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.

 

Suddenly, last Friday

A latecomer entered a mosque in Christchurch and he saw, among the larger human forms, a child.

The NZ Herald reported:

Mucad Ibrahim.

 

At just three years old, Mucad Ibrahim is thought to have been the youngest victim of the massacre.

The toddler had gone to the al Noor mosque with his father and older brother Abdi when the family were caught up in the deadly attack. Mucad was lost in the melee when the firing started, as Abdi fled for his life and his father pretended to be dead after being shot. The family searched in vain for the toddler at Christchurch Hospital and later posted a photograph of Mucad, smiling with Abdi, along with the caption: “Verily we belong to God and to Him we shall return”.

 

 

Rachid was the one I thought of first. I sent him a note.

 

Stunned with grief, Rachid, we reach out to you and to your family with love.

In the synagogue today, a great and heavy solemnity.

Someone offered a public prayer for “our cousins” in NZ. 

It came to me as I stood and mourned I was glad my father was not alive to hear and know this.

How much more so, your father, the peace-loving Mufti .

Asalaam aleikum

Shalom

 

Rachid wrote back:

Thank you Goldy.

How true about how our fathers would have felt about this.

What a beautiful gesture from inside your synagogue.

 

Rachid.

 

 

I wondered whether Farooq’s parents knew of the attack.

Yes, my parents heard about it back in Iraq. They were upset.

I wondered, Aren’t they used to that sort of thing? Fifty killed – that wouldn’t be so rare, would it?

No. No, it’s not. Sometimes many more. Once six hundred died; a truck loaded with bombs drove into the Mall.

Three storeys collapsed. Six hundred – burned. But this, last Friday, we all feel upset.

I said quietly, I’m sorry. Everyone I know is sorry. We feel sad.

Farooq said, It helps.

 

 

 

The bloke on the phone, quoting on my car insurance, said: The premium would be sex hundred and sexty-two dollars…

I said, I’m sorry about the events in Christchurch. Everyone I talk to is staggered. In grief. We’re a nation shaking our heads.

The phone fell silent. A throat cleared, a voice followed, now hoarse: Excuse me. You caught me off guard. Hasn’t been easy being the chirpy salesperson these last few days… You know, we’re a close team here, we’re all nations, all creeds, one of us a Moslem.

He can’t work at present. We sent him home.

 

 

 

I sent a text to Waleed: I have nothing I can write, nothing adequate for the need. Nothing equal or useful or valuable

in any way beyond the human need to share the wound. To express my grief. I need my cousins to know I am with them.

Waleed replied: Thanks for sending it. The human need to share the wound is among the most important, most civilised needs we have. So that act of civility means an unbelievable amount. Thanks, cousin.

 

 

 

Speaking on TV, Waleed said: I know what the worshippers were doing in the moments before the attack. I know because I go to the mosque on a Friday. I know the prayers, the quiet, how far they were from this world, in the meditation, in the perfect quiet, in the peace inside the Mosque.

 

 

 

A mosque called Al Noor – ‘the candle, the light.’ So close to the Hebrew of my prayers. I thought of bodies bowed, of backs turned to an intruder, of those moments of innocence when the worshipper turns away from the world, turning inward in faith. As I entered my synagogue from the rear I saw anew how, in those sublime moments, we all are children, all undefended. In churches too, the faithful face forward, turning trusting backs to any entering latecomer.

 

 

 

***

Suddenly we all were Kiwis. Suddenly a change; we gasped, we shook our heads, we wept. We saw Al Noor, a light. Suddenly the Moslem was not the stranger. 

 

What will follow?

 

 

 

 

 

The Last Refugee

Imagine this. A disaster at sea, a lifeboat adrift, full of survivors, now despairing, now in hope, as land takes form through the mists ahead. A form is seen in the water. The boat comes alongside, the form is human and alive. The human extends an arm in supplication. Weary survivors take the limb and heave. The lifeboat, already heavily laden, tilts, takes water. The heavers persist in their heaving and the boat takes more water. A murmur within the boat swells to a cry: “Let him go!”

But the human is already aboard. The boat rights itself, the shouting subsides to a murmuring. The boat drifts on.

Imagine this: a second story. Australia prospers, confidence surges and trust becomes the settled order of things. Somehow Australia’s peoples lose their fears of difference, neither Sharia nor Tjukurrpa nor Kosher is imposed by any person upon any other person, but all are respected and all thrive. The leaders of the government decide to lead opinion rather than to follow it. They declare, “We who have plenty can take in those who have nothing more their need and their stories. Let us welcome them, let them come in!”

And so it comes to pass. Australia booms, its empty lands are claimed, cultivated and nurtured under the guiding hand of the first inhabitants. Australia feeds its peoples, feeds Asia, and prospers greatly. The seekers for asylum fulfil the promise that every newcomer brings. Australia accepts scores of thousands, who succeed in the new land and become part of the community. The community now takes in hundreds of thousands as History smiles upon the land and even the climate shows clemency.

The seekers for refuge are numberless, the land is vast, its resources seem endless. Eventually the land is filled. The flow of seekers for refuge slows to a trickle. It stops. All now are saved, all are safe. But wait! A boat. Aboard the boat are two persons. They extend supplicating arms. The peoples of Australia, accustomed to rescue, habituated and drenched in its ethos, wish to help. But their land is full. There is no room for newcomers. Australians squeeze up together, they wish to rescue those people who extend those arms. They make room, a little room: just one, one alone can be squeezed in. But there are two humans in the boat.

Imagine this: a third story. A lifeboat full of survivors of shipwreck drifts in an uncertain sea. This boat is full. Its gunwhales barely clear the calm surface. Whenever the seas rise all bail mightily to save the boat that saves them, and the boat remains afloat. The boat drifts on.

A shape is seen ahead in the water. As the boat comes alongside, the shape moves, cries, flings human words of thanks, raises an arm in supplication. All aboard the craft can see, all understand: “This lifeboat is barely afloat. If we take in this human his weight will sink us; every one of us – every human person – is lost.”

So much for my little stories. Readers of this blog are well acquainted with my pain, my outrage, my shame. All that old stuff. My eruptions of moral rage have brought a brief pleasure, a relief not unlike the visceral satisfaction of purging. But these explosions achieve nothing, convince no-one who is not already convinced, influence no-one in government.

A couple of years ago I spoke at an awards ceremony for defenders of human rights. I told my lifeboat stories. I pointed out Australia’s lifeboat is not full. I was grand in my flight of brave words and noble ideals. I carried the audience, which, led by two Federal parliamentarians, rose as one to applaud. Afterwards each of the parliamentarians, one a frontbencher in the government, requested a copy of my speech which they’d put up on their websites. One confided: ”You have said what we would like to say but cannot.”

What to do? What more to do? What can we – we powerless people do – beyond voicing our outrage, our shame, our grief? Firstly, we must continue to raise that human voice, to give human words to the suffering of fellow humans. That voice, those words, these are the marks of our being human. These words, the irreducible minimum:

Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car

By: Dan Pagis

here in this carload
I am eve
with abel my son
if you see my other son
cain son of man
tell him I

But what more? As my little stories suggest, ultimately we persons of good will – and I mean that to refer to my fellow Australians at large – sooner or later must face a terrible choice. At the end of all our rescuing there will always be one more supplicant, one too many for our resources, for our lifeboat. We will face a choice. This is Sophie’s choice, whereby we will chose one to be saved and send another – a human other – to perdition.

But Australia’s lifeboat is not yet full. So, what more, what wiser, what more potent act can we non-governors do? The answer cannot be simple, but our powers of imagination, of thinking hard and speaking softly, have helped in the past. Thus Petro Georgiou of happier memory, with Jozef Szwarc, softened the adamantine policies of John Howard. The image of a dead child floating in the shallows of Lesvos softened the policies of Tony Abbott.

I know of one small group in a faith congregation that has approached leaders of other faiths in an attempt to think hard together and to speak softly together to those who govern. State governors have spoken for their people, saying, give us the children; let them not return to offshore detention. Dr David Isaacs blew a whistle on his return from offshore that mobilised doctors and nurses at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital and now at Lady Cilento in Brisbane. The RCH refuses to discharge child patients to places of detention. We must understand that for what it is: the RCH is not some Marxist commune, not a place of sedition. It is rather an emblem in the state of Victoria. It stands for the highest skill and care. When the RCH speaks it carries Victoria. None gainsays its voice or its acts.

So, what to do? Think hard, confer, suggest, bring ideas to government. One idea, hardly original, strikes me as promising: let Australia progressively divert funds, currently used for offshore detention, towards a respectable, respectful supra-national staging and assessment process in south Asia. There we would maintain accessible, supportive consular representation. No-one would need to board a leaky boat, no-one would need to jump a queue, no human person would come to Australia and be called by a SIEV number. Our brothers and sisters would arrive with their own names.

We might save money, we might not. Neither governments nor we the governed see these issues in money terms: governments never count the cost when augmenting our cruelties; and we bleeding hearts never count beans. No, these issues are strangely unmonetised. The people of Australia hanker quietly to regain some self-respect.

Respectful policies will save lives. We might save our souls.

Do you have a better idea? Work on it, tell your minister of religion, your minister of the crown, the playgroup mothers, the neighbours. Governments need to follow. It is up to us to lead. We won’t save everyone, but we can hardly do worse than we do at present.

Writing as Healing

The mother of identical twin boys sent me this story by Ranjava Srivastava.

 

“Losing my twin baby boys for ever changed the way I treat my patients.

I will never know the kind of doctor I would have become without the searing experience of being a patient, but I like to think my loss wasn’t in vain.

‘My obstetrician’s tears stunned me but also provided immediate comfort. They normalised the mad grief that had begun to set inside me.’
Around this time 10 years ago, I was poised to start my first job as an oncologist when personal tragedy visited in a way that would forever change the way I would practice medicine.

I had returned from my Fulbright year at the University of Chicago, blessed with only the joys and none of the irritations of being pregnant with twins. Landing in Melbourne, I went for a routine ultrasound as a beaming, expectant parent. I came out a grieving patient. The twins were dying in utero, unsuspectedly and unobtrusively, from some rare condition that I had never heard of. Two days later, I was induced into labour to deliver the two little boys whom we would never see grow. Then I went home.

If all this sounds a little detached it is because 10 years later I still have no words to describe the total bewilderment, the depth of sorrow and the intensity of loss that I experienced during those days. Some days, I really thought my heart would break into pieces. Ten years later, the din of happy children fills our house. But what I have found myself frequently reflecting on is how the behaviour of my doctors in those days profoundly altered the way in which I would treat my patients.

An experienced obstetrician was performing my ultrasound that morning. Everything was going well and we chatted away about my new job until he frowned. Then he grimaced, pushed and prodded with the probe, and rushed out before I could utter a word. He then took me into his office and offered me his comfortable seat. Not too many pregnant women need a consultation at a routine ultrasound.

“I am afraid I have bad news,” he said before sketching a picture to describe the extent of the trouble. I thought for a fleeting moment that my medical brain would kick in and I would present him with sophisticated questions to test his assertion that the twins were gravely ill. But of course, I was like every other patient, simultaneously bursting with questions while rendered mute by shock.

I was well aware that doctors sometimes sidestepped the truth, usually with the intent of protecting the patient. I knew he could easily get away with not telling me any more until he had more information but I also knew that he knew. I read it in his face and I desperately wanted him to tell me.

I asked the only question that mattered.

“Will they die?” 

“Yes,” he said, simply holding my gaze until his tears started.

As I took in the framed photos of children around his office he probably wished he could hide them all away.

“I don’t know what to say,” he murmured, his eyes still wet. 

Until then, in 13 years of medical training, I had never seen a doctor cry. I had participated in every drama that life in bustling public hospitals offers but never once had I seen a doctor cry.

My obstetrician’s tears stunned me but also provided immediate comfort. They normalised the mad grief that had begun to set inside me. Yes, the doctor’s expression said, this is truly awful and I feel sad too.

“You are sure?”

“There is a faint chance that one lives but if you ask me, things look bad. You know I will do everything I can to confirm this,” he said.

The obstetrician had told the unflinching truth and in doing so almost surgically displaced uncertainty with the knowledge that I needed to prepare myself for what lay ahead. I had test after test that day, each specialist confirming the worst. I think I coped better because the first doctor had told the truth.

Two other notable things happened that week. Among the wishes that flowed, another doctor wrote me an atypical condolence note. His letter began with the various tragedies that had taken place that week, some on home soil and others involving complete strangers. “I ask myself why,” he wrote, “and of course there is no answer to why anyone must suffer.”

Until then, everyone had commiserated only at my loss – and I was enormously grateful – but here was someone gently reminding me that in life we are all visited by tragedy. All the support and love in the world won’t make you immune to misfortune, he was saying, but it will help ease the pain.

Finally, there was the grieving. I lost count of the pamphlets that were left at our door to attend support groups, counselling sessions and bereavement seminars but we were resolutely having none of it. My midwife called me out of the blue – it was a moving exchange that taught me how deeply nurses are affected too. But I didn’t need counselling, I needed time. I valued the offers but I knew that my catharsis lay in writing. I wrote myself out of suffocating grief, which eventually turned to deep sadness and then a hollow pain, which eventually receded enough to allow me to take up my job as a brand new oncologist. How I would interpret the needs of my patients was fundamentally altered now that I had been one myself.

Cancer patients are very particular about how much truth they want to know and when. I don’t decide for them but if they ask me I always tell the truth. A wife brings in her husband and his horrendous scans trigger a gasp of astonishment among even the non-oncologists.

“Doctor, will he die from this?” she asks me.

“I am afraid so,” I answer gently, “but I will do everything in my power to keep him well for as long as I can.” 

It is the only truthful promise I can make and although she is distressed she returns to thank me for giving her clarity. Sometimes honesty backfires, when the patient or family later say they wanted to talk but not really hear bad news. I find these encounters particularly upsetting but they are rare and I don’t let them sway me from telling the truth.

Oncology is emotionally charged and I have never been afraid of admitting this to the very people who imbue my work with emotion. I don’t cry easily in front of patients but I have had my share of tears and tissues in clinic and contrary to my fears, this has been an odd source of comfort to patients. In his Christmas card, a widower wrote that when my voice broke at the news that his wife had died he felt consoled that the world shared his heartbreak.

It can be tricky but I try to put my patients’ grief into perspective without being insensitive. It’s extraordinary how many of them really appreciate knowing that I, and others, have seen thousands of people who are frightened, sad, philosophical, resigned, angry, brave and puzzled, sometimes all together, just like them. It doesn’t diminish their own suffering but helps them peek into the library of human experiences that are catalogued by oncologists. It prompts many patients to say that they are lucky to feel as well as they do despite a life-threatening illness, which is a positive and helpful way of viewing the world.

I will never know what kind of a doctor I might have become without the searing experience of being a patient. The twins would have been 10 soon. As I usher the next patient into my room to deliver bad news, I like to think that my loss was not entirely in vain.” 

……… 

I read this story with alarm. It made me feel anxious because I have and love a pair of identical twin boys. I felt involved because, like the writer’s doctor, I am a doctor who cries; and like the writer, Dr Srivastava, I am a doctor who writes. Finally we two are products of the same medical school (Monash) – Dr Srivastava graduated at the top of her class, in the present century, I graduated at the opposite end of my class, in antiquity (1969).

A final point of commonality was her reassuring remark that ten years after her doctor wept her home is full of the noise of happy living children.

I found the piece helpful. Dr Srivastava identifies and untangles the strands of her experiences with surgical deftness. Her doctor weeps, her colleagues show support and care and empathy and she heals. As a trained observer, the writer dissects her experience of grief, lays out its anatomy and reflects upon its organs and parts.

Like the writer, I find relief and understanding in the act of writing. I suspect that a part of this relief results from word search. The writer is obliged to seek the precise word for the experience. In my case this forces me to test and taste a number of words. Perhaps a dozen words might work more or less passably, but the acts of searching, of choosing, of trialling, help me to clarify what my feelings were not quite like. I mean I discover what I mean. Perhaps this functions as a working through, a self-conversation, something between analysis of an experience and re-imagining it. In my case too, the pleasure of words is an aesthetic joy that comforts me.

Medicine is a pursuit conducted with the living in the shadow of death. It is a pursuit packed with anxious questions: what is wrong with me, will I die, what can be done, will it hurt, how much, how will I know the answers, when will I know? This crying doctor feels the patient’s fear and his own and has to know the border that divides the two. My fears are for the patient, of the patient, of failure, of failing a person of flesh and feeling. My fears include the terror that strikes me when I see my patient slipping away, the knowledge of my mortal inadequacy.

The writer who lost her twins precisely names the elements in her emotional experience. With remarkable poise she traces the costs and the benefits of the loss. So coherent are her reflections I could feel myself learning as I read. I learned about her life and her work, how the two are not the same but never severable. I learned more of how a doctor feels, who she is, who I am.

We Don’t Know their Names

An internet friend sent me some thoughts last week about the writing of the 2014 Nobel winner Patrick Modiano and his preoccupation with the lost. At the same time I was steaming towards the end of ‘Kamchatka’, a novel of the Disappeared in Argentina. Modiano wrote of Rita Bruder, a young French Jewess who went missing from her safe haven in a convent during the German occupation of Paris. Modiano is driven to search out the child’s fate. He cannot let the past and the lost rest unpursued.

I found myself acutely vulnerable to my e-friend’s story of stories. Partly it was the menace quietly gathering in ‘Kamchatka’ of the inevitable disappearing of a loved one; but more, the Modiano quest brought home a long overdue quest of my own: my destined search for my mother’s lost cousins. My knowledge of the cousins in question is slight and fragmented. It shifts in memory’s half light, lacking solidity, its textures diaphanous with the partial attention I must have paid in early childhood to a story my Mum told me. Seventy years after their presumed deaths in Auschwitz I feel the weight of silence.

My mother’s parents died of natural causes in her early adolescence. Somehow the orphan never lost her faith in living or her relish in it. Failing her Year Ten examinations she left school, trained as a bookkeeper, went to work and saved. In 1939, at the age of twenty-one Mum travelled alone to France where she had good clean fun. She spoke of dining with the Captain and the young officers on the Dutch ship which took her to Europe. She spoke of the beauty of Bali, then a Dutch outpost, almost untouched. On my mother’s return to Australia her younger sister Doreen asked her: ‘Are you still a virgin, Yvonne?’ ‘Yes,’ came the reply, ‘But it wasn’t easy.’ Mum made friends with men wherever she went, two of whom would bob up in our Leeton home while I was still too young for school. The two men, to the best of my knowledge, never knew each other. Their visits were separate and apparently independent events. We’d form a threesome for picnics by the river, the respective Continental, Mum and Howard, her four-year old chaperon. The men’s mysterious names – ‘Syd Viberow’, ‘Romain Hudes’ – intrigue me to this day. Googling has not relieved my curiosity.

These matters I recall well. I recall the smooth Continental gentlemen basking with my young and attractive mother on the riverbank. On one of those picnics we ate kedgeree. On another was it curried hard-boiled eggs? Europe was – I am confident – earnestly wooing; Mum remained Mum, Plato on the riverbank. I mean platonic; Mum might well have enjoyed being admired, but assuredly she liked her good fun clean. My memories are scatterings. Atmospheres are clearer than some factual details. Mum’s prudent inclusion in the picnics of an attention-hogging four-year old was strategic.

More scatterings: In Paris Mum’s tight black curly hair excites the admiration of a German hairdresser who marshalled her best English to compliment her: ‘You have vonderful viskers, Mademoiselle’; Mum’s accounts of the anxious urgings of the family back in 1939, to ‘come home now! There’s going to be a war.’ Mum is in no hurry. She spends time in France with her young cousins. Eventually she sails for home: ‘We slept on deck that last week, half expecting every night to be sunk by a U-boat. We arrived in Fremantle on the day war was declared.’ More good fun.

Much less clearly come memories of Mum’s cousins. The names are feminine and French, that I recall. Or I believe I recall it. They must be the daughters of Mum’s mother’s cousin. In 1939 they are teenagers, while Mum is twenty-two.

Mum says nothing to us children touching her cousins’ fate. But she must have known. I know that from the international telegrams that sped across the world late in1944; from Melbourne to Paris, from New York to Paris, with mounting anxiety. From Paris silence. From Melbourne to New York, from New York to Melbourne, in tones of deepening dread, cousins ask for word. There is no word. “Oed’ und leer das Meer”, ‘empty and waste, the sea.’ I know Mum knew; I found these telegrams among her papers after she died.

Mum and Dad bring up their four children very Jewish in the Riverina. In Leeton we children never hear of the Holocaust. We are as far from Auschwitz as Jews can be. Only three hundred miles south of us, Melbourne, thronging with survivors, is as close to Auschwitz as Australia can be. At the age of nine and a half I am translated from the Riverina to Mount Scopus in Melbourne. There, in a classroom full of Jewish children I am one of very few with living grandparents. I experience myself as a Jew whose family was safe, intact.

I regret now that innocence. A child who sat at the side of his father every Ninth Day of the Month of Av, listening to Dad as he lamented the destruction of the Temple and the sack of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, knew nothing of Europe only a few years earlier. We sat on the thin, scratchy carpet of our dining room floor, the house lights turned off, a single candle our only light as Dad chanted the Book of Lamentations in its distinctive moaning and sighing melody. Dad translated and together we bewailed the ‘breach of my people’ at the hands of Rome. Sixty-plus years later I can feel that carpet itching my thighs. But the Third Reich never touched me.

Why was Mum silent? Assuredly she cared for ‘Sophie’ and ‘Josephine’ – names that lurk just beyond memory’s outer fringe, names that might even be true. Assuredly Mum knew. But she said nothing. No stranger to closer loss, Mum could and would speak of her beloved parents, tenderly but with a composure that unnerved this small child. Strangely disconnected from grief, Mum thrived as an orphan, much, much later as a widow, and even managed to live on in joy after losing her one lifelong companion, her sister Doreen; and after Doreen Mum lost her firstborn son. From her early years Mum knew loss but managed to keep sorrow a stranger.

At what cost, I wonder. I read Modiano and I understand the Nobel judges’ remark about ‘his art of memory.’ My mother practised her own arts of memory. Did she survive a life that was punctuated by loss by excision of sorrow? Perhaps what started as a young girl’s strategy led to atrophy and involution of the organs of sorrow. In that case my own memories of Mum’s account of Europe might be actually complete: do I in fact recall the entirety of the particles that Mum allowed herself?

I bless Mum for her faculty of joy. And now she is gone I must investigate my own faculty for grief. I want to find my cousins.

My Mum

My mother is dead. This is not news to me nor to an attentive reader of my musings on the net; Mum’s been dead since 2009. But the fact precedes the realisation. I feel the pleasure of being her son every time I think of her. That pleasure persists, felt it in the present tense. Especially today.

  To know my Mum was to smile. She was both vague and humorous, almost daffy, at least in respect of the weight of the world.

Mum knew sorrow. She lost both parents to natural causes in her childhood. She survived the death of her husband (‘he was a lovely man’) and a few years later, the death of her firstborn son, who lived, it seemed, solely to bring pleasure to Mum’s last years. A few days before her ninety-second birthday, battling the heart failure that would kill her only a few days later, Mum literally laughed at death. Already breathless, with fluid pooling suddenly in her lungs, she suffered a coughing fit, gasped, gasped more deeply, turned grey and slumped. A few milligrams of hero molecules and some litres of oxygen later, Mum awoke and grinned. From behind her mask she chuckled and gasped: ‘They thought I was going to croak, but I didn’t!’

Dad’s heart started to play up in the months preceding his demise. I felt a doctor son should warn my unworrying mother: ‘Dad’s heart disease could kill him, Mum.’

‘I know that darling. That happens to old people.’ And to comfort and prepare me, she added, ‘Death is part of life.’ 

Mum’s acquaintance with sorrow seemed to leave her unharmed. Events always had their brighter side. You could always laugh.

I wondered about this. This was not a shallowness. Mum loved generously in a way that would be reckless in any normal person. She’d invest in love, lose the entire capital and somehow end up liquid.

What was her secret?

Did she learn something early in life that helped her to surf, ever buoyant, upon the waves and dumpers?
All I have to account for my mother’s lightness of being are my memories and her stories.

Of her father: ‘Daddy was at sea on his lugger for weeks at a time. He’d spend the idle hours carving mother of pearl and tortoise shell to make jewellery for Mummy.’

‘Daddy used to give concerts at the Town Hall on his one-stringed violin. He was very artistic.’

Mum’s face is alight as she speaks. Her father is always ‘Daddy’, the affectionate diminutive bright in a daughter’s smile and lilt of voice. ‘When Daddy was dying the nuns asked the whole school to pray for him.’

‘Daddy carved this brooch from the mother of pearl and pearls he brought from the bottom of the sea. He made it for Mummy when they were sweethearts.’

‘During the Depression Daddy went bankrupt. He worked for a real estate agency after that.’ Mum points to a black and white photograph of the staff of the Agency. Four stiff middle-aged men and one commanding matron stare at the camera. As old as any but much the youngest in facial expression, my grandfather smiles impishly.

‘Then he got lung cancer and died.’

Driving past Brighton Cemetery, with a wave of a hand, ‘Daddy and Mummy are in there – just next to John Monash.’ A six year old boy cannot reconcile that champagne voice with the terrible intelligence of the death of parents. I wonder at first if ‘Mummy and Daddy’ might by some magic still live, ‘in there’.

Mum pronounces the famous surname, ‘Moanash.’

In my university years I need to correct her; ’Mum, it’s Monnash, not Moanash.’

‘No darling, it’s Moanash.’

‘Mum, three thousand people go to Monash Uni every day and they all pronounce it Monnash!’
‘Do they darling? I must be wrong then. It’s just we knew the family and they pronounced it Moanash.’
Of her mother: ‘Mummy died three years and three days after Daddy. She died of a broken heart.’ For Mum rheumatic heart disease is translated to a love that killed but never died.
‘Mummy was extremely elegant. She made her own clothes. If you look at her pictures you’ll see she always wears a half sleeve. Mummy’s arm was burned above the elbow and she always covered the scars.’ 

Of her philandering uncle; ‘Harold should never have married Grace. They lived perfectly happily while he kept her as his mistress. Once they married, Grace couldn’t tolerate his lady friends. After Harold took one lady friend on a cruise to Tahiti Grace never forgave him.’ Mum’s voice expresses wonder at the anger of a woman scorned. ‘So she tried to poison him by tampering with his heart medication. When that failed she removed the tacks from the carpet at the top of the stairs. Harold fell all the way down but he wasn’t hurt.’

Lots of stories, lots of memories, all recounted lightly. Did Mum have no bad memories? Or did she simply lack that faculty when to remember would create sorrow?

There was one. When Mum told me this in my own early childhood I felt swamped in vicarious grief. We were walking at the top of Pine Avenue in my home town of Leeton Mum paused outside the toy shop. ‘Howard I want to buy you a present. It’s important. You have to let me buy you something.’

Surprised by this; I didn’t need to be persuaded.

Mum went on: ‘When I was a little girl I didn’t allow Daddy to do that. He wanted it so much and I didn’t let him. It was a doll. Daddy took me into the toyshop and we both saw her. She was nearly as big as I was. I saw her and I loved her and I wanted her. I wanted her enough to burst. Daddy said, “Would you like that big doll, Yvonne?”

I wanted her so badly I felt it must be greedy to say yes. I shook my head. “Really?” – said Daddy. “I’d like to buy it for you. Say ‘yes.’” But I couldn’t say yes. Because I’d already said no. If I said yes now Daddy might think I was only pretending not to be greedy. He’d think I was greedy and bad for not saying what I truly wanted.

Daddy kept trying to persuade me. I kept shaking my head. Daddy looked hurt. My pride hurt Daddy and my foolishness hurt me. We left the shop, Daddy sad and confused and I too sad to cry. We left and I knew I would never have the dolly.’

One clear memory of sorrow. Clear, sharp, unbearable for the listening child. I said nothing because the sadness was stronger than my words. The only story of sadness I ever heard from my mother’s lips. All the rest – one day short of ninety-two years – is sunlight.

 
 
In an era where corporal punishment of children was everywhere and unremarked, Mum only ever smacked me on the bottom on two occasions. Afraid she’d hurt me, she didn’t have her heart in the job. On the second – and final – occasion Mum gave up when both she and I were overcome and helpless with laughter.
 
Here’s my best guess: her father (‘Daddy’) dies after a horrible illness; her mother (‘Mummy’) dies after a long, long illness. Aged fifteen she looks about her life. She sees Doreen, her younger sister, and ‘Gar’, her mother’s mother who moved in after ‘Daddy’ died. If that’s the worst life can do to her, she decides, life is worthwhile. There is still love.
In this all-female domesticity Mum learns from the example of Gar – herself an emancipated widow – that a woman ought be confident and fearless – of men (who are lovable and inferior) and of death. And Gar’s dictum, ‘what I cannot cure, I must endure,’ shapes the girl’s life.
 
Less than a decade later the girl will lose family in the Holocaust. In her seventies and eighties she will suffer stroke after stroke, culminating in a haemorrhage that tears her brain; she will lose fluency and clarity of speech, she’ll inhale perilously as she swallows, her gait will be shattered and continence lost. She will tell this son, ‘I’ve never been happier because I’m surrounded by people who love me.’ And as an afterthought, ‘I really think I could still drive, darling.’
 
She reviews her life: ‘I’ve never achieved any status, never followed a profession, never been well-known for anything. But I have four children who love me and that means something.’
Each one of the four feels so truly and well loved, we all feel morally certain we must be the favourite. All four of Mum’s children inherit, to a greater or lesser degree, Mum’s temperament. Of the four, it is Dennis whose life is most difficult, but he lives through loss and disappointment, ill health and frustration, buoyantly.
 
 
Today is Mum’s ‘yahrzeit’, the anniversary of her dying. In the Synagogue last night and again at dawn this morning, this son – this unmourning orphan – leads the congregation in prayer, recites Kaddish, and lights the memorial candle. He sheds no tears in remembering but he gives thanks.