Empty, Empty and Desolate the Sea

I can’t see Manny anywhere. I stand and fret in St Kilda Road. The spring gale blows a clatter of discarded plastic drink cups along the great boulevard. The cups fly and land and take flight again, baffling the redshirted volunteers who try to arrest them. In all the great sweep of road it is only the volunteers who run, no others: the marathon field has swept past me as I keep my watch and ward, as I wait and wait for Manny.
 

It is eight thirty-five. The marathon runners have passed, the half-marathoners too. Where is Manny? We’d arranged to meet at seven thirty. When we saw each other a week ago Manny told me he could run only two hundred metres without breathlessness. I was treating him for the respiratory infection that he’s prone to: whether it’s his cancer therapy or the cancer itself or a recurrence of pneumonia, he’s been unable to train. ‘Until the other day’, he says hopefully, ‘I did 10K on the treadmill.’ Then he concedes, ‘I had to walk and jog.’

 

Last night Manny sent a message: I’m hoping miracles do happen. This will be my thirty-ninth Melbourne Marathon. I am determined to start. I don’t want to embarrass myself. I hope I make it to the five kilometre mark. I’ll meet you there around seven-thirty I hope.

 

I have been watching since seven-fifteen, searching faces, peering into the throngs for sight of Manny’s familiar features, his labouring body. The road has been full, but empty, empty and desolate. So Manny has been defeated at last. After running thirty-eight successive Melbourne marathons, one of only eight people who have started and completed every one, Manny has admitted defeat. And it is not the event that has defeated him, but his illness. The wind howls in my ears, dust flails my face. I am almost relieved that Manny does not have to run into the gale.

 

I turn for home then look back over my shoulder. At the extreme of sight two figures are dimly seen. Their bodies are shapes, undefined. They seem to move: are they moving towards me or away? I wait. Yes, two figures, moving slowly, making slow progress in my direction down St Kilda Road. Can this be Manny and another, a support person? I wait my turn to become the next in Manny’s chain of supportive escorts. The figures approach, they gain definition. They move comfortably, they laugh and wave. They are young, female, they are not Manny.

 

Sombrely I jog back, keeping pace now with some lagging half-marathoners. Sloggers, these, a sub-sub-sub elite, united in dour resolution. These runners have the Manny spirit, the spirit that brought him through and home in the last two full Melbourne Marathons.

 

Back home I try to call Manny. No luck. I call his devoted son – all his relatives love and cherish him: no answer. I leave an anxious message. Restless, I await news. Day ends without word. I send an email.

Finally the following arrives: With help from my wonderful family I did the impossible and finished the thirty-ninth Melbourne Marathon.

I did the Cliffy Young shuffle and someone was with me all the way to help me along. I’m feeling very sore and tired.

I’m sorry I missed you. Hopefully we can run together next year.

‘Next year’. Two years ago Manny’s cancer doctor warned him against running: You fractured a cancerous rib just by coughing. You might have cancer in any of your bones. You can’t afford to run. But Manny did run. In 2016 with the same warning echoing, he asked his GP what he thought; this GP said, I’ll run at your side. And that was our plan again this year. But I missed him.
I missed him but Manny ran. He shuffled through the spring gales and he completed the full forty-two kilometres, plus the final terrible two hundred metres. And I missed witnessing one of the great athletic feats, one of the triumphs of the spirit over the flesh.

 

Next year, Manny, next year.

 

THE MCG STANDS EMPTY, THE SOLE RUNNER, LIKE PHEIDIPIDES OF OLD, ENTERS ALONE

She Would Not Look at Me

Only three days following the fall of the twin towers the Israeli author and journalist David Grossman wrote a thoughtful piece that was reprinted in The Age. The first and always casualty of terror – he wrote – is trust. You do not trust your fellow citizen, you feel you cannot afford to. Your neighbour of yesterday might be your enemy of today. Community is the casualty.

In the happy isle in which I live and move and work, terror and war and conflict are seldom seen. Insulated as we have been we could afford still to trust – long after other communities had been rent apart into fractions and fractious factions. So it is that when I go to work at the hospital for sick children, one half of my children come from homes where the first language is not English. There is a bridge of trust between us, where we meet and work harmoniously. Fifty percent of the non-anglophone families are Muslim. The parent looks at me, sees an oldish man in a skullcap. That adult thinks whatever she thinks but receives and returns my asalaam aleikum courteously.
Sometimes cautiously, often gladsome, the adult moves towards me across our bridge of trust and we meet. Minutes later, the old man in the yarmulka is no longer an infidel, a foe: he is just a person who understands the child’s illness and who cares about that child and can help. My guest sees in the Jew a fellow human.

Now the children of Abraham are locked in cousin conflict again. My first Islamic parent identifies himself as Ibrahim. He smiles at his cousin’s greeting and returns it.
Later a tall dignified woman, taciturn, her head veiled, her face exposed, meets the doctor who will treat her child, with evident displeasure. She has no smile. Her daughter’s earache, which has been distressing, is easily diagnosed and will be readily relieved. I know I can help her and within minutes I have. The child is five years old. She does not speak,a mutism that can be explained by shyness, by a lack of English, by illness, or by family custom. But her mother, face tight throughout, spares few words and no smiles for the doctor. After I have explained the nature of the illness, its treatment and its happier future course, there is no thaw. I express the hope and the belief that the child will be soon well, insh’allah.
No smile.
There is a war.
The bridge is broken.

Book Alert

a long time ago i tutored a group of medical students at melbourne university

one of these was dominic wilkinson

dominic was an unusual student, interested in ethics, coffee, dumb animals and conversation

he was built like a greyhound*, played violin in an orchestra, created, directed and acted in commercial theatre, pedalled a bike everywhere, ran marathons, ate no food that had a mother and eschewed leather shoes

he read widely, had a quirky sense of humour and was far too bright to be a doctor.

straight away i recognized dominic as a fellow dilettant

i knew he would find no time to study for exams and that he would fail

and go on to some more creative field

i was nearly correct: dominic passed his exams, graduating at the head 9780199669431of his elite class

he trained in paediatrics (too easy), ethics (too simple), philosophy

( that gives makes my brain ache)

he won a rare and prized scholarship to oxford where he conquered,

returning to oz with more degrees than a thermometer

five minutes later he is a professor in adelaide and has written this book

i was right: i KNEW he’d turn his mind to something creative

if you have a a baby, plan to make one or ever were one, buy dominic’s book

or even if you just enjoy sex, because you never know…

howard goldenberg

*an expression of one of my patients: “like a greyhound – all dick and ribs”

Now for the official blurb:

In ancient Rome parents would consult the priestess Carmentis shortly after birth to obtain prophecies of the future of their newborn infant. Today, parents and doctors of critically ill children consult a different oracle. Neuroimaging provides a vision of the child’s future, particularly of the nature and severity of any disability. Based on the results of brain scans and other tests doctors and parents face heart-breaking decisions about whether or not to continue intensive treatment or to allow the child to die.

Paediatrician and ethicist Dominic Wilkinson looks at the profound and contentious ethical issues facing those who work in intensive care caring for critically ill children and infants. When should infants or children be allowed to die? How accurate are predictions of future quality of life? How much say should parents have in these decisions? How should they deal with uncertainty about the future? He combines philosophy, medicine and science to shed light on current and future dilemmas.”

Death or Disability? The Carmentis Machine and decision-making for critically ill children is published by Oxford University Press. It is now available via the OUP website on the link above, or via Amazon UKFranceCanadaUS (released in March) or Book Depository (free postage)