Death Visits

Death visited last week, snatching away a lady whom we’d expected would recover. She was 87 years of age, a little disorganised in her brain, not vigorous but not too ill. We admitted her to hospital in the morning for observation and nursing care. Her elder sister had dementia too. She visited in the afternoon, escorted by her carer, a slim Asian woman.
 
 
At 3.00pm our patient enjoyed her afternoon tea. At four she took a nap. While asleep she stopped breathing. Big sister called us. Her cardiogram showed a heart attack. Her end of life instructions read: NO CPR. NO RESUSCITATION. She died. I left the dead concealed behind curtains and approached the living. I leaned and spoke clearly: ‘Your sister has just died in her sleep.’ It was the carer who fell onto the shoulder of her client, crying. The elder sister comforted her: ‘Don’t be upset. You get used to that.’ The calm features of the Asian woman twisted in grief, her face suffused. What silent sorrow of her own had been roughly torn open?
 
 
 
Meanwhile death had been stalking another two of my patients for days. I could hear his tread closing on them, unhurried, inexorable. For the younger of the two, death – release from her cancer – could not come soon enough. She begged, 'Let me die. Help me to die.' We gave her all we had, our promises of kindness, the usual feeble half-answers. She lapsed into a dull quiet, defeated by our timorousness.
 
 
The elder patient was far from ready. She had lived through the Second War in Europe, had seen much. Late at night she grasped my hand, breathlessly contriving a voice that filtered feebly through her oxygen mask. She pulled me close: ‘What will happen to me?’
I looked at her aged face, searching her: ‘Are you afraid?’
‘Yes.’
‘What are you afraid of?’
’Dying.’ She looked hard into my face.
‘You don’t need to feel afraid. When the time comes you will fall sleep. You will not suffer. You will sleep and you will not wake up. We won’t let you suffer.’
The old lady brought my hand to her chest and gripped it hard, pulling me closer. We breathed together in the darkness. No voice. Her smile said her thanks.
 
 
I went to my quarters and fell fast into sleep.  My phone rang. When the screen read ‘Unknown Caller’, I knew it would be the hospital calling. Surmise told me death had arrived for one or other of my friends. No, not yet. A third patient, more peremptory, had summonsed death by swallowing two weeks’ medications. With one hundred and forty tablets inside her she dictated to the nurse the disposition of her possessions: ‘Give my good overcoat to this one. Give the money that’s coming to me to that one.’ 
 
 
Sleep was slow to return. I lay and calculated the effects of twenty-eight strong blood pressure tablets, and an overdose of aspirin. I must have slept, for the ringing of my phone disturbed me. ‘Unknown Caller’ again. No, no-one had died. A child had a red throat.
 
 
Over the following hours of darkness ‘Unknown Caller’ rang six times. Asthma, wet lungs, fever. No death. At dawn the call hauled me from deep sleep: ‘Come now! Cardiac arrest!’ A large inert body, a small nurse pushing down hard, again and again and again. A flickering trace on the cardiac monitor, a chain of us thumping an unwilling heart, injections of adrenaline, a failed electric shock. No pulse at the wrist. I called a pause, the hopeful triangles on the monitor fell into a flat line. No breaths, no heartbeat. The husband of the inert figure stood, watching, his hand on his mouth. We tried again.
 
 
After a time I called a second halt. I listened for a heartbeat. I listened and watched for breathing. I shone a torch into pupils and found them wide with death. I walked across the room to the husband and said, ‘Your wife has died.’ A massive man, erect, he crumpled into silent weeping. His heaving trunk was enveloped instantly in the embrace of a woman I had not sighted. I spoke into the bereaved man’s free ear, ‘She didn’t suffer. She was unconscious from the instant she fell.’ The embracer’s arm groping blindly, grabbed me, held me hard in the grieving ruck.
 
 
At length I extricated myself. The small nurse from Uganda wiped his eyes. Another nurse said hoarsely, ‘I was at school with the husband.’
After certifying the death and writing my notes I left the hospital. Outside, the chill of an Alice Springs morning felt welcome on my skin. I wandered to a park and attended to my dawn prayers, delayed by a death.

Silent Singer

 
The voice floated across my lonely motel room in Darwin. The sound of slow sweet lament suited my mood in that anonymous room in a lodging for transients. The voice sang of home, of home lost, of home dreamed and remembered. In that room, at that season – the three weeks of mourning for Jerusalem and the Temple – the voice sang to me of loss, my own and the singer’s.
 
 
After a period working on Elcho Island I had arrived in Darwin at day’s end, had wandered blindly about the Darwin Festival, blindly had selected this CD of Elcho singers. Later, in the light I read their names. I recognised ‘Yunipingu’: hadn’t he been Australian of the Year? But this would be a different Yunipingu.
 
 
Only a couple of years later that floating voice had percolated through the ears  of the entire nation, seeped into our being and changed us. Distinctive as didgeridoo, his voice was recognised everywhere. His solo album was the cultural event of the year. Realising how a voice had become the sound that we recognised ourselves by, I wrote. “Australia is becoming more Australian.”  
 
 
Born in 1971 the singer passed away last week. He died during the three weeks of mourning. I listen to ‘Warwu’ and I feel for my country, impoverished. The singer has passed from us. So much loss, so many, so young.
 
 
 
 
click on this link to hear him singing 'Warwu': https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XhkMP89rRMk

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.

Mother’s One Hundredth Birthday Party 

I’ll invite my brother and his family and Mum’s nephews and nieces, her great-nephews and great-nieces, and my children and their children, as well as some of my friends who were also Mum’s friends. But Aly Ong won’t be there. He’ll be back on the plantation in Malaya. My sister Margot won’t be with us; she lives in New York so she’s excused. It was all Margot’s idea, really, this idea of a family party. She’s inviting her kids from New Rochelle and Philadelphia and Boston and all their children and they’ll tell stories and eat pavlova in Margot’s pavilion by the Hudson. And we in Melbourne will feast and reminisce by the Yarra. Well, within cooee of that river.
 
 
In their generation Mum and her younger sister Doreen were masters of the pavlova, grandmasters really. The meringue edge was firm, the interior light and mallow, the whole edifice of air stupendously high. When Dennis ran his restaurant he turned to Mum to bake pavlovas which he’d serve in massive slices topped with whipped cream and passionfruit and strawberries …. and lust. Now the mantle has passed to Margot.
 
 
Will it spoil the party that Mum won’t be coming? Well, it would be lovely if she were to attend, but it’s big ask. Mum will be there, though. She never really left.
 
 
(Let me tell you about Mum and Aly Ong. Back in the ’sixties Aly came to Melbourne under the Colombo Scheme, a government initiative whereby Australia would educate Asian students and send them back home to become leaders in their own, developing countries. Aly studied Accounting with my brother Dennis and the two were close friends. That meant Aly became an habitue at number 15 Atkinson Street, Oakleigh, eating pavlova and Mum’s form of fried rice that must have made him laugh. But Aly was too polite to laugh.
 
Aly was shy. Left to himself he’d never have raised the courage to ask Mum for the loan of her car. But having Dennis as a friend meant you were not left to yourself. ‘Mum, Aly needs to borrow your car tonight. He’s got a date.’
Aly blushed: ‘Oh, no Mrs Goldenberg, I really don’t need…’
‘Of course you can use the car Aly. With pleasure.’
So Aly took the car.
 
He returned a few hours later, looking shaken. I asked him what was wrong. He shook his head, saying nothing. I saw tears forming. ‘I must speak to Mrs Goldenberg, was all I could get out of him. Mum was in bed upstairs, in one or other of her various states of partial consciousness. I told Mum Aly needed to see her. He was in some distress.
 
 
Mum descended: ‘Hello Aly darling. Did you have a nice time?’
‘Mrs Goldenberg, something terrible has happened. I crashed your car!’
‘Oh, Aly, are you hurt?’
‘No, Mrs Goldenberg, but the car…’
‘Are you sure you’re alright, Aly? And your friend? Is she alright?’
‘’Yes, thank you Mrs Goldenberg, quite sure. But I’ve smashed your car.’
Mum’s car was new, brand new. It was a Holden Premier, top of the range, with iridescent green duco and beautiful tan leather seats, Holden’s first foray into luxury.
‘Oh, never mind about the car, Aly. Sit down and have a cup of tea and some pavlova.’)
 
 
Mum was born on June 8, 1917, and she did not have to wait very long to become acquainted with death. Her father died when she was twelve and she lost her mother three years later. Falling happily into the care of Gar, their miraculously liberated and liberating grandmother, the girls thrived. After her parents died Mum accepted the reality of death. On visits to Melbourne Mum would drive us past the Brighton Cemetery and remark, ‘Mummy and daddy are in there.’ It took me a while to work out what and who was ‘in there’, and why. It was disorienting to hear ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’, words I attached to living, loving, parents, indispensable supports of my being. But Mum’s tone was blithe. Death held no fears for her. Not personally, not for herself.
 
 
But for Doreen, Mum trembled. In her middle and later life Aunty Doreen fell sick often and fell hard. Once or twice I found Mum in tears: ‘I’ve told Dor I have to peg out first.’ In the event Aunty Doreen did Peg out before Mum, dying in her late eighties of heart disease that exhausted her will to live on. Then Dad died, and my younger brother Barry said, ‘Don’t you go getting any fancy ideas, Mum.’ Only two years later Dennis died, Mum’s firstborn and first loved. Mum said, ‘I’ve always known death is part of life.’ And I said, ‘Mum, don’t think you’re allowed to die.’
‘I’ll do my best not to, darling. I’ve never died yet.’
 
 
One week before her ninety-second birthday Mum’s best was no longer sufficient. She won’t be at her one hundredth birthday party, but we will excuse her dying. She can be forgiven one lapse.
 

At that Precise Spot at that Exact Moment

Centuries ago a bridge suspended high above an Andean valley collapsed. As a handful of travellers fell to their deaths, a Franciscan Friar approaching the bridge witnessed the event. Hundreds crossed that bridge every day. He never doubted God had decided to end those lives for a reason. Certain those lives had reached their completeness, Friar Juniper set out to investigate, to prove meaning in the seeming randomness. The author Thornton Wilder wrote a short, intense account of the monk’s quest in his book ‘The Bridge at San Luis Rey.’
 

 

Thirty years ago I made the winding climb from the valley floor to Marysville’s lovely Steavensons Falls. Half way up, nearing a bend in the cool and green, I encountered a plaque that read:  

IT WAS AN ACT OF GOD ON A WINDLESS MORNING 

          FOR THAT PARTICULAR TREE TO FALL 

         AT THAT PARTICULAR PLACE AND TIME 

 

PETER JOHN SYMONS AGED 19 YEARS 

MAXWELL JAY HUTTY AGED 18 YEARS 

DOROTHY PATRICIA MCNALLY AGED 15 YEARS

JANINE CLARK AGED 13 YEARS

 

The plaque had aged, its sheen lost. The text begged the Great Question. A smaller question lay buried in the ordering of names, listed – not alphabetically but by age. The fact of ordering betrayed the human need that pressed upon the text’s composer, the need to overcome chaos, to quell the fear of existential meaninglessness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On an idyllic summer day in the heart of Melbourne, streets milled with innocents in their hundreds, in their thousands. They were schoolchildren, adults, workers, lovers. They were foreigners and out-of-towners here for the tennis, they were suited business people and bewigged barristers. They were in the liveable city where life was blessed by a gentle sun, a sweet torpor, a Friday feeling. One of those thousands was a baby boy whose life was about to end at the age of three months; one a twenty-two year old woman who bubbled with laughter; two were men, aged 25 and 33 years. A fifth was ten years old, a school girl.

 

 

 

On Patriots Day, 2013, thirty thousand of us set off to run from the village of Hopkinton to Boston, 26 miles and 185 yards away. The marathon started at 10.00 in the morning. One million Bostonians lined the route, standing outside until all had passed, cheering us on. Boston loved us all, from the elite to the aging plodders. Celebrating this, their ceremony of innocence, the spectators offered us oranges, bananas, sausages, beer. They held up signs: YOU ARE ALL KENYANS. At 2.46 pm the first bomb exploded at the Finish Line, followed moments later by the second. Of the many hundreds shouting and cheering in Boylston Street, three were killed, 264 injured. One of those killed was a boy aged eight. Sixteen survivors lost limbs.

 

 

 

In Wilder’s classic novel, the Friar spends years seeking the proof of divine design in the chaos and cruelty of life. His researches culminate in a book in which simple faith is upheld by simplistic conclusions. Wilder writes:

 

I shall spare you Brother Juniper’s generalizations. They are always with us. He thought he saw in the same accident the wicked visited by destruction and the good called early to heaven…

 

The book being done fell under the eyes of some judges and was pronounced heretical. It was ordered to be burned in the Square with its author. Brother Juniper submitted to the decision that the devil had made use of him…The little Friar was given to the congenial flames… he called twice upon St Francis, and leaning upon a flame he smiled and died.

 

 

 

In the final few pages Wilder makes clear his rejection of The Friar’s ‘generalizations.’ Instead he writes of those who loved and lost and lamented and never healed. All these live out their days numbed, unable to find solace or meaning. One by one, they cross the lonely years and confess their grief, their self-blame, to an aged Abbess, herself bereaved of the two who used to be orphans in her care. All the bereaved live out their days waiting for death.

 

 

 

For the present generations, living in our scientific age, reared as we are with data to slake our thirst for the rational, attempts to rationalise last week’s experiences fail to satisfy. Instead explanations are felt as an affront. The image of a pram, upended, empty, upon the bloodied street; a child lying face down, entirely alone in death, torn from her mother and sister who struggle for life elsewhere, in Intensive Care Units; the Japanese stranger – still unidentified – who dies alone and unknown, far from his home – who, in the face of these, can find comfort in pious nostrums?

 

 

 

Ultimately Wilder’s Abbess finds, not explanation, not meaning, but reconciliation: Even now – she thought – almost no-one remembers Esteban and Pepita but myself… soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.

 

 

 

As in Boston after the bombs, once the fatal car had passed, the people of Melbourne beheld those injured, those lost in wild surmise, those stunned. The cabbie who leaped from his car, the citizens who took travel brochures, garments – whatever they found to hand – to bind wounds, all became sudden trauma nurses and paramedics. So too the shop attendants who streamed from department stores with towels to stanch haemorrhage, with a board torn from a wooden pallet to splint a broken leg.

 A terrible beauty born.
 

 
 

 

 
 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 
 
 

 
 

 
 

 

 
 

 

Australia Day in Doomadgee

Doomadgee, we write it
In our orthography
Really should be
Dumat’ji
 

No flag raising here
No speech or ceremony
On Australia Day
In Doomadgee
 

River runs warm
Kiddies swim and swarm
On Australia Day
In Doomadgee
 

Uncles bashing
In Australian passion
On Australia Eve
Here in Doomadgee

 
Broken hand, broken
Jaw, cut faces and more:
That’s Australia Day
In Doomadgee.
 

Adam Goodes
Too far away
This Australia Day
In Doomadgee
 

A busy day this
Australia Day
In the hospital
In Doomadgee
 

We plaster, we suture
Like there’s no future:
Future no feature 
of Australia Day,
Not here, no way, 
In Doomadgee
 

The end of Australia Day –
Quietness falls
In hospital halls
Of Doomadgee
 

But short the respite –
Quick! Elder sick,
Dying On Australia night –
Dying here in Doomadgee?
 

Quiet, quiet, his voice, his breath –
Small his smile at threshold of death –
Good night Australia:
System failure in Doomadgee
 

Beside him, quiet woman – or girl –
His guard and ward in this world
Trembles, faces an Australian day
Elderless in Doomadgee.
 

He slips away from teeming kin
Who hold tears and keening in;
A dreadful peace on Australia Day
And quiet, this night in Doomadgee.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

After Boston

There is nothing sensible about running a marathon. It is a difficult thing to do. There appears to be a physiological upper limit of tolerance to distance running. At some point around 35 kilometres most runners experience a steep falling away in efficiency. Sports physicians suggest humans were not made to complete a marathon distance, which is a little over 42 kilometres.  
 
People die running marathons. While most do not die, or even suffer serious or lasting harm from the marathon, even a single death is one too many, given that there is no need, no practical purpose, to completing the full distance.
 
Running marathons is not even an efficient means to attaining physical fitness; you can achieve equal fitness with brisk walking as with running, and the risk to life and joints is far lower when you walk.
 
Earlier in my own marathon running ‘career’ (a suggestive term: it isn’t a career in the sense of something I do for a living; something that runs off the rails is said to ‘career’) I had the opportunity to go for a training run with the great Rob De Castella in Boulder, Colorado. Earlier I had discussed with sports doctors my experience – common among marathoners – of slowing radically over the final 7 kms of the race. The physicians had suggested that human beings weren’t meant to run that distance: there was the physiological limit I referred to earlier. De Castella, himself a sports physiologist, was educated by the Jesuits at Xavier College in Melbourne. 
After our run, exquisitely taxing at that altitude, I put the same question to De Castella. It was the Jesuit rather than the physiologist who answered: “If human beings gave up just when something became difficult we wouldn’t achieve very much, would we?”
 
That is the answer. In that nutshell is the reason that Paris and London will see tens of thousands compete in their respective marathons next weekend. It is for that reason that we love to do what we hate. I have run and hated and loved forty three marathons, in places as diverse as Boston and Alice Springs. I hope to run more.
 
If the marathon runner defies physiology the marathon watcher defies sense. In all weathers she stands outdoors and watches an endless, anonymous train of athletic mediocrities, watches for hours on end, feeding these strangers everything from jelly snakes to orange segments to fried snags. At her side her small child claps everyone who lumbers past. Her teenage daughter holds a placard that reads: YOU ARE ALL KENYANS.
 
My mother knew nothing of sport. Her lack of knowledge stood her in good stead for the marathon, indeed for any sporting event she witnessed. At the time of the Melbourne Olympics Mum took us kids to the fencing. She knew only that the swords were not lethal weapons, that the fencers’ precious eyes were safe. Those facts were enough for Mum. She barracked for the victor, she urged on the vanquished. She loved them both equally and generously.
 
IN 1956 the Olympic marathon course led from Melbourne to Dandenong and back to the MCG. The route followed the Princes Highway, which passed the end of our street. Mum stood and cheered every contestant on the way out and waited for their return. By that stage the runners were jaded and strung out. The leaders too were well separated. As the runners passed our street an American was leading. Coming second or third and looking tragic (in a way I came to recognize in my adult life) was a New Zealander. “Good on you, Kiwi”, were Mum’s words from the empty kerbside, a distance of only a couple of feet from the runner. Mum’s sweet urgings encouraged the runner, who visibly accelerated. Later Mum would say, “I helped him to win.” In fact the Kiwi did not win – Mum was no stickler for small facts – but she put her finger on a larger truth: he was a winner: he finished. He did his best.
 
It is in Boston that the runner and the spectator most truly meet. There the amateur runner is embraced by the uncritical spectator. She too is an amateur. She hasn’t a clue who is favoured to win; she has twenty seven thousand favourites; she loves them all. A literal amateur. Extraordinary statistic: of a population of three million persons in the greater Boston area, one million spectators come out to watch the race. The spectator comes out and she remains there, cheering, clapping, waving placards, uselessly feeding, encouraging every last pathetic struggler, every finisher, every champion. These three, as she well understands, are one and the same.
 
She was there, this ignorant dame, when I sailed past her, full of hope, energy, crowd fever and coffee early in last year’s race. She was there as I struggled up Heartbreak Hill. She was there in Boylston street to see the winners – man, woman, wheelchair champions (both genders) – as they crossed the line. She was there when the first bomb went off. Was it the first bomb or the second that took her life? I do not know. 
 
I know this: she will be there again this year when the race is run again; there in her thousands at the start, in her tens of thousands in the middle, in her weaving, praying throngs through the weary late stages, there among the ecstatic crowds that squeeze joyously at the kerbside as crazed runners find speed for the final gallop along Boylston Street. She’ll be hoarse and weeping as the untalented race along those cobblestones in their ragtag glory, arms pumping, heads high, fists aloft as they cross the line.
 
And what of the runners? We are wiser now. Inevitably, sadder. Running – that senseless frolicking of supposed adults will never be the same.
A record field will contest Boston in 2014. Terror will enjoy its limited success – some attention for a cause, or as seems likely in this case, no clear cause; some increased security, some minor oppression of amenity and civic liberty – but the lovers of Boston will meet and embrace as they always do, at this, their festival.
Running, our ceremony of joy, now sanctified, will always be the same, that familiar pointless folly.