Dennis, Twelve Years On


 

I remember you today, Den, with the candle burning and with the prayers of mourning.

I remember you in our boyhood home in Leeton, where a life of risk called you always, and you’d drag me and I’d follow, with terror and tremor and delight. I remember you taking me into Dad’s Surgery, that forbidden room, where the ever-present smell of anaesthetic ether warned a boy of the consequences that would follow. You found Dad’s blood pressure machine and you showed me how you could squeeze the rubber bulb and inflate the bladder. You kept showing me, squeezing, pumping, and the mercury climbed above 200, 250, 290, until the bladder burst, and liquid mercury ran everywhere.

 

 

When you were eight you decided we should pay a visit on Miss Paull, my teacher, Leeton’s aristocrat, in her residence at the Hydro Hotel. I followed you up the long hill. I followed you up the sweeping drive. Bold as brass, you announced to the man in the black suit, who opened the door, ‘We have come to visit Mis Paull’, and the man showed us in, and Miss Paull emerged, all white and willowy and English, and she said, ‘Good morning Dennis, good morning Howard, how utterly delightful that you should come. Please join me for morning tea.’ And the man in the black suit sat us down and spread white linen squares over our laps, and I was in heaven, nearly wetting myself in excitement. On the way out you heeded the call of your own bladder and you peed on the Hydro’s flowerbeds.

 

I sit and I remember you, my big brother, how you protected me when we were small. I remember, when I was fourteen, Dad summoning me to the forbidden room and sitting me down for a serious talk. The tremors again, but this time I wasn’t in trouble. Dad said, Dennis doesn’t have as easy a path in life as yours. 

I didn’t want to hear this because I knew it to be true.

Dad continued: I want you to help him. My heart sank.

 

I did try, Den, but I lacked your boldness. When I saw other children bullying you I died twice. Others, children and adults and old people, loved you and cherished you, for the beauty of your soul, for your generosity.

 

You loved music with the abundance and the zest of all your loving. I remember you in ICU, in the room of your dying, and you lying there in your coma. Annette, your sister in law, played a Mozart CD for you, and you lifted your arms and you started to conduct. I hope that beauty stayed with you as you slipped away, Dennis.

 

 

It’s the 18th day of the month of Ellul, Den. I remember you and I miss you.

 

Magnified and Sanctified

It’s been ten years, Den, and only now do I feel I can say goodbye to you.

You were sixty three, I was sixty one. You died on Friday night. Your son brought the news to us at our shabbat table.

We buried you on the Sunday. We laid you to rest at an odd corner of the Jewish burial ground, beneath a young gum tree. I looked at the tree at that time and I remembered Dad’s fear of falling gums. I thought, here you are again, going against Dad’s prudent judgement. And I smiled.

You lie now, beyond the judgement of humans. Many were the people who judged you, fewer were those who tried to walk a mile in your shoes. They were big shoes.  Like everything about you, very big. Magnified, sanctified… People who did understand loved you extravagantly, in proportion to your extravagant life.

And now I can let you go. From the time of our final conversation I dreamed of you. The dreams were dreams of helplessness. You could not help yourself, I needed to help, I tried to help, but in those dreams, I could not. You called me that last time. The phone woke me from a dreamless sleep. Your speech rustled and crackled, the sweetness of your voice ruined by seven days with the breathing tube. You had rallied, they’d removed the tube; now, with your breathing failing, they needed to replace it. Your voice crackled: ‘Doff, they want to put the tube back. What should I say?’

I heard your breathing, a rasping, gasping sound. ‘Do as they say Den.’

‘Is it my best chance?’

‘Den, it’s your only chance.’

They returned you to your coma and they replaced the tube. Three days later you breathed your last.

At the cemetery we said, magnified and sanctified be the holy name.

One evening during the week of shiva my son led the prayers in honour of his uncle. He loved you Den. We loved you.

For ten years I dreamed of you, restless dreams, frantic. I was unable to help. Then I started writing about you and the dreams stopped. Now I sleep without the dreams. Sleep in peace beneath your gum tree, Den.

Wilson’s Promontory

Wilson’s Promontory – where the Australian mainland gropes south towards Tasmania and the Pole.
Wilson’s Promontory – in whitefella parlance, “The Prom”; to blackfellas, “Wamoom” – a place too special to live in, reserved for ceremony.
The Prom – a place sacred to whitefellas who do not reside there, vacation nomads.
Wilson’s Prom – where generations come and keep coming, where they need ballots to winnow the applicants; we who apply – we are the grass.
Wilson’s Prom – where four generations of my family have wintered and summered, most of them beyond remembering.

Some of my family spent this (prolonged) weekend at the Prom, both saplings and old growths, across the generations and down: two grandparents, their niece from Boston, her two children, the three children of our firstborn – all of us in that heightened state of aesthetic rapture as rugged mountains meet a moody sea.

We hiked and climbed great rocks, we jumped from them onto sand that squeaked, fell from them and upon them. We collected water from a mountain spring, we crossed small rivers and we peed into them, we ate and we ate, we read stories from the Jungle Book, we played chess and Scrabble and board games.
Screens were eclipsed.

Five young children from two different continents, different lives, met and blent, and were Australian in the special way that occurs ‘in country.’

Ten years ago, I wrote a poem here, memorialising a whale and my father, then one year gone.

WHALE MOURNING AT WAMOOM.

My father walked these hills and steeps;
Woke early ever, walked rugged rock-strewn track
To the lookout and back. Now he sleeps
Forever; and I rise with the sun
On this second day of this last new moon
Of the dying year,
And sound the shofar, the ram’s horn warning,
Then go for a run on a crystal morning.

My father walked till his dying year; I follow his track
Across the bridge,
Then up the hill and over a ridge –
Then back; pausing to view a sapphire sea.

High here, on air, at Wamoom, this southern
End of a continent,
Comes remembrance, a fifth element.
Midst earth and water I stand, content,
Basking in the gentle fire of an early sun,
Then turn
To start the slog and gasp and sweat – up hills
And tracks on the ridge of the returning run.

‘Stop!’ – cries the voice of my companion –
‘And turn!
And look out to sea, and see – there’s a whale!’
I stop and turn and look – and sight the sail-
Shaped fin, the hump of back, the mammalian
Brown-black, a bruise
On the blue face of the sea. Now it sinks again
And as I smile, give thanks and muse
It surfaces and plays, and sprays its spume
At the end of the dying year.

Another whale was here, beached, dead; while with my father
A decade ago, I saw it. We paid homage at its sandy tomb.

(from ‘My Father’s Compass’, Howard Goldenberg, Hybrid, 2007.)

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