Drawn Toward the Portals

I’m seventy-five. Seventy-five, a thankful number, and a thinkful one. Anyone who reaches this stage knows – with me – that we are closer here to the exit than the entry. Anyone who follows my writing will note how my mind drifts toward death, dying and the dead; toward memory and memorial.

A friend observed thirty years ago, ‘You know Howard, all this writing you are doing is a just means of coming to terms with your mortality.’

I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about. 

I smiled the kindly smile you give to the clueless friend who means well.

I know now my friend was right, dead right.

When I was a child the fact of death frightened me. To be annihilated – unthinkable! Literally, I was unable to think what the world could be like without Howard Jonathan Goldenberg. In my adult life I’ve experienced a similar disability of thinking: I find myself simply unable to think of an afterlife. I don’t deny the possibility, I just can’t relate to the concept.

So I live this life as if it’s my only one. I think now that death is a good idea. I don’t feel frightened anymore of annihilation. It’s my loved ones who fear my death, especially the grandchildren. The more I love them, the more they love me, the more vulnerable I make them. That’s a dilemma for me. I have felt at times, almost irresponsible, for becoming close and precious to children whose frailty I know so well. For myself, I can reflect how this planet, our species, did alright before Howard Jonathan Goldenberg arrived; once he’s gone, there’ll be one polluter fewer.

But just as the exit has always exercised my mind, the opposite portal called me irresistibly. As my own life ebbs, at the opposite portal an opposite tide of new life always rises. That portal has admitted nine grandchildren into life, into my life. The nine have broadened and deepened my late years. Those years feel more intense, more vivid, more life-stained than the years before.

I used to work at the portal that admits newcomers to life. I delivered babies. I was the intimate outsider, the guest who was invited to attend the birth of a family. Looking back, gazing over my shoulder towards that portal, that screaming gateway, I see blood and shit and tears, I see babies who gasped and roared, I see other babies who had to be coaxed into breath, I see some who would never breathe. I see women shaken, transfigured by the sudden knowledge of their enormous power. I see placentas stuck, I see the lifeblood ebbing, I feel once again the terror…

Two portals long have drawn me, twin doorways of universal truth.

My day starts with prayer, followed by some tablets to lower my blood pressure washed down with strong coffee to raise it. I plug in my hearing aids, I put on my specs, I stretch my shrinking spine and try to stand straight. These small acts, the adjustments of a seventy-five year old, as he moves ever backward, ever closer to the portal marked Exit.

I remember a book my wife’s father gifted me, an anthology of sorts, with odd bits of writing. One story ran something like this: 

A man went for a walk in the high mountains. Entranced by the grandeur that he saw all around, he jumped when he heard a loud roar from behind him. Looking back, he saw a snow tiger. The giant creature would very soon overtake him. The man ran, and as the tiger sprang the man reached the summit and leaped. 

The man looked down at the valley floor far below. Turning in mid-air, he reached and just managed to grab an overhanging branch of the small sapling that grew at the edge of the fall. The man swung from the bough, his fall broken. Looking up he saw the slavering tiger regarding him. Looking down he saw the unbroken fall. The man heard a groaning sound. Looking behind, he saw the sapling slowly coming away from the peak. Swinging, he looked at the cliff face, and saw, just beneath the sapling, some strawberries growing there. The man’s free hand plucked some strawberries and he ate them. How good the strawberries tasted.

Suspended between the portals of truth, a seventy-five year old enjoys the taste of strawberries.

Why I Haven’t Written

This blog has been silent for a good while. I have been remiss. Happily, of the blog’s three-or-four hundred nominal followers, one only has complained. Perhaps she alone has noticed. The truth is a lot has happened: spring came to Melbourne; a surgeon cut my eyes open and melted my cataracts, bunging in a couple of new lenses; a dear friend has died; we experienced a hit-and-run road accident; and Bert the half-hearted came through his surgery and battles on.

I’ll start with the least material of these events, the road accident. I parked my wife’s pretty little red car outside a travel agency and went off to buy bok choi. I came back to find the front defaced and a note attached to the windscreen:

31 AUG 2018, 11:08 AM

CAR: WHITE HONDA CRV, YHO 815

LOVE,

FLIGHT CENTRE, SIX WITNESSES

I surveyed the alterations to my wife’s car, then entered the travel agency. The travel agents described the event, described the driver, wished me well in the manhunt and assured me they’d testify. They shared a lively indignation; the driver’s amorality offended them.

I post these particulars by way of invitation for the assailant to come forward, confess, throw herself upon my wife’s mercies and pay up. Under those circumstances we need not trouble the constabulary.

Surgery is one of the everyday miracles of life in a city like Melbourne. Two crazed lenses are literally melted in the eyes and sucked away like so much snot. New lenses are inserted and the world gleams. Then spring arrives. I see the green greener, and – thanks to the new hearing aids – the birds sing. (One of the saddest little lines in poetry closes Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci. The line of four words – and no birds sing – suffices for desolation.) Once again my spring sings.

Little Bert underwent his second heart surgery. His heart, sized like an apricot, was showing strain. A vascular detour improves his prospects. Inside Bert’s chest the so-called great vessels are like thin tubular spaghetti, cooked al dente. Somehow a surgeon cuts, stitches, reroutes, and attaches. Somehow blood flows through the pasta. And Bert breathes on. The praying continues.

In the mid-seventies I met a bearded maths teacher who took me on lengthening runs up and down the green hills of the Diamond Valley. His name was Dick. One day we paused on a high hilltop and watched the shafts of sunlight pierce the winter mists. A moment of silent communion followed as we share revelation. That was ten kilometers, said Dick. We breathed together, blowing out mist, thinking the same thought: If I can run ten, I can run a marathon. With Dick as my inspiration and my training partner, fifty-plus marathons followed. And a few weeks ago, Dick, who’d developed and survived lung cancer, Dick who never smoked, Dick died – of breathlessness. At his memorial service a large congregation paused and wondered: How is it we live? How is it we cease living? What is this miracle we call friendship? Which is the greatest wonder?

I write this aboard an aircraft from Phoenix, Arizona, where I’ve just said goodbye to friend Paul, struck down by a stroke on a Sunday morning late last year. I asked him had he felt fear. No, not fear. I found it difficult to dress for church with my right hand paralysed.

I’ve written previously of Paul, surgeon, aviator, morbid anatomist. Paul is a man of deep faith. He’s certain he’ll be reunited with Beverley, his beloved wife who died eighteen years ago. I noticed the words printed starkly on the band he wore on his left wrist: MEDICAL ALERT – DNR. Knowing his confident belief in rising again to bliss, I asked: Paul, does it make you sad to persist here in life? His voice of deep gravel remains strong and clear. His word choice carries all the old inventiveness, no stale phrases: After my stroke I’d awake in the mornings quite surprised still to be alive.

Paul and I sat outside in the heat of the Arizona afternoon while he smoked his daily cigar, holding it in his left hand. The right hand remains weak but to my astonishment the strength is returning steadily. Such vitality! I thought of the tiny trees growing in their cleft rocks at Fitzroy Crossing. Germinating from seeds dropped by birds, these miniature saplings force a root downwards through great basalt rocks, emerging into air as a tendril that dangles down to the river surface, down through the great waters to the muddy riverbed. His one-hundredth birthday falls early in 2019. After today I do not expect to see this marvellous man again. But on parting Paul asked, when will you come out this way again? The question was not facetious; he’s lived this long, why not a few more years?

Deaths, deaths. I write of them so often – naturally so, as I age and those I know slip away. In my work too, the farewells are many, and not all of them to elderly persons. Long ago a friend remarked of my writing that I what I was really doing was coming to terms with my mortality. At that time I didn’t see it. But I know now he was correct. I know too, death is not the worst thing.