holidays my wife and I take our kids to the movies. During the film my beeper goes off. I call my practice and they tell me the news.

I arrive at Jennifer’s place and knock. She comes out, throws shock-driven arms around her doctor and holds hard. Neither of us speaks. After a time, Jennifer says something I don’t understand: This will make or break our marriage.

She tells me what happened: While I was out, Christian went for a walk out the back and across the tracks. He heard the train and looked behind him. Cain was following, walking into the path of the train. Christian yelled but Cain didn’t hear. Couldn’t hear. Christian ran towards his younger brother, waving, yelling, desperate.

It was no good. The train couldn’t stop. Cain was on the tracks. Christian saw it all.

***

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A Gift from a Dead Lady

Ruby came into my life three years after my mother died. Mum would have loved this newest baby, not just because of her unruly, abundant hair; not only for her full moon abundance; nor for her kookaburra laugh alone; but because Ruby is of a rare species, a female.

Most of Mum’s kids were boys. And she loved us even though we were boys.

My brother Dennis was Mum’s firstborn, a peach-faced baby with golden hair. Adored, but a boy.

I was next, a truly lovely child, I often said as much. And Mum agreed. But still, a boy.

On Friday evening May 13, 1949, Mum came into labour a third time. The rains came, the river broke its banks and in the next town of Narranderra, Mum’s doctor was stuck in his shrinking island in this Riverina sea.

Mum laboured on. The Sabbath came. Dad lit the Shabbat candles and went to the hospital where he delivered Mum’s third baby.

The next morning Dad read in the paper that a resident of our small town had won the lottery.

Full of the news, he hurried to Mum in hospital: ”Yvonne, a Leeton man has won the Sydney Opera House Lottery.”

“That’s nothing. I’ve got a girl!”

Last December our thirdborn gave birth in a hospital in Bristol. My wife was present but I was not. Thirty-six years previously I had delivered that thirdborn, a girl. Now she had borne a girl, Ruby. One of Ruby’s Hebrew names memorializes my Mum.

I met Ruby about six weeks ago and spent three weeks loving and learning her. Since I parted from her, Ruby has learned to laugh and to suck her thumb. She is the smartest kid of the present century. Mum would have loved her.

(If you look at this little movie you’ll fall in love too.)

My Mum would have burst with love for Ruby.

But Mum died. She left little pieces of beauty, bits of jewellery she gathered here and there during a long and travelling life. These lovely things have found their way to her female descendants as keepsakes.

One item, a small brooch of enamel and pearls, wanted a claimant. I saw Ruby, I came home and found the brooch. Then I remembered Mum and how she was about little girls.

If, one day, a score of years from now, you happen to bump into a plum-cheeked young lady with disobedient hair and this brooch (see link) in her lapel, you’ll know: this is Ruby; her great-grandmother would have loved her.

Copyright Howard Goldenberg, 28 April, 2013.

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Ruby My Love

Crossing the world to meet Ruby, to feel her feel, to smell her smell, to catch her smiles, to hear her voice – her voices actually; meeting this newest granddaughter after she and I have waited for each other for three months; holding her close in her crying moments, in her moments of calm, watching her slow smiles of pleasure as she fills a nappy; hefting her little body, laid prone along my forearm; bathing with her slippery-smooth pink body on my lap; whispering, crooning, humming, singing silly sweet nothings to a bundle whose gaze meets mine only fleetingly.
With her barely four kilograms, this small potentate holds me hostage: she reduces me with a cry, with a smile she plenishes my wrinkled life with freshness.
All this, in the Festival of Spring in the holy land, where Ruby and we, her suitors, estivate.

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Ruby

There you are on my screen, your face round and red and glowing.
I can see your fleshy cheeks, your extra chin.
Now you settle into your mother’s breast. I see your profile, your
pink ear, your welcome mat of thick black hair.
You are quiet, quiet, seen on my screen, seldom heard.

You arrived magically on the far side of the world in a land of short
dim days, days of rain and chill. In Australia, your grandfather –
this stranger grandfather – sweated and read dread warnings of
bushfire risk.

You are in the right place: your mother is your address. I sit in this
far country that will be your country, and I am not myself, not my
proper grandfathering self. My fingers have not touched your skin. My
eyes have not followed the rise and fall of your breathing. I haven’t
smelled you, haven’t heard you burp, seen you cry. I haven’t run a
soapy palm across your tummy.
Although I am a skilled and fearless nappy changer, I’ve never changed
you, made you fresh and clean and dry.
I should do these small intimate acts, then give you to your mum. She
will hold you and I will put my arm around her birth-swollen body;
I’ll rest my old cheek against her and I’ll feel again the newness of
flesh of my flesh of my flesh.

I am a pretender, Ruby. I await my time, our time.
I am not real.
When I see you I will run my finger beneath your chins and feel the
warmth of that soft cushion of flesh. I’ll rest you across my rocking
forearm, I’ll sing you my silly soft songs, I’ll feel your mass and
your space.
And you will make me real.