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.
 

Sylvia and Bruno, A Love Story

I watched an aged couple today as they made love.

She is in her late eighties, he’s a little older. Thirteen years ago, Sylvia (not her name)
became vague and forgetful. Bruno (not her husband’s name) passed the farm on to 
the children so he could care for Sylvia at home. For ten years this worked well, but as 
Sylvia became less active she gained weight and as Bruno aged he lost muscular 
strength, the strength that built the farm that sustained a family. Three years ago, Sylvia was admitted to the nearby nursing home. Bruno visits Sylvia every day.

Until today Sylvia had remained the most placid, easy-going resident in the home. When she was found this morning, burning with a high fever, pale and limp, helpless even to sit, breathing fast, her heart racing, her blood oxygen levels low, she remained that same tranquil, agreeable person.

“She’s severely demented”, said the nurse, “It’ll be cruel if we overtreat her. Let’s just 
keep her comfortable.” This is code for, let her die.’

When I met Sylvia at 0630 she gazed at me, eyes wide. Was this recognition? The opposite? What, who, remained behind that enquiring gaze?
‘Hello, Sylvia, I am the new doctor.’
Sylvia, her face pale, yellowed, smiled. I thought of my mother, another placid smiler.
Sylvia spoke, a voice soft, barely reaching my hard ears.
I leaned over her and listened as she spoke again: “You’re the doctor.”  
Attending at her bedside in the early morning, clad in my running shorts, vivid cap and colourful singlet, I don’t look like anyone’s idea of a doctor  – or a runner. But Sylvia knew. 
These were not the words of one ‘severely demented.’ 

I called Bruno, made the call that relatives know will one day come, the call they dread: ‘Bruno, I’m the doctor caring for Sylvia. She has a fever. I thought you should know… She’s not in danger, but we need to decide what treatment will be best for her and I’d like you to come in and give me your advice.’ A lot of words, too many words. Words to paper over insecurity, uncertainty.
Bruno thanked me for calling. He asked, ‘When would you like me to come, Doctor?’
‘Any time that suits you, Bruno.’
‘No Doctor, you’re a busy man. My time is my own. When will it suit you best?’
We agreed to meet at nine-thirty.

I studied Sylvia’s file. There was a reason for her long stare – she has glaucoma. And diabetes which will make her vulnerable to infection.
I read the family’s biographical notes: ‘Sylvia is a gentle, happy, quiet and kind person; compliant; she has sons, husband, extended family, friends who visit her often; she likes fruit, enjoys stories on television; she understands, even though she answers with only a few words. Please speak to her slowly.’ 
Elsewhere I read a relative’s observation: ‘I believe Sylvia does not have the ability to consent to or decline treatment.’
Once again I thought of Mum, a patient who’d always agree with a doctor, always wish to defer, to oblige.

I found Sylvia’s End of Life Directives: ‘Keep her clean and dry and as free of pain as possible. Please do not provide therapy that is futile. In the event of acute deterioration or critical event, she may have IV fluids, IV antibiotics, CPR, defibrillation not more than twice, a short course of ventilation.’

I tried to decode the directives: the family allows resuscitation, ventilation and defibrillation – more or less Intensive Care – while excluding futile treatments. But you never know whether intensive treatments might be futile. You do know CPR must be vigorous to succeed. In the words of an Emergency Medicine Physician of my aquaintance, ‘If you don’t break any ribs you won’t save them.’  And short ventilation slides easily into prolonged. Dying is prolonged and deformed; and any living that remains is disfigured.
This constitutionally gentle soul, comfortable in her frailty, undistressed even in her febrile state, would she welcome such rough treatment? What roughness, which bodily incursions, can the family tolerate? 
I needed Bruno to help me untangle this nest of contradiction.

At nine-thirty, I found Bruno seated by Sylvia, holding her hand. On her bedside table, a pear, freshly peeled and sliced, waited Sylvia’s pleasure. I introduced myself. Once again I told Sylvia I was the doctor. She looked at me, then over to Bruno. He nodded and her wide face relaxed and fell into a smile. Since my earlier visit her temperature had fallen and her breathing improved.

I listened to the front of Sylvia’s chest. I wanted to examine further, to hear the breath sounds at the lung bases. Sylvia, aged, weak and ill, would need help to sit up. Ordinarily I’d ask a nurse to support her but Bruno was here. Sylvia would know, her body would remember the touch of Bruno’s hands.
‘Bruno, when I sit your wife up, will you hold her shoulders for me?’ 
I hauled Sylvia’s upper body upright and Bruno leaned forward and placed one hand on each shoulder and steadied her. My stethoscoped ears listened intently to the breath sounds. Faint crackling betrayed the pneumonia I suspected.

Pneumonia, the old person’s friend. Will antibiotics save Sylvia? ‘Bruno, this is pneumonia. It’s a dangerous illness. Do you want us to use antibiotics? We’d give them through a vein…’
But Bruno, raised in a time and a school where the doctor gave orders, replied: ‘You’re the doctor. Whatever you decide will be for the best.’ 

Deep in cogitation, I applied the stethoscope again. Eventually I looked up. Two large brown hands, the joints wrecked by time and work on the farm, supported Sylvia’s creamy shoulders. Bent forward, held by her man, Sylvia gazed into Bruno’s eyes. I noticed her right hand. Sylvia moved it back and forth along the inside of Bruno’s forearm. Up to the elbow, back down to the wrist, up, down, Sylvia’s fingers stroked Bruno’s skin.
The fingers caressing, moving upon the silence.
Two people, oblivious of this interloper, oblivious of all, man and woman made love and confounded me: where I had wondered how much treatment would be too much, now I sensed how much the two still gave and received from each other, how precious to each was time with the other. 
How much treatment will be enough? 

My Mother’s Amygdala

MumI am pretty sure my mother had an amygdala; every one of us does. If my friend Joe, who seems to know his amygdalas, is correct, Mum’s must have been smaller than most. He tells me the amygdala is the seat of fear in the brain.
Joe is a barrister. I remind him I am a doctor. “It’s fifty years since I last had need of any knowledge of the amygdala. How come you know about it?”
Joe says: “In my business it helps to keep up to date with neuroscience. Such things as the organ of fear can be important in court”. Which all makes sense for a criminal lawyer; but Joe does compensation cases only.

For a while I consider my mother. Then I describe her to Joe. Joe smiles. The more I speak of my mother the wider Joe’s smile.
“Mum lost her father to cancer when she was twelve. Then three years and one day later her mother died – “Mummy had rheumatic fever in her childhood. After Daddy went, she died of a broken heart.”
From the age of fifteen Mum and with her younger sister Doreen were raised by her widowed grandmother, “Gar”, a tender and enlightened and emancipated lady who taught her granddaughters to feel inferior to no-one on this earth. Nor superior, for that matter.

Mum failed her Intermediate Certificate, Year Ten in today’s language. She concluded she was a dunce (making no allowance for the effect on learning of the abrupt loss of a pair of parents) and left school. She attended secretarial college, worked as a bookkeeper, saved her salary and at the age of twenty set sail alone for Europe. The year was 1939. Her correspondence through that blithe passage via the Dutch East Indies into Western Europe is punctuated by increasingly urgent letters from Gar to hurry home: “There is going to be a war.”
Mum prepared for the war by sleeping on deck – “in case we were torpedoed” – on the last night at sea. Her ship made port in Fremantle on the day war was declared.

My parents raised us children in the country town of Leeton. Once a year we visited the great city of Melbourne where there were trams. Mum took me on a tram ride along Hawthorn Road, past the cemetery. “Mummy and Daddy are in there”, she remarked affably, indicating a long red brick wall. Behind the wall I glimpsed stone statues and crosses. Mum’s remark made no sense to me. ‘Mummy’ was on the tram with me and ‘Daddy’ was back home in Leeton. Mum explained: “It’s a cemetery. People who have died are buried there. That’s where my parents are.” Mum’s voice, warm with affection and remembered pleasure, sounded as it always did when she spoke of her mother and father. I heard no note of sadness. At seven years old I could only imagine losing parents as the absolute of perdition, of aloneness. A thought like the abyss. Mum seemed to think dying was a natural part of living; it happened but death didn’t spoil life. Not for Mum.

Mum told me once of a tram ride she took one night from Fitzroy Street to the home of her uncle (and co-guardian) in Beaconsfield Parade. “I was visiting a friend in St Kilda. I stayed later than I intended and I almost missed the last tram. I just caught it. In the morning I read in the paper that a young woman was murdered overnight at that same tram stop. She was killed some time soon after the last tram – my tram – left… Ever since I was fifteen I’ve known that people die. Last night just wasn’t my time.”

When we children were teenagers, now living in Melbourne, Mum sailed to Britain or Europe. She always stayed in the cheapest hotel, choosing the cheapest room that had private bathroom facilities. Invariably her accommodation was in some seedy district. One time she discovered she was staying in a brothel.”I was safely locked in my bedroom, when I heard a sound from the door. I looked up and I saw the door handle turning. Then the door that I’d locked opened. I sat quietly. No-one came in. The door closed and I heard footsteps walking away. Next day a man I didn’t know asked me to sleep with him. He couldn’t speak English but he showed quite clearly what he wanted in sign language. I couldn’t speak his language – which might have been Kurdish. But I showed him in sign language the answer was no.”
“How did you ‘show’ him?”
“I took out my photos of you four children. I told him your names and your ages. Your faces must have changed his mind.” I picture Mum recounting with delight details of her brood, regaling a puzzled predator with biography, smiling and brimming with goodwill in her natural belief that blood was thicker than semen. I think Mum’s sunny innocence would dent anyone’s carnal ardour.

Another trip, this one around the time of the Cuban missile crisis: mum decided to travel to Yugoslavia. Friends tried to talk her out of it, reminding her of the Cold War. Mum said, “I know it’s an Iron Curtain country, but I don’t think it’s very iron.” People in Tito’s concentration camp in the mountains probably felt both the iron and the cold. Mum, blessed in her innocence, did not sense the chill.

One week before her 92nd birthday, Mum lay in her bed in Cabrini Hospital and breathed. Breathing was a labour as Mum’s heart was failing. Between small gulps of oxygen Mum chatted cheerfully with me and Miriam, a neighbour. Suddenly she coughed. And coughed again and again. Wordless now, Mum at up straight and took great desperate gasps, one after another. Quickly Miriam excused herself and left. I turned up the oxygen flow and called a nurse, who raced in and injected some diuretic into Mum’s drip. Minutes later Mum was gulping comfortably again. She pulled off her oxygen mask and grinned: “Miriam and the nurse both thought I was going to croak, didn’t they?” – huge crooked grin now, now laughing – “Well, I didn’t!”
After that Mum and I talked seriously: I asked her if she had any late – possibly last – wishes. Day and night in the hospital she had her two living sons and her daughter and a tribe of grandchildren with her. Mum never wished for more than that.

Even the smallest amygdala will not save you when your heart is shot. Mum lived a few more days before falling asleep and dying without fear.

On the Passing of a Great Writer

At the time of writing this, I have read scores of tributes to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, all of them as tweets. In other words, I have read nothing so far in mature media, (an expression that identifies me as a culturally bewildered old fart).

Great writers will have their say in traditional media.
Thus far the twitterers. Now me.

I was intrigued as I read these tweets. They poured, a growing stream of tributes, pausing at intervals, I suppose, to gather electronic breath, then flowing again. The process seemed as alive, as dynamic, as the flowing of a swift rivulet that paused on reaching rocks, only to cascade over and around them and plunge downstream in a Gabriel Garcia Marquezswelling spate. I felt excited by the energy I witnessed. I felt I heard the whisperings of legion one-hundred-and-thirty-character authors, everyone of them sounding forty years younger, forty years more at home here than I. Their twittering grew and grew to a chorus.
The energy was mildly thrilling as it gathered strength. It could frighten me if (forget “if”; think ‘\’when!”) it becomes a mob. I remember, too well I remember the cries at Cronulla; the cries of the mob as Dreyfus is cashiered (“Death to the Jew!”).
But I digress. Or do I digress? Only if the medium is not the message.

And what did I hear, what sense as the tweeting reached crescendo?
I heard love. I heard grateful appreciation. Marquez became a beloved writer. And his writing was the antithesis of the tweet. Substantial, considered, it paced itself with the uneven gait of the human.

I was impressed by the way tweeters reached for language worthy. None found his writing “awesome”; no-one said Marquez was “amazing”. No-one buried him in dead language.
Instead they offered back beloved lines. I record the four most quoted in ascending order of popularity:

Fourth: The only regret I will have in dying is if it is not for love.

Third: Nothing in this world was more difficult than love.

Second: Nobody deserves your tears, but whoever deserves them will never make you cry.

First: What matters in life is not what happens to you but what your remember and how you remember it.

Of these the first three are switches planted onto the pages of Marquez’ writing that light up a remembered feeling, an emotion recognised by the grateful reader.
The lines on memory appear more elusive than allusive. Subtle, demanding a pause, requiring meditation, the memory quote speaks to all who are mortal of what might remain, of the immortal.

What is my own response to Garcia Marquez’ writing? People call it magic realism. I recognise something older. I hear the thrust of story in the bud, bursting into flower. I hear the pulsing of the “Thousand Nights and One Night”. I hear storytelling.

 

Whale Mourning at Wilson’s Prom

My father walked these hills and steeps:

Woke early ever, walked rugged rockstrewn track

To the lookout, and back. Now he sleeps

Forever; and I rise with the sun

 

On this second day of the last new moon,

Of the dying year;

And sound the shofar, the ram’s horn warning*,

Then go for a run on a crystal morning.

 

My Father walked till his dying year; I follow his track

Across the bridge,

Then up the hill and over a ridge –

Then back; pausing to view a sapphire sea.

 

High here, on air, at Wamoom**, this southern

End of a continent,

Comes remembrance, a fifth element:

Midst earth and water I stand, content,

 

Basking in the gentle fire of an early sun

Then turn

To start the slog and gasp and sweat – up hills

And tracks on the ridge of the returning run.

 

Stop! – cries the voice of my companion

And turn!

And look out to sea, and see – there’s a whale!

I stop and turn and look – and sight the sail-

 

Shaped fin, the hump of back, the mammalian

Brown-black, a bruise

On the blue face of the sea. Now it sinks again

And as I smile, give thanks, and muse

 

It surfaces and plays, and sprays its spume

At the end of the dying year.

Another whale was here, beached, dead; while with my father

A decade ago, I saw it. We paid homage at its sandy tomb.

 

* Through the month of Ellul, Jews sound the ram’s horn, as a call to repent before the solemn days of the High Holydays.

**”Wamoom” is the Aboriginal name of Wilson’s Promontory.

Excerpt from My Fathers Compass by Howard Goldenberg. Hybrid 2007, 2008.