The voice floated across my lonely motel room in Darwin. The sound of slow sweet lament suited my mood in that anonymous room in a lodging for transients. The voice sang of home, of home lost, of home dreamed and remembered. In that room, at that season – the three weeks of mourning for Jerusalem and the Temple – the voice sang to me of loss, my own and the singer’s.
After a period working on Elcho Island I had arrived in Darwin at day’s end, had wandered blindly about the Darwin Festival, blindly had selected this CD of Elcho singers. Later, in the light I read their names. I recognised ‘Yunipingu’: hadn’t he been Australian of the Year? But this would be a different Yunipingu.
Only a couple of years later that floating voice had percolated through the ears of the entire nation, seeped into our being and changed us. Distinctive as didgeridoo, his voice was recognised everywhere. His solo album was the cultural event of the year. Realising how a voice had become the sound that we recognised ourselves by, I wrote. “Australia is becoming more Australian.”
Born in 1971 the singer passed away last week. He died during the three weeks of mourning. I listen to ‘Warwu’ and I feel for my country, impoverished. The singer has passed from us. So much loss, so many, so young.
click on this link to hear him singing 'Warwu': https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XhkMP89rRMk
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.
Melatonin and the Meaning of Five Lives
– written in the high season of jetlag
Why would I wake after only four hours of sleep? Here I am, sleepless in Pittsburgh. It is 2.00am and for five days now I have slept too little. There is nothing to stop me sleeping: the house is quiet, snow falling outside hushes the world. Sleep is an ambition unrealised.
My mind has nothing useful to do other than to keep me from sleep. My mind visits my home in Diamond Creek. The date is December 7, 1974. I see it all in the dark from my bedroom upstairs in the house of friends in Pittsburgh.
Around 7.00 am
I am first to waken. I wash my hands and a noisy clanking in the pipes threatens the precious sleep of the children. Steam emerges when I turn on the hot tap. I turn it off. I pay no heed to the meaning of noises in the plumbing, to steam from the tap. These are practical concerns; I wash my hands of practical concerns. I remove my wedding ring to recite my morning prayers and go to my work, leaving the children unkissed, leaving the ring on the dresser, leaving Annette as she prepares for the day.
Around 8.15 am
The receptionist says: ‘Mrs. West is on the line. She says it’s an emergency.’ I take the call. Lynne says, ‘Howard. I think you’d better come home, straight away. There’s been an explosion at your house.’ I don’t come home straight away; Lynne West is an excitable person and I have a patient sitting before me. More patients wait in the waiting room. I see these patients and I drive to my house.
Around 8.10 am
The house exploded.
Around 9.15 am
I do not witness the explosion but Lynne is eager to regale me: ‘I heard a loud boom from your house and I looked over and a huge cloud of smoke came out of the roof. And the walls fell down.’
But before encountering Lynne and her tale of smoke and thunder I turn from the unmade road into our dirt driveway at 36 Deering Street. Lying flat on the ground to my left are the brick walls of my home. Before me the driveway leads to an empty carport. ‘Empty, ergo Annette is not at home, the children are not at home. Ergo I have lost nothing but bricks and mortar.’ And, as I will discover later, a wedding ring.
Until I married I disdained rings on men. Worse than effeminate, in my regard they were affected. A judgement made before I married. This ring was different: slender, of unostentatious white gold, engraved on the inner surface with words of love from Annette, words for my eyes only.
Around 10.05 am
I run Annette to ground at her sister’s house. She has dropped our firstborn at kindergarten early, as she always does. Earlier Annette sat in the armchair, breastfeeding the newborn while the older two watched Sesame Street on a couch in the same room. I ring Annette and tell her she is homeless. That we have been so since shortly after
Annette and the children left home for kindergarten. Punctual as always. Not only early, but early for early, as I was prone to point out irritably, in Annette’s overturning of my native tardiness.
Annette joins me at the wrecked house. We find two goldfish still alive, lying in the few milimetres of water on the surface of the kitchen table. That flimsy table is one of the few sticks of furniture that still stands. Paintings hang at angles from the walls, canvas gashed by flying debris. The dining table lies in heavy fractions, its geometry denuded. Ancestral bedroom furniture has collapsed. Of the wedding ring no trace.
My mind is fixed on the hot water service that exploded. Emplaced on the slope beneath the house, the hot water service – that ticking bomb – stood directly beneath the armchair where Annette sustained our baby with her milk; one metre removed from the suckling pair were the Sesame Street watchers, sitting in pleasant terror of Cookie Monster. Lynne West’s ‘smoke’ was the steam released by that bomb.
Annette is upset: unlike me she never held in her imagination the thought that arrested me for one second or perhaps two: that my loved ones are lost. Annette is a mother of children and she knows, as I will continue to refuse to know, that a family lacking a home is a frail thing, that we have lost our anchor upon this earth.
Our son, aged two and a half, knows something. Prior to December 7 he is a highly verbal person. From that time, for the next six months, Raphael will not speak.
I lie in the dark, useless to myself, tossing in all this unusable time. But unwelcome consciousness wastes nothing. It takes me back thirty-nine years in time. There were questions that Annette faced in those first few seconds, questions that my son asked in his mutism.
In the simplicity of 1976 I asked nothing. Now the darkness asks me:
What does it mean?
Why has this happened – this loss?
Why has this happened – this being spared from loss?
What, as our lives were spared, are our lives for?
What will you do with, how will you use this time?
A novel experience, this guilt, this sense of time debt, the debt unserviced, accruing, unpaid. The infant at the breast, her elder brother, their big sister, each of them has employed the time, each has grown and grown, grown and learned, grown and created a family. Throughout all Annette has been their home.
What have I not attended to?
I must listen to the pipes. When the pipes, the pipes are calling I must listen. I must not wash my hands of practical matters. The practical reality was shrapnel of exploding wine bottles stacked next to the suckling chair, next to the Sesame watchers. Those jagged fragments were flung with force from floor through the ceiling into the roof space. Grenades of glass shattered the room of milk and sesame and soft infant flesh.
I must learn from the steam. Steam, as Lynne might put it, is smoke – and where there’s smoke, there’s fire. The steam warned me: get your loved ones to safety, far from the fire.
Why live? Why us? These teasing whys tease. Abstruse abstractions, they distract from the concrete, the practical.
And Annette? Annette is where truth is writ plain and practical. The truth lies with Annette.
These musings are, as I suggested at the beginning, the children of the muse melatonin. I am in foreign territory here, lost, perhaps even found, somewhere between memory and regret.
As if to answer the questions of the dark, questions I never spoke aloud, my host passes me ‘The Descent’, a poem of William Carlos Williams:
No defeat is made up entirely of defeat –
Since the world it opens up is always a place
A world lost, a world unsuspected
Beckons to new places
And no whiteness (lost) is so white as the memory
I 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.
Consider Phillip. He lies in his hospital bed, a person unknown. Deep in the stupefaction of alcohol he lies as one asleep. Possibly he is asleep.
I stand silently and watch Phillip and I consider him.
The police were alarmed when he vomited violently in their lockup. They called the ambulance that brought him to my one-doctor hospital. The nurses, veterans in the management of all forms of intoxication, called me, troubled by his scatterings of impulse, his wildly fluctuating state of mind and mindlessness.
I arrive to find a thin man of twenty-five lying on his side, inert. His body has curled into the position of a foetus in a textbook. Phillip’s narrow face, tapering downwards to a thin chin and a Ho Chi Minh beard, buries itself in a pillow. His eyes are closed.
I address him: “Phillip.”
Not a flicker.
“Phillip, I’m the doctor. I’ve come to help you…Phillip!”
Only minutes before my arrival the nurses found Phillip conscious and verbal. One moment he was weeping for the death earlier in the day of an aunty in his hometown on a nearby island; the next he was wolfing the sardine sandwiches the nurses prepared for him.
Now he is immobile, unhearing, a narrow form, a closed face, a straggle of black beard.
In these parts the death of “an aunty” can signify unbearable loss. And the access to alcohol can trigger irresistible impulse to harm.
I stand and consider Phillip.
Do I leave him lie – the chicken option? Or stir him up, revisit loss, possibly unleash the grog-drugged demons?
“Phillip, show me your tongue.”
Eyelids flicker, the eyes open. A mute question on a busy face: What – show my tongue?
“Phillip, I am the doctor. Please show me your tongue.”
Lips part, a pink lizard shows itself and retreats. Now it crawls from its dark cave and rests, clean, a healthy pink. But dry.
Phillip’s chart records a low blood pressure reading. Less than 100/60, it might betoken the relaxant action of alcohol on blood vessels. Equally such a reading might simply reflect his norm, his youthful good health. He’s a stranger here. We don’t know his normal BP. And it matters.
Abruptly Phillip sits up in bed. A pillow goes flying, bedclothes are flung aside. Phillip’s scrawny arm reaches behind his back, deep into his undies. He scratches furiously. He looks around. A wildness in his movements. He lies down and begins to whimper. He buries his head in the crook of an arm and weeps now, regular little bleating sounds, a child giving way to grief. Before I arrived, the nurses tell me, Phillip squatted on the floor, folded his head in to his torso, his body a concertina; at the same time he drew his arms against his chest and his fingers into the attitude of prayer – the nurses were taken by the strange gracefulness of his fingers – and he began to cry.
This second weeping exhausts itself. Quietness falls in the darkened room.
Without warning Phillip’s fingers race around his belly, scratching in a frenzy. Now they plunge to his undies and pull them down, exposing a circumcised member. Meanwhile my own hands yank bedclothes upwards to restore what? – dignity? – modesty? For the exhibition is so insistent, so obscure, so confusing, I feel alarmed and I am sure my alarm is for the women around me, anxiety occasioned by the actions of the thin man in the bed, actions quicker than thought, movements without reason or purpose. As the bedclothes jump and subside before me I am reminded of the inscrutable movements of the unborn. And indeed there is much that is infantine about Phillip, his way of looking at and into the attending nurse or at me, his helplessness, his mute, unknowing enquiry, his submission to tenderness.
I decide on an intravenous saline infusion to rehydrate Phillip, to wash out the grog and to lift his BP. And not incidentally, to provide immediate access to a vein in case of urgent need. I am thinking of sedation that might short-circuit a fatal impulse. On the other hand, sedation can further lower a low pressure and depress grogged breathing.
First I have to sell the deal. Phillip is (still) a voluntary patient of whom involuntary treatment would be assault.
“Phillip, we’re going to give your body a drink. We’re going to put a needle in your vein so we can make you feel better.”
The busy face, thinking what?
“We’ll put a needle in here.”
Phillip looks at the finger I have placed on his arm vein as at something mystic.
Nurses bring the gear for a drip. The nurses who are due to go off duty do not go. Every able bodied person in the hospital gathers around Phillip. No-one has expressed it but all of us feel anything might happen.
The sharp trochar pricks Phillip’s cubital skin. Beneath my sentinel palm that rests gently on his shoulder I feel his muscles bunch. Now his hand flies up towards the face of the cannulating nurse. Her face tightens and darkens, her voice finds steel: Don’t. You. Think. Of It.
A moment that freezes. Ten eyes stare, Phillip subsides, we breathe out.
“Midazolam, 2.5 milligrams, now!” My command is a whispered shout. Moments later Phillip is sedated, leaving nurses and doctor unsedately measuring blood pressure and monitoring respirations.
Two hours later the nurse in command calls me, apologising needlessly: “Phillip is agitated again, should we repeat the sedation?”
“Should we? We have to!”
Incidentally the nurse’s midnight enquiries to the clinic on Phillip’s island confirm that his BP is always low. The pressure of a healthy child.
Sleep will not come. The eye in memory sees a teenager, crazed, sad, helpless, feeling everything, understanding nothing, terrified of the feelings that clamour and hammer in his head.
At length a question crystallizes and brings me back to Phillip’s bedside. We two are alone in his dark room. His eyes are open, his body at rest. Before I can pose my question Phillip has one of his own. He gazes at the inside of his elbow. He fingers the bandage that holds his cannula inside the vein. The white bandage is bright in the gloom. “What if I pull all this out?” His finger explores dangerously, his voice asks innocently. I beg Phillip not to touch the tubes, not to disturb the bandage. “We want to help you Phillip.”
Now for my question: “Phillip, what else have you had today – apart from the beer?” There has to be something else. I don’t see this behavior with grog alone. And more than that, Phillip stays beneath the roof a special house in this community. It is the house of an older white man. A white man with many younger black visitors and residents. A nurse at the hospital says: “We treat a great deal of sexually transmitted disease among the young residents of that house, and too many drug-taking people.”
Artlessly Phillip gives answer: “I smoked ganja today doctor. You know, dope.” He looks to me, that look he has, free and clear of adult care, of consequence. He looks to me, the grownup. Aunty has passed: it is for me to know, for me to be a parent.
Copyright, Howard Goldenberg, 27 February, 2014.
One Thousand Cuts: Life and Art in Central Australia
A book of the dead?
Yes, explicitly so.
Names are named, a violation of all norms, all practice in both whitefella and blackfella Australia.
Rod does this by virtue of trust, explicit consent, indeed the command of Rod’s friends.
Rod Moss’ singular role – to witness, to record and transmit.
Rod Moss grew up in the country. Well, in the 1950’s the Dandenong Ranges were country-ish. But he was never “in country” until some time well into his long apprenticeship under Edward Arranye Johnson, in and around Alice Springs.
Moss’ first book, “The Hard Light of Day” recounts that apprenticeship, which began with a spontaneous act of neighbourliness and evolved through friendship to become a connection of spiritual father to son. The building and the losing of that bond are the subjects of that first book, winner of the Prime Minister’s Award. It might sound like a large statement that the second book builds on and exceeds the first in its power. It does so by the swelling sorrow of loss after loss after loss, of the weight of pain.
The present volume is unique in the way it illuminates the experience of being “in country” – an opaque expression that whitefellers who work outback hear often from blackfellers. Subtly, delicately, in a characteristic Moss undertone, being ‘in country’ becomes luminous. The light is shed by Moss as he moves around Arranye’s hereditary domain as his named spiritual heir.
Moss gives us birdsong, birdflight as he walks beneath. He breathes the breezes and tempests that flutter or flatten foliage and carry mood or prophecy.
He names and describes the fauna – from grub to reptile to marsupial – that create the country.
Moss does all this in the same manner as in his painting. His colours are florid, his verbal sallies frequently outrageous, his attack fearless. But in all this bravura there’s nothing flash or glib, as Moss walks and paints and photographs the lands of his spiritual patrimony, bearing the loss of spiritual father (and of many brothers and sisters), accruing more and more losses until their weight becomes unbearable.
Most of the losses come abruptly. Each comes with the force of a thump to the solar plexus.
Moss, with his reader at his shoulder, absorbs blow after blow.
At this point we have Moss Agonistes, crying: “It rains in my heart. One drop at a time.”
Moss misses a much anticipated funeral: “I find myself crying on Saturday morning …Though I was sad at the gravesite, it has taken until now, opening the brochure and studying the commemorative words…for me to be sobbing.”
Mr Hamlet Senior, formerly king of Denmark, has passed on. His son Hamlet Junior is sad, sulky, grumpy with Ophelia (who suicides), stabbish with Polonius lurking behind an arrass (who just happens to be Ophelia’s Dad, who dies incidentally of Hamlet’s stabbishness); obsessed, ruminative, haunted; angry, angry, angry; refusing to be consoled, refusing to be reconciled.
His Mum, pragmatically re-queened to Hamlet’s uncle, offers some advice to Hamlet Junior: ‘Tis common. Why seems it different with thee?
In other words, Get over it, son.
And in time we do. As a rule. ( If Hamlet fails to get over it’s because his uncle killed his Dad. And because Hamlet is, well, Hamlet.)
This week my sister and my surviving brother and I remember our father and our firstborn brother. The anniversary of Dad’s death falls on the 13th day of the month of Ellul; Dennis died three years later, on Ellul 18.
Dad was 92, Dennis 63.
They died when they had to – Dad once his broken body began to break his iron will; Dennis, who lived for Mum, Dennis whose meaning was to be a son, Dennis constitutionally unable to live a motherless life. He died while Mum was alive. (Mum, most buoyant of my three lost ones, mourned Dennis, mourning lightly, living on, ever lightly.)
I think of them, all three. I wrestle with memories of the brother, he the first of his father’s strength, the brother who wrestled always with Dad. Two firstborn of firstborns, two men of fire who burned each other in their hot loving. I think of them, I remember their awful strife, I who knew, I who witnessed their mutual love, I, powerless to stop them hurting each other. Powerless in the end to stop the pain to myself.
I dream of them. The Dad dreams are never anything than pleasant. He smiles as we bump into each other in the lounge rooms of our lives. Dad prepares his enslaving coffee, I write, we smile, we know each other, we accept each other.
When I dream of Dennis the anxious need to rescue him clouds all. Not accepting, never reconciling to my brother’s pain, I strain against his self destruction. Aware always – in these dreams and when awake – aware of his love, his heavy tenderness towards me.
In my waking I recall Dad’s request, directed to me when I was twelve, Dennis fifteen: Some have a clear path in life. They are the lucky ones. You are one of those, one of the blessed. Your brother, your older brother, his path is not so easy. Help him, help Dennis when you can.
I tried, Dad. I never stopped trying.
The years pass. ‘tis common. We get over it.
And yet, and yet, that Hamlet scene returns.
Hamlet’s Mum, Gertrude: “Thou knowest ‘tis common.
All that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity.”
Hamlet: “Ay Madam, ‘tis common.”
Gertrude: “If it be, why seems it so particular with thee?”
Hamlet: “I know not seems, Madam.”
I had a father. He passed through nature to eternity. I had an older brother, I lost him; I lost a limb. The phantom sensations do not end.
I write, a destiny. Until I have written the courageous, the impossible life of my brother, that hurt, hurting life, I will not earn dreamless rest.
Yitgadal ve’yitkaddash, shmei rabah.