I have a letter to send to my sister and her husband in New York City. It’s a large envelope crammed with pages I’ve selected from the papers. It’s stuff they’d have heard about, stuff they might like to read about in greater detail. I slipped in a note: Here’s the News and the Olds. (News refers to the Aussies thrashing England in the Ashes, Olds will tell them Bob Hawke is dead.)
I ask the Postal Lady for stamps to New York by airmail. Postal Lady weighs my envelope: 64 grams, say the scales. Thirteen dollars sixty cents says Postal Lady. It will be delivered in twenty to twenty-five days.I wonder whether the postie walks to New York. That’s airmail? Yes. Everything is held up. Thirteen bucks? Wow! It is a lot, says Postal lady. Hold on, I’ll check. Postal lady gives her computer further instructions.Thirteen dollars, sixty, replies that avaricious device. Is it a problem of weight, or the size of the envelope? Weight, says Postal Lady, adding, If you can make it ten grams lighter it will come down to six dollars. Righto, I’ll get rid of something over at the counter, then I’ll come back to you. Over at the counter I remove two pages of Harvey Norman and Frydenberg’s Big Plans for the Budget.Three dollars something, says Postal Lady. I pay, rejoicing as one does who has just found a bargain at Harvey Norman. Do you mind if I ask you something? Are you Doctor Howard Goldenberg? I am. I thought so. You were my doctor when I was a baby in Diamond Creek fifty years ago. Really? Lucky me! I must say it’s hard to recognise you in the mask. Postal Lady removes her mask. I’ve changed since I was a baby. My mum says you told her I was the most beautiful baby you’d ever seen. I suppose you said that to all the mothers. (I suspect I did say just that.) I’d like to see a photo of yourself as a baby some time. I’ve got one here.Postal Lady starts interrogating photo archives in her phone. The queue of customers in the Post Office grows longer. It’s in here somewhere, Doctor. Further search. Matthew, Postal Lady’s colleague, gives her a Look. Postal Lady, engrossed, doesn’t notice. Found it! Here, look Doctor. Doctor looks at the photo in black and white of a newborn baby. She is in fact the most beautiful baby I’ve ever seen.I say those words once again. Postal Lady says, You’d remember my mother better than me. I’ve got a photo somewhere here…I’m sorry I’m detaining you…I look around. The post office is filling with customers. Matthew looks over towards the second half of the PO’s workforce, but lingering as his look is, and withering withal, Postal Lady is oblivious in her quest for a snap of Mum. I decide there’s a problem in this office and I am that problem, and I can solve it by removing myself. Look, here’s my phone number. Send the photo to me, later, to my phone. I leave by the side door that gives onto one of Melbourne’s famed little lanes. The lane buzzes as throngs drink and dawdle in the bright sun. I wind my way quickly into a second lane. A voice behind hails me: Doctor! Doctor Howard! I turn. It’s Postal Lady. Look, this is Mum, here. She points at the pleasant, forgettable face in black and white of a young mother. I try to recognise her, but memory fails before visions of civil unrest in the Post Office.
Crossing a Bridge
It is late in the third year of medical school that we watch a screening of a live birth. Until this point in my life, film was always smaller than life, an image, a series of images, fictive or documentary, but extracted, never fully real or fully human, let alone monumental. But this was a video of the eruption of life. I might have been witnessing the Big Bang so enormous was this, the advent of a human.
I remember feeling electrified, thrilled, struck and struck again by a cascade of philosophic thoughts, intense joy, a sense of being a guiltless voyeur upon the utterly intimate that was utterly universal. I was witness, by invitation, to creation. I remember too, my naive amazement that a woman would allow a camera (that shockingly lacked any sense of modesty) to show her fully naked self in this way. I looked around with a wild surmise. But my friends, more worldly, more mature? – showed no shock.
It is only a year or so later that I will deliver a baby. Between the videotape and that event, my father decides I’m ready to go to Labour Ward with him. This entails walking out the back door of our house, past the rhubarb growing in the back garden, to the side gate that opens onto the lane. Dad would hasten across the lane with me at his heels. Through a second gate and we are in the grounds of the Oakleigh Community Hospital. Here Dad frequently invites me along, to watch as he performs surgery, administers General Anaesthetics, treats heart attack and pneumonia and fracture. Dad’s patients welcome me: Dad is their idol, his son would be a godling. Today my presence will demand inordinate trust on the part of a woman of her doctor. What I will share is a series of events, of unmediated sensory experiences – the rich colour of placenta and the same colour in a woman’s face, the odour of amniotic liquor, the sounds and lack of sound, of wordless breathtaking, grunting, pushing, the sight of a calm and immensely calming doctor, his movements graceful as ballet, his stillness, his attention, his kindness and his firmness – and the huge feelings of a new mother, the joy reflected on the faces of nurses, and my own sensations, intense and too many, crammed into climactic moments, and I unable yet to unpack them and describe them calmly. For now I know only awe and thankfulness.
Perhaps a year later, I stand at the side of a young woman through hours that become a full day, during which she approaches a bridge in her life. Today I’ll cross a bridge of my own. Surrounded by calming midwives, veterans in this arena, I watch as the woman pushes. The woman pushes hard, pushes long, gasps, pushes again. Her face reddens deeply, now a beetroot, now a plum. I peer hard: is that hair? Is that scalp we’re seeing? I move into place to catch a baby.
The Delivery Room encloses the birthing mother, a couple of midwives and a nervous medical student. This room, this world comprises all animal humanity as a life spills free into air. Our air, cold upon wet skin, evokes a gasp, a cry. The cry tells a young woman she has crossed the bridge. The student gropes, grabs a slippery cord, which yet dances and writhes. He applies a clamp which slips and falls to the floor. The baby cries, the mother cries; I suppose I’m tearless, but I know I have crossed too. This is one meaning that I catch instantly.
Six weeks later I travel, as directed, to a Victorian terrace house situated next to a rail crossing in Brunswick. In the house a new mother and her young husband live with their baby. The idea of the visit is for a student to learn the consequence of those climactic events six weeks earlier; that consequence is the fact of parenthood. The mother welcomes me, the stranger who crossed with her, the intimate male who usurped the father. That father welcomes me, thanks me! It occurs to none of us three that he should have been there in my stead. A bond exists, forged in the sweat and blood and urine and shit of birth giving, in the gasping and the heaving of giving birth, in the shock and the cry of being born, in the spreading flood of love for a human child.
I never visit the family again. I would not recognise the mother today. Yet every time I drive past the terrace – which happens to stand on my preferred route to the airport – whenever I pass, I remember, through all the decades that follow. I remember that day, I feel that bond.
The birth leaves me changed. I feel called.
For the first thirty years of my working life I deliver babies. It never stales. Nothing else in a life in Medicine will rock me with that astonished joy as I witness the advent of a human. When suburban GP Obstetrics eventually dies, a part of my own life is extinguished.
In a tsunami of reports about health, that arrive in an age of anxiety,
in a rising ocean of uncertainty
that’s inundating our islands of calm, while families driven from Idlib watch their babies freezing to death for want of shelter,
as oil becomes cheap,
as savings are savaged,
as panic feeds on panic,
as the old lack all words to comfort,
as the young tremble for the future,
as the future overtakes the moment –
some thing good,
some moment of balm, some relief, an inlet, a lagoon of quiet joy:
this baby this entire new person this changer of lives
three kilograms and a handful of grams – of life
make her great-grandmother squeal
and squeal again, and again
Nana, surely you know by now, babies are born!
Nana, you had two of your own,
They each had three of their own, The day came when those six
Brought forth babies of their own.
Nana, why do you squeal,
what’s to astonish an old lady of ninety-three?
A baby, that’s to astonish
That’s to amaze, to heal, to comfort, to inspire,to thank God –
and to love.
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.
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.
Grandparents arrive, enter the dimmed room, quieting exultation. They sight the child, suppressing gasps of joy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
And you will make me real.