Half-hearted and Nameless

A military man I know who is also a man of the cloth, recently fathered a half-hearted child. The child is a boy. Although the boy is now four months old I cannot tell you his name: as well as heart-deficient this boy is nameless. Into the vacuum where a name should sound and resound I have secretly named him Bert.

Bert was born with an Hypoplastic Left Heart. Of all the congenital heart defects consistent with life, this is the most severe. When early prenatal scans demonstrated the defect, doctors warned the mother and father: The child might not be born alive. Of all the cities in the world to be born thus, Melbourne might be the very best. For in this location the very worst heart enjoys the very best outcome. And Melbourne is home to the Royal Children’s Hospital, where the cardiac surgeons achieve results superior to other centres around the world. Paediatric surgeons from the greatest hospitals in the USA perform the same procedures but without the same success. Their specialists visit the RCH to learn how the Melbourne team does it.

When my soldier friend told me of Bert’s heart condition my own heart sank. Without an adequate left ventricle circulation is critically impaired, the baby is breathless and often blue. The situation is serious, prone to deteriorate rapidly. Surgery of the highest intricacy is needed with critical urgency. Further surgery will follow within months, and more still as the child grows. If the child grows.

But Bert’s family are strangers to despair. Their faith buoys them. They pray. Their large family prays, their congregation prays, sister congregations join in a tidal wave of prayerful hope. The soldier father sets about studying Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome. He interrogates the cardiologist, the cardiac surgeon, surgical texts and research papers in the learned journals. Meanwhile baby Bert lies in Intensive Care puffing mightily, as his too little heart labours to circulate oxygen-poor blood around his body – most crucially to his brain.

The baby undergoes his first operation. Some hold their breath. Others pray. Bert comes through.

The nurses ask, ‘What’s his name?’

The parents reply, ‘We haven’t given him a name yet.’

‘When will you?’

‘When he’s fit enough we’ll circumcise him and we’ll give him his name.’

The nurses are confounded. They’ve come to love this little baby who puffs and puffs and keeps pulling through. Love demands a name. Administration demands a name. A non-name is given, a name for nurses to love him by, a name for administrators to administer by. Obeying the same imperative, I looked at the bony little battler and secretly started calling him Bert. But his true name, the name that will come to him dynastically or by parental vision or by revelation is not known. The day is not yet come.

A close bond weaves itself among the team that comprises on the one side a mother, a father, bigger brothers, grandparents, uncles and aunts, and on the other, a cardiac surgeon from Belgium, a cardiologist with a Chinese name, ultrasonographers, physiotherapists, cardiac nurses. The father masters and explains to me the eye-watering anatomic detail, embryology, circulatory physiology and pathology as well as the sequence of cardiac surgeries that is needed for Bert to live and to grow. And (in the locution of the family), God willing, to undergo ritual circumcision and to receive his name.

When I visit Bert in Intensive Care, I find the usual grim intent of such a Unit softened. A tenderness prevails, a gentleness, the amalgam of a family’s faith and the distinctive ethos of the institution. It is in Paediatrics where you find the kindest clinicians, and human sensitivity at its highest. The Chinese cardiologist procures for himself a religious almanac so he can know the dates and times when the family will observe Sabbaths and Festivals. He doesn’t want to cause them needlessly to contravene the strictures of telephony at such times.

Bert learns to smile. An MRI searches for hypoxic and other brain damage and finds none. Bert learns to suckle, taking in nourishment made specifically for him, taking in too, mother love, mother touch, smell and sound. Bert lies at his mother’s breast and feels that heartbeat that reassured and made him through the months that he grew, until he came into the world without a fully formed heart. Bert’s bony cheeks begin to flesh out, but he gains weight painfully slowly. The cardiologist explains Bert’s heart has to work so hard it burns up almost all the energy he consumes. The date of the second surgical operation must be brought forward, lest a wonky heart valve be damaged further.

The soldier rabbi father and I became friends when he himself was a runted collection of skin and bones and spirit, aged four years. It was he who knocked on my door one Sabbath morning with a request from his mother to visit his sick sister in their house around the corner. That sister was sped to hospital that morning, never to return to her home. None of us has recovered from her ordeal and her loss.

Tomorrow, or as soon as an Intensive Care bed becomes free, the baby son without a heart and without a name will undergo his next surgery. If you are the praying kind, spare a prayer for him. You can call him Bert.

Life-long Friendship

My oldest friend is named John Baikie Wanklyn. Johnny calls me Doff and I call him Johnny, and sometimes, Wank. We have been friends since the summer of 1950. We first met outside the front of his father’s shop, the Leeton Furnishing Company. At least that’s how I remember it: I was playing with something inconsequential, a little stick, perhaps a toy car too, on the concrete paving. An area of dark and pleasant shade thrown by the large verandah. I became aware I was no longer alone.

Did Wank walk up and say hello? Or did I wander along and join him? I don’t know. I was playing alone and then I was no longer alone. My mind holds the scene like a dream. And like a dream there are no borders to the image: my mind sees the cracks in the concrete where my fine stick ploughs and throws up a narrow furrow of dust. There is the deep shade and beyond the shade the great heat. I know that heat in my skin. Whenever I leave the coast in summer and move inland that dry heat greets me and welcomes me home.

An additional element in the scene is our smallness in the world. The shaded area would be about five metres by, say, about twelve metres. That area encompasses two fine figures of children of four years, the margins seeming distant from us as we play. One of us asks the second his name. The second asks the same question of the first.

‘It’s my birthday next week,’ says one.

‘It’s mine the week after. I’ll be four.’

‘Me too.’

The two resume playing until a parent calls one of the children. That child and his parents and elder sibling are going to visit the Harrises. The other child – this feels like me – goes home and finds his parents are taking him visiting too. He is cleaned up and taken along. And discovers he is at the Harrises where he plays with the Harris girls and another visitor, the new boy from the Leeton Furnishing Company. The three families drive down to the river and picnic there. The Murrumbidgee is the great fact of life in the area; it shapes our Huckleberry years.

The dimension of time has a distinct character: we meet in January of 1950; we part in June of 1955. In the course of those spacious years a pavement is laid in our lives. He is Johnny, I am Doff, we are friends. In that space we accumulate experiences together that fade in detail but burn in memory, in their texture, in their felt quality, in their great mass. By the time of our parting those few years account for more than half of our lives.

We shared enough for it to remain enough. Enough for Wank to refer – thirty years later – in conversation with a friend, to his ‘brother.’

The friend, confused, says ‘Who’s this brother Howard you speak of, John? I thought your parents only had the two children, you and Julieanne…’

‘That’s true. They did. But Howard Goldenberg is the closest I’ll come in this life to having a brother.’

One night in 2014 a bad dream disturbed my sleep: John Wanklyn had died. I awoke crying aloud, ‘Wank is dead!’ I wept: I’d never see him again. A moment later I was smiling. Of course I’d see Wank again; Annette and I were to drive to Albury to visit John and Christie next weekend.

Am I Wank’s best friend? Is he mine? We have never spoken on the matter. I know I’ve never addressed it. There is no need. The questions have no weight. They would be as strange to us as to blush or nudge-nudge at the word Wank. Neither of us has ever had a friend like the other. There can be but one first friend.

Jewish education called us from Melbourne and tore our family from Leeton. The tearing was painful for me. I saw before me a great gulf open. I kissed my friend goodbye. Wank looked at me, confused by an unexpected act.

We wrote to each other, signing our letters, ‘Your old school chum, Wank’, ‘Your old school chum, Doff.’ We managed to see each other a couple of times a year, inserting the other into lives that were changing fast. The visits continued until my barmitzvah.

Johnny and his parents came to Melbourne for the celebrations. He had never been in a synagogue. I saw my friend holding the unaccustomed cap, I saw the strangeness to him of prayers in Hebrew, I saw the strangeness of Melbourne Howard to Leeton John. I saw it and I felt it all painfully.

Years passed without further visits. Through the letters that our mothers wrote I knew the events of Wank’s life and he knew about mine. The two women loved each other. Their letters, always in blue ink and lovely copperplate, continued into old age until one declared her handwriting no longer ‘respectable.’

In 1967 a phone call came from Wank in Sydney where he was studying Pharmacy. As I was not at home, Johnny left a number. I was in residence at Queen Victoria Hospital in my fifth year of Medicine. Mum rang and gave me Wank’s number. But I misplaced it. I thought of it from time to time. And the years passed.

The Jewish Sabbath doesn’t finish until nightfall on Saturday. It was eight o’clock on a Saturday night in the ‘nineties when Annette and I left Melbourne for the drive to Albury. It was midnight as we reached the border at Wodonga. I drove slowly, my eyes searching for something needed. There it was, black, silent, broad, gleaming in the moonlight – the Murray. It wasn’t the Murrumbidgee, river of Leeton days, but the river knew me and I knew it. We drove the few remaining minutes through quiet streets, turning left as directed at the Siamese restaurant. One turn to the right then we parked, got out and knocked. A giant – he’d have filled his father’s verandah shade outside the Leeton Furnishing Company – emerged from the house. He swept me into his arms and kissed me. Later we sat, Wank and Chrissie and Annette and I, speaking softly for children asleep. Wank said, ‘I kiss my boys and I just knew it would feel right to kiss you too, Doff.’

It was a hot summer’s day. A boy was playing alone and was no longer alone. Neither boy has been alone since.

Manny the Marathon Man

Manny Karageorgiou ran 42.2 kilometres yesterday, racing his oldest foe. At 58 years, Manny is the youngest of the Glorious Ten who have competed in and completed every single Melbourne Marathon. ‘Forty two kilometres’ – it rolls off the eye easily, but it’s a long way to travel on foot. My car gets tired over that distance.

Manny ran with the most reluctant consent of his oncologist. He delayed his stem cell transplant so he could keep faith with the Ten. This GP consented more readily despite the rib that fractured as it filled with tumour, despite the remaining bones waiting for fracture in the merest trip, bones brittle and chalky from the medicines and radiation. The GP consented; who could say ‘no’ to that beautiful face, a child’s face, appealing, smiling through the pain and fear, gentle, mild even before the cancer, tenderer than ever since the rib broke, as Manny sought to comfort his fearful wife and his children.

They came around, the family. They ran the late kilometres with him, the bitter second half of the marathon, they ran, a caravanserai of love and hope and tearful joy, along the endless steppes of St Kilda Road. Manny’s son ran the whole distance at his side. Pana, as Manny calls him is a strapping footballer, vigorous and fearless. Afterwards he would say, ‘I don’t know how anyone could run another marathon after experiencing the pain of the first.’ But Manny has run the Melbourne Marathons thirty seven times. He has outrun the Reaper. So far.

Why does he run?

He runs for faith, he runs for pride, he runs to be humbled, he runs for the self-glory of mortifying his flesh. He runs because he lives. He runs for all of us.

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Carna Pies!

images-10The boy had always said the words; at home he’d yell them to the heavens, and in later years he’d yell them across the crowd towards the players: Carna Pies!

He’d yell into the sound that swelled around him, yelling in an ecstasy of feeling. It was a reflex – more than a reflex – it was a spasm. In full throat, in full cry, he was somehow one with the ‘Pies. He was passion, he was hope. Carna Pies, he’d scream, and the scream was prayer, purer than the ritual prayers which he recited faithfully, facing Jerusalem, every morning and every evening.

He never really understood how many things he meant by Carna Pies. He only began to understand when he wrote a letter in Hebrew to a friend. Both of the friends were Collingwood supporters, had yelled Carna Pies together as boys, yelled it as men, then the friend went away and settled in Israel. Now he was writing and feeling those memories. He wanted to translate the old words, but how do you translate Carna? And in which other language could ‘Pies be birds?

He rendered Carna Pies! as ‘Let the ravens of the brook ascend!’ It was not the same, but in the poetry of the words he recognised something. The same tone was there in the Magpie motto – Floreat Pica – Latin words, a scholar’s formula. The mock formality of the words satirized the frenzy of the raw vernacular, and honoured it somehow.

As he got older he glimpsed more of his meanings in Carna Pies!

He wasn’t born into the cult of the Magpie. Every year he would travel from his home town in the Riverina to Melbourne for the solemnities of the High Holydays. This was the season of the birthday of the world, and of the annual Day of Judgement.

On these visits to the city of his birth his father always took the “Age”. He liked it for its seriousness. He’d put aside the sports pages and the boy would read them, wrestling with the broad sheets that dwarfed his small frame. Avidly, he’d read about the footy finals. Every year Melbourne were expected to win and Collingwood to be contenders, and ultimately, gallant losers.

And every year, after the Day of Judgement, what had been written had come to pass: Melbourne were premiers and Collingwood were not quite good enough. Carlton were nowhere in sight.

The boy and his brothers chose their own allegiances. His older brother chose Carlton because their father had been born there; his younger brother chose Melbourne because it was on top; and he chose Collingwood because they were David, and one day, David might overcome Goliath.

The boy became familiar with disappointment. He came, in time, almost to enjoy the nobility of losing gallantly.

When the boy was nine, his family left the country town and moved to Melbourne, but it was years before the boy actually went to the footy.

He’d listen to the radio broadcast religiously – a tricky task for an observer of the Sabbath. He’d listen to grand final defeats at the hands of Melbourne and others, and he’d live in daydreams in which Gabelich would gallop endlessly into open goalmouths, and Weideman would avenge all wrongs and the siren wouild never blow until Collingwood were ahead.

In 1990 he actually saw the magpie come into full flower. Not since 1958 had the ravens of the brook thus ascended. He saw Daicos kick a goal from an angle that defied Euclid. He saw Gavin Brown rise from the stupor of his concussion to mark and goal, and goal again. He saw Darren Millane rampant on the wing, Darren Millane of happy memory soaring towards the sun, before crashing to his death only weeks later.

He stood among those thousands, among those tens of thousands, stood and roared Carna Pies! At his side was his son.

Father and son had walked the many kilometres to the ground. They would not drive because Saturday is the Sabbath. Faithful together in their observance of the letter of the Mosaic Law, joyous together in their neglect of its spirit, they shared this day. In the world there were only those who supported Collingwood and those who wished they were Collingwood supporters.

The son always regarded the father as a fine weather supporter, one who’d leave a match early when the cause was hopeless and the end was nigh. The boy was one eyed and wondered why his father would bother using an extra eye to see two sides to the struggle.

The boy did not know the father’s secret.

For the father loved footy even more than he loved Collingwood. He had loved Carlton’s Bruce Doull, he’d loved Malcolm Blight, Paul Roos, Timmy Watson – he loved all the laughing cavaliers who hadn’t realised that winning was everything.

He loved Dougie Hawkins who left his name on the wing of a club’s lost home.

And when the premier declared a state funeral for Teddy Whitten, footy’s smiling assassin, he wept and he approved.

(Ah, he mused, they don’t make nostalgia like they used to.)

And now Collingwood found itself an accidental contender in another Grand Final. Amazingly, among all the people who were Collingwood supporters and among all those who wished they were Collingwood supporters, the father found himself the possessor of two tickets for the Grand Final. And so they went, father and son, to see whether the magpie might yet flower again.

They would never win: David never beats Goliath. It doesn’t happen. The Maccabees had no chance against the might of Antiochus, Ho Chi Min was never going to beat Uncle Sam, Collingwood had no show against Barrassi’s team in 1958…

But it would not pay to get hopeful.

So they went and they watched and they saw the miracle almost happen. They saw how, but for the will of Michael Voss, the ravens of the brook might have ascended.

They walked home – it was Sabbath again – through the warm rain of early spring. The son, now a man, and the father, still a boy, walked together those many kilometres, and their feet were not heavy beneath them.

They had seen a marvellous match, a mighty struggle. They had each seen what they wanted to see – the father happy because winning was not everything, the son consoled because the ‘Pies could only improve – the son, with quickening steps returning to his wife and to their unborn child who might one day walk with him, and see, and shout Carna Pies!

Where Else But Alice?

Where else but Alice Springs can you run through Honeymoon Gap (part of the Macdonell Ranges, not part of the body) and see the world ablaze as the sun rises, greeting a file of self-selected marathoners with silent fanfare?
Where else than Alice can such a mediocre runner place fifteenth in a marathon? (There were only seventeen starters that year).
Where else than Alice do the volunteers – endlessly cheering us, feeding us, hydrating us – outnumber the runners?
Where else in the running world can you run through air as pure as crystal and finish your marathon in the mild golden glow of mid-morning?

Alice has the best kept secret in the world of marathon running. I’ve done Boston (four times), New York (thrice), Traralgon (ten times), Melbourne (15 times) – and Alice just as often. I come back for every third Sunday in August. My wife is suspicious: she should be: Alice Marathon is my secret love.

Collins Street in the Rain

Grey day. Not cold, just damp, a case of Melbourne having weather instead of a climate. Striding along Collins Street to keep an appointment, I sight ahead of me in the gloom a lone figure sawing away at a violin. The sounds, initially thin, fill and broaden as I near the performer, a slender young woman. Closer now, and the sound is rich and spacious under the leaden canopy of wet cloud.

The violinist stands alone in her parallelogram of space as Melbourne’s skulkers scuttle to shelter.

I chuck a coin into her empty violin case, thanking her for beautifying this unbeautiful day.

 

Further down Collins Street, I stand in the drizzle awaiting my appointed meetee. A thin man approaches, veers towards me and slows: “Wanna buy a diamond ring?”

Sixty-eight year old ears don’t pick up such fine print.

Did he ask for money? He looks like he could go a feed.

My hand locates the ten dollar note in my pocket.

Uncertain, I ask: “What did you say?”

“Do you want to buy a diamond ring?”

The thin man flashes a thin silvery band before clenching his hand around the ring.

“What? No thanks. I don’t need a ring. Thank you.”

The man peers at me

He is shorter than I am. He sights my kippah.

“Are you a Jew?”

“I am.”

Credit: Gutenberg Images

Credit: Gutenberg Images.

“That’s good”, he says. Reassuring me. “You wouldn’t have a spare dollar…?”

My ready hand finds the ready note and produces it. The man palms the note, opens and considers it, then says, “You wouldn’t have another ten, would you?”

“Piss off!” Smiling.

The man extends a skinny arm. His paw pats my shoulder –

“Thanks sir” – then slopes away up Collins Street.