Two Recipes for a Long Life

Recipe One
(Yvonne Mayer Goldenberg, 8 June, 1917- 7 June, 2009)

  
Eat only foods rich in butter and cream. Avoid any food that requires chewing, especially vegetables. (My mother was frightened by a vegetable as a child and never came near one again.)

Relax. Do not rush. Shun punctuality.

A lady who possesses the skill of changing a flat tyre should conceal such knowledge. ‘Why deprive some gentleman of the opportunity to behave chivalrously?’
(Mum believed in chivalry. As a child when instructed by her teacher to use the word ‘frugal’ in a sentence, Mum understood ‘frugal’ to mean one who saves. She wrote: ‘A lady was walking by the sea. A strong wind lifted her up and flung her into the waves. She could not swim. She saw a man on a white horse: “Frugal me! Frugal me!”, she cried. So the man leapt into the waves and frugalled her. And they lived happily ever after.’)

Rejoice in your kin; they are life’s benison to you. You will not have them forever. (Mum’s parents died in her childhood. Left with her younger sister in the care of her beloved grandmother, Mum cherished all her descendants with promiscuous undiscrimination.)

Smile. Nothing is so serious that it should furrow your brow – unless it hurt your little ones.

Talk to strangers, visit their countries. Walk the earth without fear. People are good.

Forgive your children their naughtiness. Indulge your adolescent children in their self-absorbtion. They owe you nothing; they give you all.

What you cannot cure you must endure – with a smile. (Mum’s hip was shattered in her twenties. For forty years she walked in pain, with a marked limp. She did not think to complain. Pain did not interest her. Likewise the disabling strokes she suffered in her last decades. ‘A stroke is boring’, she said.)

Decorate your life. Eat every day from your best china; use the good cutlery. (Which day will be better than today? Who better than the family to enjoy these things?)

Raise your boys to help. (‘Why should I be your kitchen slave? There is no pride in being a parasite.’)

Sex is good, sexual pleasure very good. Never boast of your conquests. Use a condom. (These last two dicta were delivered to her sons before the age of nine.)

Feminism is a mistaken impulse. (It arises from the absurd notion held by some that a woman could possibly be inferior to a man in any particular.)

Never open someone else’s mail.

Read. Meet new words. Look up every one in the dictionary. Read everything – the classics, the junk mail, the cornflakes packet.

Don’t fear death. Speak of it freely. (‘Death is a part of life, darling.’)

Do not fear harm. Fate is kind. Clothe your young in love but do not over-wrap them. Harm probably won’t befall them. Entrust them to the care of the universe.

Do not fear at all.

Recipe Two
(Myer Goldenberg, 5 December, 1909 – 10 September, 2003)

  
Fear everything. (Dad witnessed his friend die of electrocution when the stays of his yacht struck power lines. He operated on trauma patients without number. These events made him warn his children of the injuries that result from inattention or lack of care. One warning would never suffice. No number of warnings could suffice.)

Do everything. But take care. Sail, drive, use power tools. Never wave a knife around. Safety first. Safety last.

Fear nothing and no-one. No task is beyond you, no skill too hard to master, no knowledge beyond your reach, no person to be feared.

Eat vegetables. Overboil them first.

Be firm with children. Demand they meet your own high standards. Don’t coddle them in their minor ills. But if real harm come near, cross the country to protect or repair them.

Don’t let your children off lightly. But protect them ferociously from attack by an outsider.

Cherish your kin. Honour your parents. Honour your ancestry.

Honour your work.

Work hard. Keep going. Do not weaken.

Do not run marathons.

Be worthy. (Dad idolised his parents, particularly his father. Through his long life Dad wished always ‘to be worthy’. He meant worthy of his own father. Even in his eighties Dad fretted he was not worthy. I ached when I heard him speak so.)

Forgive. Never hold a grudge. Speak your anger then reconcile.

Never forget or forgive one who hurts your young.

Keep your words clean. Do not say ‘bum’, never say ‘bloody’. Forget ‘dick’. When you belt your thumb with a hammer, allow yourself ‘YOU BITCH!’

Exercise. Where you could drive, choose to walk. Walk fast. Your children can run to keep pace.

People are good. Life is good, health a blessing. Protect it with injections.

Do not fret about germs. They build resistance.

Breast feed. (‘They’re not just there to fill jumpers’).

Cuddle your children. Kiss them – the boys too. And not just in private.

Pass on your faith. Drill your young in ancient ritual and practice.

Tell the children Bible stories. Read those stories with passion and conviction. Pass on your heritage with love and pride.

Be proud. You are as good as anyone else. And no better.

Be authentic. Do not fear being different. Respect yourself and others will respect you.

Love your children. Succour them in your old age as you did lifelong when the need was real.

Show tenderness. A man can be soft and still be strong.

Tell the truth. Demand the truth. Nothing is more sacred than your word. Nothing nourishes better than trust.

Don’t arrive on time. Arrive early.

Never open someone else’s mail.

Work hard. Save for a rainy day. (Dad worked very hard. He practised medicine to the age for ninety-two and a half. To the end of his life he saved for a rainy day, never feeling the heavy rain upon him, never knowing the time had come to take shelter.)

Sing. Sing loudly. Sing with your children. Sing table hymns with your children on Shabbat; sing loudly in synagogue; sing sea shanties, sing nonsense songs. Opera is grand but Gilbert and Sullivan are brighter, more fun.

The compass needle on your boat flickers; at the poles the compass fails. Know your own True North. Follow it.

Embrace the sea. Sail, fish, and sing. Travel by boat at night, navigating by stars, chart and compass. Do not fear the sea. Never take it for granted.

Be vigilant. Experience the rapture of your mastery of an alien element.

Do not fear. Relax. Never relax your vigilance.

See the beauty, smell the ozone, relish this given world.

Thrill to the cresting wave, the heeling sailboat.

Surrender to the windless calm. Experience tranquillity.
Feel the caress of the sun, the bracing breeze. Both are good.

Give thanks. Be thankful.

Love your kin. Nourish them, work for them protect them, nurture them. Demand resilience.

Be brave. Be true.

When all is said remember the love.

And the Two Walked Together

The boy emerged from the car and read the sign: LIGHTHOUSE 19 KILOMETRES. Beneath the sign were the words: Six Hours. The boy spoke, his voice small: ‘I’m nervous, Saba.’
The old man reassured the boy. They pulled on their weighty daypacks and started to walk from the turntable on the mountain. The dirt track was wide enough for a small truck. It sloped away beneath their feet and, despite the lowering sky and the fine wind-whipped rain, the two made good speed in good humour.

The old man said: ‘This is a long, long downhill slope; it will be uphill on the way back. Just when we are really tired we’ll have to fight these hills.’

They looked ahead into immensity. As the path led them lower the slopes towered green and steep before them. The old man saw they’d soon be climbing. The rain stopped and the two felt hot. They peeled off parkas and jumpers and mopped rain and sweat from their faces.

Rounding a sharp bend the boy exclaimed, ‘Look Saba! Look – how beautiful!’ The old man looked and what was beautiful for him was the joy on the boy’s face. ‘Surprised by joy’ – the words floated into the old man’s mind from some half-read snatch of old verse – ‘surprised’ – overcome – as in a surprise attack.‘ The boy’s face, red with exertion, glowed. The old man looked again; he saw no sign of care.

 

The descent ended in a strange plain of long grasses and thick green ferns between which the pale trunks of gums rose, twisted and charred, like writhing skeletons, reaching for the sky. ‘The bushfires must have raced through here’, said the old man, ‘See how there’s not a single living eucalypt. Just ghosts. And everything else so green.’ To himself, he added, ‘They look like humans whose prayers were not heard.’ The old man had dwelled much in suffering of late. All nature spoke to him of the pain of others.

The boy’s expression was opaque.

Not an hour into the walk the boy’s voice asked: ‘Would we be a quarter of the way there yet?’ The old man doubted it. He couldn’t really say. Mostly the boy walked beside him, now and then slipping behind. At these moments the old man slowed, he hoped, inconspicuously.

The boy’s breaths were loud. The old man announced: ‘Morning tea time’, and they stopped to drink. The old man asked, ‘Apricots?’ The boy took the dried fruits and ate appreciatively. They hoisted their packs again, the boy staggering a little before steadying. The old man took the drink bottle. It felt lighter in his hand. They walked. Between the sounds of footfalls a voice spoke: ’I love you Saba.’

The old man, for all his years, for all his words, could find no words better in reply. ‘I love you too, darling.’

   

After a time the flat road began to rise and twist. Ahead of them they saw stately ranks of black tree trunks, erect and slim, towering upward, their branches richly green. ‘Look’, said the old man, ‘Every tree has been burned but every one of them here has survived.’ Their eyes drank in the green life, the dense underburden. Walking between the giants the two felt the silence and it did not oppress them. Rather, wonder swept their eyes upward. In quietness they laboured up long hills, around bends that led to yet more hills, working hard but not feeling it as work.

A scream broke the silence. The boy hobbling, whimpered, ‘My foot! It kills!’ The old man took the boy’s pack. ‘Here’, he said, ‘Sit down.’ ‘I can’t Saba, my arse will get muddy.’ The old man saw a tear at the corner of the boy’s eye. He spread his waterproof on a bank, pulled the boy’s haunches backward and sat him down. ‘Saba, my foot doesn’t hurt when I’m just sitting here. But it killed before.’

The old man opened lunch, bagels he’d bought from Glicks at five that morning. The previous evening the boy ordered peanut butter and honey for his: ‘Fifty percent of each please Saba.’The old man made short work of his own bagel but the boy played with his, peanut butter and honey notwithstanding. Reckoning the child needed relief the old man removed the heavy items from the boy’s pack. Bookish like his grandfather, he’d packed a small library.

‘Do you think you can test that foot?’

The boy rose, hoisted his pack and stepped forward. He winced but said nothing. And the two walked together. At first the boy’s gait was diffident, but quickly he established a fluent step-wince-step rhythm. Rounding a sharp bend the boy cried out, once again in delight. A small wooden footbridge led them across a shallow stream. Green ferns dwarfed the boy, the water chattered and rippled, the air was still and cold. The boy glowed. He turned and spoke: ‘Thank you so much for taking me here Saba.’ In the richness of his feeling the old man felt again the poverty of his own words.

 

They climbed. The old man, remembering walking as a child with his father, described how hard it had been to keep pace. He said, ‘Every few paces I’d fall behind. I’d have to run to catch up. I think that’s what started my life as a runner. It’s what prepared me for running marathons.’ The boy replied, ‘That happens to me too, Saba.’

The old man, a package of memories, told the boy about the time he ran a marathon in Melbourne. ‘It was springtime, quite warm. The sun shone and warmed the asphalt. I could feel the heat through my shoe every time my foot hit the road. I realised I had worn the soles too thin. Actually I had trained hard here, at Wilson’s Promontory, on tracks like this. I had run fourteen kilometres, only one-third of the marathon distance. I anticipated feeling pain with every step of the remaining 28 kilometres. I felt full of gloom. Then I did something really brilliant: I talked to myself. I said, “Every time your foot hits the ground remember you have one les step to run. Every time your foot hurts it’s a reminder – you’re getting closer to the finish.” Guess what – after about ten metres I stopped noticing my foot altogether.’

They passed a sign that read: HALFWAY HUT. Unfortunately whatever ’halfway’ meant it did not refer to the lighthouse walk. They walked on a good while and the boy asked, ‘How much further do you reckon we have to walk, Saba?’

‘Maybe ten kilometres, perhaps a bit less.’

The boy absorbed this. He picked up a straightish stick, about 1.3 metres long and tested it. A few minutes later he discarded the stick, saying his foot wasn’t too bad now. He added, ‘I love you Saba.’ ‘I love you too, Mister Pie.’ (When he was a baby family members called him ‘Sweetie Pie.’ After twelve years the remnant was ‘Mister Pie’).

 

The two came to a fork and another sign. To the left, the sign read: VEHICLE TRACK 9.5KM.

To the right the sign read, WALKING TRACK 8.5KM. The old man recalled the briefing from the Ranger Staff, warning them off the walking track ’because it rained last night – could be soft underfoot.’ He chose the walking track, being the shorter and possibly the softer. ‘Maybe too soft, perhaps marshy or boggy.’ He misgave but he did not reveal his uncertainties to the child. The decision proved decisive. Time and again as they clambered over steeps, scrabbled on uneven footing, wound around sharp turns and twists, the boy exclaimed in delight and wonder. At every corner a vista, at every peak breathtaking verdure. And at every pause the song of falling waters. They panted and sweated and never stopped smiling.

 

The old man, marathon man, always prided himself on his doggedness on hills. But these slopes, so steep, so long, so numerous, for these he needed to dig deep. Head down, bending forward to bring the pack over his centre of gravity, the old man, ploughed dourly on; while the boy sailed ahead, never slowing, never weakening, not ever quailing at the next hill and the next that unfolded in unfeeling succession at summit after summit. The old man marvelled and rejoiced.

 

The walking track was no bog, simply a way up and into a southern Himalaya. Abruptly the climb ended in a series of steep declines. ‘I’m scared I’ll fall’, said the boy. The old man held the back of the boy’s pack and pulled gently backward at every descent, the traction a felt message that the old man would not allow a fall.

 

Around a bend and suddenly the dense bush ended at a wide cleared space. The walking track had rejoined the vehicular. A short walk brought them to a further sign announcing: NO THROUGH ROAD. Rising from their left a walking track led into bush. Leaning on some rocks three men in their late thirties sat eating dried fruit. One asked, ‘You heading for the lighthouse? It’s up that way.’ A thumb pointed backward over the speaker’s shoulder indicated the walking track. The three might have been planted in that spot, so comfortable was their seat on earth, so fixed and settled their attitude.

 

The old man asked, ‘Have you ever walked to the lighthouse?’ Heads nodded. The man with the thumb looked at his bag of currants and said, ‘It’s mainly downhill from here. All except the final three hundred metres, which are the steepest in the entire National Park.’ The boy pointed out a smaller notice behind the men: LIGHTHOUSE 3.2 KMS. He and the old man had been walking for four hours. With a relatively short descent ahead of them both understood they’d arrive in good time for the sunset and the start of the Sabbath. That knowing, not spoken aloud, relieved the worry, also unspoken, of walking in darkness and arriving to cold and dark.

  

 After a short climb the track truly did descend. Underfoot, leafmeal and twigfall covered the soft sand. ‘This sort of footing is my favourite’, said the old man, ‘It comforts your soles. My feet love it.’ At every bend gaps in the bush gave way to glimpses of sea. One gap, wider than others, gave onto a view to the east of a long climbing pathway of exposed rock. At the far end of the path the two saw a white structure, phallic in shape – the lighthouse! It looked beguilingly close.

 

The two pressed on, half racing now. They tumbled around a bend almost falling into the arms of a human who stood on a granite elevation, tall and slim, a statue. The statue had a young woman’s face, a woman’s voice: ‘Look there: Orca.’ She pointed over a shoulder at the sea. ‘Look carefully, you’ll see the water break as they near the surface. When you arrive at the lighthouse would you please tell the lodgekeeper; there’s a pod of four playing here.’

The water broke and mended itself, broke and settled. Was this whale action? The same small disturbances were seen in every direction the man and the boy looked. Hopeful then doubting, then self-doubting, they fixed eyes, solemn and reverent, upon the sea. The old man had seen whale in these waters in years past but this time he saw no purple-black bruising the surface. After a decent interval the two hastened on. They’d seen no Orca yet they tingled with the closeness of greatness.

 

A voice rose from the bustling shape of the boy. He spoke of self-doubt, of fears, of haunting thoughts of his own grave unworth. The old man, filled with quite opposite thoughts of the boy, listened. He ached for the boy. He wanted to say something useful. ‘I know those feelings, Mister Pie’, was all he managed. He wished he had some infusing strength such that if he but held the boy close, the child would grow and know his worth. The urge to seize the child, to crush doubt from him bodily, was strong. But the old man knew such truth is the daughter of time. A daughter not yet ready to be born.

  

 Meanwhile, simple exertion, the actions of fast walking seemed to make the child lighter as he gathered momentum. The words spoken, the hard thoughts disappeared in air, leaving a small body busy and complete in its plunging passage through bushland.

The old man followed behind, carrying his pack, the boy’s books and the boy’s discharged cares.

 

A rock lay in their path, its northerly aspect coated in delicate mosses of brilliant green. The boy stopped to explain, ‘In the bush you can use mossy rocks as a guide, like a compass. The moss grows on the sunniest side. In our hemisphere that’s north.’

 

At one bend the lighthouse would appear only to disappear at the next as they corkscrewed their way down to sea level.  

Now a right angle turn marked the last of the bush. They emerged to an exposed path of surpassing ugliness. Blocks of weathered and stained cement set end to end formed a series of plaques that rose and rose, ending three hundred metres further on at the Light. This, the old man recognised, must be the ‘worst climb’ mentioned by the currant muncher. He looked up. The boy had not paused. He’d opened a lead of twenty metres as he attacked the awful slope. The old man hurried after him but the gap did not close. Half way up the boy approached a welcoming bench, set at the path’s edge to relieve exhausted climbers. The boy ignored the bench and steamed past and the old man, shaking his head, followed. When he reached the top the boy was grinning, his face a fairground of many pleasures.

 

Before they set out the Ranger had estimated the walking time from carpark to lighthouse at six hours. The man and boy finished in under five and in plenty of time for sunset and the Sabbath.

 

The lodgekeeper welcomed them. He said, ‘We’re expecting eleven in your cottage tonight. You two are the first to arrive. We expected an old – pardon me, I mean older – man and a child. Amazing that you beat all those grownups, young feller. Congratulations! Your reward for arriving early is the room with the best view. See – there’s the Light just outside your window. You’re overlooking the ocean. You’ll see any whales without leaving your room.’

 

The room had high ceilings, bunk beds, large windows and plenty of room for two and their possessions. The ‘cottage’ was formerly a lightkeeper’s dwelling, large enough for his wife and their eight children. Outside the wintry gale blew up a four metre swell. Inside the cottage was snug and the showers were hot. Both man and boy stank of sweat. They peeled off their steaming clothes and showered. The boy headed off to the reading room where he met the incoming walkers, adults all, and held court. The first to arrive was the trio of dried-fruit eaters, blokes in their thirties, friends since their schooldays in the Blue Mountains, revisiting old haunts and shared pleasures. After them came a family of four, rich in geography and history, which encompassed Scotland, Southern Africa, Denmark and a touch of Jewishness. The sole female was the Dane. The boy introduced himself and she replied, ‘I’m Astrid.’ This name was new to the boy who remembered her as Asteroid. Following the arrival of that heavenly body from Denmark a lean schoolteacher in his early thirties turned up. He’d sighted the boy in the carpark before setting out. Admiringly he said, ‘You walked quicker than I did’.

 

Darkness fell, the windy world outside moaned and window frames rattled, while inside their room the man and the boy had lit the candles. The old man placed his hands on the boy’s head and slowly, as in a fugue, recited the old words of blessing of the child. Then the two sang the Sabbath Dedication before breaking bread and feasting on packeted food brought to piping in the microwave.

 

Afterwards the boy beat the old man at Scrabble, much to the admiration of the last two to arrive, a bushy-faced pair who materialised from the darkness, unfussed by their final hour of moonlit hiking.

 

The man and the boy slept eleven hours that night.

 

The next day – Saturday – was a true Sabbath, a day of rest. The boy accumulated a series of hurts – his back ached, his right sole was bruised, his left knee seized in spasm. When the lodgekeeper invited all guests into the lighthouse museum for a tour, all pains were put to the side, and soon – or sooner – forgotten. The boy asked most of the questions, good adult questions, as the lodgekeeper later confided. They spent the rest of the day and the evening in the heated common rooms, reading, playing Scrabble, chatting. It is fair to say the nine adult males found the sole female and the sole child the most memorable of the company.

 

Early Sunday the boy revisited his wounds: his bruises padded with multiple bandaids, his knee now moving without pain, his stiff back tolerating a (lighter) pack, he said, ‘I should be able to walk.’ The old man said, ‘The stiffness and soreness will probably disappear once you warm up a bit.’ Before they left the lodgekeeper insisted on taking photos of child and man standing with the lighthouse in the background. ‘To prove to everyone you actually made it’, he said.

  

 The walk back was just as beautiful, just as long, just as tough as the walk out. After an hour the old man asked, ‘How’s your back, Mister Pie?’ ‘I haven’t been noticing, Saba.’ The boy greeted every new vista with delighted recognition. The top of every rise, each mossy stone, every leafy dell, every rugged prospect, he claimed them all as new old friends. He owned the track, his by conquest. Every so often the boy would turn to the old man in his train and repeat, ‘Isn’t this wonderful, Saba? Thank you so much for bringing me here!’

Over the hours of the return hike the boy never asked, ‘How far have we walked?’ Pressing hard on the hills, the boy asserted a sort of mastery: he had done this walk before, he’d do it again now. There was no doubting his ability.

Ahead of them rose the final four kilometres of unrelenting hills. Between the two and the hills a pair of colourful shapes moved in and out of focus. The boy said, ‘Asteroids. There’s a couple of asteroids ahead of us.’ Neither spoke it aloud but both decided they’d overtake the colourful figures ahead. It took them seventy minutes but they did so. The boy declined the old man’s suggestion of a break for lunch. A quick stop for drinks and fruit and upward and onward they went, again tacitly resolving they’d beat the asteroids to the carpark. As on the outward walk the boy attacked the closing uphills. Cruelly illusory, every late bend offered promise of an end. Time and again a tough slope led the eye upwards towards a seeming opening, as one would see at trail’s end. But time and again the boy ploughed on, leaving disappointment behind, his head down, breathing hard, with the old man following in his wake.

 

The sun found its way out of cloud, the greenery took on a lighter shade, the day gleamed. Sweat beaded the boy’s small face, the pink of his cheeks overlying a strange circumambient pallor. ‘Take a break, Mister Pie. Let’s drink.’ The boy took the bottle without words, sucked, passed it back and climbed wordlessly on.

 

One of the illusions of an end turned out to be the fact of the end. The boy strode into the clearing, staggering a little now on the flat asphalt. His grandfather went to take a snap to record the moment of triumph, but the boy, sickly pale, waved him away, gasping: ‘No photos, Saba.’

 

A little later, in the car, the boy said, ‘I’ll take my son on this walk one day – or my grandson.’

  

Not Running with the Devil

The longest night in the southern calendar, June 21, gave birth to a splendid and frigid morning in Traralgon. By the time we started running the temperature was four degrees celsius, a good deal cooler than Boston where, a couple of months earlier, self-pity and hypothermia had congealed within me. Wiser this time, I enclosed myself in layers. A Michelin Man, I set off, discarding layers as I warmed. The layers were, I realised, like geological striae, those stripes in a rockface that are time’s memorial. First to go at twenty five metres in was the remarkably ugly tangerine rain jacket (discarded in Boston by another runner who decided wetness and cold were preferable to Adidas’ ugliest.) Next to go were the elegant little white gloves that cocooned my fingers during winters in the eighties when we’d run the alps of the Diamond Valley. (Ahh, my friends, my friends…) At the twenty kilometre mark I left my stripy thermal top (Kathmandu, 2014) and the Stepping Strong top that honours Gillian Reny, the young dancer whose legs were shattered by a Tsarnaev bomb (Boston, 2013). At 35 kilometres I divested the Miles for Michael shirt (Boston 2013). This left a salted wreck whose overheated genitals must abide within undies (Leigh Creek supermarket, c. 1999), olive green tights (Kathmandu, 2000) and New Balance running shorts, veterans of seventeen marathons (Leigh Creek, 2008). 

In the dawn no wind blew. Silent and shapely, six plumes rose pink against the indigo sky. Delicate and pretty the smoke of Loy Yang poisoned my world. 

 

I ran the first half hard with legs confident from last weekend’s fast training run from Babinda to the Boulders and back, a distance of fifteen kilometres, longer than one third of a marathon. My wristwatch read 74 minutes. This absurdly quick time suggested I’d regained some speed. I reckoned in Traralgon I’d take a full hour off the Personal Worst that was Boston. I ran first with Leanne, a shrivelled fifty-year old, light of step, a lean machine. I kept up with her, keeping myself honest. Leaving her behind I chased a rounder matron who took a bit of catching. She said, I just want to finish. We swapped names; the matron’s name was Marlene. Keeping pace with Marlene did me good – in the moral sense. I had to reach deep for Nobility and Courage. After Marlene left me behind with benediction, I ran alone for a while, this time on a stony dirt track. Mother earth beneath my feet, hard but fair, took me back to childhood in the country. My reverie – have I been dreaming, have I slowed? – was interrupted by busy footfalls pattering behind. Light of foot my pursuer spurred my own feet and I worked to stay ahead. Three kilometres later the pattering feet drew alongside and they belonged, not as I expected, to a female but to a bloke named Duc. We exchanged the lead a few times before I sent Duc on ahead with my blessings.

 

Next came Sam. Short like me, bearded like me, his fleshy face a crop of smiling peaches, Sam didn’t look like he was made for distance running, his well-fed body the antithesis of the ascetic distance runner’s. But Sam too left me behind. I would see him again as I approached the turn and once again, much later, as I staggered past the 41 kilometre mark; Sam, smiling still, had finished a full hour earlier.

 

At the halfway mark I met the Devil. In fact he’d run with me all the way, quietly waiting his moment. (In Judaism the Devil is not personified much; if anything he is The Adversary. He lives, not in hell but within us as desire, ‘the evil inclination’, which is ordinary, domestic, human weakness. As such the Devil doesn’t really earn his capital letter.) The devil was up and about early in Traralgon.

 

With my friend Nick and his febrile son Darcy waiting for me with love and drinks at the Half, I paused. The sun shone in a windless sky as the devil murmured in my ear, congratulating me on my time, which, while not the blinding brevity of Babinda, was quickish, respectable even. The devil suggested I needn’t knock myself about so much. He counselled me, drink slowly, recharge your energies. It might be wise, he insinuated, to hold something in reserve. He whispered something to my bones, to my thighs, something I didn’t catch. He reminded me the turn wasn’t really halfway; the second half doesn’t start until 32 kilometres, when you’ve got ten more to go. The sun was soft now on my face. It felt good. And so I jogged. 

 

Jogging isn’t running. When you run you leave the devil behind. Jogging along past kilometre marks that came and went agreeably, time did not count. I looked at the sky and followed the flight of ducks. I looked long at the smoke stacks of Loy Yang, pondering my own complicity. I smelled the cows. Runners passed me and we’d exchange congratulation and encouragement. A large vehicle came up behind, slowed and swerved close. Two female faces shone with enthusiasm and screamed you are awesome! Never mind these words have been bled white of meaning in a million million facebook ‘likes’, these girls transfused the words back to life. I felt wonderful. Just ahead the girls called the same to a much speedier runner who just grunted. Wonderful girls, aren’t they, I said. He grunted again, his face a mask.

 

I jogged on. When I turned into Black But Road the devil slouched over to me with some advice: the stones underfoot here on this unmade track can hurt your feet. Best to walk here. A little walk can’t hurt… Over the remaining fourteen kilometres I enjoyed a number of little walks. They didn’t hurt at all.

 

I turned back onto the Traralgon-Maffra Road where busy cars sped past at their full entitlement of one hundred kilometres per hour. I crossed the Latrobe River, where, in all twelve of my previous Traralgon Marathons, my skyscanning eyes have sighted a sailing pelican, my white bird of hope. Always, gazing across to the chimneys, I’ve thought of the Ancient Mariner:

 

Nor dim nor red, like God’s own head,

The glorious Sun uprist:

Then all averred, I had killed the bird

That brought the fog and mist.

‘Twas right, said they, such birds to slay,

That bring the fog and mist.

 

Today, for the first time, I saw no white bird.

 

At thirty five kilometres I sighted the white car of Good Friend Nick. He accepted my sweat-laden shirts in exchange for my drink of Coca-Cola-and-orange-juice. This dysenteric-looking concoction contains sugar, potassium salt, sodium chloride and caffeine. And water. Ever since the turn my dry lips had been telling me I forgot to load up with water before the race. Now I loaded up with every molecule known to aid a depleted body.

Darcy, no longer feverish, looking at me, wanted to know, is it hard? His Dad looked at me and laughed. I said, yes Darcy it is. That’s why we do it.

Running slowly ahead of me, his aged body skew-wiff, his pace dogged, we sighted a Spartan as he pressed steadily onward. Over the next seven kilometres of straight road I saw his singlet of emerald green, a flag of courage that reminded me of my own lack of that quality.

 

Nick drove off to hide my final bottle of dysenteric elixir for me at the 40 km mark before hurrying back to Melbourne to watch his elder son play footy .

 

Now walking, now shuffling, now jogging, I pressed on. I knew a full-bodied run would hurt intolerably. I knew this because the devil told me so. Runners continued to pass me, every one of them urging on this bent wreck. Voices said, looking good. And, great effort. Not long now…

 

A small parcel of sinew and strings drew alongside. I recognised the woman’s face, full of years and resolve. I recognised the voice that hectored me for ten kilometres in 2013, before its owner hurried away to assist others with her wisdom. Now the voice said, I know you. I ran with you here once before. Today she didn’t not linger to advise, or assist, or direct or instruct me. Perhaps it was something I said.

 

I felt the caress of fingers dancing lightly on my left shoulder. I looked up to see an able body, young, upright, light of foot. I saw a face buried in a forest of auburn beard. In the depths of the forest I saw a smile and from them a voice blessing me, extolling me, praising my effort. The dancing fingers left a sensation that abides still, twenty-four hours later.

 

Here and there the Traralgon-Maffra Road undulates. From the 38 kilometre mark to 39 kms in a flat marathon course the road rises steadily. As I sailed downhill early in the outward half I marked this well, resolving I would not stop, nor even slow, during my return. Brave promises those, the promises of legs that feel fresh, of resolve not yet tested. Walking now I saw the road rise ahead of me. I stopped and took a deep breath and cranked my limbs into a shuffle. And then a slow run. Putting the devil behind me I ploughed uphill. I reached the top and turned and started the downhill run home. Now my legs started cramping. Earlier, when they’d have excused me from trying to run at all, I’d have welcomed these cramps, but not now. I decided to ignore them.

I ran studiously down the hill attempting a judicious balance between speed and cramp. Footsteps behind me, soft voices, closing on my left shoulder. The runners drew alongside, a bloke in his fifties, and a much younger female. Her face had the puppy fat of childhood. They saluted me and passed. I saw the child wore a pair of floral shorts. The freshness of her being, the stream of approval and encouragement flowing from her father, the sweet amity and unity of the two, these lifted my spirits and distracted me from pathetic thoughts and tremors.

 

Approaching the 40km mark I decided I wouldn’t stop for my drink. Here I was, maintaining a precarious run; if I stopped I mightn’t start again. So it was with mild puzzlement but no regret that I sighted no bottle at the 40 km marker. Ahead a marshall smiled and directed me to the second last turn, calling, you’re doing well, Howie. “Howie”. How did she know me? Now her little boy approached me, near to blocking my path. His outstretched hand held a small bottle of brown fluid.

Small kindnesses, these, potent with grace. I recalled other moments, over my previous forty five marathons. Crossing the Line at the finish of the New York Marathon in 1988 I heard a sweet voice singing. It came from a fellow runner, a student of opera at the famed Julliard School. He asked my name: Pheidipides.

Ah, Pheidipides. Reverting now to Greek he recited that runner’s dying words: ‘Rejoice my brothers, ours is the victory’.

 

On Patriots Day in Boston, Athens of the New World, a river of grace flows during its Marathon. Of three million Boston citizens fully one million come out – and stay out – to cheer on the runners, both the fleet of foot and the unfleet. They cheer us, they feed us – everything from bananas, to segments of orange, to candies to barbecued sausages dripping fat – they love us. When two explosions destroyed the ceremony of innocence that is a marathon, overwrought Bostonians overflowed with tender concern for their thwarted guests.

 

Together with every runner in the world I watched the telecast of the Olympic Marathon in Barcelona. In the final brutal kilometres as the runners raced up the slope of Monjuic, one of the lead bunch of five missed his drink at the drink stop. With a medal in sight and no time to be lost, he ran on without it. A rival passed his bottle and the two shared it.

 

I was one of a generation inspired by John Landy’s act in the 1956 National 1500 Metres Championship. A young Ron Clark fell at Landy’s feet. The champion stopped to assist him than ran on and won.

 

I ran my first marathon in Traralgon. On that occasion achilles tendonitis and unremitting cramps forced me to walk from the 30km mark to 40kms. I contrived a pathetic run for the last stanza, hobbling into view of the football club where all the other 140 finishers were enjoying refreshments. One caught sight of Pheidipides approaching in the gloom. To a man, my fellow runners abandoned their scones and passionfruit sponge cakes and sausage rolls to applaud the runner who ran on an hour after they’d finished.

 

After my mother-in-law-in-law survived Auschwitz she dedicated her life to fighting racism. A tiny woman of immense will, she was never scared to take me to task. She challenged me once with the folly of the ‘disordered’ (her term) pursuit of marathon running. Shortly afterwards I ran the New York Marathon and found my answer: my life is a marathon, an undistinguished passage through time and space; it is a passage made rich and significant by the people who run their race at my side.

  

Postscript: Yesterday in Traralgon I set a new PW of five hours nineteen minutes. My time of 5.13, Boston was a sprint in comparison.

 

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.

Another Toby Emergency

A scream from the back of the boat, the scream of amazed pain. Now follow loud cries as Toby’s face rises above the transom. Tears stream down his face, uncharacteristically pale. At the point of his chin a gleaming carbuncle of deepest red rises to a meniscus, then overflows. Brilliant red drops appear on the white deck, tracking Toby’s path to adult rescue.

I apply my nearly clean handkerchief to the wound. Toby darling, press this hard against the cut. Very hard.
I’m sorry, Saba. I’m sorry.
No need to be sorry, Toby – just press.
I’m sorry. I’m very sorry…

My bottle-green hanky is turning red. A quick peek underneath shows a deep and gaping gash. The wound is irregular; it will need meticulous suturing to minimize the inevitable scarring.

Before we arrived in Metung I commanded the kids: NO RUNNING ON THE BOAT, NO JUMPING ON THE BOAT.
I’m sorry, Saba, I won’t do it again.

Pablo scoops his son into his arms and we run to the car. The patient, cocooned in his father, is stowed in the back. We drive into the little town to look for the doctor’s premises: the Village Store, a hardware and fishing tackle shop, the pub, a real estate office, a few coffee shops – these account for one half of the Central Business District; a u-turn brings us to the post office, a laundromat and a petite pharmacy. The pharmacist, a lady of my years, petite like her shop, is sympathetic. She advises, Yes, there is a doctor in town… every Tuesday morning.
Hmmm. Do you have surgical glue?
I don’t think so. I’ll look…
The search doesn’t take long. No glue. We settle for some stout Steri-strips, a gross of sterile gauze squares and a gallon of Savlon.
Across the road the door to Hardware and Fishhooks is locked. It’s only four PM, Friday. The sign reads, Open 9.00-5.00, M-Thurs. Fri 9.00-1.00.
The Village Store stocks food, suncream, the dailies, the Metung Meteor. Unless it’s a condom or a painkiller I seek, no pharmaceuticals. Do you have Super-glue? (Super-Glue is identical to Surgical glue; it’s packaged in crushable phials for single use, to discourage germs.) The helpful young cashier leads me to her hardware shelf. No Super-glue but we do have Araldite.
Araldite. I’ve never glued human tissues with this product. Will I try it on my grandson? I call the Emergency Physician in Alice Springs, where ED is full of my workmates. Yeah, Araldite will hold it, same as Super-glue. But it’s thermogenic. In an emergency, better than nothing, better than Steri-strips alone. Translated, ‘Thermogenic’ means the glue will heat the skin.

Back to the car. No doctor in Metung: we’ll have to go to Lakes Entrance. Toby lies quietly, eyes widening as I approach his wound. A wince, a gasp as I peel away my hanky of dark green and dark red, exposing a valley of flesh. Briefly bloodless, the wound fills quickly. Clean white gauze is applied. Toby darling, press again, hard. Here.
The child’s eyes follow me anxiously as he anticipates the uppance that surely will come: I’m sorry, Saba. I won’t do it again.

Driving back through town I wonder about the boatyard. They repair boats there, they must glue things. The Boatwright is helpful: Sure, Howard, we should have Super-glue somewhere.
The tube is not new. They have no other but needs must…

Pablo and I remove the patient and lie him on a picnic table, Pablo cradling the child’s head. Darling, we are going to put some glue on your cut to close it up. First I’ll wash the cut with this yellow stuff. It will be quite quick.
A splash, a yelp, a bit of quick mopping and a flow of fresh blood. It is quite quick – and quite hurty.

Now I’m going to squirt some glue onto your cut, Toby. It will be quite quick.
Pablo, pinch the skin edges closed… like this.
Pablo pinches – which hurts – as I peel away the gauze – which hurts. Toby’s eyes widen in fresh surprise, he releases a single gasp, half rises, then subsides. He takes deep breaths, slow breaths, as I squirt the glue – which hurts – and Toby breathes on. Through the following three minutes, Pablo pinches the skin edges – which hurts – and Toby, calm in his self-mastery, gazes trustingly into our close faces.
A few Steristrips bridge the narrow ridge of pink that was a cleft moments before. The wound is closed, and dry, more or less regular, messy in its scatterings of dried blood. It will heal and eventually scar.
Toby kisses his torturers and thanks us: You’re the best father, Papi. I love you, Sabi…I am sorry.

Postscript that might have been a Prescript: readers of this blog might recall an earlier, very lengthy post, titled ‘Toby’s Fingers in the Bath Hole’. A year after the Fingers in the Bathplug Story, we had the Batteries in the Ears story. Toby spent an afternoon in hospital for removal of hearing aid batteries trapped in his ear canals. Once in-situ, batteries create an enveloping oedema of the canal walls, a watery swelling of the flesh that neatly encloses the little discs. Toby is not deaf (not yet) and has no need of hearing aids or their batteries. But the batteries he found were just the right size, so…

Additional Postscript: Toby’s cousin Noah described the accident: Toby tried to get from the back of the boat onto the pier but his life vest caught on this wire and he fell when he jumped.
“When he jumped”: that must have been what Toby’s “sorries” were for. Not a forbidden jump at all, this was a jump from the boat, not on it.

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Mending the Broken Runner

Spring months are the cruelest, mixing memory and desire. And I have felt the sun soft on my skin, have woken with birds that called me, watched the young and the not young but not broken, all at their running, running, running. And I have felt self-sorrow, sincerest of emotions, and I have felt the creeping entry of a green stranger. And I have resented and I have envied those runners, their unforgivably beautiful limbs, their light and loping tread. In short I became that miserable creature, the broken runner.

Yesterday I drove with daughter and grandboys to Wilson’s Promontory National Park. All was as ever it was; emu browsing, shy wallaby, slow wombat, delicate birds, hills, hills, hills, bouldered beaches and the odd ‘mountain’. Only in Australia, and perhaps the Netherlands, would you grace Bishop and Oberon as mountains. But when you run them your legs cry out and the mind, the mind has mountains.

There was Mt Bishop. We drove past and I told the kids, I used to run up there, all the way to the top. Unable to see the top, too small, too low in the car, the kids made no response.

This morning I awoke and the cabin slept. My knee felt OK. There were the car keys, here were running clothes unrun-in for five months, no family duty called, no excuse. Five minutes’ drive to the track saved me twenty minutes’ running dull bitumen. Here was the track, sandy, scattered with leafmeal, meandering into bush. My legs smiled and snuffed the battle with delight.

And I was running. And nothing hurt. And my lungs kept up with my legs. I ran carefully, judiciously. I avoided rocky footfalls, I paced myself, I spared the left leg and I climbed.

I climbed the twisting turning tilting track, gently, gently, enquiring ever of the knee, feeling no angry response.

The track was mine, mine alone, mine this domain, this splendour, these rugged crags, that ribbon of silver of tidal river, the dull green of bushland, the sweeter green of spring growth, the dead trees white, trees blackened by the fires but shooting green, greening too the great denuded gorges scoured by the floods.

All this juice and all this joy, all for me, a message, a consolation, hope in dried tubers.

The track softened beneath my gladding feet, the gradient gentled, the summit sighted.

There at the summit, the track ended at that same old tumble of broken shapes and abrasive surface: Snack Rock. Slowly I climbed those last metres, transferring weight, o so cautiously, sparing the knee, old man’s knee, unwelcome stranger’s knee, imperious ruler for five months of my youngering spirit.

I offered a line of thanks and ate my apple. I took my first selfie. I photographed the terrain.

And down I ran.

Now, descending, pain pounced and grabbed the rear of the injured knee. Small pain this, the same as I feel on the bike, pain of no portent. And as on the bike, brief of tenure.

Down, down, down, through avenues of wattle unnoticed earlier by the runner with head bent on the ascent. The wattles arching over me, an avenue of honour, reminding me, reminding me of the day I ran into a bunch of hockey players blocking the path ahead of me. This was a serious run, a timed solo marathon to qualify for entry to the hundredth running of the Boston Marathon. A cry from their leader, “Guard of Honour, Guard of Honour!”; and the hockey guys fell into two lines, raising sticks above my head, applauding me as I ploughed on.

There is honour in the long run, a tearful thankful joy, a discovering of the self. I felt all those, all that old knowing, all those strong sensations. And something else, something new – signs of life.

Phone Calls from my Dead Brother

My brother Dennis

My brother Dennis

This evening and tomorrow the family will mark the seventh anniversary of the dying of my firstborn brother Dennis. We’ll light candles and congregations will join us in remembering him.

Two weeks before he died Dennis underwent elective surgery. I wondered if the surgery was wise. Dennis, whose life’s creed was hope, assured me: ”Doff, this operation can eventually cure diabetes. It will transform my life.”
We spoke daily on the phone – he from his hospital bed, I from a hellhole town in the deep Kimberley. Day by day Dennis seemed to be doing well. But on day four he told me: ”I’m OK but my belly hurts”. A belly ache bad enough for stoical Dennis to mention was bad enough to alarm me.

Day five, no phone call. That day the pain was worse. Dennis collapsed, his circulation failing as his abdomen filled with blood and stomach acid leaking from his wounds.
At his bedside in Intensive Care the following day we counted the tubes entering and departing Dennis’ comatose form. One into his windpipe to make him breathe; a second into a great vessel to deliver information; a third to bypass his kidneys which had failed; a fourth to drain his bladder; a fifth and sixth into peripheral vessels to deliver fluids and the hero molecules that just might save him.
The greater the number of tubes in a patient’s body, they told us, the lower the chance he would leave ICU alive.
I sat at his bedside and I watched my brother. Behind the clicks and gusts of his life machines swelled the sounds of classical music. Annette, his loving sister-in-law, thought to play that music, those patterned sounds that ever soothed his troubled breast.
I sat there and watched as nurses, tender or tough, kept my brother alive. The tough ones, resentful of something – were we too many, was this medical brother too medical, that sister too exacting, that aged mother too accepting? – made me feel small, in need again of a big brother.

Dennis turned the corner: blood pressure held firm, sleeping kidneys awoke, fewer molecules were needed. The doctors conferred and announced: “We’ll let him wake up now and breathe on his own.”

Dennis breathed and slept on. We all breathed, went home and slept.
At four in the morning my phone rang. A crepitous, rustling sound, a broken voice in windy gusts: it was Dennis: “Doff, they want to njjhrnnujicxvclbkvn”
“Den, I can’t hear you. Say it again.”
Gales and crackles and Dennis’ voice in fragments: “Doff… inaudible… they…unintelligible…the tube back in.”
“Den, are you saying they advise you to go on the respirator again?”
More gasping, a desparate heaving of voice: “Yes!” More gasping. “Is it a good idea?”
“Den, it’s your best hope. Say yes.”
“Alright Doff.”

That was the final phone call. Dennis and I never spoke again. By the time I reached the hospital Dennis’ coma was renewed, the respirator breathing for him. Soon his circulation collapsed again, the doctors tried heart-lung bypass (“It’s only ever been shown to work in children. It’s your brother’s last hope..”) and on the eve of Shabbat Dennis died.

***

I can speak or write of Dennis dying with a composure that surprises me. Even my fatal advice does not trouble me. Perhaps it was not the dying of my big brother, but his living, that calls to me and troubles my dreams.

Farewell, Farewell

I used to run six days a week. No longer. I used to run marathons. No longer. Farewell, farewell, a long farewell to all that.

I ran before work; sometimes I ran to work. I ran every day but Saturday, the Sabbath. I ran because I could, I ran because I needed to. I ran up the hills of Wattle Glen, up the endless alps of Kangaroo Ground, and along the river at Warrandyte and Kew.

I ran marathons in Traralgon, on the Gold Coast and in Alice Springs. I ran in the New York Marathon (thrice – never won it – home town decisions, obviously) and four times in the world’s oldest modern marathon, in Boston. The 2013 Boston was my last. I never crossed the finish line, turned back by the police at the 41 kilometre mark. At 67 years I was too old, too slow to be harmed by the bombers.

I ran in the World Veterans’ Games Marathon, and I was a Spartan at Melbourne. About 8 years ago at Traralgon, I became the Victorian Country Marathon Champion (Over Sixty, Male). There was one other sixty year old bloke – a patient of mine. He ran with an injury that I had fortunately not cured. I entered my title – Vic Country Marathon Champ – on my resume.

I ran in Havana and Amsterdam, in London and in Oxford, and on the golden stones and basalt cobbles of Jerusalem. I ran up and down Masada and in Galilee. I ran in Buenos Aires and in Capilla del Monte.

In fifty Aboriginal communities I ran to feel country, running fast to keep ahead of mobs of hungry dogs.

Through all this running I discovered strengths I never dreamed of and weakness I’d always feared. I extended my being, I joined in the joyous commonwealth of comrades that is a marathon.

I ran and I wrote what was a metaphor for my life – a passage, undistinguished, through space and through time, made rich by those I ran with and those I ran for. And always I ran with a doctor’s calibrated sense of risk. I ran with my younger daughter’s instruction ringing prayer and warning: Have a good run, Dad, and don’t come back dead.

I ran carefully, knowing if I did die I would leave wife, children, and latterly, grandchildren, grieving and aggrieved.

I ran and I gave thanks that my body held up for so long. I knew joy and pain and the joy of pain transmuted. I knew my lands and the lands of others intimately, physically. And in the stiffness and the glad soreness that followed a hard run, I knew pride, I knew joy.

***

An Australian boy knows it is in the sporting arena that his worth is measured. Excellence at sports trumps beauty and wealth. Brains lag last, far behind all. As a little boy I was timid, both physically and spiritually. A large brain served me only to imagine fearsome possibility; it was no asset in sports. Introduced to both cricket and football, in which I overcame fear sufficiently to try bravely, I achieved and sustained a modest mediocrity. I might have achieved more but for two discoveries: the hard cricket ball, travelling fast, hurt the fumbling fingers; and the elusive football, fiercely contested by other boys bigger and less timid than I, led me only to painful and fruitless collisions.20130411-184933.jpg

By virtue of very little, I rose to captain the Second Eighteen in footy and captain of the Second Eleven in cricket. My highly academic Jewish school quickly won fame for academic excellence, while earning only a reputation for awkward strangeness in inter-school sports. Generations of Jewish history had equipped Jewish boys well for debating, mathematics and playing the violin. Our ancestors in Europe learned to run only from fire or pogrom. So the best teams this post-Holocaust Jewish school produced were try-hard failures. And I was never good enough for the Firsts. Captain of the Seconds at Mount Scopus was the ultimate backhanded compliment in sports.

But at the age of fifteen came the discovery of distance running. The annual cross-country run over three miles of hilly scrubland sorted the tortoises from the hares. At the gun all the glamour boys leaped into the lead and quickly disappeared between bushes at the first bend in the course. I chased as hard as I could, my breath burning my throat, my chest aching. In a failure of the imagination I never thought of stopping or slowing. I kept going. Abrupt hills, uneven terrain, a finish line that was nowhere in sight, all conspired to daunt and defeat our gazelles of the track, our hares of the field. But I kept running. I don’t think I slowed at all. Eventually the astonishing sight of my idols bent double, gasping at the trackside, unable to respond to greeting or commiseration told me I was among the swiftest of the tortoises. I finished in the top ten that first year, improving to fourth, and eventually to third place, in the years that followed.

The barren years of sporting opportunity after school saw me gain a medical degree (summa sine laude), a wife and a bunch of little kids. And about five kilograms in weight. I was now a sedentary family man, short in stature, with a small pot belly. Then a schoolteacher friend took me running on the hills of Diamond Valley. He tired me out and he puffed me up, saying, “You have a nice running style, Howard.” One day we ran ten kilometers together. Breathless with achievement I looked at the distance – nearly a quarter of a marathon! – and with fine naivette I said to myself: I can run a marathon. And I did.

***

Seven months ago I drove for six days to and from an outback locum. My left thigh ached and it still does. Two months ago I fell onto my left knee from my bike. It screams with pain whenever I run a single step. The MRI of my spine resembles a bombed railway track – you can recognise the pattern of the original structure but you wouldn’t want to travel on it.

I used to run. Now it’s over.

The Surgeon

This is an everyday story. We all know stories like this one.

“My friend never smoked but she had a cough. Her doctor said, “ Better have a chest x-ray.” The chest x-ray showed a shadow on her lung. The GP sent her to a respiratory physician. That doctor spoke with my friend, listing the possible diagnoses and explaining the process that would define the cause of her cough. She asked some questions. She was pretty scared, but she doubted she could have cancer: she had never smoked.

“My friend was sent to a chest surgeon for a bronchoscopy. She saw the surgeon in the operating theatre just as the needle was inserted into her vein for the injection that sent her to sleep. After the procedure she felt sleepy. She came home with a memory, or perhaps it was an idea she daydreamed, that the surgeon said: ‘Visit my rooms next week for your results.’ It seemed the sort of thing someone would have said.

“My friend’s husband telephoned the surgeon’s rooms and made an appointment. He accompanied his wife – who was still coughing – to her appointment. The surgeon appeared right on time, at 10.00 am, precisely. (The husband is himself a precise man. He notices things like that.) The surgeon gave them the diagnosis. They left the surgeon’s rooms at 10.02 am. My friend believes the surgeon said: ‘The biopsy confirms you have lung cancer. You need an operation.’ My friend’s husband confirms the duration of the visit and his wife’s recollection of the surgeon’s words.

“The next time my friend and her surgeon met they were once again in the operating room. While a nurse gowned and gloved the surgeon he gave instructions to a second nurse about instruments and the overhead lights. The surgeon had no time for conversation with my friend before she was anaesthetised.

“The morning following the operation the surgeon visited my friend and told her she was well and the operation had been successful. Three days of coughing and three nights of agonising pain followed. Morphine and Endone did not relieve her pain. On the fourth day the surgeon visited a second time and said, ‘You can go home.’ In fact she could not; she could not walk unsupported and every breath was followed by a wince and a gasp she had to stifle. A nurse arranged for my friend to convalesce in aftercare. Ten days later, still with her original cough that now shook her chest wound violently, my friend went home. Six weeks after the operation she was still coughing. It was time to see the surgeon again.

“My friend’s husband attended – her chest hurt too much to drive. He sat in the waiting room and timed his wife’s visit to the surgeon. He told me later: ‘Mr. S. beat his previous record. She returned to the waiting room in 30 seconds.’

“That afternoon I delivered some food my wife had cooked for our friend. She told me, ‘The surgeon said the cancer’s gone.’

‘Good’, qouth I. ‘ Great! Will you need chemo?’

‘He didn’t say.’

‘Will you have radiation treatment?’

She shook her head: ‘He never said.’

‘What’s next?’

“I don’t know.’”

As I said, an everyday story in this age of miracles and wonder. An everyday surgical miracle worker, himself a wonder of brutish mutism. What we do not read of is any disciplinary action taken by the authorities against the surgeon for his brutism.

Why not ? – I wonder.

Waiting for the Wrong Bus

This bus I await
Is not mine
In the dark
On the 91 Line

I took the 91
Missed my stop;
Now look around
Outside a shop –

In a doorway
Two recline
Homeless among
Homed on the 91 Line

Her eyes closed,
His wide
She reposed
His rest denied

Not hunger,
Not dirt
On her face, her shirt;
His face younger

But pinched,
Eyes narrowed,
Jaws clenched,
Looks harrowed –

Ten feet
Just ten
Separate us
From them

Not an iphone
At his cheek
But a fruit ice –
A second peek

In not yet dawn
She wants warm
While he applies ice!
Wondering in gloom

I check my cash
Two large notes
None small; rash
I approach

“Could you use a quid
Or two?” “Mate,
I could.” (A schooled voice.)
Note unnoted, palmed, hid.

“Toothache?” “Mate, agony,
Three days now…”
Pain cries for relief
Not money…

I’ve three green
Gel tabs, ibuprofen:
These given, palmed,
Expose the fifty. Now

He sees, amazed
“O mate!”
And I, running late
Escape on the 91 –
The wrong bus;
The streets
Of London
Separate us –