The Faithful Fibroblast

Late last October the Boston Athletic Association sent me an email which read:

‘Dear Pheidipides Goldenberg*,

Kindly advise us of your postal address forthwith so we can forward the race package for your entry to the 2015 Boston Marathon.’

I sent my details forthwith and equally forthwith I began to train for the great event. Now, my alert reader might recall the sincerity and warmth with which I wallowed in self-pity in my incapacity last (southern) winter. I posted a piece titled ‘Farewell’ https://howardgoldenberg.com/2014/07/28/farewell-farewell/, a lament for injuries that would permanently prevent running. I indulged in a prolonged period of warming sorrow, recalling better times. After three decades of running that were halcyon my winter of 2014 was halcyoff.

I know well not to expect an injured and abused skeleton, aged in its late sixties, to heal. My forty-four marathons had smashed knee joints and mashed vertebrae. Sciatica taunted my left thigh with every footfall. I stopped running and I rode a weasel bike. This morally feeble substitute served until osteoarthritis screamed from my left knee whenever I pushed down on the pedal. I stopped all exercise and sulked and nursed that achilles’ limb.

Sulking did me good. After a team of physiotherapists rubbed and probed and pressed sore spots until I squealed; and having found those sorest spots they pressed harder and I squealed the more; and after they prescribed exercises too intricate for me to conceive, to be repeated thirty times a day; and after I tried each exercise once before giving it away; after all this I sulked. And in my sulking I enlisted the faithful fibroblast and it is to that unglamorous cell that I owe thanks.

I last met the fibroblast in my second year of medical school. That was in 1965. I learned then of that industrious cell, of its role in building connective tissues. The fibroblast is the humble builder’s labourer of the foetus. It creates the neonatal skeleton and muscles. Once the human – so intricate, so cunning, so elegant in design, so glorious in execution – has been built the fibroblast might deservedly rest on its laurels. But it does not. Instead it lurks and waits for any damage it might be called upon to repair.

Sprain an ankle and fibroblasts swarm to the site, building, building, building. They create a fibrous scaffolding which, together with nests of new capillaries, is appreciated as a hot swelling at the site of the tear in the ligament. Slowly, thanklessly, this busy little cell knits new fibres to replace the old. Slowly the damaged dancer or skier or hockey player rises and flies again.
But that leaper or runner or slider is fifteen or thirty. Chockers with fibroblasts, at those ages she is indestructible.

Then the day arrives that she turns fifty, when her collagen sags, her ovaries shrink, her mood sours and she sweats her nights through and celebrates the menopause ‘and all the daughters of song are brought low.’

Her man is even more pathetic when ‘desire fails and man goeth to his long home and the mourners go about the streets.’

On the other (more cheerful) hand the poet John Donne wrote:
‘… from rest and sleep
Which but thy pictures be
Much pleasure…’

My spine had rest and my knee slept. June came and passed and with it passed the marathon in Traralgon. August came and for the first time in ages I missed the marathon in Alice Springs. In October Melbourne ran its annual marathon without Pheidipides Goldenberg.

Then Boston sent me that email.

And together with Johnny Donne my knee sang and my spine caroled: ‘Death, thou shalt die,’ as I rose and ran. Since October I have tested the knees on the rocky slopes at Wilson’s Promontory. I have tried but failed to provoke the sciatic nerve in Central Queensland and in outback NSW. I have thrashed the skeleton in Pittsburgh, in New York and in Boston where, three weeks ago I ran the slopes of Heartbreak Hill. I froze but I felt no pain. The next week I ran fast up the length of London’s Muswell Hill to the top, then I turned around and galloped down. This short run constitutes a brutal abuse of synovial membrane, of articular cartilage, ligament and tendon.

I listened for protests from the body. But neither degenerate hip nor spinal nerve made any murmur. Incredulous, I gave thanks to the long ignored, sadly neglected, ever-faithful fibroblast.

One of my favourite poems for sulking is Ecclesiastes, 12. With language like this it’s a pleasure to be sad. Here’s a fuller portion for your enjoyment. You don’t need to run a marathon or injure your body:

1 Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;

2 While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:

3 In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened,

4 And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;

5 Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:

6 Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.

7 Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.

8 Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.

*My running name

Image

Jeremiah Jan

She sits in the waiting room, reading. Any patient who enjoys a good read will enter my consulting room in a good mood. I do allow my patients time for a very good read.
The book she reads from is thick, with old-fashioned morocco covers and red-tipped pages. Looks like the Bible! She doesn’t look mortally ill. Perhaps she’s mortally afraid of the new young doctor.
‘Good morning, my name’s Howard.’
We shake hands. Her hand is fair, a youngish hand. The owner of the hand says, ‘Hello, I’m Jan.’
‘You’re reading the Bible? Which book?’
‘Jeremiah.’
Jeremiah the cheerless, prophet of doom, a man willing to be jailed for speaking truth to power. Serious reading. Might have been worse, could have been Job.
The serious reader sits down. She speaks: ‘Howard, I’ve come for a talk. I don’t need a diagnosis; if I want a diagnosis I’ll see Doctor Don. I don’t need a diagnosis, I need a talk.’
We have our talk.

Another visit by Jan, another long period in the reading room. Eventually I show her in. We are only about ten minutes into today’s talk when the phone interrupts us: ‘Howard, Doctor Don needs you in the Treatment Room. Now!’
‘Gotta go, Jan. Sorry.’
I go.

When I return, after about twenty five minutes, I resume: ‘So, Jan, you were about seven when…’
‘Howard, you can’t just do this.’
‘Do what, Jan?’
‘Take up our conversation without a break, as if nothing terrible or significant has just happened.’
‘Can’t I? Why not?’
‘You need time, some space. You need to come to terms with whatever it was that was so urgent. You are a person too, Howard.’

In my consulting room, situated at the furthest end of the building from the Treatment Room, Jan would not have seen the frantic mother, the pale plump doll that was the baby, the child inert, lifeless. She would not have felt the body still warm, not seen two adult males breathing desperate air into a new body that would not breathe again. She would not have seen the face of the mother passing through shock to grief to the start of lifelong self-accusation.
Did she perhaps hear sounds of stifled sobs?

Many chapters of Jeremiah and of Job have been read in the thirty-five years since that day. I remember the child, I have not forgotten the mother.
Nor have I forgotten Jan’s instruction.

Two Doctors in Doomadgee

Letter from Doomadgee

27 January, 2014.

 

Dear Australia,

 

Before I arrived the only thing I knew of Doomadgee was the name; that was the surname of the man who died on Palm Island. That name seemed compounded of doom and tragedy. But of the community itself I was glad to know nothing in advance of my arriving.

 

Steve the factotum drove me from the airfield. The aged street sign said:

 

Welcome to Doomadgee

Population 1200

 

Steve said: “More like 2000.”

I met the young Aboriginal doctor. He said: “More like 3000.”

 

A road sign said:

 

NT Border 103 KM.

 

The weather forecast said: Cloudy. Maximum 34 degrees.

That night the nurse said:” It felt hot so I looked at the thermometer on my verandah. The thermometer said: ‘52 degrees.’”

 

I said to the young Aboriginal doctor from Mt Isa, himself a grandson of respected elders of this community: “I’m the wrong doctor. I don’t have the language, the cultural currency…You are the right sort of doctor.”

He said: “There are nearly one hundred of us now. There were quite a few of us in my year at James Cook.”

The two of us spent most of Saturday together indoors. Between snatches of cricket and tennis on TV and poring over Murtagh’s tome on General Practice, he wanted to talk about religion (his new found Christianity, my old found Judaism), about work, about vocation. He asked me to name my favourite story from the Bible.

He told me his. I waited for a parable. Instead he said: “Jephtah and his daughter. I read that story and I put the book down and I said, ‘Lord, I need time to come to terms with this.’”

We spoke of our families and our upbringing, how he hankered for some city life while knowing his destiny lay in the country – on country – this country, this country his father had shown him and taught him and inculcated into him from early years; and I told him of my lifelong hankering for life outside the city while knowing my destiny lay there.

I said: “I wrote a book about my father – he was a country GP – and about my childhood in the country. And another book about my experiences working in remote Aboriginal communities. You can get copies of those books if you’re interested.”

He said: “No. I don’t read books. Only medical textbooks.”

I looked at him.

He conceded: “I did read two other books. My teacher said if I didn’t read them I couldn’t pass English.”

I looked at him again. I said: “I know you read. You read all the time – the Bible.”

Yes. Yes, that’s so. I’m always reading the Bible. But books, they’re not in my background. We didn’t have books at home.”

After hours of searching conversation my colleague posed a question. He preceded it with a statement. He said: “I want my work to mean something. I want my working life to improve the lives of Aboriginal people.” He swallowed the consonants whenever he spoke that word. He softened the ‘g’ in ‘Aboriginal’ so it was like a triple ‘n’, gutturalised. He paced and paused, paced again. He said: “I want to ask you a question. You’ve been a GP for a long time; I am just starting. What should I do? I mean what should I do now, while I’m completing my training? What particular field should I try to master? What will be most useful for Aborinnnal people?”

I offered some answers, thinking aloud, feeling my way through a variety of ideas. Eventually I said: “Any answer I give will be less important than the question.”

What do you mean?”

I mean, you aren’t asking a casual question. This is a quest. So long as you keep asking I think the quest will lead you where you need to go.”

Then I said: “You know we whitefellas do our best but we never achieve what we set out to do. I think the answers won’t come from whitefellas alone; some of the changes have to come from blackfellas. It will be like cancer – you don’t find the cure, the single thing that wipes out the entire problem; you find an improvement here, a sectional breakthrough there. So the Pearsons and Yunipingus and Langtons and the others, they’ll come up with some initiatives; and some of those will take root and some might bear fruit.”

My friend nodded hard. He said: “Exactly!”

 

***

 

On Australia Eve, the rain belted the roof all night. Australia Day dawned bright, cooler. We went down to the river. At the spillway the Nicholson flowed a kilometre wide. Warm brown water, shallow. Steve had said: “No big crocs here. Only little snappers – freshies.”

I trusted him. I waded with the younger doctor through warm shallows down to the waterfall. Everywhere we went in those shallows Aboriginal toddlers paddled, babies sat on the laps of slender young mums. The Nicholson flowed a thin caramel around and over shiny brown bodies.

The young doctor spoke to all he met. All were, one way or another, his kin. He said: “Hello brother”, and “Hello sister.”

He said, “Hello Aunty”, and “Hello Uncle.”

He knew what to say, how to say it. He found connections with strangers.

He knew his country; he was the right doctor; he had the language.

Wandering

My father’s father’s name was Joseph. Born in 1886 in Petach Tikvah in Turkish Palestine, Joseph Goldenberg stowed away on a ship at the age of twelve, passing his Barmitzvah date without celebration before disembarking alone in Australia. Papa, as his grandchildren called him, arrived here with five shillings, a working knowledge of Yiddish and Arabic, and no English.

He left his home and his family as a child, remaining an observant Jew throughout his lonely years until his marriage, and beyond, through a long life.

Dad used to say his father was like Joseph in the Bible, a faithful Jew from childhood to old age, steadfast through long exile and separation from his home and family.

Dad found lifelong inspiration in his father’s example.

My own father, Myer Goldenberg (z’l), grew up in Melbourne, married and took his bride, Yvonne Coleman, to the small Riverina town of Leeton, where the couple lived for 14 years, raising four children as knowledgeable and observant Jews. Dad never thought this was remarkable, but it was an unusual achievement and it certainly inspired this son.

Indelible memories come to me from time to time as I recite the Shema, of Dad teaching me to read and to translate every word of this, the first and the last prayer of our Jewish lives. I would sit on his knee, Dad holding his worn and oft-repaired siddur in front of me, his finger showing me each letter and his voice speaking these words time and again: and you shall teach them to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house,and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up…

 

A Jewish education of this intensity and intimacy is a rare and precious thing. It left this son with the unorthodox confidence that I could live an orthodox life fully and independently anywhere, with or without a community or a congregation to support me. My father’s example assured me that my own observances, my Jewishness, were proof against distance. Dad had taught me how to be a Jew as I walked by the way.

Dad never had any delusion that distance was a good thing. Well before we reached Barmitzvah age, Mum and Dad had resettled the family in Melbourne, where Dad showed (through his subsequent scores of years of service to Shules,) that the question was not whether he needed a congregation, but what could he contribute to one.

But the ‘harm’ was done. By the time we left Leeton, I had absorbed my father’s aberrant example of distance-proof faithfulness; and ever after I have lived a maverick belief in walking by the way, to remote places, well off the Jewish trade routes, taking with me the observances my father taught me. Over the decades, that phrase in the Shema has come to hint to me that a Jew should actively go bush – as Moses did in his shepherd days, as Elijah did while on the run from the king – to find God.

How did I know about Moses and Elijah? How too did I know about the midnight walk in the wilderness of Jacob; and of his encounter with the wrestling angel? It was Dad’s fault, of course: it had been Dad who brought these heroes of the spirit to life within me.

And so it was that I’d bake challah (read damper) in Leigh Creek, read Megillath Eicha by candlelight in Arnhem Land, host the Jewish residents of Alice Springs for Shabbat meals, discuss Zionism with a knowledgeable Elder in the Ngaanyaatjarrah Lands, sing Hebrew songs with one of the Strong Women at Galiwin’ku, sound the Shofar in Ellul at Wamoom; and celebrate Shabbat in the Andyamathanha wilderness with one of Melbourne’s leading rabbis.

(And so it was that I was been absent so often and so painfully from shules, from tolerant children and perplexed grandchildren, from a neglected wife and from a lonely mother.)

All of this unorthodox conduct had some unexpected results. I found what Joseph finds when sent by

his father to “see the peace of his brothers”. Wandering, lost in the wilderness, Joseph meets a mysterious stranger who asks – in a singular phrase – “what will you seek?”

Joseph replies, in a sentence that is equally pointed

syntactically, “(it is) my brothers (whom) I seek.”

The brothers whom I found are the first Australians. In encounter after encounter over a decade or more I have met and worked with Aboriginal people in the outback, discovering much about them, more about my

Jewish self, and writing, writing all the time of these experiences.

(That writing gave birth to a book, Raft, launched at Melbourne Writers festival in 2009.)

And deeply moving to me were those experiences as a practising Jew, when alone in God’s creation, I’d wrestle with the angel, and where I’d catch the echo of a still soft voice.

And, morning and evening, as I’d rise up and lie down in those far places, I’d recite the Shema, that prayer of portable Judaism that my father taught me.

Further Deaths and a Birth in the High Arts

Peter de Vries is dead. This is sad but it is not news: he has been dead since 1993. It appears he will remain extinct. What is sadder is that none of his books is in print. You cannot buy any current edition of the works of this pre-eminent American humourist of the early post-war decades. From 1940 to 1986, he chronicled the full comedy of the full human tragedy.

De Vries found plenty of material for dark jokes in his war time military service, in his Calvinistic upbringing in the Dutch Reformed Church and in the death of his daughter from leukaemia. He transmuted grief into sobering mirth and we laughed ourselves silly. Now his books are no more.

Life is just as funny today as it was in De Vries’ lifetime. We have the media, the markets, religious institutions to entertain us. Our politicians are a joke. The pestilence that is our species still despoils the planet, continues to kill, it maims and lies still – and records its glory in the daily newspapers. The papers are on the way out, and soon or sooner the planet appears likely to kick us out too.

Meanwhile a distinctive genre of off-beat humorous fiction for which Australia was once famed has died, unlamented and unsung. I refer to the Annual Income Tax Return. In the 1970’s and 1980’s creative accountants and millionaires and gifted liars combined to create songs from the bottom of the harbour and paid no tax. How they laughed.

Nowadays the accountant is effectively a secret agent of the ATO. She shows no interest in creative fiction, steering me instead along the narrow and straitened path of maximum taxation. The tax return she creates is deadly non-fiction. She then charges me and – for all I know – receives a commission from the Tax Office. This would make her a double agent. We have here the makings of a spy story. Would that the story were fiction.

The news is not all grim. This new genre in literature, the Tax Spy story, incubates in a silence disturbed only by the sound of calculating machines at the ATO.