One Grandchild, One Sickness

A contemporary told me of a rule she and her friends observe at the monthly meetings of their luncheon group: “Only one grandchild, only one medical diagnosis.”

 

 

The rule struck me as wise. My grandchildren proliferate, for which I give thanks and tell stories and show pictures. This is a picture of my latest, Sadie.

 

 

Last night I visited Sadie’s house. To my good fortune she happened to be crying. My son passed Sadie to me and I placed her against my left breast. My heart beat at its steady 46 beats per minute and over the next few minutes I patted Sadie’s back in gentle diminuendo. She stopped crying. She rooted and tried to suckle. My collar proved unnourishing. After a while Sadie gave up on fluid and slept. I held her there, on my breast, for some minutes: was it twenty? Was it only five? I never felt more deeply alive.

 

 

So much for the one grandchild. Now for the one medical condition. Like grandchildren these proliferate as we age. I have lots. Every condition generates a story of compelling interest to the sufferer, and to the sufferer alone. Today’s was a visit to the periodontist. Have you ever been treated by a periodontist? If not I congratulate you.

 

 

In reality the periodontist is a dentist. The difference is one of specialisation. This practitioner doesn’t implant, doesn’t fill cavities, doesn’t do root canals, doesn’t make bridges. Nor even, in the usual sense, do extractions. Instead the periodontist extracts scale, plaque and whatever you have saved for your retirement.

 

 

Because the periodontist is truly a dentist she has lying horizontally on a jet age bed that rises and bends and straightens in response to unseen signals from the practitioner. Behind your right ear the practitioner keeps a small table upon which lurk small pointed instruments of hardened steel. These she keeps out of your line of sight lest you seize one, and in a reflex of self defense, you plunge it deep into her eye.

 

 

In short, periodontic procedures are notoriously painful. I took my seat this morning on the dental bed. The bed lay down and so did I. I opened my mouth. A bright light shone upon my face. I closed my eyes. At this point I ceased speaking. The periodontist looked inside. She said some gloomy things: ‘Gingival recession… pockets… these front teeth are loose, might lose them…’ She fondled my gums for a good time: ’I’m applying local anaesthetic jelly’, she said. I tasted something distinctive and highly unpleasant. I recognised the taste, one I remembered from the day in the bath in 1951 when my older brother pissed in my mouth.

 

 

Perio, as I will call her for brevity, now poked a hissing instrument into my mouth. I salivated. As the instrument hissed it cooled itself with a constant spray of watery mist. Fluid accumulated somewhere near the hole through which I customarily breathe. Perio probed, the gadget hissed and misted, the fluid level rose and for a time I breathed under water. This went on for a longish time, a form of dental waterboarding during which Perio asked repeatedly, ‘Are you OK, Howard?’ Each time I lied: ‘Yes, fine.’

 

 

From behind my left ear the unseen dental nurse waved a wand that hissed and sucked. Frequently this sucking instrument missed its target and sucked at my lower lip, a strangely sensuous experience. My mouth being open and full of fluid prevented me from thanking my unseen sucking kisser.

 

 

The bed became erect: ‘Rinse’, said the Perio. I rinsed. The bed collapsed and I took the hint. My mouth fell open and so, briefly, did my eyes. I beheld before me at eye level a long thin syringe of glass and steel, moving towards my gums. I’ve seen that sort of syringe before in movies in which a figure such as Mengele carries out unspeakable acts. I closed my eyes. My trapezius muscles clenched. My gums swelled hugely, all sensation fled and the balance of my hour passed. I drowned repeatedly. I rinsed, I spat. The bed erected itself, Perio said, ‘That’s it.’

 

Happily, I paid for her next BMW. I was happy because nothing hurt. I’m sure she’s not a real periodontist.

 

To the Rescue 

 
About three years ago my grandson Miles became increasingly nervous about the warming of the climate. He learned of melting icecaps, rising seas, drowning isles and the fate of our planet. He decided to act. He wrote to the man who was soon to gain fame as an onion muncher:

 

Dear Mister Abbott,

 

In Grade Two we are learning about the climate and the danger to our planet. Please protect the environment or all people will suffer.

 

Yours truly,

 

Miles

 

The Prime Minister wrote back:


 

The Prime Minister did act. Speaking of yet another great black hole in the ground he declared, ‘coal is good for humanity.’ And there the matter rested. The PM went on to his encounter with the onion in Tasmania and thence to the back bench.

 

 

Last week saw the election in the United States of a new leader who knows and cares less about the climate than my grandchildren. My youngest grandson Joel, aged five, learned the ice caps are melting, the seas rising, the polar bears are under threat, and the world is in danger. He felt worried. At bedtime last night he was afraid to go to sleep. His mother asked Joel, ‘What do you think you can do to help the planet?’ Joel thought a bit and replied, ‘I should become prime minister and protect the earth.’ There followed a discussion of the process of actually becoming PM. ‘The people have to choose you. They do it by voting’, said his Mum. Joel said he would offer rewards to people who protected the environment. His Mum responded, ‘In that case, I’ll vote for you, Joelly.’

 

 

With one vote already in the bag and with his program for saving the planet under way, Joel was ready for sleep. And all of us can now rest easier.

 

Smoking the Peace in the Middle East

We stand on the Tiberias to Tel Aviv highway waiting or the early morning inter-city bus. As we anticipated the bus is crowded with soldiers and civilians returning to work after the Passover
holiday. My wife and the two grandchildren struggle into the bus, informing the driver that we have four suitcases that we’ll need to stow in the luggage compartment below. The driver activates a switch and a hatch opens. The luggage compartment is too full to fit a sandwich. I stand on the pavement with my four suitcases and a thoughtful expression. A soldier just old enough to grow a few whiskers has a backpack to stow. He leans deeply into the luggage compartment, bending his slim back, hefting, pulling, piling, jamming items of baggage together. He has created ample space for his backpack.

But he steps over his own luggage towards my array, grabs a suitcase in each hand and thrusts them into the space he has created. Again he leans, lifts and shoves. Somehow our cases are all aboard. I hoist the soldier’s backpack, find an interstice and widen it, shove the pack in and hope. The hatch closes and we two ascend, the last of the riders. I pay the modest fares for the 170 kilometre ride for four passengers. The driver apologises: regulations require him to charge the two thirteen-year olds full fare. He is sorry, what can he do? – he asks with a raised shoulder.
Inside the bus all seats are occupied. Three young soldiers lie in the aisle, one sleeps while the other two busy themselves with their screens. From the rear seat a figure in civilian red rises, beckons to me, indicates the seat he has vacated. I must sit.

Amused, grateful, mildly embarrassed, I tell him I’m alright mate.

No, he says, I must sit.

I shake my head.

‘Please sir, sit. Next stop, I descend.’

Three recumbent soldiers in the aisle rise with good grace and make way for the old man with his bulky backpack.

We emerge from the two-hour bus trip at Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station. Passover has just come to an end and we are looking forward to eating leavened breads again. We emerge from Security and see before us a huge array of croissants, bagels, seeded rolls and pastries. I take the family’s orders and approach the squat woman behind the counter. ‘Two double espressos, one croissant, one chocolate turnover, one danish pastry, please.’ The woman maintains a studied silence. I stand for a moment, nonplussed. Has she not heard me? Is it perhaps, self-service? Is she perhaps deceased?

After a good time the woman passes me three paper bags. She manages to do this while turning her back to me. She has not spoken. Feeling like a semi-licensed thief I fill the three bags. Mrs Pastry now leans over her ranks of post-paschal breads in my direction, proffering coffee in a paper cup. A second follows. Still, no conversation. 

‘By what sum am I indebted to you?’ – I ask in my courtly, non-colloquial Hebrew.

The oracle now speaks: ‘Forty.’

     

Ellie looks up and laughs through her mouthful of chocolate yeast turnover: ‘Look Saba, Savta!’

We look towards the tee-shirt shop next to Mrs Pastry’s, where Ellie indicates a shirt in pink with the text:
DON’T WORRY

BEYONCE.
‘Ellie, would you like shirt like that?’

Ellie would like a shirt like that.
Ellie and I enter the tee-shirt emporium. Hundreds of tee-shirts of modest price and quality hang from cords suspended from the ceiling. All the shirts are suspended high, beyond human reach. Safe from theft they are also unpurchasable without human help. We look around us. Moving browsily beneath the display a handful of humans considers the merchandise. One sits, cross-legged on stool, like patience on a monument, entirely still. This person is slim, petite, elegantly presented.Her lips are the colour of venous blood. Her skin and hair are of midnight black. I approach her. She does not speak or move.

Hazarding a guess, I ask, ‘Do you work here?’

The merest of nods.

‘My granddaughter wants to buy the BEYONCE tee-shirt.’

Movement now as a slim arm emerges from behind the slight torso. Between two fingers of the hand at the end of the arm sits a cigarette.

The confessed employee inhales deeply and silently.

No verbal response. Perhaps we have visited her workplace during her sabbatical.

‘Can you help us?’

The Queen of Sheba points her cigarette over our heads. We turn and look up and backward for the shirt. We cannot sight it. 

We gather we have made our visit at a time when the spirit of enterprise is not active.

Ellie, richly amused, decides she can be happy without beyonce.

Instead, chuckling, she takes photos of the the tee-shirt in the display.  
At ‘Abulafia,’ the Palestinian bakery in the ancient port city of Yaffo, men in pious black yarmulkas queue to buy pastries from Palestinian men in tee-shirts.

In Hebrew and English the shopkeepers wear tee-shirts reading, ‘Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.’ Others wear shirts that read, ‘Headquarters of Israel-Palestine peace.’ As shopkeepers the peacemakers are indistinguishable from Jewish Israelis in their generous disdain towards customers. My wife, an attractive grandmother, speaks a clear and correct Hebrew. The bakery boys affect not to understand her menu enquiries. One shrugs and directs Annette to his colleague. He too affects non-comprehension. He winks at his colleague and turns away from Annette, his face closed.
When a second customer approaches, Annette’s two refuseniks compete to serve her. This newcomer is forty years Annette’s junior. 
Now I try my luck. ‘A toasted pita please, with salad filing.’ The man I address does not look in my direction. Like a magician, he flicks an unseen cigarette from nowhere into his mouth. Exhaling dragon-like he grunts something indistinguishable. I look around, find myself the sole customer and ask, ‘Pardon?’

‘Harif?’

Harif is the Hebrew term for shrewdly intelligent. In fast food places it means, ‘spicy.’

‘A little, please.’

This is the second time I have spoken the P-word. ‘Please’ gives me away as surely as it betrayed Annette. Despite our better than serviceable Hebrew, we have revealed ourselves as that least assertive of all tourist species, the Anglo-Saxon.

A second smoker materialises, slides my pita into a toasting oven, smoking all over my lunch in transit.  

Moments later, seated on ‘Abulafia’s’ dusty stone steps we enjoy our smoke-toasted borekhas, pitot, and pastries. Too hot to handle, ridiculously inexpensive, memorably good. 

   

Going to the Wall

My family used to be employed in Jerusalem. Unfortunately our family business was disrupted for a time by conflict and conflagration. In what appeared to be arson, on the ninth day of the month of Av in the year 70 of the Current Era, our office was burned down. 
The office I refer to was the Holy Temple where my forebears would officiate in rituals of sacrifice, in mediating and arbitrating disputes, in quarantining suspected carriers of contagious disease and in blessing the people. As the reader will realise we worked as lawyers and doctors and priests. After the burning my family was unable to go to our office for nineteen centuries. Then in 1967 we returned. The other day I went back to the office where I resumed working in the family business. 
It happened like this.
My two eldest grandchildren, both aged thirteen, accompanied my wife and me on our current visit to Israel.
The boy, a pretty secular fellow whom we’ll call Jesse, walked down to the Wall with me. He understood the antiquity of the Wall and something of its sanctity. Praying is not his specialty. ‘What will I do, Saba?’
‘I pray there, Jesse. Some people write their prayer on a slip of paper and insert it into a crack between stones.‘
‘What should I pray for, Saba?’
‘Think of the thing that you most want in the world, Jesse. Ask for that. It could be some deep and secret thing, something you wish for yourself or for someone else.’
Jesse has seen suffering. Earlier he saw a man begging. Well made, about the age of Jesse’s father, the man requested small change, blessing anyone who donated. The man walked on a distance from Jesse, turned away and covered his face with his hands. His shoulders shook.
At the Wall, Jesse pressed his lips against the glowing stone. He leaned his forehead against the Wall for some time, his lips moving. Then he posted his slip of paper into a tiny eye socket in the stone.
As we walked away backwards, Jesse stopped me and threw his arms around me. He said, ‘That was a really important experience, Saba. Thank you for taking me here…I love you, Saba.’
We rejoined my wife and Jesse’s cousin, whom we’ll call Ellie. They too had prayed at the Wall. Ellie’s fair features glowed: ‘Saba and Savta, that was wonderful.’ My hands twitched, a spasm in unemployed muscles. I recalled I was a Cohen, a lineal priest: I was in the blessing trade. I rested my palms on Ellie’s head. My fingers splayed and I searched for some voice. The voice shook as I recited the ancient words: ‘May God bless you and keep you…’ Here I was back at the old workplace, here was Ellie, flesh of my flesh.
I had waited 2000 years to get back to work. I annointed her fair head with my salt tears. 

Scavengers at Woolworths in a Remote Mining Town

By the time we disembark in the town we have travelled most of the day. The streets are a desert in the empty way of a Sunday afternoon in the country. We need to buy food supplies but all is quiet. Nothing moves. The air tastes hot. Breathing becomes an effort.

Up and down slow wide streets we prowl, looking for a supermarket. Hello! This is Woolworths. A cluster of cars baking in the carpark. Signs of life. Or recent life.
We tumble out, one grizzled grandfather, two ratty ten-year-old twins. Woolies is open! In the course of the following twenty minutes I load a trolley with fruit, vegetables, cheese, pasta, milk, yoghurt, confectionary bribes, cans of tuna, smoked salmon for the sybaritic grandsons.
The boys have disappeared. All other customers have disappeared. Someone turns off a lot of lights. I wrestle the trolley to the check-out where the twins lie face down, arms outstretched, fingers groping in the narrow cracks beneath the checkout counters, Their long curly hair wears a diadem of dust. Their once-clean shirts from long ago – this morning – are grimy. Their faces are coated in dirt. They wear expressions of intense concentration. When I call their names they do not respond. They pay no heed. Business as usual.
I pay a distracted-looking checkout person who asks me whether the boys are mine.

Technically they are not. But I admit to the connection. 

Checkout person says: ‘That money doesn’t belong to them.’

‘What money, I wonder?’
I call the boys and advise them I am about to leave, the store is about to close, and I will collect them at opening time tomorrow. If I remember.

The boys surface, faces aglow with dirt and triumph, their hands full of coins. ‘Look Saba! We found all this money under the checkouts.’

‘That money doesn’t belong to you’ – checkout person again.  

‘It doesn’t belong to you either’, says one cheeky voice.

‘Who does it belong to?’ – challenges another.

‘Woolworths!’

‘No it doesn’t.’ – two voices in chorus.

‘It can’t belong to the shop, Saba. The people paid the shop. The people dropped the coins. It’s not the shop’s money.’

‘Whose is it, do you think?’ – asks the grizzled grandfather, who isn’t really too clear on the legalities or the morals here.
The boys have an answer: they’ve spied a tin chained to the checkout counter. The tin has a slot for coins in its top.

The boys are busily feeding the coins into the tin, counting as they go. ‘Twenty two dollars and thirty-three cents, Saba! All for charity.’
The boys were unerring in their reading of the moral landscape: the label on the tin reads: HELP DISADVANTAGED CHILDREN.
 

Gap Years 

The friendly young man in the bookshop approves of my reading choice*: ‘Good book, I really enjoyed it. It was prescribed in my literature course last year.’He looks young, too young to be a uni graduate: ‘What was your course?’

‘School. I finished last year.’

‘What are you doing this year?’

‘Working here. Saving. I’m going to travel; I’m taking a gap year.’

 

Everyone takes a gap year nowadays. I never thought of it. No-one did back in 1963. I was keen to get on with becoming a doctor. I couldn’t see a gap and I would not have walked through it if I found one. Tempus was fugit, vita was brevis, gluteus was maximus, so I sat myself down and flogged my humanities brain over the sciences that were the stepping stones to doctoring. I never gave thought to my already clear history of stumbling through the sciences. I entered medical school, I studied the sciences and I stumbled on. If in later years I referred to my undistinguished undergraduate days, patients refused to believe it. They’d look at their trusted doctor and smile, knowing he must be joking; their peace of mind required he have no gaps.

 

I became a husband, I became a father, once, twice, thrice. I had four new people in my life to love, four more to work for. And I did work. A joyful and fulfilling part of my work was caring for women in pregnancy and childbirth. I became the intimate stranger, the guest at the birth of families. I’d be called to the hospital in the middle of the night, during dinner, at the kids’ bedtime, at quiet times alone with my wife. I’d leave home early in the mornings to visit the mother and her newborn in hospital. I’d leave before the children were awake. I left lacunae in our family, gaps where the dad was elsewhere when a daughter was sick, when our son had asthma, when our youngest cried at bedtime because a classmate at kinder teased her about the warts on her fingers. After twenty years I bade farewell, a long farewell to obstetrics, and hoped I’d mend the gaps.

 

The children grew, graduated, went to work, married, became parents. Became busy. Their time cramps them, crowds them in. The gaps that open in our children’s lives allow my wife and me in and enrich us.

 

The friendly young bookseller-bookreader will head off into his gap. He’ll travel towards his Ithaka and become rich with all he learns.

 

The truth is, life is full of gaps. As Leonard Cohen teaches us, that’s how the light gets in.

 

 

 

 

*Brenda Walker’s ‘Reading by Moonlight’. A gift for a friend with a couple of cancers.

 

On Turning Seventy

 

At some time on January 8, 1946, at St Andrews Hospital in East Melbourne, Yvonne Mayer Goldenberg (nee Coleman) gave birth to her second child, a son. The precise hour of the child’s birth is no longer known. St Andrews Hospital no longer exists and, sadly for this son, neither does Yvonne. Since the moment (unspecified) of his birth, that child has enjoyed an ambivalent relationship with Time. 

  
The temporal relationship was subjected to distorting stress even before the child was born. Although Myer Goldenberg delivered hundreds of other people’s babies every year in the Leeton District Hospital he determined his own children would be delivered by obstetric specialists in Melbourne. Two weeks before the second babe was due Myer drove Yvonne to Melbourne, dropped her at his parents’ house and returned to his patients in Leeton. Once Nature had taken its course he would return to meet the baby. Yvonne came into labour at night. Her father-in-law, Joseph Hyman Goldenberg, an excitable man and an erratic driver, bundled Yvonne into the car and raced towards East Melbourne. Joseph Hyman had no obstetric ambitions of his own: emphatically he did not wish to get down and bloody with Yvonne. He drove anxiously. In those days doctors erected a red light outside their medical premises to inform the passing trade. At every red light Joseph Hyman slowed to ask Yvonne, Should we stop here? Are you sure the baby is not coming? The pair passed from East St Kilda to Fitzroy Street, where red lights abounded: doctors were not the only practitioners with red lights. In this manner, slowing and accelerating by turns, the two proceeded to St Andrews where the child was born.

 

The parents named the child Adrian*. 

 

The baby was blessed with two distinct exemplars in the matter of Time. Myer Goldenberg was a stickler for punctuality. He tried to stickle his wife, but Mum wasn’t sticklish. So unpunctual was Mum, so indifferent to Time’s pursuit, Dad claimed:  Yvonne can’t tell the time. Mum’s riposte became famous: I can tell the time, I just don’t approve of it.

 

I took after Mum.

 

When I was nine years old I decided to become wealthy. Mum offered to pay me to shine shoes at one penny a shoe. Dad had about four pairs, Mum twice that number. I polished and I banked the proceeds. After shining two thousand, four hundred shoes I had accumulated ten pounds in my Commonwealth Bank account. I withdrew that sum and I bought a wristwatch. With that purchase I won my chance for mastery over Time.

I won it and I blew it.

 

School and life offered challenges, adult tasks, endless opportunity for a dysnumerate adolescent to strain his brain with numbers. Tomorrow always appealed. Later was better than now. Soon, Dad, soon.

 

After taking up middle distance running in my ‘teens I became interested in my pulse rate. I discovered my heart beat precisely sixty times a minute. I spent many lessons with my right index finger pulp resting over my left radial artery, counting the wrist minutes to the end of class.

 

My father had the impressive ability to awaken from sleep at a designated hour. He’d pack the boat at nine in the evening, we’d all climb into our bunks, and we’d sleep until the roar and throb of the marine engine told us Dad had awakened, as he’d planned, with the turn of the tide.  Such a skill seemed to me mystical. I know it now to be physiological, supported by a time-swollen prostate, the older man’s alarm clock.

 

Dad was always awake. I’d awaken and wonder why I had; or, more precisely, why now? And go back to sleep. I came to realise I could estimate the passing of time with remarkable accuracy. Let us say I heard the News on the ABC at seven AM and then went about my business through the day until mid-afternoon. I found I could stand still, rehearse the movements and actions of the intervening time, and calculate the hour. I’d say, I reckon it must be about four, or maybe a bit after. We’d hail someone wearing a watch who’d confirm it was five minutes after Four.

 

Curiously Time stalked me. I never chased it; it wasn’t particularly interesting to me. Now, at threescore years and ten I have discovered a new skill, equally unexpected: ask me when someone died, when someone else married or divorced or when she published her second-last book, I’ll declare, five or six years ago. Or, the Easter before last – and I’ll be right. Time has slipped through my hands. I never gripped it firmly but I have felt its mass, I can weigh it in my mind and give you the quantum of time that has passed.

 

Of course my time with Time is limited. The psalm I recite every shabbat reminds me: the days of our years are threescore and ten…I’ve had my threescore and ten. I’ve spent them and enjoyed them. I have seen much, I have loved many. Many are the books I have read, many the teachers who showed me their light. But what of my books unread, my books unwritten? What of the cracks in my world I was going to fix? What of the love I owe and never paid? Happily my psalm offers an extension: but with heroic effort, eighty years… 
At medical school I came across a novel and striking notion: senescence proceeds from birth, hand in hand with growth. The processes continue. Like a plucked fruit I ripen and I decay. In the house at night you can hear me snoring. In a coffee shop the other day I sipped my cappuccino while peeking at the attractive barrista. My thigh felt suddenly hot. I turned from the young woman and saw my cup held on its side, coffee streaming onto my flesh. I realised I have come to a stage where I can no longer perve and drink coffee at the same time. On the anniversary of my birth the grandchildren celebrated me. One wrote: Saba, I love you more than mangoes. Another, We will put you in a Home.
In Time there will be time ample for sleep. For now I sleep less, as if to waste no moment of the light. I hear less but I appear to miss little. Deafness is my censor, filtering out much noise, admitting much signal. I taste Time and it remains fresh and sweet. It passes, slipping away, slipping, like a breath. New times will follow and, like all times, they will pass into memory, after that into a memory of memory, and finally into forgetting. 
I can feel Time passing by weightlessly. Time as quantum wields no heft, bears no moment: somewhere I have a wristwatch, capable of measuring time. I have set it aside: I just don’t approve of it. 

  

   
 
*The parents named their new baby Adrian. Years later my mother showed me the notice she and my father placed in ‘The Murrumbidgee Irrigator’: Myer and Yvonne Goldenberg are pleased to announce the birth in Melbourne of their second son, Adrian.

Over the following ten days of her confinement, Yvonne received a stream of visitors, all of whom asked the name of the newborn, and all of whom vomited. Presently their friends Ben and Ethel visited, bringing with them their son, Howard. After the vomiting my father looked at my mother, my mother looked at my father, they both turned to Ben and Ethel, asked did they mind, and Adrian became Howard. Baby Adrian was not consulted.