Jesse at Eighteen

The mother whom you are about to bring into being feels a pain in her belly. Your birth was due a couple of days ago but it doesn’t occur to the woman that she might be in labour. She phones her father, a doctor, soon to become a grandfather.

Dad, my tummy hurts. It’s been hurting all day. Could it be gastro?

Darling, you are pregnant. You have reached full term. Unless you have diarrhoea you’re probably in labour. Go to hospital.

The date is November 11, a date already doubly and indelibly significant for Australians. It’s the date you create a mother, a father, three grandparents, a great-grandmother, uncles, aunts, great-uncles, great-aunts. It’s the date you change our world.

All day you knock at life’s door. Day becomes night. In the Delivery Suite your mum-to-be squats and strains. In an adjacent waiting area, dimly lit, your yogi great-grandmother-designate squats and bears down, trying to birth you at a remove. The soon-to-be grandfather consults his wristwatch. This climactic second stage of labour has become prolonged. He knows a lengthy second stage imperils a baby. He sends a message to the obstetrician: Would you like an extra pair of hands in case the baby needs resuscitation?

The specialist says yes.

I enter and not long after, the door of life opens to you. You and I meet. You need no resuscitation. I hold you and I introduce you to the mother whom you have brought into being.

Thirty-six hours later I’m gazing at you, just a baby. You lie inside my pink cap. I’ve seen hundreds of babies, I’ve delivered hundreds, every one of them a miracle, every one of them scrutinised for irregularities by a clinical eye. You are no less imperfect than those hundreds. You are skinny, you look like an empty sock, your face isn’t quite symmetrical.

But some event or process, something visceral, something cosmic perhaps, is taking place and I am transmogrified: I am a grandfather; I love you. What is this joy? Your fingers curl and close around my finger and you grip me. 

On the eighth day of your life you rest on the lap of your great-grandfather, I remove some skin and bring you into a Covenant. A drop of wine pacifies you. Your tribe jubilates. We know our long back story. Behold you! We see you and we behold our futurity.

Years pass, your parents send you to this grandfather to learn rituals, traditional melodies, ancient texts. At thirteen you are barmitzvah. Once again your clan rejoices and this time you can share it. You sense the power, the force field of love that is your extended family, the depth of our feeling. Profoundly you know belonging.

Life takes you through ups and downs. At eleven you walk with me, up, down, up and again down, to a distant lighthouse. A boy who buries strong feelings, you struggle and you achieve. You declare, I love you Saba. Later you say, I’ll bring my kids on this walk. And you add, I love you Saba.

Six years later, life is still up and down. We do that same walk again. This time it is the boy who stops and waits, and allows an aging Saba to catch up. Your words are few but they have not changed. The miles, the steeps, the struggle weld us once again.

This week you sit your last school examination. Your schooldays are behind you. We behold you, the first of your generation. Eighteen years have passed, enriched and intensified by your being. Eighteen years ago you gripped me, never to let me go.

Notice of the Death of a Son

A thin, linear lady, stringy, bounces in to my consulting room, sits down, beams at me from her lean oblong face. And waits. She has the grin of a six-year old.

We haven’t met before. Welcome. My name’s Howard.

A bony hand on a long arm grips mine vigorously and softly. The grin widens, shifting dentures. Hello Howard. I’m Lucy.

In general Lucy looks her age, which is seventy two years; but her skin looks a lot older. She might be a chicken, so scaly and irregular are her surfaces. The thicket of hair atop her bony head is fair. The skin is fair too, excepting for the plaques of pink, great blotches of healing. She is an old gum tree, her bark new, old, peeling, revealing, irresistibly alive.


She looks me over genially, taking my measure. She decides I will do and embarks on a story.

I had a son. He died last year. Lucy looks up, waits a bit, resumes: Your children are supposed to bury you, not the other way around.

Lucy bears her loss lightly. She hasn’t come here to shed grief. She looks at me, unbowed, light in her being.

I look back hard. There must be a wound.

How did your son die?

A heart attack, massive. He was forty-four.

Lucy has taken my measure. I am old enough. I will know the verities, the facts of death.

You know the smell of death.

A statement, not a question.

How does death smell, Lucy?

Indescribable. And unmistakeable. As you’d know.

I smelt death first the night Dad died. I was staying with him and I smelt that smell. When I found Dad he’d been dead a couple of hours. He was cooling. The smell started around the time he died…

I started smelling death again a year ago. I smelled it four nights in a row. My bed smelled of it, my pyjamas too. It was really strong. I wouldn’t let myself fall asleep: I thought I was the one dying. I was at my daughter’s place and I didn’t want her to have to find me.

After the fourth night they rang to tell me my son had passed. He died four nights before.

That smell starts ten minutes after they die. And it stops once you know.

Lucy looks at me, grins a smile of reality, of truth. Ultimate truth, the factuality of death.

I’ve lost both my boys; the first one died at birth.

But I’ve got my girls. They’re both good. And seven grandchildren and – a huge bright smile, a lightning strike in the summer of Lucy’s face – a little great granddaughter!

A pause. Lucy is a good pauser, unfrightened of the silences that flow, clear as her sentences. And in the pauses, Lucy smiles her knowings that I must share: the freshness of new life. How the fact of a baby redeems all.

You know I bounce back. Just about exactly a year come round since my boy passed, I lost a dear friend. Like sisters we were. That was tough… for a while.

This is a pause unlit by smiling. Lucy looks at me steadily.

But I bounce back.