Magnified and Sanctified

It’s been ten years, Den, and only now do I feel I can say goodbye to you.

You were sixty three, I was sixty one. You died on Friday night. Your son brought the news to us at our shabbat table.

We buried you on the Sunday. We laid you to rest at an odd corner of the Jewish burial ground, beneath a young gum tree. I looked at the tree at that time and I remembered Dad’s fear of falling gums. I thought, here you are again, going against Dad’s prudent judgement. And I smiled.

You lie now, beyond the judgement of humans. Many were the people who judged you, fewer were those who tried to walk a mile in your shoes. They were big shoes.  Like everything about you, very big. Magnified, sanctified… People who did understand loved you extravagantly, in proportion to your extravagant life.

And now I can let you go. From the time of our final conversation I dreamed of you. The dreams were dreams of helplessness. You could not help yourself, I needed to help, I tried to help, but in those dreams, I could not. You called me that last time. The phone woke me from a dreamless sleep. Your speech rustled and crackled, the sweetness of your voice ruined by seven days with the breathing tube. You had rallied, they’d removed the tube; now, with your breathing failing, they needed to replace it. Your voice crackled: ‘Doff, they want to put the tube back. What should I say?’

I heard your breathing, a rasping, gasping sound. ‘Do as they say Den.’

‘Is it my best chance?’

‘Den, it’s your only chance.’

They returned you to your coma and they replaced the tube. Three days later you breathed your last.

At the cemetery we said, magnified and sanctified be the holy name.

One evening during the week of shiva my son led the prayers in honour of his uncle. He loved you Den. We loved you.

For ten years I dreamed of you, restless dreams, frantic. I was unable to help. Then I started writing about you and the dreams stopped. Now I sleep without the dreams. Sleep in peace beneath your gum tree, Den.

Traralgon Marathon Report

Given the event took place over a week ago this report is pretty tardy. The truth is I have nothing to report.
If you’d asked me for my report thirty-nine years ago, I’d have leaped into print. Likewise had you enquired in June 1990, I’d have been bursting with news. In 2000 I reported on my run with Fidel. Even though he rode much of the way in my car, Fidel was awarded a Finisher’s medal as First Dog across the line. And in 2007 there was news of a different order.

But in 2017 I have nothing to report.

The Traralgon Marathon is Australia’s senior event. This year marks its fiftieth running. As well as being our first marathon, Traralgon is Victoria’s Country Marathon Championship. All in all a pretty lustrous affair. Competing under his nomme des jambs of Pheidipides, Howard Goldenberg ran his maiden marathon at Traralgon thirty-nine years ago. That year 181 runners started and 141 finished. I still have the official printout of the results. At the foot of the second of two roneoed sheets of paper (this report antedated the internet), you’d read: In 141st place, Pheidipides Goldenberg; time: 4 hours, 31 minutes, 31 seconds.

Every time I run a marathon I write one. That simple passage through time and space, so simple, so elemental, you mightn’t credit it worthy of remark. But every running feels remarkable to the runner. In the marathon the runner encounters the sole self, discovering some things that are unwelcome and others that make the runner feel a little proud. In a marathon, as Zatopek remarked, we all die a little. The event is charged with significance for this runner because the essentially solitary passage through time and space always involves encounters with others. It is the comradeship, the fellow feeling, the respect that elevate our experience. In that sense the marathon is a metaphor for our lives.

A watcher of the Barcelona Olympic Marathon might have caught images of the leading bunch of five as they passed their drink stop with seven kilometres to go. They had, running in intense humidity and heat, slowly outpaced a score of household names from Kenya and Tanzania and Korea and Japan and Australia. These five were the bravest of the brave on that particular day. One of these five, one only, would become immortal. Four of the five grabbed their special drinks at the 35 KM mark. The fifth grabbed and missed. And ran on, turning back being out of the question. The four drank and ran and drank again. One of those four passed his unfinished drink to the fifth. I do not recall whether the drink-giver won the event – I fancy he did not – but in that moment he joined the Immortals. In such small moments we see the glory of the marathon.
All this reads a bit portentously. Most running – and all of mine – is more comedic or shambolic than deep. In the field of my third Traralgon I sighted at the Start the esteemed and beloved Cliff Young, Australia’s most famous potato farmer, a previous winner of the Westfield Sydney to Melbourne Ultramarathon. Cliffy used to go on his training runs wearing his hobnail work boots. If he needed a haircut he’d trot the thirty kilometres from his farm to Colac, then run back home again. That day in Traralgon I wondered if I’d manage to get close to him. Around the three KM mark my legs became over-excited and accelerated and I hauled him in. Running a couple of paces behind Cliff I admired the light lacework of his tracksuit material. I drew closer. The lacework was in fact the work of a legion of hungry moths. Through the mothholes I could see and admire the pale skin of those spindly old legs.
‘Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot/But he’ll remember with advantages/What feats he did that day.’ Thus Shakespeare. It was in Traralgon that I ran my best marathon time. In those better years I’d usually finish in three and a half hours – not flash but respectable. Around 1990, everything went well. By the twenty km mark the field was well strung out, each runner alone with his thoughts and his hopes and his faltering strength. Somehow on this day only my shoelace faltered. I heard a slap, slap, slap – one slap at every second stride. I looked down; my right shoelace had untied itself. I stopped, resting my foot on the lower timber of a little footbridge. I tied the lace and cursed myself for the loss rhythm. 

Where strength falters it is rhythm that lulls the unthinking legs with metre that beguiles like music or poetry. I straightened and placed one foot forward, then the second, now the first, now the second. And here, quickly, rhythm returned. I ran on and on. I passed a browsing cow. She looked up and gazed at me, ruminating. I passed a lonely church. I counted cars parked on the verge, calculating numbers of worshippers.


Approaching Traralgon on the return loop I saw the smoking chimneys of the power station blackening the winter blue with coal smoke. Crossing the river I was welcomed by a pelican gliding overhead in his landing approach. I blessed the bird of good augury. After that I think I thought of nothing. At forty kilometres I felt weary and I cursed the distance remaining. I slowed, realising I was about to ruin everything. I never recovered my pace. I cursed my feeble will.

A short time later that felt like a long time I crossed the Line. My time of three hours and fifteen minutes and thirteen seconds was to be my best ever.

Four weeks before this year’s Traralgon I ran a brisk 6.2 kilometres on unforgiving concrete. I thrashed along, full of surprised pleasure in my pace. Later, when I checked the elapsed time (35 minutes) I was reminded how, nowadays, mediocrity is beyond me. After the encounter with the concrete my right knee started to hurt. The after-pain of running always reminds me of the achievement that brought it about. Pain always passes but while it lasts I smile with small pride.

In 2007 my elder brother Dennis, always thirsty for my company, offered to come along with me to Traralgon. With him Dennis brought a hitch-hiker, his flatmate and devoted companion, Sahara the Hound. Sahara was a dog I never managed to like. In this I came closer than most. For Sahara was a raucous, snapping, yelping creature, anti-social, sociopathic in fact. Sahara yapped and snarled her way into the rear of the car, lay down on the seat, growled a bit and fell into silence, then into sleep. For the duration of the two-hour drive Dennis and I spoke as brothers do, of nothing and of everything. We arrived, I registered and showed Dennis the Finish Line. ‘I estimate I’ll get here in four to four-and–half hours,’ I told him. My estimate was incorrect; I crossed the line in 3 hours, 45 minutes, beating the only other sixty-plus-year old male by a handy margin. In disbelief I checked and rechecked my time.

As ever, Dennis swelled with pride at the achievement of his younger brother. Here I was, 2007 Traralgon and Victorian Country Marathon champion (male, sixty-plus). I duly added the achievement to my Resume.

During the drive home, Sahara slept again. Again Dennis and I chatted. Dennis told me of a question he’d been mulling: ‘ I’ve decided: I’m going to have the operation, Doff. I’ll lose weight and I’ll be able to exercise. I’ll have more energy because I won’t have sleep apnoea anymore. The doctor says I’ll be cured of my diabetes.’ I misgave but said nothing. ‘Doff, I know you’re super-cautious. I’m the opposite. I’ll have the operation and I’ll get my life back!’ I hoped he would. Dennis went on: he’d complete his MBA in a month or so, he’d graduate then he’d have the surgery. After recovering from the operation Dennis said he’d revive his business.

Two months later Dennis graduated at the head of his class, with High Distinction. In September he underwent bariatric surgery. Fourteen days later he died of complications. Every June the Traralgon Marathon comes around and I remember.

In 2017 my training was the best for years. I entered, paid, arranged to travel with a support team comprised of a friend and his 11-year-old son. We booked overnight accommodation in Traralgon and I saw my physio about the oddly persistent knee ache. My physio, a gifted and devoted torturer, rubbed and pressed and stretched me. She prescribed exercises, with which – to our mutual surprise – I complied. And my knee hurt more. I had an x-ray that showed a pristine joint and a panel of four physios gathered in conclave before the light-box to advise me. I rested the knee as they suggested. I took the dicey non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication that threatened my remaining kidney function. My physio taped my knee. I rested further and lost fitness. Two days before race day I could not walk to the toilet without pain. We cancelled the accommodation. The good people at Traralgon Harriers gave me a rain check to 2018.   

In 2017 I have nothing to report.
 
 
 
Footnote (kneenote, really): my knee feels better every day.

Blue Label

My brother Dennis presented me with a blue carton containing a bottle of whiskey. I had never heard of Johnny Walker Blue Label. Whiskey did not interest me. All I knew was I couldn’t afford good whiskey, I didn’t like cheap whiskey and I couldn’t tell the difference between cheap and uncheap. 

Dennis died ten years ago but the box and the bottle survive, unopened. Dennis died poor and intestate after forty-five years working in Finance. Dennis didn’t drink whiskey either. Strong drink was not his weakness. His loves were his weaknesses. One of his loves was for this brother, the one who survives him, healthy and unpoor.

 

I picture my firstborn brother in an airport palace of luxury items for sale duty free. He looks around for something good, something precious to buy for his loved brother. His instinct draws him to the most expensive items. A man of the world, Dennis recognises the blue label. He takes the box in one arm, reaches for his credit card, approaches the cashier. He makes the purchase he cannot afford, with funds he does not yet own, for the brother who will see no occasion to drink it.

 

To paraphrase O Henry’s closing remarks in ‘The Gift of the Magi’:

 

The magi, as you know, were wise men—wonderfully wise men—who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of an unwise child who most unwisely sacrificed for the brother other the greatest treasures of his house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.
 

Yizkor

 
I found the photograph I had been missing. It was found, as most of my misplaced objects are, precisely where I had placed it; in this case it was safely at the bottom of my backpack. I wanted it for remembrance. 

The photo sits in its small oval frame. It shows two small boys sitting side by side. Their cheeks have been pinked by some process of photographic enhancement common to photos from the ‘fifties. One boy sits cradling a large teddy bear. The boy’s face is a narrow oval, his expression unsmiling, alert, guarded, attentive to the photographer who is an adult in a frightening world controlled by adults. The second boy, taller, wider, rounder, has a fuller face, topped with wavy titian hair. He has the daughter of a smile on his face. His is the image I have sought, this the face of the person I wish to hold in remembrance.

 

The portrait conveys much of what I wish to hold: the elder boy is Dennis, his parents’ firstborn, my brother. His destiny is here to be read. It’s all here – firstborn, male, cherished; good-natured, close to his younger brother – and fat. In this photograph Dennis must be about four. In less than sixty years he will be dead.

 

***

 

Literally translated, the Hebrew word yizkor means ‘he will remember’. Over the recent Festival period I recited the yizkor prayer for my father, my mother, my wife’s father; and for Adrian, my consuegro; and I remembered them all tenderly. It was only when I prayed for Dennis that I cried. I cried for the protective brother I could not protect, for the always-advising brother I could not advise, for the firstborn who worshipped this usurper as a hero. 

Dennis did not ask to be born fat. He did not ask to be born first. He loved his father as his father loved him – not wisely but too well.

Immoderate in all he did Dennis loved his younger brother immoderately. I miss him, I pray for his rest as I pray for my own.

 

The Twin Bond

He’s a big bloke in all directions, tall and broad. His face is round and it smiles widely as he enters the Doc’s consulting room. He has an open gaze.

The Doc makes room for the big man to pass.

“Thanks Doc.” He offers a large hand. Doc’s hand disappears inside his patient’s. The grip is manly firm, manly gentle.

“My name’s Alexander, Doc. Call me Alex.”

“Good to meet you, Alex.”

“I’ve got hypertension. Need a repeat of my tablets.” He smiles, his jowls rise and shine and recede. He tells the Doc he is sixty six. He is a man who invites conversation.

The Doc asks Alex where he lives.

“Port Augusta. Been there forever. Born there. Father met mother there, in primary school.

They’re long gone.

I’ve got a sister, a good bit older.

I had a brother – we were twins…”

The glow on Alex’s large face gives way to something deeper as the man slows his flow. Something is happening. Homage? Damage?

The Doc wants to know: “Were you identical?”

Alex nods. “And close.”

He clears his throat.

“What happened to your twin?”

“Cancer.”

In Alex’s mouth, the word is a sentence.

“You know we only saw each other three times in the last thirty years, but we were close.”

The Doc looks at him.

“Very close…Thirty years back he went to New Zealand for a fortnight and he stayed. He came back to see me, stopped with me here, for 12 months. Here we are together.” Alex fishes in his wallet and pulls out an old colour photo. Two large round men in their thirties sit in a small fishing boat and smile goofily into the sun. The light bleaches their faces and sets fire to their red hair. One of the men rests his hand on the other’s shoulder.

“After that year he went back to N.Z. To his friends and his life.

Then he got sick and died. Cancer.”

“It was tough?”

The serious face recedes inward for a moment. The Doc is forgotten. Alex is alone with memory of the feeling, with feeling returned.

He looks out at the younger man: “Knocked me around something terrible.” He stops, shakes his head.

“People used to ask us: ‘What’s it like being twins?’

We’d ask each other: ‘What’s it like not being a twin?’”

The Doc looks away while the other man composes himself. At length he resumes. His face is earnest now as he searches for words to carry feeling: “You know, I lost my son. Suicide.

My wife and I only ever had the one son… Terrible…

I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

But it’s my brother I think of. Half of me is gone.”

The old man’s eyes are wet. “It’s been seven years…”

A pause as he searches for dates…“Seven years and one day.

There wouldn’t be a single day when I don’t think of my brother.

The large man takes his prescription and shakes the Doc’s hand. He conjures a smile for the Doc and he leaves.

When I was six

When I was six the teacher said: “We’re going to learn a poem today. It’s called Ding Dong Dell.”

I knew that poem. Surely everyone knew it. But I’d also heard a Revised Version, much better than the original. I think it was my elder brother who taught it to me.
I said: “I know that poem”

“Good boy, Howard. Please recite it for the class.”

So I did:  

“Ding Dong Dell

Pussy’s in the well.

‘How can you tell?’ 

‘Go and have a smell.’”

 

It was funny but Mrs Paulette did not smile: “Howard Jonathan Goldenberg. Leave the class. Go to the storeroom.”

 

I went to the storeroom, a narrow room lined with shelves stacked with classroom necessities. 

I stood there alone and listened to the silence. I felt a thumping, fast and hard, in my chest.

I knew perdition. I knew exile. I knew terror.

I stood in fear and misery. When would a captive be released from the storeroom? How would Mum know where to look for me when she came after school?

 

A sound at the storeroom door. I shook harder. The door opened and I stopped shaking. I knew the face, the freckles, the buck-toothed grin, the red, red hair. I knew my older brother Dennis.

“What are you doing here, Howard?”

I shook my head.

Dennis went to a shelf and selected a piece of red chalk, one of blue and a white one.

“What are you doing, Dennis?”

“Mr Frobisher sent me for chalk.”

Dennis opened some packets, discovered a treasury of pristine plasticine. Methodically he peeled off thick strips and pocketed them.

“Does Mister Frobisher want plasta too?”

“Nope. I do. You can have some. I’ll leave a bit for you.”

Dennis left.

I looked around and saw riches. I saw Aladdin’s cave. I saw opportunity.

I touched nothing. I stood and trembled at my own thoughts of wrongdoing.

 

A sound at the door. Mrs Paulette’s face and pony tail and round bosoms appeared in the narrow space. I saw what she must see, the open package of plasticine. I saw the signs of theft and I thought  – not of Dennis’ actions – but of my own wicked impulse.

 

Mrs Paulette said, “It’s recess, Howard. Go outside and play.”

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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