Wrestling

(Someone told me recently a blog post is supposed to be of six hundred words. It sounded like one of the Laws of the Universe, like when we have an Equinox and when we have a Solstice. The Law reached me too late to stick. What follows is a story longer than the prescribed six hundred words. If you read it to its end you will understand I post it now to encourage a friend.)

Wrestling with the Murderer

 

***

It was in the late ‘nineties that I first met Chief Inspector John Bailey, the son of a policeman who had been awarded the George Cross posthumously. I had come to Albury expressly to hear the story of Eric George Bailey, the police officer who arrested his own murderer.

In the course of that first meeting John Bailey showed me the George Cross that the King of England awarded to his father. A large man, he hefted the silver cross in his palm, raising and lowering it slowly, in time with the cadence of his weighted words, as he told me of his father’s life and death.  Then he passed it to me. The medal, small in John Bailey’s hand, surprised me with its weight. Bailey said, “It’s what I have had to remember my father. It’s a rare and precious thing, a George Cross, but it’s not a father.

“I’ve got to pass it on, the medal. The Police Museum wants it, but I won’t let it go to them. I’ve seen too many things disappear from there, precious things, things that ought to remain when a man is gone, things that honour a person. This one was my father’s. “I’d trust the War Museum in Canberra. I’d be happy to see it go there, but not the Police Museum.”

The Chief Inspector was a tall man, stooping more for courtesy than for age, more or less pear shaped. Only his nose and his fingers were thin, arrows of curiosity projecting into the world before him. His eyes, hooded in age-loosened skin, looked at me, hawk-like, as he nodded slowly, “No, not the Police Museum.”

Bailey excused himself: “There’s a book I want to show you. I’ll bring it out.” I sat in the late afternoon sun on the Baileys’ small verandah and pondered the old man’s words: it’s not a father.

John Bailey returned carrying a copy of “They Dared Mightily”, an account of all Australians who had won the Victoria Cross or the George Cross. I learned that only about 400 of the latter have ever been awarded; in the echelons of courage it is the full equal of the Victoria Cross; and together with the VC it is the only royal honour ever awarded posthumously. Bailey opened the well-thumbed volume at page 279, pointed to his father’s citation and handed it to me to read. A quietly spoken man, he wanted me to know how history recalled his father, but he would not declaim or boast. The record must speak for itself.

The full citation was published in a supplement to the London Gazette of 25 October 1946 and read in part:

St. James’s Palace, S.W.1, 29th October, 1946.

The King has been graciously pleased to make the undermentioned awards of the GEORGE CROSS: —

Eric George BAILEY (deceased), Sergeant 3rd Class, New South Wales Police Force.

At about 8.30 p.m. on the 12th January, 1945, Sergeant Bailey (then a Constable 1st Class), whilst on duty in Adelaide Street, Blayney had occasion to speak to a man whose movements were suspicious. During the questioning the man pulled a revolver from his pocket and fired a shot which struck Bailey in the stomach. The Constable immediately closed with his assailant who fired two more shots. Although fast succumbing to his injuries and suffering from the effects of shock and haemorrhage, Bailey continued the struggle with the offender and held him on the ground until assistance arrived. Shortly afterwards he died. The fortitude and courage manifested by this Police Officer, in spite of the mortal injuries sustained by him at the outset of the encounter, constitute bravery and devotion to duty of the highest order.

 

Almost in passing there follows an account of an earlier act of heroism, desperate and unsung:

 

On 20 April 1939 he moved to Moruya, here he was highly commended for his part in the rescue of survivors from the fishing trawler, Dureenbee, which had been attacked by a Japanese submarine on 3 August 1942. He was transferred for the final time, to Blayney, just eight days before his death.

The face of Eric George Bailey looks out from his photograph on page 280. It is a young face, small and fine-boned beneath the broad visor of his police hat. The gaze is steady. I looked up at John Bailey and there was the same steady look. The look of the young man who was his father. In coming to Albury to learn about Eric George Bailey, GC, the father. I had no expectation of this man, his son. I had not imagined him. The son, I soon learned, was a story in his own right.

I asked John Bailey for his own recollections of his father’s passing. He was glad to oblige: ”Just before my father left the house to go to work, he paused and bent down to me and rubbed my head. He kissed my mother. He reached down to pat my little sister. Then he went through the doorway. I never saw him alive again.”

When John Bailey spoke he was irresistible. Speaking slowly, his voice emerging from his deep body, he chose his words carefully, simple words, spoken steadily by the old policeman, who regarded me steadily as he spoke. John Bailey looked across the small verandah towards me – and beyond me – to the scene he described. He looked at me, bringing me with him into that scene. It was alive in him as he spoke. I was soon to see that it had been alive to him ever since his father died, on January 12, 1945.

“The previous evening my father had said to all of us, ‘Tomorrow is the start of a new life.’ He and mother had brought us to the town of Blayney a week previous. Father had a week of leave that he used to settle us into our house and into the town.

“I remember Father brought a whole trailer load of onions and garlic with us to Blayney. He was a great gardener. He had grown them at his previous posting and he spent the last day of his leave fixing chook wire high under the roof in the garage to keep the onions and garlic dry.

That night Father said: ‘Tomorrow’s the day, the start of a new life.’

The next afternoon he walked out through the door for the 3.00 o’clock shift… I can still see him going out the door…”

“Father was one of nine children, the youngest. His family didn’t have much. My father didn’t own a pair of shoes until he was ten years old. He left home when he was fourteen to join the Post Office. He was a telegram boy. When he was twenty he joined the Police Force in Sydney. He worked for a while in Traffic, like all of them. Then he asked for a posting to the country. He was from the country himself… from Tenterfield. His people were farmers there.

“Father had married my mother in Sydney. She was a Sydney girl. When they were posted to the country it was to The Rock, not far from here…

“The Rock is a pretty small town. There were only a couple of hundred people. It was a one-man police station. It must have been a terrible shock to my mother, coming from Sydney to a place like that. But she accepted it.

“After The Rock Father was posted to Gundagai. I was born in Gundagai, in 1929. Then we went to Narrandera, then to Deniliquin, then Balranald. Every posting we went further west. Do you know Balranald?”

I shook my head. I knew the other towns he named: Narrandera is only 19 miles up the road from my home town of Leeton.

“Well, you would know Hay then – Hay, Hell and Booligal – Balranald is further out still… I remember the summers in Balranald. They were hot. The police house was very hot. A low roof…it was tin. One day the Chief Commissioner called in at the Station and Father invited him up home. He stopped with us for the night. I remember him and Father, both sitting out the back in the hot night. There was Father in his singlet, sitting with the Chief Commissioner of Police. He stripped down to his singlet too.

“That’s my first memory of the Chief Commissioner.

I met him again… after…

The Chief said to Father: ‘How can your wife live in this heat, a woman, with a child?’ So we were posted to Moruya. We were there from 1939 to 1945.”

“We arrived at Blayney on January 3, 1945.  Father started work in Blayney on January 12. He was shot that first day.

“My father was the only police officer to arrest his own murderer.”

A John Bailey pause. He lifted the little black leather casket and hefted it a couple of times. He put it down again.

When he resumed John Bailey shifted to the present tense: “Father walks the three quarters of a mile to work. On his way he stops at the picture theatre, to introduce himself to the proprietor. Father is the new police officer; he wants to meet the people who do business in the town.

Just then a man runs in, shouting that a man is waving a firearm about in the Exchange Hotel. Father knows the Exchange. We stayed there our first few nights in Blayney while they got the Police House ready for us.

“Father goes straight to the Exchange. In the Lounge they point out a man wearing a sort of uniform. He’s talking excitedly. Father doesn’t want an over-excited man with a firearm inside with all those people. He says: ‘You had better come outside with me.’

“They go outside. The man is wearing the uniform of the American Merchant Marine. Father questions him – name and address and so on. His answers aren’t satisfactory. He does say he is staying at the hotel. Father says ‘I think we had better search your room.’

Now the man becomes really agitated. He pulls out a handgun. Father says: ’Give that to me.’ He takes a step towards the man. The man shoots at my father. The bullet enters the left side of my father’s abdomen, passes through his liver, then up into his chest and lodges finally in his right shoulder.

“My father begins to bleed. My father closes on the man and grabs him by the arm. They wrestle and my father throws him to the ground. He comes to rest in the gutter, where they continue to wrestle. My father is getting weaker, but he manages to get on top of him.

The man still has the weapon in his hand, and my father attempts to take it while the man tries to shoot again. He manages to discharge the weapon but Father has deflected the gun so the shot goes astray. The bullet is found later in the ceiling of the hotel verandah. The man shoots again but my father has forced his wrist forward so the shot goes this time into the man’s forearm, where it shatters the bones and lodges in his elbow…”

There is another Bailey pause. The old policeman is looking downward and across his own verandah, across the years, at two wounded men in their mortal struggle. There is no anger in his expression, only sorrow.

The voice, the telling, is delivered like the plain fact testimony that I’ve heard police officers give in a court of law – no verbal colour, nothing in the words to convey hurt. Only the silences between words, only the pauses, allow me a sense of the speaker’s experience.

Old Man Bailey does not once refer to the killer by name – he remains ‘the man’ throughout – but the police officer is ‘Father’, flesh of his flesh. The father and his memorialising son have the colour and heat of human relationship. ‘The man’ has no human connection.

John Bailey resumes: “The gunman cannot escape. My father’s body is heavy upon him, his gun arm is shattered. My father has been bleeding heavily. Two railway detectives arrive at the scene from the railyards close by. They had heard the shots. Father says: ‘Take the handcuffs and cuff him. They are on my belt.’

The detectives put the handcuffs on the gunman, and someone calls an ambulance. The ambulance takes Father to the hospital in Orange, thirty miles away. My father dies on the way to hospital from loss of blood.”

Silence.

Then John Bailey repeats: “My father is the only police officer that I know of who arrested his own murderer.”

***

“An officer came to the house and told Mother that Dad was hurt. She went away with the officer and I took my little sister to the neighbours’ house. We stayed the night in the house of Death. That was the neighbours’ name – Death. They pronounced it Deeth.

“ I saw my father once more – in the casket, at the funeral. My father was 38 years old when he was killed…

“The Force paid full Police honours to my father. There was a procession at the funeral, with the Police Band, the Mounted Police, a motor cycle escort, officers marching in formation.

Afterwards we packed up and went to Mother’s people in Sydney. That was Bondi. Later there was a function to award my father the Geoff Lewis Trophy – that’s the annual police award for valour. At the function the Chief Commissioner said to Mum, ‘I want your boy John in the Police Force.’ He wanted to look after me for my father’s sake and for my mother. But mother didn’t want it. I didn’t either, really.”

“My father said I should go into the Post Office and that was the plan. I never intended to join the force. But after the funeral, the Chief Commissioner said to Mum, ‘How old is your son, here?’

Mother said I was fourteen.

The Chief said as soon as I was old enough I should join up: he would keep an eye on me.

So, when I was fifteen I went to the Recruiting Office. I wasn’t very big. Officer Russ Sadler was a big man. He said: ‘You delivering a telegram, son?’ I told Officer Sadler I was going to join the force.

He measured me and he weighed me and he said they wouldn’t take me. I was too small. ‘Go home and eat some Weet Bix, son’, he said. ‘Come back when you’re bigger.’

But the Officer-in-Charge, a Scot called Gordon McKechnie, bellowed and wagged his finger at the junior officer and told him off. ‘This young bloke is going to be a policeman. Sign him in.’

“So, even though I was less than five feet nine tall and I weighed less than ten stone, they let me into the Police Cadets – on a condition: I had the three years as a cadet to become tall enough and heavy enough. And I soon grew and I made the height and weight comfortably.”

I could see that he did. John Bailey, even in old age, was tall enough and heavy enough. Ample in fact.

***

John Bailey pointed again to the book.  I read again the citation. It described the actions of Officer Bailey. It steered well clear of any feelings. The officer saw his duty and he did not hesitate.

Only one year after his father’s death, John Bailey enters the fatal force. He serves for forty-five years. I wondered aloud,” Did you sometimes remember your father’s death during those years? Did you look over your shoulder as you went about your work?” What I did not ask – but I wondered – when he was a young father, did he not recall the night when grim-faced officers took his stricken mother away, leaving him, a fourteen year old boy to take his small sister to the neighbours called Death?

“I never forgot my father. I thought about him whenever I worked alone. As a country policeman I was usually alone. One night I was at home. I heard someone screaming wildly in the front room. I pulled my trousers on and there was a man in there, terrified, in a panic. He was shouting – something about a man, a gun. Someone had been shot in a house close by. “I pulled my boots on and ran straight there. I went into the house and saw the body. He was dead. I could see that straight away. Half the face had been shot off. It must have been a shotgun.

The gunman had to be somewhere close by. There was no-one else in the house. I went outside to look for the killer. It was dark. I didn’t want to turn on my torch and show him a target. I listened. There was no sound. I was pretty sure he was in the garden somewhere. I spent three quarters of an hour trying to find him.

“I did think of my father…

I tried to move quietly. Eventually I found him. He was sitting against the back fence, dead. He had shot his own face off.”

***

I did some research into ‘the man’ who murdered Eric George Bailey. I read he was released from gaol only two days before the murder. The man was a professional crook whose specialty was stealing passengers’ luggage from railway stations. He’d spent some time in prison for theft elsewhere in country New South Wales. On his first day of freedom he stole a couple of suitcases from a railway station. In one of these he found an American uniform.

It was just after closing time at a gun shop in Sydney that ex-prisoner Thomas Couldrey (alias Cyril Norman) knocked on the door of the shop. He persuaded the proprietor to admit him on the pretext of Couldrey’s planned departure before opening hour on the morrow. Couldrey examined a number of guns as if to make a purchase, loading one. He distracted the shop-keeper then attacked him, shooting him dead. He then looted the shop of weapons and ammunition and cash, which he packed into a suitcase. He travelled with that suitcase to Blayney, where he booked into the Exchange Hotel. Here, dressed in the American uniform, he proceeded to drink rapidly. It was there that ‘the man’ met Eric Bailey. It was outside the hotel – where Bailey chose to question him for the greater safety of patrons – that the officer said: “I think I’d better search your room.”

In time Couldrey recovered from the injuries he sustained in the struggle with the policeman who arrested him. He stood trial, was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. In the event the sentence was commuted. Couldrey died in prison some years later of natural causes, thought to be tuberculosis.

***

By the time I met the son John, he had retired from the Police Force. We met at his home in Albury where he cared for his wife whose memory was failing. It was not old age or his wife’s infirmity that brought about Bailey’s retirement; it was, he said, disgust.

Four decades after his father’s murder Chief Inspector John Bailey underwent an exhaustive sequence of interviews and assessments that would have seen him promoted to Commander. He progressed smoothly through every stage. Next, Bailey underwent examination by an Ethics Panel. This was the final stage. From here promotion would be a formality: “There were five examiners on that panel. I recognised the faces of a couple of them, I knew the names of a couple more. The fifth was a senior man in the magistracy. I knew that name too. Everyone in the force knew him, the greatest paedophile in the state. Everyone knew, everyone turned a blind eye. And that… that man was about to determine my ethical fitness. It sickened me. I withdrew my candidacy. Not long after I retired.”

***

Much of this account I wrote shortly after first meeting John Bailey. Earlier he had recovered from ostensibly successful surgery for colon cancer, only for it to recur. His daughter Chrissie knew what this must portend. Her young children did not know and, she decided, should not know. Not yet.

So the time was not right for me to tell the story of John Bailey’s long, long struggle. Meanwhile he had other things on his mind, a great task before him in the care of his failing wife. After many years, when Mrs Bailey was beyond caring or knowing, John allowed his wife to move into professional care. Now he could retire from his second career.  In the years that followed John Bailey wrestled with his own murderer, an opponent more like a tag team, returning now as cancer, now as open heart surgery, now as diabetes, now as blindness, finally near his heart. He yielded only at the final fall.

***

My oldest friend Johnny Wanklyn phoned me from Albury. He produced only a few words, the bare few. Long before my friend became John Bailey’s son-in-law he’d been the elder man’s close friend. John married Bailey’s daughter and the two Johns remained tight.

Johnny had called a few times over the previous week or two. The first time Johnny wanted to know: “What’s the best place in Melbourne for chest diagnosis?” Unspoken was our shared knowledge of the colon cancer. The new problem was a mass in his chest. More calls followed: “The local specialist wants a biopsy – should it be taken in Albury or in Melbourne?” The last call: ”The old man’s too ill for any procedure.”

John Bailey’s son flew from Far North Queensland; his grandchildren gathered from Melbourne, from Geelong, from Christchurch. And now, the minimum, the inevitable: “Doff, John has passed.” My friend’s voice failed him.

Eventually he managed, “Bye for now.”

***

It was only six weeks previously that John Bailey and I talked over a long dinner at the house of his daughter, Chrissie and his son-in-law, John Wanklyn. I was about to fly to Wadeye, reputedly one of Australia’s most lawless towns. After a long career spent as an officer of the law in rural and regional areas, John Bailey was keenly interested: “I’ll be anxious to hear what you find in Wadeye. Tell me what you think.”

I readied myself to offer the veteran copper my apologetics, some extenuation of Aboriginal lawlessness. Old Man Bailey put down his glass. He raised his right hand, clawed by age and arthritis, and waved away my preconceptions of his preconceptions: he had none; he had, in his eighties that rare attribute – a genuinely open mind on Aboriginal matters. “Howard, I am glad you are going. Be sure to write and tell me about the town and the life there. Write and tell me what you see.” I did go, I did write. But I didn’t manage to complete my long piece about Wadeye – one of Australia’s hidden cultural capitals – in time to share it with John Bailey.

The uncompletedness of my task was a weight. I felt I owed some personal debt to John Bailey, to his remarkable life and lineage and service – this man who lost a father and gained a vocation through a murder.

***

A year after her father’s passing, John Bailey’s daughter supplied information he had not seen fit to mention to me. “Pa was honoured many times by the force. In 1972 they awarded him the Police Long Service and Good Conduct Medal; in 1986 he was awarded the National Police Medal; and in1988 they gave him the NSW Police Medal with 6th Clasp. Do you know what that means?”

I didn’t.

“It means they awarded him with that honour on six separate occasions.”

A Bailey pause.

“So the force honoured Pa lots of times in his lifetime. And one final time after he died: that was at his funeral. There was a motor cycle vanguard and a motor cycle rearguard. Police officers in numbers. The local chief commander spoke. Pa was buried in his dress uniform, with all his decorations attached.  A Police flag covered the casket and Pa’s police hat rested on it.

“One funny thing happened that day. I wouldn’t have seen the funny side at the time: a member of the motorcycle escort recognised the driver of the hearse. The man was a disqualified driver who’d lost his license through drink driving or some other offense. I don’t know what the copper did about it, but I know what he didn’t do. He didn’t arrest the driver on the spot and spoil Pa’s funeral.”

Postscript: I sent John Bailey’s daughter my notes. She wrote: “It took me a little while to brace myself to open it…You tell a story that I know, and have known for most of my life. But you have woven into the fabric of this new telling, the very essence of my father and his long-felt and deep loss of his father. I often think that the answer to the question “who would you invite to the ultimate dinner party?” would be, my father and grandfather, just to see and hear them together.

Thank you for reuniting father and son in words. I know Pa would have seen it as a precious and tangible thing to hand on to his children, grandchildren and beyond …”

I dedicate this story to a friend who is wrestling in another mortal struggle.

Faith and the Flu Vaccine

Some trust in God, some trust in nature, others trust in nothing and no-one.

The roots of these feelings lie deep, too deep generally for the light to penetrate.

These feelings are almost religious: they express some faith or, occasionally, a fear of all faith.

If you try to debate feelings of this nature you’ll find them impervious to argument. They are held sacred and well away from the light of enquiry.

If you believed I held a particular faith you might consider my belief absurd. But because of your good manners you’d probably keep that view of my quaint beliefs private. You’d realise argument would not budge me and, out of kindness you’d refrain from locking horns with me.

Circumcision evokes a great example of quasi-religious positions. Whenever you hear the subject discussed you’ll recognise the intensity with which a person expresses a position. Here we find conviction, not opinion. Convictions are guarded fiercely, they are immune to fresh evidence: conviction is the opposite of scientific openness of mind. I have noticed how lay people, doctors and nurses alike defend their positions on the foreskin with religious intensity. I do not argue with the foreskin zealot.

Winter has come to Australia with promise of our regular influenza epidemic. With winter comes a rise in religious sentiment on the matter of immunisation against the flu. The government preaches immunisation, we doctors echo with our own hosannahs, the trusters in nature shriek back. We all talk at each other. We find it hard to listen when our faiths collide. Doctors trust in herd immunity. On Facebook my daughter tells ‘friends’ she trusts her doctor father. One respondent trusts in nature (“I‘ve been vegan for seven years, and I’ve never had the flu during all that time.”). Another respondent trusts no-one and nothing (“ It’s a conspiracy. Big pharma in cahoots with government.”)

I looked up some facts about influenza and vaccination. I found plenty of facts but these will change few minds. (Two thousand proven influenza deaths. Lots of people become unwell in the two weeks following vaccination. Not everyone who is vaccinated with be immunised. Not a single proven death from the vaccine.)

I had been doctor for two weeks when I saw my first influenza death. The patient caught the flu late in pregnancy. She deteriorated rapidly, developed pneumonia and was soon brain-dead. Her baby was delivered by emergency caesarean section and lived. That baby never knew her mother. Mother was twenty-four years of age. That was my own age at the time.

Last week I vaccinated my children and my grandchildren against the flu. I had the vaccine myself. I offer the same vaccines to all my patients. I answer their questions, I provide information, but I don’t enter into religious disputation.

The Continuing Silence

Paul, beloved friend,

Are you there?

Can you hear me, can you hear or feel or know the love I send?

Three weeks, four, have passed without a letter from my friend.

My friend kept me informed: he told me of the tribe of cats who lived in his caritas, his agape, his lovingkindness.  He called each of them by name.

My friend wrote of the roadrunner (likewise given a name; he kept me apprised of the rattlesnakes that swarmed in his wilderness places, as well as of the evangelist rattlesnakes on tv, and of the rattlesnakes who called by phone to extort from him in the name of righteousness.

My friend wrote of his work in the rivers of venereal pus that flowed among his captive patients in WWII. He wrote of aviation, of the sober joys and disciplines of flight. He wrote of his instructor, one Pemberton, whose memory and example he cherished.

My friend taught this doctor, a long generation younger than he, much of the medicine that had escaped him in his undergraduate days, and that eluded him until the happy day that Paul strode into his life and became a preceptor.

My friend wrote of prayer, of his habitation in the house of prayer.

My friend wrote on his bended knees as he prayed for his fracturing nation.

My friend sent me funny stories, he sent me risque stories, he sent me the news from the frontiers of science, and he sent me the news of tabloid headline that were of little science.These he derided with fine despatch.

My friend wrote often of the good people he had known, people who have long passed but whose good name and memory he kept alive with his remarkable recall and his great respect.

My friend wrote of Beverley who was the light of his life and the fire of his loins. He revered her, he missed and he yearned for her perpetually. Of her he wrote, ‘Great was the joy in heaven when she entered that kingdom’.

My friend’s body was wearying, wearing out, but his mind remained scythe-sharp.

My friend, his integrity unbending, was weakened by the cheating and the chicanery of the mendicants who plagued him. I felt Paul’s righteous being was affronted and his spirit distressed by these cheats.

My friend had standards and he never wavered.

My friend loved the human frame, the creation whose anatomy and parts he new so well. He saw in that frame the work of his Creator.

My friend wrote only weeks ago to report evidence of brain function persisting AFTER death.  What did he think of that? What now, stricken mute by stroke, does Paul think?

How are the mighty fallen.

My friend wrote to me with love. He wrote and he told me he was ready.

I am not ready.

Who, of Paul’s eighty faithful readers, can be ready?

Paul, I know nought of those awaiting your arrival above, but here on earth, great will the weeping if you leave us.

Paul, can you hear me?

Do you know our love?

Paul?

Paul?

Howard

Love

I realise I have written little in this blog that does not touch on death in some way or other. I have written less of love. Probably I write of death as one preparing for that moment of truth. I write myself toward it and around it as one not yet in it. The pursuit, neither morbid nor frivolous, is the necessary (if deplorable) corollary of growing up. If I write little of love it is because I dwell within it and have done all my days. But the third day of December arrives every year and it reminds me.

Here then, conceived on December 3 2017, is a love story.

My wife is married to a pleasant enough man. I’ve known him for a long time, and although I admire him generously, yet I concede he is not perfect. My wife has put up with imperfection, with hopes incompletely realised for 48 years. On December 3 this year she gave her spouse a card, upon which the following words appeared:

This is my wish for you…

 

Comfort on difficult days,

Smiles when sadness intrudes,

Rainbows to follow the clouds,

Laughter to kiss your lips,

Sunsets to warm your heart,

Hugs when spirits sag,

Beauty for your eyes to see,

Friendships to brighten your being,

Faith so you can believe,

Confidence for when you doubt,

Courage to know yourself,

Patience to accept the truth,

Love to complete your life.

 

 

Better than the average Hallmark homily, I thought. And indeed the name I read beneath these lines was Ralph Waldo Emerson.

But the platitudes of the great philosopher were not penned by my wife. I opened the card and read her handwritten message.

I won’t share those words beyond this: my wife commanded herself to love me for a further 48 years. I did a little weep for joy and for thanksgiving. And the words remained in me, resonating, lighting the damp and darkened world about me. We drove to the country to lunch as the guests of our recently widowed friend. Aged in her mid-nineties, our host prepared our meal with dogged independence and perfect accuracy. We sat in her sylvan retreat and we shared her sorrow. For the first time in our long friendship our host’s beloved was absent. Only love abided.

Outside the window the green world was soaked by unseasonable rains. Behind and above the green the world was grey. Suddenly my wife started: ‘Look!’ she said. I turned and looked and there, a glory of gold and green, sat a king parrot, nibbling the widow’s birdseed.

Love lit my night. I recited my morning prayers and read the Shema with its credo. Immediately following the words of that key formula of faith was a concrete Commandment. And the command was love.

I opened the novel* that my men’s book club will discuss tonight. The editor wrote: If the novel can be said to have one central idea, it is surely of love, the many forms love takes…’a passion neither of the mind nor of the heart… a force that comprehends them both.’

 

 

 

 

*’Stoner’, by John Williams

 

 

 

 

 

Conversations

After I started posting some thoughts arising from the current euthanasia debates, four women whom I hold in esteem wrote in strong response. Two wrote openly on the blog, two privately. I will refer to them respectively as B, M, G, H.

B wrote: Hi Howard,

I’ve just read your maybe not rousing speech but impassioned piece on euthanasia.

If I should be dying and I should be in unbearable pain, and if through that pain I was not able to continue to relate to my loved ones other than to be overwhelmed by my pain, you would be one of the doctors I would reach out to to put an end to my pain and possibly my life.

Will you refuse me?

I first met B in 1971 when she brought about my birth as a doctor. I have not treated her since. Instead we have become colleagues and friends. B’s note shifted my thoughts from the abstract to the concrete. Here was a cry coming from deep in an ancient moment in my formation. The person who wrote is concrete. Reeling somewhat, groping for self-knowledge, I responded speculatively:

Dear B,

I cannot know…

I suspect love would defeat principle or conviction or predisposition to life.

In other words I do not know myself in abstractions but in my instinct and my sentiments.

My ancient affection for you, my strong drive to help – which surfaced in your case in c. 1971 are as likely to govern me as any personal ‘rule’ or law.

I am sure if someone came and demanded I act in any given way my instinct would be to resist.

I anticipated readers would respond with passion and with pain to my piece.

I was right…

You asked would I help you.

I know I would try.

I cannot predict what shape my help might take.

This is a heavy matter. No light answers. And for me, no right answers.

But love will govern.

B again:

From feeling like I was falling into a chasm your response came as a hand that reached out to stop me hurtling to my death. Strange metaphor given I was talking about asking you to help me to die. I am much relieved that love will play a big part in your decision making process, over and above noble and fine principles.

But the debate hypothetically may be akin to Solomon’s choice.

Let’s talk.

My friend G is another colleague, a person raised in a strong religious framework from which she emerged to find and form her own way. I suspect her hard struggle for freedom has left her with a strong respect for my right to find and form a path of my own. G asked:

Would you be comfortable referring one of your patients who met the criteria to hasten their end to another GP who you knew would agree to assist in that wish?

And if that patient asked you to be present during the event would you?

How much do you think religion affects your current view? Or are you unable to separate your religious self from your professional self?

All F’s questions arrived as text message on my phone. Like death a phone message catches one on the hop. An answer will be less considered, perhaps truer for its spontaneity. I wrote a text back:

Hello F,

I’m pretty sure my religious self is absent from this.

It’s as if something deeper and defining is at play.

I imagine that ‘something’ is what brought me into Medicine.

And that drive collides here with itself…

But on the other hand, it was religion that framed my earliest thoughts.

It is on reviewing the texts that I regret not telling F at the outset: I can’t imagine doing anything I will find comfortable. The best I can hope for is to be comforting.

But if a patient wants me there at the end, yes, of course I’ll come. I’ll want to hold her hand as she passes over to ‘that quiet land.’

F resumed by email:

I find people’s responses to this topic rather fascinating (and at times irritating). So many reactions are full of judgement and criticism when it’s a topic that requires the opposite – compassion, objectivity and an acknowledgement of all of the grey. It would appear that a single (subjective) experience of dying makes some people self-appointed experts on the topic. I am of the thought that there is no ‘truth’ in any one person’s experience. And I wonder if those who react so emotionally to the idea of not having the ‘right’ to hasten their own demise have been more traumatised/suffered by the dying of another than the person who was actually dying?

What do I know? I do know that I would prefer not to die of bowel cancer. My experience working on GI wards is that that would be a shithouse (excuse the pun) way to go. I know that until I am dying of a known cause I won’t know if I want the option to hasten my demise or not. I know that having witnessed many people dying of a known cause (some in pain, some in discomfort, some in fear) that I’m still not convinced that assisted death is the answer. But I’m not convinced that palliative care is the answer either – theoretically it should be but I doubt it will ever be financially. I know that those who have reached the palliative stage of their illness should never be admitted to an acute care ward in a hospital – I’ve witnessed far too many cases of what I can only term the neglect of those in their final days/weeks in acute care wards. And the reluctance of acute care nursing and medical staff to adequately manage final stage symptoms. I want to believe in palliative care but I’ve been waiting too long for results.

I know that if you were my GP and I had a terminal diagnosis, I would feel like I had the best GP in the world. I would know that when you asked a question you would be genuinely interested in the answer. And I would believe that you would have a moment of quiet grief when I left this world. And that would be a comfort. As a nurse I never felt any sorrow for an anticipated death of a patient – the overwhelming emotion I felt was relief. Relief that there would be no more pain, no more nausea, no more confusion, no more discomfort from lying day after day in bed waiting to be turned brusquely. But I have a feeling that you experience a moment of sorrow for each death – correct me if I’m wrong.

If I were your patient and I asked you to help me die and you indicated that you couldn’t then I believe I would want your help to find a doctor who would be willing. I would appreciate that you would feel obligated to offer alternatives but if my mind was made up and it was legal then I would want you to support my decision. You might not support assisted dying on moral and ethical grounds but having come reached a fully informed decision I would want your compassion to make that referral to a colleague who you trusted and respected. And the promise that if I changed my mind you would do everything in your power to make my end days as comfortable as possible.

Your friend, F

These words come straight from the bedside. They come from one who has stood with me at the bedside. I cannot gainsay a word of them. Yes I do sorrow for every death. Yes I sorrow for every pregnancy loss. I grieve inwardly for a miscarriage. There is something universal here and something personal. The universal is the instinct that drives all of us to struggle for life. The personal is hard for me to define or even to describe. It comes into focus most sharply for me at the birth of a child. Those moments find their mirror image in a death. The one elates me, the other deflates.

H is a writer friend, a novelist and a family historian whose earlier profession was neurology. She writes humane novels filled with unsentimental empathy. H was another friend whom I disappointed. She wrote:

I’m sorry you feel you could not give this final relief. I am a convert to assisted dying (this is not euthanasia – which implies someone else’s decision that you should die). My feeling has always been that adults who are dying should have some choice about their death, and seeing three dear relatives all the way to death, I am now utterly convinced that such choice should be available. I understand that in states in America where such choice is available, of those who take up the option only a small proportion use the drugs supplied. But, those who receive the drugs and do not use them, are much calmer and happier, for knowing that they have control and can die should they feel they have had enough.

H here echoes an experience described to me elsewhere by B, arising from her work with men diagnosed in the 1980’s with HIV-AIDS. At that time the diagnosis was a death sentence. Some of the doomed acquired the means of ending their lives painlessly, with the intention of using it at a time of their later choosing. Of those men only one availed himself of the drugs. The others lived out their natural term. Knowing they were able to die enabled them to live on.

I close here with one message of straightforward approbation. It comes from M:

Very thoughtful. And probably helpful to those who didn’t like your last post. I have put the link up on my FB page.

M often comments favourably on my blog. When she doesn’t approve she’ll keep her disapproval away from the public eye. M is of course (as she signs herself) my loving sister.

Let Me Die! Help Me!

The right to die has found its voice. Past generations heard little of that claim, the cri de coueur of our day.

I imagine we never wanted to die so much as we do now. In previous times when life was short, brutish and mean we struggled to stay alive. But now Medicine has taken over. Deaths are prevented, delayed and deformed. Few families in advanced societies have been spared the grotesque spectacle of a loved one subjected to medically prolonged dying.

Because we enjoy better health we live longer lives. Because we reach old age we accumulate the mutations that overwhelm our defences. Cancer results. The cancer epidemic is the trophy won for us by medical advances. And so Medicine sets out to fight its ugly daughter. We cut out tumours, we poison them with chemotherapy, we shrink them with X-Rays, we outwit them with genetically engineered antibodies. Many are the gains, great are the costs.

Eventually dying happens.

Death frightened me when I was younger. Now I can see death as a sometimes friend. John Keats nursed his brother through the long death of tuberculosis. Then Keats himself became tubercular. He knew what lay in wait for him: cachexia then death. The terminus he contemplated was like late–stage cancer, the body self-starved, the mind too aware, the complexion ghastly pale, the skin empty, disfigured:

                                                The weariness, the fever, and the fret 

                                                Here, where men sit and hear each other groan; 

                                                Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs, 

                                                Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies; 

                                                Where but to think is to be full of sorrow 

                                                And leaden-eyed despairs –

 

 

Keats wrote dreams of an easy death (in his Ode to a Nightingale):

                                                           Darkling I listen; and, for many a time 

                                                           I have been half in love with easeful Death, 

                                                           Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme, 

                                                           To take into the air my quiet breath; 

                                                            Now more than ever seems it rich to die, 

                                                           To cease upon the midnight with no pain, 

                                                           While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad 

                                                           In such an ecstasy! 

                                                           Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain— 

                                                           To thy high requiem become a sod. 

 

When recently I posted ON EUTHANASIA I anticipated readers might react strongly. I was right: most who responded – on–line and off-line – experienced my thoughts as a wound. I learned how a doctor is expected to relieve all suffering. A doctor is a trusted friend. Once the doctor denies his patient her right, she feels he has betrayed her. The wounded person’s gaze is not directed here to the doctor as a moral agent, not as a person entitled to moral autonomy, simply as one who could help, who now, abruptly, at this last critical and defining moment, acts selfishly.

I wrote that changing a law does not necessarily serve wisdom. The reality here is no conceivable law can resolve all of the problems of our competing needs and values. We need relief. We need a doctor who respects our autonomy. We need a doctor who will not sit in lofty judgement.  We need a doctor who will protect life and now we need one who will take life. And we need to know he’ll protect when he should and take when we seek it. The forgotten need is that of the doctor to reconcile those parts of his work. Putting it a different way, if the doctor, in trying be all those things, violates her own being, inevitably she disintegrates. She must give away her integrity. And then all lose.

I read the responses. I felt them, the tremor of the soul that prompted brave, naked, passionate disclosure of self.  My mind went back to deaths I have known, deaths I have conducted. I recalled the baby who aspirated meconium in the birth canal. The baby’s chest heaved as it worked to ventilate lungs clogged with a material of the texture of bitumen. We ventilated him, he did not improve, he did not die. He would not die. Morning after morning I entered NICU and there he was, his skin marbled, his chest rising and falling in obedience to our machine. His life felt like a reproach. We had turned on the machine. I learned then that the decision to bring in the technology is more onerous than to withhold, to wait.

I recalled the first person to ask for my mercy. That person was my mother, the one who had given me life. Mum would have been sixty, I thirty. ‘Darling’, she said, ‘I have high blood pressure, I have high cholesterol; one day I’ll have a stroke. When that happens, I want you to slip me a mickey.’

I understood Mum’s reference to ‘a mickey finn’ – a lethal draught.

‘Mum, NO!’ – was my instinctive response, which I quickly softened with promises to read favourite literature to her.

Twenty or more years later Mum duly suffered stroke after stroke, the final one devastating. My son and I carried her up the stairs one day and I asked her whether she recalled our conversation. She did, clearly. I asked Mum whether she regretted my failure to ‘slip her a mickey’. Mum’s blithe response did not surprise me. Whichever way she might have responded would not prove any argument, would be particular, not general, would not resolve the next sufferer’s dilemma.

I sat with the heat and the passion and the pain of this debate. Having little faith in lawmakers to solve the problems of human existence and oblivion, I searched for some useful fragment to proffer. I recalled those numerous patients who had made written Advance Care Directives. For the simple doctor these expressions of your wishes are a godsend. I read them and I am ruled by your refusals. Some decline ventilation, some explicitly forbid ICU, some decline antibiotics or feeding by tube. Many directives are less specific: ‘Do nothing more than keep me comfortable.’ ‘Let me die with dignity.’ These last call for my deepest self-search. They challenge me to imagine what  comprises and what violates your dignity. They draw my mind into the unknowable tomorrow. But these directives too are helpful. Your opaque request demands my vision of your humanity. It’s a big ask and it’s a fair one. My parents asked of their children that we allow them to die with dignity. We did our best and we saw Mum and Dad pass more or less peacefully from us with our honest best. It’s a big ask but I feel equal to it.

So that’s my first suggestion: COMPOSE YOUR THOUGHTS, EXPRESS YOUR WISHES, WRITE THEM DOWN, GIVE THEM TO YOUR DOCTORS (IN THE PLURAL), TO YOUR LOVED ONES, TO YOUR LAWYER.

No guarantees.

The second idea came to me as I wondered about by own expertise in the matter of ending life by intent. I must do it unerringly. You don’t want to wake up mute and paralysed after I have botched it. Your family doesn’t want to see you struggle or convulse or vomit then inhale, gag and gasp. I’d need training. Then it came to me: the legalized euthanaser must be trained, supervised and certified. You’d want him to know the relevant law, the protocols. The euthanaser might benefit from ethical training. I am sure the practitioner will need pastoral support and peer supervision. He’ll need to be able to recognise and resist the opportunist heir-designate who wants Aunt Nancy knocked off before her care costs consume too much of the inheritance. (I had to do this once.)

So here’s my second suggestion, this to the lawmakers: A PERSON MUST BE LICENSED TO END LIFE. THE LICENSE WILL ASSURE THE COMMUNITY AND PROFESSIONAL PEERS THAT THE PRACTITIONER IS TRAINED, COMPETENT, HONEST AND WILLING. That final adjective might save many patients from the painful disappointment of denial of help by a doctor not prepared to end a life. (That doctor might be me.) You might or might not be able to respect the difficulty of a doctor who feels torn between your need and his vanity/arrogance/integrity/different sense of defining mission, but you need not suffer a humiliating rebuff in your extremity of need.

As I wrote earlier, a change of law cannot resolve everything.

It’s Not How Long You’ve Got, It’s What You Do With It

I’ve got six to twelve, the older man said.

The younger man said quietly, they give me three to six.

But you never know, said the elder, my count is down. A little. I might get longer. Doctors can be wrong…If the count keeps falling, I might last longer than the twelve; I might be able to take the family to Greece next year. I’d love to go…

The younger man said I want to get to my brother’s wedding in February.

Silently we did the sums. February will be after three months.

The elder man’s oval face creased. He said to the younger: maybe you can get into a trial. I’m on a trial drug. My count is down, a bit. Are you on a trial?

No. I’m not eligible. I don’t have the mutation.

The elder urged the other to do things, to try things, not to accept predictions as solid fact: They can be wrong you know.

The young man smiled his crooked smile, stretching the wasted side into momentary symmetry. I know, he said. At first they gave me twelve months. That was five years ago.

The elder man’s eyebrows shot up. Wow, he said, that’s beating the odds. His earnest face relaxed, happier now. Are you on chemo?

I have been. On and off. It’s stopped working.

I keep hearing about people who have their brain tumours removed. Couldn’t they try that?

They did. Twice.

Twice? The elder man winced. He was trying everything, fighting the younger man’s disease.

Whenever he spoke the younger man’s voice was quiet. A physiotherapist, he was trained in disability. Now it had come to him, kept coming, unfolding in his body. His brain analysed each stumble, he processed the growing weakness down the left side, every step was improvised, his studied speech experimental, not bitter.

I stumble too, said the elder man. Last week, I was only one kilometre into the marathon when I stumbled. The ambulance men would have taken me away but Howard here wouldn’t let them. It’s just the foot, it flops.

The younger man said you can get an orthotic to keep the foot straight. They work. They’re not comfortable but you won’t stumble.

The ‘stumble’ was a crash. Down he went, his heavy body accruing momentum that his muscles could not brake. Six of the last eight months in hospital had seen powerful tissues soften and shrink, proud muscles, muscles that had carried this man 39 times the full 42.185 kilometres and across the Line. One of the Legendary Seven, last Sunday he lined up for his fortieth. He walked, he trotted, he shivered wildly, then he fell. Bent forward at my feet the man groaned loudly. He crouched, his head folded under his belly and he groaned again. Blood oozed, first from his knees, soon from the heels of his palms.  Two tall young men materialised, one on either side of the fallen man. They asked questions, good paramedical questions. The athlete groaned. I said, He’ll be alright.

The ambos said, He doesn’t look too flash.

I said, I’m his doctor.

What’s his diagnosis?

Everything, I said. He’ll be right.

At the prospect of unwelcome rescue the runner hauled himself up the helping arms of his son and his doctor. His sister-in-law mopped blood. The tissue was soon soaked. He said to his son, I’m shivering. Can I have your jumper?

He started walking again. People in the crowd recognised him. He was one of the Seven. Good on you, they cried. Legend! Keep going!

The man kept going. So did his teeth, chattering violently now, drumming time with his gait. The doctor in me wondered about fever, the return of infection that had seen him in hospital again and again.

A little short of the Fitzroy Street landmark his wife intercepted him. She took his arm and guided him gently to the kerb.

***

The younger man and the elder had not met before, although each had heard me speak of the other, a person like him, another with a problem that doctors could not cure.

The younger man regarded the elder. This rotund man, this athlete, this grandfather who’d three times risen from his sickbed to run so far. He sat at a remove from his stricken body, his face alight in wonder.

I nudged the younger: tell him what you’ve been doing since your diagnosis. The younger man spoke a little in the voice I have come to know, the voice he always uses when speaking of his living while dying. The voice speaks softly, a grin riding above the speaking mouth, ironic knowing in the background. The elder sat and listened. He heard of the classes the younger man runs for children with disabilities: They’re the kids no-one can do anything for. I mean no-one can fix them. There’s no cure for their cerebral palsy or their intellectual deficit or their severe ADHD.

The younger man did not mention to the elder how he teaches children they can be anything, do anything. His own life is the textbook, held open to the kids.

How do they come to you? Do you advertise?

Not as such. More word of mouth.  And there’s the website*.

A smile dashed across the younger man’s face: We start off each time with a group hug. It’s more a gang tackle – they race across towards me and throw themselves onto me and we hold each other. It will be fun tonight. The younger man glanced at his failing left leg:  Until now my balance and strength have been fine. Tonight I’ll go down and I’ll stay down. He laughed. It was a merry laugh, no irony, just the laugh of a man looking forward to sharing with his small friends the joke that is his health. The joke that is all health that is broken or twisted or failing.

We ate, all of us suddenly hungry. The younger man’s left hand rested in his bowl of hot dhal. I looked down, wondering when he’d remove it. The hand stayed put. The brain that should have perceived and sent the message to the hand neglected its work. The brain has been invaded and the invasion continues.

I asked them both, Don’t you feel angry? (I felt angry.)

The older man said, Why would I feel angry? Look, I’ve lived, I’ve got my wife, my children, a grandchild. I have a lot, I’ve lived. I feel sorry for my mother. She rings me every day, every single day. She worries.

A moment passed while we thought our thoughts. I felt for the younger man sitting at the side of the elder and hearing of the joys of a life lived, of a man full with his generations.

The younger man said, I’m not angry about this. He pointed to his head. I just get angry when doctors won’t listen. I nodded. Some of my starchier colleagues are uncomfortable with a patient  who is more than his disease, one who charts his path, who travels his world so widely and deeply as my friend.

A week earlier I asked the younger man was he frightened of dying. He said no. Later, a characteristically quirky text appeared on my screen: On the way down in the lift I worked out why I wasn’t scared. Dying isn’t scary – if you get it wrong then you stay alive.

*www.camerongill.com.au