Dennis, Twelve Years On


 

I remember you today, Den, with the candle burning and with the prayers of mourning.

I remember you in our boyhood home in Leeton, where a life of risk called you always, and you’d drag me and I’d follow, with terror and tremor and delight. I remember you taking me into Dad’s Surgery, that forbidden room, where the ever-present smell of anaesthetic ether warned a boy of the consequences that would follow. You found Dad’s blood pressure machine and you showed me how you could squeeze the rubber bulb and inflate the bladder. You kept showing me, squeezing, pumping, and the mercury climbed above 200, 250, 290, until the bladder burst, and liquid mercury ran everywhere.

 

 

When you were eight you decided we should pay a visit on Miss Paull, my teacher, Leeton’s aristocrat, in her residence at the Hydro Hotel. I followed you up the long hill. I followed you up the sweeping drive. Bold as brass, you announced to the man in the black suit, who opened the door, ‘We have come to visit Mis Paull’, and the man showed us in, and Miss Paull emerged, all white and willowy and English, and she said, ‘Good morning Dennis, good morning Howard, how utterly delightful that you should come. Please join me for morning tea.’ And the man in the black suit sat us down and spread white linen squares over our laps, and I was in heaven, nearly wetting myself in excitement. On the way out you heeded the call of your own bladder and you peed on the Hydro’s flowerbeds.

 

I sit and I remember you, my big brother, how you protected me when we were small. I remember, when I was fourteen, Dad summoning me to the forbidden room and sitting me down for a serious talk. The tremors again, but this time I wasn’t in trouble. Dad said, Dennis doesn’t have as easy a path in life as yours. 

I didn’t want to hear this because I knew it to be true.

Dad continued: I want you to help him. My heart sank.

 

I did try, Den, but I lacked your boldness. When I saw other children bullying you I died twice. Others, children and adults and old people, loved you and cherished you, for the beauty of your soul, for your generosity.

 

You loved music with the abundance and the zest of all your loving. I remember you in ICU, in the room of your dying, and you lying there in your coma. Annette, your sister in law, played a Mozart CD for you, and you lifted your arms and you started to conduct. I hope that beauty stayed with you as you slipped away, Dennis.

 

 

It’s the 18th day of the month of Ellul, Den. I remember you and I miss you.

 

Early Spring

The date comes up on his screen, September five. Instantly he sees a round face, lightly freckled. Her wavy hair is light brown.

He’s known her two brothers for years and her two elder sisters, both of them young ladies in their late teens. But this is the first summer  he and she have noticed each other: she’s 11 years old and he’s fourteen. While the slow afternoons make everyone else drowsy, the two go for walks to nowhere in particular. They talk comfortably about their mums and dads  and their brothers and sisters. They both come from large families and there’s lots to tell. Last week it was his birthday. Hers is in spring. One afternoon they find themselves at the far end of the island. There in the long grass they sit. Something tells him to move closer. He kisses her. Soon after they walk back to their families on their neighbouring boats.

 

The next afternoon he looks for her, but she and her mum have gone shopping in town on the further shore.

He doesn’t find her the next day either.

On the third day her elder sister says she went back to Geelong with Dad to buy her schoolbooks. He confesses to the elder sister he’s missing her. Her response surprises him:  Sometimes a young girl can feel confused if she has feelings she’s never felt before. It can scare her.

 

Summer ends and they don’t meet again. Most years he thinks of her on September five.

 

He’s about sixty when he buys a book by John Marsden. Its title is ‘This I Believe’. In it he reads the credos of one hundred eminent Australians. One essay is written by a woman shortly before she dies, too young, of breast cancer. A companion essay is written by her eminent daughter. He doesn’t recognise the surnames of the two women. The essays move him. He notes the dates of birth and death of the  mother. She has been dead now for some years.

 

Every year, on September five, he thinks of her.

Hope

The Unexpected Uses of Yeats

 

 

Annette and I set out on our travels in the northern spring of the year 2019 without any thought of deep time. This was to be a pleasure trip, to celebrate an event that took place in 1949. Annette was to have a big birthday and for some time I had pressed her to name a place she’d never been and which she’d dreamed of visiting. Greek Islands was her eventual answer.

 

 

 

 

We found a cruise that would begin and end in Rome, visiting Greek Isles and numerous Italian ports. So we signed up. Before the cruise we celebrated Passover, the Festival of Spring, in Israel. After the festival we set out on our cruise full of thoughts of geography and its delights, not the moral swamps of history. But History jumped out and ambushed us. History chooses often to show a face that’s beautiful or graceful. But behind the handsome face History is no more moral than the humans who make it.

 

 

 

So much, so general. To understand my particular timorousness, my constitutional alertness to risk, to possible harm, I need to insert a lengthy parenthesis: I’ve spent a lifetime in health; I grew up in a doctor’s house. In childhood I’d open to a knocking at our front door and before me I’d find the milkman holding his bleeding fingers (his horse had bit him!) or the man with his forearm in a tourniquet (a snake had bit him). From earliest days I knew the reality of savage misadventure. From earliest days I feared harm coming to me or to my loved ones. In time I went into Medicine in my own right and ever since I’ve walked those fearful paths of human hazard. All that has changed over the decades has been the measure of breadth and depth. I care more broadly and I care more deeply.

 

 

 

 

In the late seventies when my children were still small I knocked on the door of an old farmhouse that stood distinctive among the modern houses surrounding it. The area had been covered in orchards only a generation earlier. I asked the owner if he’d sell me his house.

It’s not for sale, he said, smiling in surprise. But as you’re here I’ll show you around.

The house was everything I imagined – high ceilings, large rooms, shady verandahs, grounds overgrown with fruit trees and vines. And there, lying beneath a cast iron trapdoor the owner showed me a cavernous cellar, its walls lined with bottles of wine.

Would you consider selling it? – I persisted.

Not likely. Why do you want it?

I like everything. Most of all, the cellar.

Are you a wine enthusiast?

Not really. Thanks for showing me around.

 

 

 

I left him my phone number against the day he might change his mind and we parted. I drove past that house every morning on my way to work and again every evening when I returned. And every time I passed I thought of that wine cellar and how it might keep my children safe in the event of a nuclear war.

 

 

 

 

Forty years on I still search for a shelter, but now it must be large enough to protect not just my children, but their children and their spouses, as well as our extended families, and everyone I know. And everyone I don’t know. All, I find, are my children.

 

 

 

So it is I find myself vulnerable when I contemplate History’s reality. T S Eliot suggests I’m not alone: Humankind cannot bear very much reality.

As the years pass, as my loved little ones enter a world that can be hard, as I see them multiply and grow, as I see them stumble; as I look upon those suffering adults (who in reality are still children), who come to doctors who cannot cure their loneliness, their confusion, their fears; as our planet heats up and I see how fellow species perish; at all these trembling times I look about me for salve. I listen for the still, small voice, I watch, I search for acts of kindness or courage.

 

 

 

 

I need to preserve belief. I look for signs that we humans are good. In the course of refereeing the endless, internal moral wrestling match conducted in my mind between human goodness and badness, I’ve been surprised by the use I’ve found in the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. The poet had struggles of his own. In much of his poetry the older Yeats struggles with the arbitrary hardness of experience. He yearns for life’s lovely fullness, he’s baffled by disappointing reality: 


Some think it a matter of course that chance
Should starve good men and bad advance

 

 

Yeats concludes that old men are alive to this reality and it can drive them mad:

 

Observant old men know it well;
And when they know what old books tell,
And that no better can be had,
Know why an old man should be mad.

 

 

 

 

And so it came to pass that Annette and I stopped at Santorini and at Mykonos, then in Athens. In all these places we kept a fraternal eye open for Jews, alive or dead. The dead predominated. The Lonely Planet mentioned an ancient synagogue in Santorini but gave no details.  We never found it.

In Mykonos, no sign, but no matter: the beauty, the sunblissed radiance was all, and it sufficed.

 

 

 

 

We phoned the synagogue in Athens. No you can’t just visit, said the voice on the telephone. You need to send us an image of your passport and your email and we’ll let you know. We did all that and the voice said we could come. Be here at eleven, said the voice. Time was short, the bus line we needed ran both ways and we had no idea which was the correct one. Passers by offered confident, clear and contradictory directions, so we took a cab.

 

 

 

 

 

Sinagoga? – said the driver. I take you close, but to Sinagoga I cannot arrive. It is closed.

The driver dropped us and pointed somewhere indistinct. We looked around, sighted a narrow street whose entry was obstructed by barriers and bollards, and we made our way. Standing in the cobbled roadway we could make out two sinagoga. On our left a contemporary-looking structure declared itself Beth Shalom, the House of Peace. On our right stood a modest, older structure, seeming to shrink from our gaze. This was EtzChaim, the Tree of Life. The Tree of Life would remain closed to us. The House of Peace would open to us, carefully, ever so carefully, under armed guard.

 

 

 

 

From a booth stepped a fit-looking, youngish man wearing a handgun at his hip. A colleague, also young, also armed, eyed us closely from the booth. We stated our names and business, showed passports and won a smile. Yes, we expect you. But do not go in now. After thirty minutes you enter. Please now walk to the gardens at the end of the street, the Holocaust memorial gardens.

 

 

 

We walked fifty metres and found ourselves in a small area of scrubby shrubbery. High on a skinny pole a notice read, The Holocaust Memorial in Athens. Low to the ground a piece of creamy rock said nothing, but next to it burned a Yahrzeit (memorial) Candle. Close by, on a bronze panel were lines in Hebrew I recognised from Lamentations:

 

Righteous is He, our Lord:

Hear, now, all peoples

And see my pain –

My maidens, my young men

Have gone into captivity

 

 

 

Tucked behind another shrub, closer to the footpaths and plainer to the sight of passing Athenians, we found a steel plaque attached to a block of marble. It read:

 

Pause a while as you pass by,

Close your eyes and remember.

Remember the time when here or near here,

Men, women, children – our own fellow creatures –

Congregated in peace and trust, only to be arrested, humiliated, deported and murdered in Camps that shall forever shame our civilization.

Because they were Jewish, six million people

were denied the right to be free, happy, to hope,

to smile, to pray and finally, the right to live.

Remember them, their anguish and their death.

Do not recoil at such horror; do not descend into despair at man’s inhumanity to man.

Just remember. For by remembering we honourtheir deaths, and we save them from dying again – in oblivion.

 

 

Elie Wiesel

 

For the Holocaust Memorial in Athens, May 2016.

 

 

 

(2016! – was Wiesel still living? We checked; he died two months after the stone was set. Were these words the dying testimony of Elie Wiesel – he who embodied for my generation the anguish, the loss, the surviving remnant?) Standing in this broader street, bathed in Mediterranean sunshine, with heads bowed, we sighed and sighed again.

 

 

 

 

The guards said we could go in now. Entering Beth Shalom we found we were not the only visitors. A rabbi addressed a group of thirty young people. He showed them the Ark, the Torah scrolls, the various ritual implements. These were university students, enrolled in a subject of a vaguely cultural nature. This would be a surface encounter only, a fleeting crossing of intersecting orbits. Unless the students were, whether by chance or by design, to follow the cobbled path and to pause in the shrubbery and to absorb the words of Ecclesiastes and Wiesel. Or will the students gravitate perhaps to a neofascist group named Golden Dawn which already commands seven percent of the popular vote in Greece?

 

 

 

 

Hidden away in a narrow street elsewhere in Athens we found the Jewish Museum of Greece. Behind gates of steel, guarded by cameras and electronics, up a narrow flight of steps, a watchful person examined our passports and our faces before admitting us. Inside, poignant relics told their stories of Jews who found shelter from vengeful Christendom in these formerly Ottoman places. In time the tides of history turned, and turned again; the Turk retreated, independent Greece arose, Italian Fascists invaded, succeeded by genocidal Nazis. The War against the Allies might well be lost, but the War against the Jews must still be prosecuted. With feverish haste, even as the Nazis retreated from the Allies, they hunted out local Jews for deportation. Communities of great antiquity, some of them older than Christianity, faced their end. Before the War Greece’s Jews numbered around 80,000, with the greatest population in Thessaloniki. By the end of the War about 10,000 remained alive. Why did these thousands survive, how did they survive? The Museum held answers to these questions, answers that surprised and cheered us.

 

 

 

 

Well before the War, Greek Orthodox clergy and orthodox Jewish Rabbis were befriending each other. When the Nazis arrived, late in 1943, the cross-faith ties held strong. Across the Greek Church, priests, known as Metropolitans, acted to protect and save entire Jewish communities. Upon the eve of deportations from Thessaloniki, the supreme cleric Archbishop Damaskinos was about to undergo throat surgery. Putting off his operation, he wrote to the German commanders, begging clemency for the Jews in the name of Christian mercy. He rushed to the puppet Prime Minister of Greece bearing open letters from priests, from the Bar Association, from the Academy and the University of Athens, and from the Actors’ Guild, all in support of Greece’s Jews. 

 

 

 

 

In all, twenty-eight institutions of civil society in  Greece pressed the PM to act. In the face of this pressure he did intercede, albeit without success.

 

 

 

 

All over Greece Nazi commanders ordered local priests and mayors immediately to create lists of all local Jews in preparation for imminent deportation. In town after town, in island after island, priests resisted, delayed and deceived the Nazis, while urging Jews to hide or flee, to change their names, to affect Christianity, or to join the partisans.  Delay by even a single day saved many. Priests urged their parishioners to hide Jews, to keep safe their treasures, to pass Jews on to the Free Greek Army.

 

 

 

 

In this way the Resistance spirited Chief Rabbi Barzilai into a succession of mountain villages of increasing remoteness and inaccessibility. The Nazis were desperate to find Barzilai, but he was kept safe.

 

 

 

 

On the island of Zakynthos the Germans arrived and demanded of the Mayor and the Priest the usual complete list of all the three hundred or so Jews, all their possessions, all their addresses. The list was to be handed in, complete, within twenty-four hours. The two officials handed in a list with but two names – those of the priest and the mayor. All of Zakynthos’ Jews were saved. And what of Luth, the German Commander? He never pursued the matter. For his pains Luth was replaced by the Nazis, arrested and detained.

 

 

 

 

I read all these testimonies, affirmed by rescuers and confirmed by the rescued, and a great swelling of thankfulness rose within me. I felt grateful to the brave Metropolitans of Athens, of Volos, of Zakynthos, of Arta, of Dimitriada, of Didimoteicho, of Thessaloniki, of Thiva and Livadia. Also of Ioannina, of Corfu and Paxi, of Corinth and of Halkida, Xirohori and the Northern Sporades.

 

 

 

 

Were all Jews saved? Clearly ninety percent perished. But he who saves but a single life, saves a whole world. In the case of this tearful visitor to a tiny museum, those Christians had saved my whole world.

 

 

 

 

Some days later our ship stopped briefly at Chania, a pretty port city on the island of Crete. We had read how the Nazis had captured the entire Cretan Jewish population of nearly 2000, and herded them aboard a ship bound for the mainland. A British warship, recognizing the vessel as German, torpedoed and sank it, with the loss of all who were aboard. After two thousand years of stubborn survival had Jewish life on Crete been snuffed out? Almost, but not entirely: we had read of a small synagogue that had been found in Chania and restored by American Jewish donors. Trip Advisor spoke of poignant services conducted by the tiny numbers of local Jews (returning descendants of Cretan Jews who’d been absent from the island at the precise time of the deportation) as well as the odd Shabbat visitor.

 

 

 

 

Annette and I resolved to find the synagogue. Once again the taxi driver said: To the sinagoga I cannot arrive. I drive and then you walk. It is close. It is down there – an airy wave – and then more down, leftwards. We went down there, and more down, we turned leftwards, and we followed a winding little cobbled street of shops and cafes and B and B’s. Time flew, embarkation hour neared and our faint hopes flickered.

 

 

 

 

 

Abruptly Hebrew lettering among the stones announced our arrival at the Etz Chaim Synagogue.

Since its restoration Etz Chaim has suffered two separate terrorist attacks. Expecting high securitywe fished for our passports and crossed the threshold hesitantly. Seated in a sunny little garden courtyard a cheerful man with a cheerful rubicund face waved away our documents and waved us in. Welcome, come in, please look around – through there is the synagogue, beyond it the mikve, and in the rooms, many documents and records.  

 

 

 

 

We had twenty minutes for twenty centuries. Unforgettable minutes they were. Unforgotten the two thousand who drowned, unforgotten the two thousand years. As we left we bought a cookery book of old Jewish Greek recipes from the young woman attendant. Her English was precise, her accent not Greek. We asked her, Where do you come from?

Austria.

You are Jewish?

Christian. A smile.

Why are you here?

Because my nation, my people have never acknowledged, never repented. Austria today chooses to be a victim of the Nazis.

What are you doing here?

I research, I document the Jewish life here. From our small church young graduates travel to many small communities, where each of us spends one year.

 

 

 

 

One whole year! One year of the twenty or so of a bright young life. Humbling, inspiring, a salve.

 

 

 

I must have arrived in ‘the Ancient World’ with a nasty case of Weltenschmerz. I had not realized its severity. I had not anticipated relief.

 

 

 

 

I have been writing these recollections in the remote northern town of Broome where my grandfather and his three brothers came to dive for pearls. Here, unexpectedly, they found other Jews who came together at Festivals to express their remnant Jewishness.

 

 

 

 

When I am free of work duties at the hospital I run along the endless miles of Cable Beach. In my ears recorded poetry plays. Yeats reminds me I am not alone, not the only old man that the world might make mad.

 

 

 

 

Back at the hospital a young nurse asks me where I’m from. Where am I from? I’m from Melbourne, I’m from Leeton, I’m from Broome, from England and France – and before that from Poland and Russia. And in the end, which is the beginning, I’m from Israel. In return the young woman says, my family comes from Holland. My grandmother was five when the Germans came. Her parents took in a Jewish family and hid them. Oma was only five but she never said a word. Nazis moved in and out while the Jewish guests stayed safe in the attic.  

 

 

 

 

“Nature, bad, base and blind,

Dearly thou canst be kind,

There, dearly then, dearly

I’ll cry thou canst be kind.”

 

(Gerard Manley Hopkins)

 

Zeide

Tonight* my wife will light a memorial candle for her father. Her sister Robyn will do the same. Tonight will mark the anniversary of his death, in both the Jewish calendar and the secular. The two dates coincide only once in nineteen years; this is the second time they’ve concurred; Zeide died thirty-five years ago.

My father-in-law wore any number of names. In Russian he was Grigori (he’d sign loveletters to his children with “Gregory”), his wife called him Harry, friends called him Hershel, my children called him Zeide, and he asked me to call him Dad. That wasn’t difficult: it wasn’t hard to love a man who never had a son and who treated his sons in law like his own.
Harry adored his grandchildren. He was a natural grandfather. He had a gift for it. He showed me how I might do it, when the time for it would come.
Harry Novic burned with love of family. He loved Italian food, Italian clothes, Latin music. Harry loved his friends and he loved his Chesterfield cigarettes. His tobacconist alone knew how many he smoked and he assured Harry, when importation was to be halted, ‘You’re a very special customer. I’ll make sure you have them.” He told his daughters, ‘If you ever smoke I’ll break every one of your fingers.”
One day Zeide confided to his sister, ‘I think I’ve got “that thing”‘. He used the yiddish to name the un-namable, a tribal practice, as if to name it might be to bring it on. The medical name of the un-namable was mesothelioma. In less than a year Zeide had died.
Months later Zeide missed his first grandchild’s Batmitzvah. He missed two more batmitzvahs and three barmitzvahs, as well his grandchildrens’ many weddings. He never saw a grandchild graduate, he never knew his fourteen great-grandchildren. He died and he never saw his generations bud and flower.
The family grows and grows. We miss him – as my son remarked today – at every celebration, at every milestone..
What would Zeide think, If he were to come back tonight, if he were to stand alongside the evergreen Helen who was his bride, who became his wife, whom he made his widow? What would he say, what amazement would be his!
I think what I learn is how grandchildren need their grandfather, how a grandfather might be missed, how his memory is  a candle that burns.
*written just over a week ago

Not Pittsburgh

I call and invite myself to visit with my friends David and Nancy in Pittsburgh. Nancy is a paediatrician and David a paediatric psychiatrist. Their lives in work are an inspiration to me. I get onto David. He’s welcoming and hospitable as always. ‘We’ll love to have you. What are your dates, Howard?’

‘Last week in October.’

‘That’s unfortunate’, said David, ‘I’ll be attending the meeting of the Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at that time, in Seattle. You couldn’t come to Seattle, could you?’

I can come and I do. And so I don’t go to Pittsburgh.

In Seattle, a sizeable city where the rain falls, coffee shops and bookshops abound – as in Melbourne. The coffee is good, just about good enough to compensate for the weather. Like Melbourne, Seattle is a UNESCO World City of Literature. I feel at home in Seattle’s mists and drizzle, with Seattle’s coffee and bookshops, and in the city’s richness of cultural endowment.

I attend the conference and I soak up the latest research into adolescent mental health. I see how my friend David knows everyone, how they cherish and venerate him, how the younger researchers find him inspiring. Over thirty years’ leading child psychiatry in Pittsburgh David has contributed richly to his field. Adolescents without number he saves from death by despair. A few years back I see him at his work, one-on-one with kids whose lives are blighted from the start. I see and I marvel at the pioneering work that keeps these kids alive and helps them thrive.

It turns out the Academy are honouring David, choosing him to give the Plenary Address. On occasions like this Americans enjoy pomp and formality. The Plenary is a grand event. Every delegate attends. A great hall fills. David and his fellow Illuminati – numbering perhaps one hundred – occupy tiered rows of seats facing the audience. The audience of seven hundred delegates and their friends and spouses fills the remaining rows. Oratory bursts into flower, moving with the spirit from Grandee, to Honoree, to Celebrity, to Worthy Worker. As Yeats wrote, ‘…all’s accustomed, ceremonious’.

I sit in the front, opposite my friend, myself aglow in his glory. David sits, pregnant with the words that will distill his wisdom. But before he will speak, we must hear from a Traditional Leader of the Peoples native to this area. Her name, we read, is Connie McCloud. A short, stout woman rises to her feet before us. She is not young. I notice her heavily tinted spectacles. You don’t need sunnies in Seattle; perhaps her sight is impaired. The woman does not move until a younger man with brown skin offers an arm, which she accepts, and she descends ponderously to the lectern. The President of the Academy introduces the speaker: ‘ It is an honour for me to present Connie McCloud to offer us her Blessing and her Welcome. Miss Mc Cloud has led her people, the Puyallup, for over thirty years.’  Someone adjusts the microphone to her height. Connie McCloud stands and regards us, visitors to her lands. She thrusts a fleshy arm upwards and she gives voice.

The voice is at one moment strong, freighted with pride and feeling, the next moment faltering beneath that heavy freight. The woman tells us proudly of her country, of its sacred mountain, its waters, its nourishing salmon, its deer, its skies and clouds and forests. ‘We have always been here! Despite all attempts to bring that to an end, we have always been here!’ The voice rises and the woman declares, ‘And God damn it, we are still here!’

She flings her stout arm backward and upward: ‘Our sacred mountain, which you will be told is Mount Rainier, is Tacoma. A newcomer named it for a friend of his, a magistrate named Rainier. Mister Rainier never visited these lands. He never saw our mountain.’  I’m reminded of Alice Springs, named for Alice Todd, absentee wife of the telegraph surveyor. The true name of that place is Mpartwe.

The speaker speaks of her lineage. She names her father, names his, then traces both to the brother of Great Chief Seattle. (As far away as Australia we’ve know that name for the lines attributed to him upon the imminent surrender of his lands: ‘Every part of the earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.’)

At length Connie Mc Cloud says, ‘Here is my blessing. Here is my prayer for your success here in our lands. Here is my prayer that your wise people, your leaders, will find a cure for this suicide that takes away our young people.’ Oratory comes to its end as Connie Mc Cloud bursts into song. None of us non-native persons has heard song such as this. An ageing woman’s voice rises and falls, consonants and vowels sewn together into a strange fabric of slow rhythms and novel patterns, make their way into our stilled being. A sense of something solemn, something authentic and ancient and potent, penetrates us. The song rolls along, a river of sound that flows, from age to age, with steady pace, to its last syllable. We know a serious peace. I look up. David is mopping his eyes even as I do the same.

https://www.theolympian.com/news/local/article203194544.html

When at length David does speak, it is of death – of the premature loss of our young at their own hands. David is not a morose person. His rubicund features glow with ready playfulness. The life and the play reside alongside the gravitas of the protector of young lives. David’s theme this evening is ‘Saving Holden Caulfield.’  The reference is to Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, in which Holden Caulfield imagines himself as the catcher of children who tumble helplessly over a sheer cliff at the edge of a ryefield. David and his colleagues are the catchers below the ryefields from which our true life teenagers leap.

David begins with a light-hearted remark that I don’t catch. He twinkles and his audience relaxes. Then it’s down to business: ‘After all these years we’re seeing not a fall in teenage suicide, but a rise. After all these decades of research and treatment we’re not winning. It’s not as if we don’t know what works: research has shown us what works; we’re simply not implementing it. After these many years in the field my mind turns to retirement, to enjoying the grandchildren. But there’s that graph’ – David points to the rising line of trend on his slide – ‘and I’d like to see it point downward before I leave the field.’

David flies back to Pittsburgh, to Nancy and his children and his grandchildren. His house stands 500 yards from The Tree of Life Congregation where a family gathers on Shabbat to name their eight-day old baby boy.  A man posts on Facebook, ALL JEWS HAVE TO DIE. The man enters the congregation and the following are named among those who die:

• Joyce Fienberg, 75, of Oakland;

• Richard Gottfried, 65, of Ross;

• Rose Mallinger, 97, of Squirrel Hill;

• Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, of Edgewood;

• brothers Cecil Rosenthal, 59, of Squirrel Hill, and David Rosenthal, 54, of Squirrel Hill;

• married couple Bernice Simon, 84, of Wilkinsburg; Sylvan Simon, 86, of Wilkinsburg;

• Daniel Stein, 71, of Squirrel Hill;

• Melvin Wax, 88, of Squirrel Hill;

• and Irving Younger, 69, of Mount Washington.

Why I Haven’t Written

This blog has been silent for a good while. I have been remiss. Happily, of the blog’s three-or-four hundred nominal followers, one only has complained. Perhaps she alone has noticed. The truth is a lot has happened: spring came to Melbourne; a surgeon cut my eyes open and melted my cataracts, bunging in a couple of new lenses; a dear friend has died; we experienced a hit-and-run road accident; and Bert the half-hearted came through his surgery and battles on.

I’ll start with the least material of these events, the road accident. I parked my wife’s pretty little red car outside a travel agency and went off to buy bok choi. I came back to find the front defaced and a note attached to the windscreen:

31 AUG 2018, 11:08 AM

CAR: WHITE HONDA CRV, YHO 815

LOVE,

FLIGHT CENTRE, SIX WITNESSES

I surveyed the alterations to my wife’s car, then entered the travel agency. The travel agents described the event, described the driver, wished me well in the manhunt and assured me they’d testify. They shared a lively indignation; the driver’s amorality offended them.

I post these particulars by way of invitation for the assailant to come forward, confess, throw herself upon my wife’s mercies and pay up. Under those circumstances we need not trouble the constabulary.

Surgery is one of the everyday miracles of life in a city like Melbourne. Two crazed lenses are literally melted in the eyes and sucked away like so much snot. New lenses are inserted and the world gleams. Then spring arrives. I see the green greener, and – thanks to the new hearing aids – the birds sing. (One of the saddest little lines in poetry closes Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci. The line of four words – and no birds sing – suffices for desolation.) Once again my spring sings.

Little Bert underwent his second heart surgery. His heart, sized like an apricot, was showing strain. A vascular detour improves his prospects. Inside Bert’s chest the so-called great vessels are like thin tubular spaghetti, cooked al dente. Somehow a surgeon cuts, stitches, reroutes, and attaches. Somehow blood flows through the pasta. And Bert breathes on. The praying continues.

In the mid-seventies I met a bearded maths teacher who took me on lengthening runs up and down the green hills of the Diamond Valley. His name was Dick. One day we paused on a high hilltop and watched the shafts of sunlight pierce the winter mists. A moment of silent communion followed as we share revelation. That was ten kilometers, said Dick. We breathed together, blowing out mist, thinking the same thought: If I can run ten, I can run a marathon. With Dick as my inspiration and my training partner, fifty-plus marathons followed. And a few weeks ago, Dick, who’d developed and survived lung cancer, Dick who never smoked, Dick died – of breathlessness. At his memorial service a large congregation paused and wondered: How is it we live? How is it we cease living? What is this miracle we call friendship? Which is the greatest wonder?

I write this aboard an aircraft from Phoenix, Arizona, where I’ve just said goodbye to friend Paul, struck down by a stroke on a Sunday morning late last year. I asked him had he felt fear. No, not fear. I found it difficult to dress for church with my right hand paralysed.

I’ve written previously of Paul, surgeon, aviator, morbid anatomist. Paul is a man of deep faith. He’s certain he’ll be reunited with Beverley, his beloved wife who died eighteen years ago. I noticed the words printed starkly on the band he wore on his left wrist: MEDICAL ALERT – DNR. Knowing his confident belief in rising again to bliss, I asked: Paul, does it make you sad to persist here in life? His voice of deep gravel remains strong and clear. His word choice carries all the old inventiveness, no stale phrases: After my stroke I’d awake in the mornings quite surprised still to be alive.

Paul and I sat outside in the heat of the Arizona afternoon while he smoked his daily cigar, holding it in his left hand. The right hand remains weak but to my astonishment the strength is returning steadily. Such vitality! I thought of the tiny trees growing in their cleft rocks at Fitzroy Crossing. Germinating from seeds dropped by birds, these miniature saplings force a root downwards through great basalt rocks, emerging into air as a tendril that dangles down to the river surface, down through the great waters to the muddy riverbed. His one-hundredth birthday falls early in 2019. After today I do not expect to see this marvellous man again. But on parting Paul asked, when will you come out this way again? The question was not facetious; he’s lived this long, why not a few more years?

Deaths, deaths. I write of them so often – naturally so, as I age and those I know slip away. In my work too, the farewells are many, and not all of them to elderly persons. Long ago a friend remarked of my writing that I what I was really doing was coming to terms with my mortality. At that time I didn’t see it. But I know now he was correct. I know too, death is not the worst thing.

Dennis

 

 

When I was born my elder brother was two years and two months old. When my brother died he was sixty-two. Tonight my younger brother and I will remember our firstborn brother. We’ll recite Kaddish together in his memory.

 

 

 

When I was newly born Dennis filled my baby carriage with all of his toys, submerging me. I didn’t recall that; our mother told me of it. She said Dennis loved his new brother so much he wanted me to have all his toys. All of our lives Dennis gave away everything that was his.

 

 

 

Dennis and I always bathed together. When I was five years of age, and trusting, Dennis conned me into an act of fellatio in which he pissed in my mouth. I recall that clearly.

 

 

 

I’ll light a memorial candle tonight. The candle burns longer than twenty-four hours. When I walk into my night kitchen the small flame takes me by surprise. I stop and I remember. The small flame flickers and falls. It looks about to die, but then it rises and burns brightly.

 

 

I sit alone in the kitchen and the truth comes to me anew: we all flicker before we die. But Dennis! Dennis had such a force of life. I see him pushing Mum in her wheelchair along a steep winding path, pushing her up, up, to catch the sea view from a peak at Wilson’s Promontory. The tyres sink deeply into the sand but Dennis, by sheer force of will, propels Mum forward and upward.

 

 

 

Dennis the fearless. Dennis undaunted, never defeated. When his affairs took a reverse I’d worry for him, but he’d say, ‘It’s always darkest before the dawn.’  Dennis meant that, he believed it, he lived by it.

 

 

 

Life brought ease to the second brother, a harder path to the firstborn. Dennis rejoiced for me in all my little successes. He knew no envy, never felt usurped by the younger brother who got the birthright. He bought me a holy book and inscribed it with his heart’s blood: ‘For my brother Howard. God must be proud of you.’

 

 

 

Dennis had the gregariousness of the deeply lonely. I sit and leaf through his address book, an odd keepsake. The crammed pages teem with names, so many names, names of down and out people he’d find and succour. These people, themselves lonely, found in my brother a man who’d give away all his own toys. 

 

 

 

Dennis decided to undergo major surgery, hazardous surgery. I misgave. But he said, ‘Doff, It will cure my diabetes, I’ll get my life back.’  He had the surgery, his flame flickered and he died.

 

 

Eini, eini, yorda mayyim

My eye, my eye runs with water.

 

 

 

Ellul, 17-18, 5779.