Mum Interviews God

Friday, eighteen minutes before sunset. Mum stands before the candelabra, strikes a match, holds it to the wick, pauses and watches until a flame rises, blue at the wick, yellow at the fringe.  She applies the same match to a second candle, which obliges with a sturdy flame just in time for Mum to drop the match-end that was about to burn her. She lights the third and last candle. Again she watches briefly, now drops the match and holds her hands – cupped palms upward – above the dancing flames. Now starts the ballet I have witnessed and loved since earliest childhood, as Mum’s hands move up, then down, up again and down, then a third rise and fall, as she caresses air and brings up the light of Shabbat.

Mum’s hands move to her face and shield it from sight. I won’t see Mum’s face again until she completes her interview with God. She whispers a blessing. Then silence. What is she doing? Unlike us boys Mum does’t wear her religion on her sleeve, nor, for that matter, on her head. Mum’s discourse is free of theology. She is not one for external display. But this moment – these moments – she dedicates to One who is outside and above that world in which she cooks and reads and dreams and loves. 

I wait. We all wait. All of us, her four children, our father, smelling the smells of the sabbath meal, all suddenly ravenous. We’ve recited our prayers, we’re ready. But we must wait while Mum talks to God. Mum lowers her hands, turns to us, “Good shabbos, darlings.” Her eyes shine behind tears.

Eighteen minutes before sunset on a Friday, sixty-five years on. Mum stands before the candelabra, takes a match and strikes a flame. This is no longer a simple act: to do this, to light the candles one by one, to judge when to hold the burning fragment and when to drop it, Mum must release her grip on the kitchen bench. Since the haemorrhage that tore through the back of her brain, none of Mum’s motor functions is simple: to stand, to remain standing, to direct the fingers to strike a match, to light a candle, to articulate words, every act a challenge to be met and overcome. The three candles rise, yellowblue, to Mum’s wavering matchstick. She drops the match and now her hands caress air. Once, twice, three times, those slender hands, those long fingers still graceful, rise and fall. Now the hands rise to Mum’s face and hide it, and we hear her whisper the words. No sound now as we watch and wait.

After one of these lengthening quiets, I ask Mum what it is that demands so much of the Creator’s time. “What are you saying, Mum?” 

“I’m asking God to care for you all, darling.”

Mum has four children. She had a husband but he died a few years ago. She has grandchildren who have become adults, she has a rising score of great-grandchildren, she’s accumulated children-in-law, grandchildren-in-law. Every one is precious, each has individual needs, each must be singled out and presented to God for blessing. Blessings must be tailored: Heal this one, strengthen that one, protect that third, comfort him, calm her, bring them peace.  

We wait and we wait. Mum and God have much to discuss, as God’s old friend comes to Him again with her weekly agenda of love.  

A Message of Love Smuggled into a Suitcase

We live in a world in pain. In that world dark deeds, harsh words, inhumane policies are normal. God is conscripted and deformed in every form of violence. Truth is lost, our planet poisoned.
Seeing all this, hearing it, feeling it,a person might surrender and despair.
Then life sends a message.
This is the message that came to me today.

  
Miles spent two weeks pocket money on this gift for his mother.

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.

Jeremiah Jan

She sits in the waiting room, reading. Any patient who enjoys a good read will enter my consulting room in a good mood. I do allow my patients time for a very good read.
The book she reads from is thick, with old-fashioned morocco covers and red-tipped pages. Looks like the Bible! She doesn’t look mortally ill. Perhaps she’s mortally afraid of the new young doctor.
‘Good morning, my name’s Howard.’
We shake hands. Her hand is fair, a youngish hand. The owner of the hand says, ‘Hello, I’m Jan.’
‘You’re reading the Bible? Which book?’
‘Jeremiah.’
Jeremiah the cheerless, prophet of doom, a man willing to be jailed for speaking truth to power. Serious reading. Might have been worse, could have been Job.
The serious reader sits down. She speaks: ‘Howard, I’ve come for a talk. I don’t need a diagnosis; if I want a diagnosis I’ll see Doctor Don. I don’t need a diagnosis, I need a talk.’
We have our talk.

Another visit by Jan, another long period in the reading room. Eventually I show her in. We are only about ten minutes into today’s talk when the phone interrupts us: ‘Howard, Doctor Don needs you in the Treatment Room. Now!’
‘Gotta go, Jan. Sorry.’
I go.

When I return, after about twenty five minutes, I resume: ‘So, Jan, you were about seven when…’
‘Howard, you can’t just do this.’
‘Do what, Jan?’
‘Take up our conversation without a break, as if nothing terrible or significant has just happened.’
‘Can’t I? Why not?’
‘You need time, some space. You need to come to terms with whatever it was that was so urgent. You are a person too, Howard.’

In my consulting room, situated at the furthest end of the building from the Treatment Room, Jan would not have seen the frantic mother, the pale plump doll that was the baby, the child inert, lifeless. She would not have felt the body still warm, not seen two adult males breathing desperate air into a new body that would not breathe again. She would not have seen the face of the mother passing through shock to grief to the start of lifelong self-accusation.
Did she perhaps hear sounds of stifled sobs?

Many chapters of Jeremiah and of Job have been read in the thirty-five years since that day. I remember the child, I have not forgotten the mother.
Nor have I forgotten Jan’s instruction.

A Visit to the Dentist

You could say it’s all my mother’s fault. It was Mum who made me go to the dentist. It was Mum who made me wash. Like many mothers Mum had a religious belief in soap and water.
When I was a small child Mum took me to the dentist, Mister Mc Auliffe. In those days dentists were Mister and doctors were Doctor. Mum tried to make it sound like a treat: ‘Afterwards we’ll go across the street to Mr Iano’s shop and I’ll buy you the biggest apple he’s got.’ I had better reasons, anti-dental reasons, for going to Iano’s. As well as being the fruit shop it was the milk bar: you could buy lollies there. Mum said, ‘Afterwards we’ll get the biggest and brightest and greenest apple in the whole shop.’ Afterwards! I heard a rat. What would happen in-betweenwards?

In between the honeyed talk and the greenest apple was the climb up to Mr Mc Auliffe’s second-floor surgery. From there I had an excellent view of Iano’s lolly shop. Inside that narrow chamber I smelt smells, I heard sounds, I felt vibrations, all novel, all taking place within my mouth. The drill moved with all the speed and softness of a peak-hour cable tram. My teeth were the rails. I felt smoke but could not cry ‘Fire!’
Afterwards, as promised, there was the apple.

Five years later, attending my expensive new school in Melbourne, I stood on the top step of the slide. A pushing-in kid, hostile to this newcomer, tried to push in. I stood my ground. Push came to shove in the back, I fell face-first onto the steel side rail of the slide, arresting my fall with my right front upper incisor. I left part of that upper front tooth in the Mount Scopus playground in St Kilda Road. My parents decided I looked odd and sent me to a dentist. A Melbourne dentist, I discovered, had modern methods of preventing pain by causing pain. The dentist – still mister – squirted local anaesthetic into the nerve nearest the front upper tooth. He said, ‘This will stop you feeling pain.’ Perhaps it did do that, but the injection hurt in a way that was new to me. Mister dentist asked me, ‘Do you want a gold filling?’ I didn’t want anything more this man might do to me. But I didn’t say no so I left those premises unaware of the new vertical glint of gold in my smile. It was a long time before I smiled, longer still before I saw myself in a mirror.

Many decades later grandchildren arrived. They learned to speak. They looked at me, they looked at other humans, and they asked, ‘Saba, how come you got a gold tooth?’
I told them the truth of course. I told them how I fought a gold toothed dragon that no-one else would fight, how I’d killed it and kept one tooth as a trophy.
Every time they saw me, the grandboys would ask, ‘Tell us how you got that golden tooth, Saba.’ I told them how I’d swum into the deepest ocean and fought barehanded the Giant Shark, fought tooth to tooth, how I’d bitten out his black heart, how his blood-red tooth had bitten my gum, had lodged there and rusted and turned gold.’
And again, ‘Saba how did you get that gold tooth?’ I told them about the dinosaurs that caused so much wreckage in my childhood days. ‘You know how Tyrannosaurus wrecks, don’t you, kids?’ I was forced to tell them of my desperate struggle in the dark jungles of Paris, how I saved the Parisees, how Tyrannosaurus died, his black blood turning the dirt streets of Paris black, his last tooth taken as a souvenir – a French word I borrowed from the Parisees – how I had that tooth implanted in my own brave gums. ‘And, kids, today you never see any dinosaurs any more, not even in the dark jungles of Paris. And the streets of Paris are all black.’

All went well for some time. The gold tooth stories nourished hungry young minds, filling them with useful knowledge of geography, of history and of pre-history. The gold tooth gleamed modestly from behind my bulbous lip, a stamp of my enormous, self-effacing courage.

Then my Mum stepped in. Not physically, but in habit ingrained and indoctrinated, Mum’s habit of soap and water, a habit I am embarrassed to admit survives her, years after her death: I showered. And while showering I ran my idle tongue along the inside of my upper teeth, where that slippery pink rasp felt something that was not there: my tooth, my gold tooth, had gone!
That’s life, I said to myself. Sixty years a gold-toothed person, now ungolden. I grinned at myself in the mirror. I looked like a failed terrorist. Something gleamed from the floor of the shower recess. I picked it up and placed it in a urine jar.
I asked the nurses, ‘Is there a dentist in this small town?’ There was, there is. And the dentist’s receptionist had more bad news, ‘You can see him today.’
So I went. The dentist is Doctor now. But he was not the real, dinkum, authentic dentist of my childhood. He covered my eyes to protect me from my own germs. He showed me a horror show on the screen above me: the images were those of my own teeth, my receding gums, my doomed dentition. He did things inside my mouth, asking me questions I never heard in childhood: ‘Does that hurt? Please tell me if I hurt you.’ He used a drill and he didn’t hurt. I think he doesn’t know how. He glued back my bit of gold. I lost my terrorist’s grin.

Nowadays a dentist has lost those old skills, those old black arts; now that a dentist is a Doctor it’s only your wallet that hurts. So a dentist who is a Doctor employs a failed dentist and calls her a hygienist. And she knows how to hurt.

You Can’t Beat a Butter Batter

Fruit cake, rich, heavy, moist, in childhood the natural partner of a glass of icy-cold-milk-not-boiled-please-Mum, an entire fruit cake became my own every January eighth – my birthday cake, dating from around the time of my maybe fifteenth birthday, as I recall – Mum baked it, back in the butter days when doctors hadn’t discovered her soaring cholesterol, (we had our good times, we had our butter times), and Mum, always a superlative baker (who never essayed a sponge cake – ‘I can’t bake a sponge cake’) who kept two tins endlessly plenished with biscuits, biscuits Anzac, biscuits corn-flake, jam biscuits, biscuits nameless now in my aged forgettings; and cakes, always one waiting and ready for the nourishing of children, four of us, four who each secretly knew that he or she was the most loved of all by this mother who would say, in her much later years, “I never achieved much in my life, but I have four children who love me and that is enough”, and enough it was, especially as fruit cake, moist, heavy, from the deep delved earth, was never even my favourite, so many, so various and numberless and so rich and so high, light, soft, moist and sweet and buttery were all of them, but somehow, early one January, Mum must have asked, “What cake would you like for your birthday, darling?”, and I must have replied – thinking of how that uncooked cake batter, all floury and viscous with brown sugar and fruits in Rhine Castle kosher muscat wine, how much better raw in the mixing bowl than after baking three hours in the slow not-too-hot oven, how this batter beat all other raw cake batters by a rich mile – “Fruit cake, please Mum”, and Mum would have decided it was my favourite, and every eighth of January thereafter she presented me with a whole one, until that year, freshly married, freshly graduated, doing my first locum in a small town in Tasmania in January, I knew this would be the first year I’d go cakeless, that I’d graduated from that child nurturing, and my darling bride, a neophyte cook who would go on to surpass all before her as a chef, had the wisdom and the discretion not to venture into the cuisine where the mother-in-law shone and the cakes of breastmilk affection preceded her, so Annette forebore and the pampered young groom understood an end had come, but a day or two before the eighth, a parcel arrived in the post among all the letters from drug companies, the parcel wrapped in brown paper – my parents never threw out brown paper or string, they never forgot the Great Depression when, as I imagined it, there came to pass the World Crisis of No String and no Brown Paper – that parcel heavy, and under the brown paper a container unyielding to my fingers, and on the brown paper and addressed in Mum’s singular and elegantly jerky hand to “Dr. Howard Goldenberg, The Surgery, Deloraine, Tasmania,” and the address incomplete, the sort of address that destined your mail for the Dead Letter Office, but in the margin Mum’s plea:
“Mr Postie, It’s his birthday cake, please try to get it to him by the eighth: This Way Up”, and inside the paper was a cake tin and inside the cake tin was the birthday cake, fruit cake, still so good with a glass-of-icy-cold-milk-not-boiled, a single slice a gobstopper, but who ever stopped at a single slice?, not me, and so the January cakes came and came, butterless now in the puritanical regime imposed by philistine doctors, the cakes still came, until the strokes came, Mum’s left hand forgetting its cunning and the birthday cakes would surely stop now, but they didn’t, because Dad, himself a cook of meat and fish who never baked a cake in his life, saying ‘I can’t bake,” Dad stepped forward and made the annual fruit cake to Mum’s recipe, under Mum’s direction, and she presented it to a son expecting nothing this year or ever again, just grateful that Mum was still alive and loving and playful, and she not the least interested in the facts of disability, and so the cakes came and came until Dad went, and here I was, a boy of fifty-seven-and-a-half years who knew his fruitcake days were over; but no they were not, for there existed Mum’s firstborn, Dennis, born with butter in his mouth, a cook who believed in fat and cream and sugar and starch and no self control and no moderation especially in helping our Mum and never more than in celebrating his younger brother, the brother whom he might reasonably have seen as his supplanter, his usurper, but no, Dennis never felt those things, writing one January eighth, “Howard, I think God must be proud of you”, and now the cakes kept coming, butter reinstated, for there were never thoughts of tomorrow with Dennis, only of the abundant now and now was Howard’s birthday and it was his joy to help Mum make cake for her boy, and then, at the age of sixty-three Dennis underwent surgery and died and the cakes finally stopped…but no they didn’t, because Mum recruited her east-european carers, masters of the cuisine of heavy stodge, as her new sous chefs and she directed as they baked my fruit cakes – until the time Mum died and that would have been the end of the fruitcakes… except Mum left one granddaughter who loves baking as much as she loves her father; and that person is my youngest daughter Naomi, a devotee of the Creed of Cholesterol; devoutly does she mix bright-yolk eggs with buttery batter for a father whose januation ever is blessed with food-as-love, and so may it continue until I come to my Full Stop.

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My Mother’s Amygdala

MumI 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.