Happy Concatenation

Mr Menzies, as he was then, used to report to Parliament upon his return from
The Prime Ministers’ Conference in London. He’d introduce his report with, ’By a happy concatenation of circumstance I happened to find myself in London for the Conference at precisely the time of the Cricket Test Match at Lords…’
I read this in the ‘Age’ newspaper and looked up ’concatenation’. I have kept the word close, generally unused, for the half century since.
 
By a singular concatenation of circumstance, today Jewish people around the world observe Shushan Purim on precisely the date of Good Friday. Yesterday we had the concurrence of Purim with Shrove Thursday; and the previous day the Jewish Fast of Esther coincided with the fast of Ash Wednesday. That’s how calendars concatenate.
 
By a happy concatenation of circumstance, while riding home through the park yesterday I overtook another cyclist, emerging into Commercial Road just as she did. From a long way back I saw first the yellow jacket. Gaining, I noted her tall, erect carriage in the saddle, her fair pony tail, her fair skin. Emerging from the park, with eyes only for the vehicular traffic ahead I had no time to sight her face.
I crossed the road and halted, waiting for the red light to turn. A voice emerged from a blur of yellow: ‘Howard? It is Howard, isn’t it?’ I had time now to take in that fair face, to recognise the features and that voice. A voice of a singular quality, a soft voice, with a sweet self-echo, as of a bell. I knew that voice.
‘Hello, Camilla.’ My voice would have carried surprise and delight.
‘Where are you heading, Howard?’
I indicated.
‘Me too,‘ she said, ‘I’m headed to St Lucy’s to pick up Joe.’
Our ways were the same and we rode together and caught up on the events of ten years: the growth of her son Joe (one of my babies), the decline and deaths of her parents and mine; and the premature loss of a brother, in each case only a little older than ourselves.
 
 
I told Camilla about Dennis. I mentioned the regret, my uncompleted mission, that marked my time with Dennis and that surfaces years after his dying, in my dreams. When I spoke of my brother’s dying Camilla’s face fell. Her voice a deeper bell.
 
‘I lost a brother too. I loved him.’ Camilla’s voice thrilled and her face shone as she spoke of her brother. ‘His name was Tom. He was a twin. He lived to forty-nine then he died. I don’t know what of. He was disabled. I loved him. We spoke on the phone every day. Every single day.’
‘What was his disability, Camilla?’
A smile, a half shrug: ‘Do you know, I can’t say exactly what he had and I don’t know what he died of. I suppose now you’d call it cerebral palsy. He was born with it. He was just my brother and we loved each other. We were together every day as children, back in the Mallee. Then I left and studied and moved interstate, but it was still the same. We spoke every day. I loved him. Often we’d speak a few times in the one day.
‘Tom was the second twin, you know. Second twins are often sicker…but you’d know all about that.’
I wondered about Tom’s disability: ’Was it physical or intellectual, or both?’
‘It was both. Do you know, I’m buying the old family home. In the Mallee. It’s a sentimental thing, a bit silly really.’ Camilla laughed: I’m buying out the other twin. I want the house. Tom and I lived in it, Tom lived there all his life.’
 
We arrived at St Lucy’s. Children thronged in the grounds, ignoring the scores of parents who waited outside. They played and shouted and pushed and grabbed each other in the high spirits of the coming holiday, while Lucy’s eyes searched for Joe and my mind played on brothers loved and lost. On a brother who called me every day, often two, three times a day.
 
Shouting goodbyes children drifted from the gates to their parents. A tall child, erect and fair, came into view. He greeted Camilla in a sweet voice, soft, with a sort of self echo.
 
 
 
[I wish readers variously a joyous Shushan Purim, a holy Easter, and always, always – happy concatenation.]

Writing as Healing

The mother of identical twin boys sent me this story by Ranjava Srivastava.

 

“Losing my twin baby boys for ever changed the way I treat my patients.

I will never know the kind of doctor I would have become without the searing experience of being a patient, but I like to think my loss wasn’t in vain.

‘My obstetrician’s tears stunned me but also provided immediate comfort. They normalised the mad grief that had begun to set inside me.’
Around this time 10 years ago, I was poised to start my first job as an oncologist when personal tragedy visited in a way that would forever change the way I would practice medicine.

I had returned from my Fulbright year at the University of Chicago, blessed with only the joys and none of the irritations of being pregnant with twins. Landing in Melbourne, I went for a routine ultrasound as a beaming, expectant parent. I came out a grieving patient. The twins were dying in utero, unsuspectedly and unobtrusively, from some rare condition that I had never heard of. Two days later, I was induced into labour to deliver the two little boys whom we would never see grow. Then I went home.

If all this sounds a little detached it is because 10 years later I still have no words to describe the total bewilderment, the depth of sorrow and the intensity of loss that I experienced during those days. Some days, I really thought my heart would break into pieces. Ten years later, the din of happy children fills our house. But what I have found myself frequently reflecting on is how the behaviour of my doctors in those days profoundly altered the way in which I would treat my patients.

An experienced obstetrician was performing my ultrasound that morning. Everything was going well and we chatted away about my new job until he frowned. Then he grimaced, pushed and prodded with the probe, and rushed out before I could utter a word. He then took me into his office and offered me his comfortable seat. Not too many pregnant women need a consultation at a routine ultrasound.

“I am afraid I have bad news,” he said before sketching a picture to describe the extent of the trouble. I thought for a fleeting moment that my medical brain would kick in and I would present him with sophisticated questions to test his assertion that the twins were gravely ill. But of course, I was like every other patient, simultaneously bursting with questions while rendered mute by shock.

I was well aware that doctors sometimes sidestepped the truth, usually with the intent of protecting the patient. I knew he could easily get away with not telling me any more until he had more information but I also knew that he knew. I read it in his face and I desperately wanted him to tell me.

I asked the only question that mattered.

“Will they die?” 

“Yes,” he said, simply holding my gaze until his tears started.

As I took in the framed photos of children around his office he probably wished he could hide them all away.

“I don’t know what to say,” he murmured, his eyes still wet. 

Until then, in 13 years of medical training, I had never seen a doctor cry. I had participated in every drama that life in bustling public hospitals offers but never once had I seen a doctor cry.

My obstetrician’s tears stunned me but also provided immediate comfort. They normalised the mad grief that had begun to set inside me. Yes, the doctor’s expression said, this is truly awful and I feel sad too.

“You are sure?”

“There is a faint chance that one lives but if you ask me, things look bad. You know I will do everything I can to confirm this,” he said.

The obstetrician had told the unflinching truth and in doing so almost surgically displaced uncertainty with the knowledge that I needed to prepare myself for what lay ahead. I had test after test that day, each specialist confirming the worst. I think I coped better because the first doctor had told the truth.

Two other notable things happened that week. Among the wishes that flowed, another doctor wrote me an atypical condolence note. His letter began with the various tragedies that had taken place that week, some on home soil and others involving complete strangers. “I ask myself why,” he wrote, “and of course there is no answer to why anyone must suffer.”

Until then, everyone had commiserated only at my loss – and I was enormously grateful – but here was someone gently reminding me that in life we are all visited by tragedy. All the support and love in the world won’t make you immune to misfortune, he was saying, but it will help ease the pain.

Finally, there was the grieving. I lost count of the pamphlets that were left at our door to attend support groups, counselling sessions and bereavement seminars but we were resolutely having none of it. My midwife called me out of the blue – it was a moving exchange that taught me how deeply nurses are affected too. But I didn’t need counselling, I needed time. I valued the offers but I knew that my catharsis lay in writing. I wrote myself out of suffocating grief, which eventually turned to deep sadness and then a hollow pain, which eventually receded enough to allow me to take up my job as a brand new oncologist. How I would interpret the needs of my patients was fundamentally altered now that I had been one myself.

Cancer patients are very particular about how much truth they want to know and when. I don’t decide for them but if they ask me I always tell the truth. A wife brings in her husband and his horrendous scans trigger a gasp of astonishment among even the non-oncologists.

“Doctor, will he die from this?” she asks me.

“I am afraid so,” I answer gently, “but I will do everything in my power to keep him well for as long as I can.” 

It is the only truthful promise I can make and although she is distressed she returns to thank me for giving her clarity. Sometimes honesty backfires, when the patient or family later say they wanted to talk but not really hear bad news. I find these encounters particularly upsetting but they are rare and I don’t let them sway me from telling the truth.

Oncology is emotionally charged and I have never been afraid of admitting this to the very people who imbue my work with emotion. I don’t cry easily in front of patients but I have had my share of tears and tissues in clinic and contrary to my fears, this has been an odd source of comfort to patients. In his Christmas card, a widower wrote that when my voice broke at the news that his wife had died he felt consoled that the world shared his heartbreak.

It can be tricky but I try to put my patients’ grief into perspective without being insensitive. It’s extraordinary how many of them really appreciate knowing that I, and others, have seen thousands of people who are frightened, sad, philosophical, resigned, angry, brave and puzzled, sometimes all together, just like them. It doesn’t diminish their own suffering but helps them peek into the library of human experiences that are catalogued by oncologists. It prompts many patients to say that they are lucky to feel as well as they do despite a life-threatening illness, which is a positive and helpful way of viewing the world.

I will never know what kind of a doctor I might have become without the searing experience of being a patient. The twins would have been 10 soon. As I usher the next patient into my room to deliver bad news, I like to think that my loss was not entirely in vain.” 

……… 

I read this story with alarm. It made me feel anxious because I have and love a pair of identical twin boys. I felt involved because, like the writer’s doctor, I am a doctor who cries; and like the writer, Dr Srivastava, I am a doctor who writes. Finally we two are products of the same medical school (Monash) – Dr Srivastava graduated at the top of her class, in the present century, I graduated at the opposite end of my class, in antiquity (1969).

A final point of commonality was her reassuring remark that ten years after her doctor wept her home is full of the noise of happy living children.

I found the piece helpful. Dr Srivastava identifies and untangles the strands of her experiences with surgical deftness. Her doctor weeps, her colleagues show support and care and empathy and she heals. As a trained observer, the writer dissects her experience of grief, lays out its anatomy and reflects upon its organs and parts.

Like the writer, I find relief and understanding in the act of writing. I suspect that a part of this relief results from word search. The writer is obliged to seek the precise word for the experience. In my case this forces me to test and taste a number of words. Perhaps a dozen words might work more or less passably, but the acts of searching, of choosing, of trialling, help me to clarify what my feelings were not quite like. I mean I discover what I mean. Perhaps this functions as a working through, a self-conversation, something between analysis of an experience and re-imagining it. In my case too, the pleasure of words is an aesthetic joy that comforts me.

Medicine is a pursuit conducted with the living in the shadow of death. It is a pursuit packed with anxious questions: what is wrong with me, will I die, what can be done, will it hurt, how much, how will I know the answers, when will I know? This crying doctor feels the patient’s fear and his own and has to know the border that divides the two. My fears are for the patient, of the patient, of failure, of failing a person of flesh and feeling. My fears include the terror that strikes me when I see my patient slipping away, the knowledge of my mortal inadequacy.

The writer who lost her twins precisely names the elements in her emotional experience. With remarkable poise she traces the costs and the benefits of the loss. So coherent are her reflections I could feel myself learning as I read. I learned about her life and her work, how the two are not the same but never severable. I learned more of how a doctor feels, who she is, who I am.

Robert Hillman’s Review of Carrots and Jaffas

Identical, red-haired twin boys are born to Luisa and Bernard Wanklyn, who live in Melbourne. The year is somewhere in the fairly recent past. Since we’re in Australia, the twins are naturally nicknamed Carrots and Jaffas, the only alternatives being Bluey and Ranga. Luisa, the mother, is a native of Argentina; Bernard was born in Australia. When the boys reach the age of ten, Wilberforce Reynolds, an addled one-time addict, makes an attempt to steal them from their parents. There’s a bleak irony there – ‘William Wilberforce’ and ‘Henry Reynolds’ being the names of emancipators. Indeed, Wilbur Reynolds is acting out of a grotesquely misconceived impulse to redeem a life of ratbag behaviour by making a gift of the two boys to Greta, an Indigenous woman of the Flinders Ranges who played a role in raising white Wilbur many years past. Greta’s own two sons had been taken from her in the 1950s by men with the legal authority to do so. The two red-haired boys will compensate her, so Wilbur hopes. But Wilbur manages to steal only one of the boys, Jaffas. The agony of Jaffa’s parents is matched in its intensity by the agony of the twins, each left yearning for the touch of the other.

The impression the reader will be left with after a quick reading of Howard’s novel is of a drama constructed around an appalling crime and its widening repercussions. Hearts are torn out, and in the broader community, people who hear of the abduction on the news put a hand to the head and murmur: “Dear God!” But the story told here is far more thoughtful, far more involving than that. As it was bound to be. This is Howard Goldenberg’s first novel, but two works of non-fiction precede it, “My Father’s Compass”, a memoir of Myer Goldenberg, Howard’s dad, and “Raft”, a book that records Howard’s engagement as a doctor with Indigenous Australians in remote communities all over the continent. Each of these earlier books is distinguished by the vernacular philosophy of a thriving intellect, and by a quality of observation that yields one poetic insight after another. If we speak of intensity of feeling, insight and quality of enquiry, Carrots and Jaffas is of a piece with those earlier works.

The broad strategy of the novel, in my reading, is to allow the story to unfold through five movements – Birth, Growth, Catastrophe, Healing, Reunion. With this strategy in place, Howard gives himself the liberty to riff on the themes that brace his story: the binding force of love; the rigour of grief; the perseverance of hope; the will and the wherewithal to imagine the life we hope for, and especially, what we expose ourselves to when another human being becomes more crucial in our vital life than our own wellbeing. (We might think of Bacon’s Hostages to Fortune lines: “He who hath a wife and children hath given hostages to fortune” but we should cheer Bacon up a little and subvert his meaning by saying: “Anyone who loves has given hostages to fortune.”)

Out of these themes emerge the book’s two arguments. The first establishes the enigma of individuality, taking in the sources and purpose of human individuality, and the second demonstrates the stubborn persistence of those forces in the world that oppose evil.

Let me return to love, the great emphasis in everything that Howard writes. Here is the mother of the twins experiencing the growth of love for her newly born, prematurely born children:
Luisa laughed the laughter of tenderness and body fluids, of manic collapse, of sleepless necessity.
On an impulse, or in forgetfulness or in simple exhaustion of thought, Luisa picked up both babies at once…offered each baby a breast. Both sucked….two small heads swiveled and searched, bony limbs extended, antennae into the void. One arm, flung outwards, came to rest on a brother’s shoulder. Gazes locked, spines unarched, mouths resumed sucking, smoothly, to satiety.

This conveys the growth of love of a mother for her children, and also the dependence of each twin on the other. Carrots and Jaffas cannot satisfy themselves individually; both must be satisfied together.

Later, Bernard, the father, in his quest to grasp what being the father of two children who can barely be differentiated involves, quotes from a poem on the subject of identical twins:

“The twins retain/intimate knowledge of each other,/ Theirs alone-/Of mind and body and being –/a knowledge preceding speech,/Transcending speech: Knowledge subtle as song,/Deep as the womb,/Pure as echo./Identical twins: One? Two? One?”

I wrote an endorsement for Carrots and Jaffas before its publication, and said this, amongst other things: “Howard Goldenberg’s story of identical twins, violently parted at the age of ten, reveals the hunger that dwells in all of us to stand distinct in the gaze of God.” To achieve that distinction in the gaze of God is our human struggle; to demonstrate that we cannot be packed by the gross; that we are marked with an individuality that honours, in its way, the teeming variety of life in the world. Think of Hopkins poem, “Pied Beauty” in which God delights in “All things counter, original, spare, strange…”But for Carrots and Jaffas, that struggle for originality is over at birth, or even at conception. The gaze of God is the gaze of the identical twin. The suggestion of Howard’s book is that the mystique of the identical twin is closely related to the mystery of divinity in our lives. We are unlikely ever to know what the identical twin knows, and unlikely ever to know what God knows. But one thing we can know is this: God is Himself, Herself an identical twin.

Wilberforce Reynolds parts Carrots and Jaffas. He hadn’t meant to. He had intended to steal both boys. It is a feature of acts of violence that they often do even greater harm that the perpetrator intended. Wilbur’s hope is that he will win the approval of a woman, Greta, who suffered the theft of her own two boys. In Archie Roach’s haunting song, “Took the Children Away”, Archie says: “You took the children away, The children away. Breaking their mother’s heart, Tearing us all apart, Took them away.” Those who took away Indigenous children decades ago knew that they were causing grief, but felt that a greater good justified the harm. And this is also Wilbur’s rationalisation.

My head will be right, doing this good thing…it’s the right thing to do, to bring kids, to steal them and replace kids stolen from blackfellers.

Howard makes very clear that Wilbur’s failure of imagination re-enacts the failure of imagination of those who had conceived the scheme of parting Indigenous parents from their children so much earlier. Jaffas, after his abduction, cries out in his anguish: “Run! Run back to Carrots! Run!” and we think of Leah Purcell’s song, ‘Run, Daisy, Run!’

Jaffas finds himself in the care of Greta and the white Doctor Burns up in the Flinders Ranges, the oldest place on earth. The creation of each of these characters are amongst the finest accomplishments of the novel. This Healing movement of the book sees Greta revealing to the traumatised Jaffas stories of the land, of her country, while the Doc contributes tales of scientific discoveries, of Indigenous distress, of the land as understood by a white man. Neither the Doc nor Greta know the true story of Jaffas abduction; Wilbur had spun a plausible tale to explain why he was leaving the boy with Greta. The Doc begins to suspect that Wilbur’s story is rubbish, and he wonders whether Wilbur’s real motivation has something to do with Greta’s past. He asks her, one day, about that past:

My boys, they take my two boys. Never come back. I reckon they big fellas now, fathers. Maybe grandfather. I never see them. Maybe they die, maybe they just lost….That what happen. That what they do. Steal ‘em…

But back at Jaffas home, his brother is tearing himself apart with grief, while his mother, Luisa, torments herself with stories of the unspeakable things done to other abducted twins by a certain Doctor Mengele during the Second World War. The strong suggestion is that Luisa, herself a one-time victim of hideous violence under the Junta in Argentina, will go mad if she is never to see Jaffas again. I spoke earlier of those forces in the world that oppose evil, and of their power. While Luisa is losing her mind, guarding her remaining son with a maniacal determination, Greta and the Doc are painstakingly rebuilding hope in the abducted Jaffas, mending, healing. In the oldest region of the earth, the aged (and Doc Burns is no longer a young man, nor Greta a young woman) dispense hope and love to the young.

Howard Goldenberg’s novel brims with suggestion, as a novel should. And the suggestion I want to make a big deal out of is this: that love, human love, is the finest accomplishment of the imagination. Maybe it is too easy to use a word like ‘evil’ and expect that everyone agrees about what evil is. But we do know what ‘wrong’ is. It is wrong to snatch a child from the street and drive away on some mongrel errand. It is wrong to wrench children in their thousands from the embrace of their parents on some state-sponsored mongrel errand of larger scale. It is wrong to gather people in their millions into camps, reduce their existence to wretchedness, then murder them. To do wrong requires no imagination at all; merely malice or egocentricity. To do good requires imagination. The Doc and Greta imagine the path to recovery that Jaffas might follow, then urge him along it. Their imagination stands in strong distinction to Wilbur’s crude lack of imagination.

Howard Goldenberg’s book is itself the product of a fine, creative imagination, and of a big heart. Like all such works of literary art, Carrots and Jaffas adds a welcome something to our chances in the world.
Robert Hillman is the renowned author of sixty books, including “The Rugmaker of Mazr a Sharif ” (Wild Dingo Press). His most recent works are the celebrated novel, “Joyful” (Text, 2014), and a young adult novel, “Malini” (Allen and Unwin, 2014)

Robert launched Carrots and Jaffas at the Melbourne Writers Festival in August 2014 with his speech above. 

Toby’s Fingers Stuck in the Bath Hole

My wife Annette and I are having an early dinner when my phone rings. It is Rachel, our elder daughter: “No-one is hurt, everyone is OK, but I’ve called an ambulance: Toby’s fingers are stuck in the bath hole.”

I reckon I’m equal to this little challenge: ”Darling, just soap his fingers liberally then they’ll become slippery and he can just slip them out.”
“I’ve done that, Dad, and it didn’t work. I’m attending to Toby, but I need help with the other kids. Can you come over?”
“We’re on our way. We’ll be 15 minutes.”

In the car, Annette looks at her watch and calculates that Rachel’s brother, Raphael, will be driving home about now. He might get to Rachel’s before we do. She calls Raph and indeed he is only a minute away from Rachel’s house. He isn’t driving; he’s on his bike.

We drive into Rachel’s street which is blocked by two large fire trucks, a smaller fire car, two ambulances and a police car. There is no smoke and there are no signs of a motor accident.
We park at a distance and make our way on foot to Rachel’s house. Flung to one side on the grass is Raphael’s bicycle. Ahead of us the large torso and bum of a fire officer protrude from the bathroom window. The head and shoulders are out of view, presumably inside.
We make our way to the interior. A large man walks purposefully ahead of us, lugging a heavy timber box of plumber’s tools. From the narrow hallway an ambulance officer carries a plastic drink bottle into the bathroom. The bathroom itself is small. What with the toilet, the shower recess and the old-fashioned claw-foot bath, two is a crowd here. This evening the crowd is larger: the ambulance officer, a young lady, is leaning forward, passing the drink bottle to a male colleague who sits on the edge of the bath. The missing fireman’s face and shoulders are framed in the window, as he leans inward, observing and giving advice and instructions to another fire officer lying on the floor. This is another partial fireman, his face and arms invisible beneath the curve of the steel bathtub.
What he lacks in extremities and face he makes up for in length: this is a very tall fireman.
In the tub, drained of its bathwater, sits Rachel, her back to the door. On her lap is the skinny white body of Toby, aged five, a runt, a set of bones with a piping voice. One of his arms extends to the bath hole. His fingers are not seen.
The mother is reading a story to her child.

From the family room, children’s voices are calling: Toby’s twin, Miles, and their older brother, Jesse, have sighted us: “Saba! Savta! Toby is stuck. His fingers are stuck in the bath!
Look! Lollies! Raph is giving us a special treat.
The boys peel themselves from the arms of their uncle Raphael, who stands with his bare chest, wet with the sweat of his bike ride on this hot evening of 30 plus degrees.
Miles and Jesse pull at our clothing, dragging us to the bathroom, to see Toby and his missing fingers. They squeeze past the ambos, step onto the prostrate fireman and clamber into the bath. We follow them, secreting ourselves along the far wall and we greet Rachel. Raph stands behind us in the doorway.
Rachel smiles the smile that we’ve seen before, the smile that welcomes mere chaos that unseats tragedy.
Pasted over her fear, and threat and alarm, Rachel’s smile invites us to see and share the joke.
It is hot in the bathroom. Toby’s free hand wields a lollypop that disappears and reappears in and out of the recesses of his mouth. He cries out his greetings, his words emerging through a slop of saliva and lolly juice. He is having a pretty good time.

Rachel gives us a synopsis: “I called the ambulance and told them that Toby’s finger was stuck. These guys came and called the fire brigade. While I was on the phone, Toby’s free fingers were curled up and cramped, so he made them more comfortable by poking another couple into the plughole. Now there are three fingers that are stuck.
“The fire guys have all the right tools and equipment. They get fingers out of plug holes all the time. I didn’t know that bathplugs are a fireman’s specialty.”
The fire chief in the window frame elaborates: “Normally, a plughole is a ten-minute job. They’re all plastic nowadays. But this bath is a genuine antique, made of genuine steel. The plughole itself is probably made of toughened steel: it’s usually a disc about half an inch thick, with half a dozen circular holes, all of them just about the width of a toddler’s finger.
“The plan is to cut away the drain pipe. This will allow us to raise the bath from the floor, so that Steve can get right underneath and free Toby’s fingers from below. He’ll push up on Toby’s fingertips with his own finger.
If that fails, we’ll have to saw away the steel drain and free Toby from the tub, and then tackle the fingers.

“You and your family won’t be taking baths for a while, Rachel. This bath will be in pieces once we’ve finished here.”
I take a look at my watch. 7.45 pm. Toby has been in the bath for an hour and a half.
While we’ve been talking, the home phone has rung and rung out. My own mobile has rung unattended. Now Annette’s phone rings and it is Toby’s Aunty Naomi, calling from Sydney. She had called earlier, just when Rachel was racing between the stuck child and the other children and her urgent phone calls for help. Since that time, Naomi has learned sufficient to frighten, and nothing to comfort an aunt who has visions of fingers lost by strangulation or by nightmare surgery. Naomi has no children of her own yet and she loves her Melbourne nephews and niece with an intensity which increases with the distance.

Naomi asks to speak to Toby. “Toby, would you like me to sing Rainbow?”
Toby nods, his mouth occupied by his lollypop.
Rachel switches the phone to Speaker and says:
” Toby is busy with a lolly. He does want you to sing.”
Naomi’s voice floats into the bathroom.
“Somewhere, over the rainbow,
Way up high…”
The phrases float, spacious, into the bathroom, the words a familiar caress for the boys at their bedtime. Naomi’s singing voice is a sweet soprano, usually crystalline. Tonight the voice is thickened with an unfamiliar tremolo.
“ there’s a land that I heard of
Once, in a lullaby…”
Toby is transfixed. His brothers are still. Three lollypops are held, suspended, while Naomi sings.
All conversations stops. The lengthy plumber pulls his face out from under the steel belly of the tub. His face is wet with sweat. Bathroom lint clings to his chin and brow. He lifts his head and listens. The ambos and the fire chief stand, arrested. The voice rises, crests a high note and falls. The singing undoes us, soft family and hardy professionals alike.

A skinny woman appears. She is Laura, Rachel’s best friend. Alarmed by the emergency vehicles congregating outside, she races in: “What’s wrong? Is everyone alright? Can I bring food?”
She listens, looks, offers cuddles, kisses the air with her famous loud smacking sounds and leaves, disappointed not to be catering. Laura makes me laugh, always has.

The tall man pulls his head in again. The Chief hands us a hacksaw. We pass it to the tall man. We hear sounds of sawing, long metal screams.
Alarmed, Rachel wonders aloud about Toby’s fingers: are they safely out of the way of the singing blade? The Chief says: “Don’t worry. Steve knows just where to cut. He leaves a margin of pipe just shorter than his own index finger.”

At length the drainpipe is sawn through. Everyone gets out of the bath excepting for Toby and Rachel. Annette, Raphael and I make room so the bath can be lifted. Eight adult hands hoist the tub aloft. Toby squeals with delight as he levitates.
Steve’s voice comes from the floor: “Toby, can you wriggle your fingers?”
Rachel and the ambos relay the request. Toby says, explaining the obvious to the unintelligent, “I can’t. They are stuck.”
The voice from the floor warns Rachel that he is about to push Toby’s fingertips upwards from below. Steve pushes, Toby says “Ow! You are hurting me!”
Apologising, Steve has another try and Toby cries:”Stop it, you bumhead!”
Steve stops.
The Chief retires to the fire truck, returning with some new cutting equipment which he passes to Steve. Steve now sets about cutting free the metal disc with its six perforations and its three child fingers.
The Chief invites Jesse and Miles to come and inspect the fire truck. He shows them the hoses and the heavy brass fittings, then hoists them high into the cabin and places them onto the driver’s seat, beneath the steering wheel. In the massive truck they are very small.
The Chief points out the siren, the two-way radio, the switches that elevate the ladders and all the usual automotive controls. Two boys are in paradise. I remove them before they drive off in search of a fire.

Back in the bathroom, Toby is pacific once more. He sits in the tub in his mother’s arms watching a DVD. The ambos take turns holding the portable screen at the right distance for Toby’s comfort. The DVD is in a language foreign to the ambos and fire crew. It is “Bob Esponja”, Sponge Bob in Spanish.
Now his brothers clamour to watch too. Raphael and I take them outside and hoist them onto the window sill recently vacated by the fire chief.
All of this takes place well past the bedtime of such small boys as maintain a normal, detached relationship with their bathtubs.
The boys watch and translate for the ambulance man and lady, Ross and Joelle (‘call me Jodie’) respectively. It is a cultural treat for Ross and Joelle, who have only previously enjoyed Sponge Bob in English with respective nephews.

It is about 9.00PM when the plughole with its nubbin of pipe and its heavy perforate disc is freed from the tub. Sponge Bob has finished. Toby looks at his naked self and the empty tub. He says mildly: “I am ready to get out now.”
Rachel rises, her bum and thighs numb after three hours, cradling Toby and his massive steel bracelet as she does so.
Escorted by Joelle and Ross, they make their way to the kitchen. Here Annette has covered the kitchen table with towels and a pillow for Toby’s head.
Annette takes Miles and Jesse to their bedrooms. Their protests are audible from the kitchen.
Jesse appears in the kitchen. He says,”I can’t sleep. I’m too worried.”
Somehow Annette persuades him to come back to his room. She lies down alongside him and tries to help him relax.

Now the Chief produces a narrow strip of steel blade, about a foot long and an eighth of an inch wide. Its surface is roughened and irregular; it looks like steel with acne. The Chief explains: “Diamond saw. It’s the only thing that will cut through that steel.”

The Chief threads the stiff blade between Toby’s index finger and the inner edge of the steel annulus. The sharp edge of the blade is applied to the steel and moved up and down. It seeks a niche or crack to bite at hard, but the steel is obdurate and the blade bounces off it. The Chief tries again and again. He is relentless. Steel against steel, the Chief versus the disc.
An exquisite Argentine proverb of Toby’s father, Pablo, runs: con paciencia y con saliva, el elefante se cogio a la hormiga.*
Over the next long time, the Chief will need all the patience and saliva he can muster. He sneaks the blade between the hard steel and the soft boy. The blade makes glancing contact with the disc, leaving a fine scratch in the steel. Now the blade comes again, finds the line of scratching and attacks. The linear scratch deepens minutely. It is nothing like a fissure. Many more passes of blade, many minutes in which Rachel braces Toby’s hand against movement. Rachel searches the face of the Chief. Is he discouraged? He is not. He is the elephant seducing the ant. He presses on.
The room heats up, the disc heats up and Toby protests. Now Jodie produces a green gadget and shows Toby. It looks like a fat whistle. “You put this in your mouth, Toby, and you breathe in. Then your hand will feel good again.”
Toby takes the toy, breathes in and out, relaxes and smiles. He likes his inhaled narcotic.
More laborious sawing, more minutes pass, many single tedious minutes, dragging themselves into hours. The disc is hot, the Chief is resolute, the ambos take turns positioning Toby’s wrist and the Toby rescue industry hums on. Eventually – it is around 10.00pm – Toby becomes fractious. He addresses Jody, the wrist-bearer of the moment. “Put my hand down.”
Jody explains: ”We have to hold it up high to get your fingers out, Toby. It won’t take long.”
Toby is not placated: “Stop it, bumhead!”
Bumhead’s offsider, Ross, gives Toby another suck of narcotic and he subsides.

A further half an hour passes, half an hour of sawing, story reading, perspiring and concentrating. The cluster around Toby and his still buoyant mother falls eventually into speechless reverie. Each person in her own thoughts, each concentrating on three thin fingers that remain pink and on a small boy’s face, pale now with medication and fatigue.

There is a bloke at the front gate who wants to talk to any member of the family. I am greeted by a shortish man with a warm smile and a huge camera. He’s from one of the TV stations. He apologises for his intrusion, he hopes he is not causing distress, would any member of the family be prepared to describe what is happening? I answer, “No.” The man accepts this gracefully and walks away.
I retrieve a phone call. It is Pablo, Toby’s aphoristic father. “Howardo, what’s happening? Is Toby OK? Should I come home?”
Pablo is up country, the indispensable leader of his team’s annual residential seminar. He is out of town but painfully in touch. It tears him in two.
“No, Pablo, Toby is safe and cheerful, his mum is cheerful and the house is full of fire people, ambulance people, family, friends and kibitzers. There’s no physical space for a mere father. OK?”
Pablo is OK, just. I am to ring back later with more news.
Back inside, Toby stirs, complains: “My hand feels uncomterful.” Jody confers with Ross, then turns to Rachel: ”We can’t give Toby any more of the painkiller in case it depresses his breathing. Any further doses need to be given in the Children’s Hospital, with anaesthetic and operating facilities.”

Rachel flows into action. She kisses her other boys goodnight, tells them that Toby will go to the hospital to get his fingers out and he’ll come home soon. She grabs Toby’s teddy bear, a couple of books and another DVD.
Toby says a warm goodnight to all the emergency people, not excluding bumheads.
Rachel wraps Toby in a rug, marches from the house into the open ambulance, concealing her son from the TV camera, and in a moment they are away.

I follow in my car. I work odd night shifts in the Emergency Department of that hospital. I might be useful in some way; I know people there.
By the time I arrive in Triage, Rachel and Toby are nowhere to be seen. The nurse in Triage seems to expect me. “Go into the Minor Procedures Room, Howard. They’re all in there.”

Indeed they “all” are. There are Jodie and Ross and a new fire team. Steve and the Chief and our previous team only do outpatients, it seems. The new bunch comes from another fire station and they do the inpatient jobs. There is a firelady and a fireman, both selected, surely, for their tenderness towards children. The fireman is as tall as Toby is minute. He looks at me, I look at him, Rachel looks at him. He says, “Hello Doctor Goldenberg. We met at your clinic. I married your patient, Robyn. Do you remember?” Indeed I do remember. He is Nick. Rachel is looking at him hard and long because he is so good looking.

Nick has no hand for me to shake because his are occupied with an intriguing apparatus, whose principles he at length will explain. The principles are alarming.
Meanwhile I meet Lucy, who is operating a portable DVD player for Toby, who sits in his mother’s embrace on an operating table. Toby grips his pale blue teddy bear as he always does – with one of its arms in his mouth. Every night that bear develops a soggy upper limb. The bear keeps Toby company through his hospital stay and then disappears, forever lost. Bearnapped, we suppose.
There is a nurse who is helping a doctor administer intravenous pain killers to Toby. The doctor smiles and greets me. We know each other. A quarter of a century ago, when he was a boy, I used to be his family doctor. Then he became my medical student. Nowadays, when I work at the Royal Children’s, I operate under his direction. He is the paediatric consultant on duty tonight. His name is Dominic.

Nick explains his gadget. It is a miniature example of the famed ‘Jaws of Life’ that road emergency crews use to disimpact a crushed motor vehicle from its trapped occupant. Nick’s gadget is a menacing midget of frightening power. It looks like a pair of dark steel pincers emerging from a cylindrical contrivance connected by strong piping to a device that couches like sin on the floor of the O.R. That floor dweller is a pump that forces air under enormous pressure to the pincers, coercing them apart.
Nick introduces the fine pincers into one of the unoccupied annuluses of Toby’s steel ring. He allows the pressure to build and build. The steel of the annulus resists the steel of the jaws. All our jaws are clamped hard, as we watch in dread the application of irresistible force to an object not amenable to persuasion. I close my eyes briefly against a vision of a sudden sundering of the steel bracelet or else an explosion underfoot of the compressor. The latter would destroy the fourteen limbs standing nearby on the floor; the former could shatter my daughter and my grandson.
I adopt the business-as-usual expression that one always deploys when one’s gamble with a patient’s health hangs upon the coin that one has set spinning, spinning, as it falls to earth.
With a discrete metallic sigh the annulus cracks and gapes. Firelady Lucy hands Nick a diamond–blade saw, which he wields now with a free-swinging action well away from Toby’s flesh. As the saw makes its remorseless way through the steel disc, Dominic inserts a shield for Toby’s finger.
Millimetre by millimetre the blade divides the inviolate steel. Sixteen eyes follow the progress of the blade, a remorseless icebreaker freeing the trapped one. The saw falls still, a fraction short of the shield. Now Nick applies a wrench to the opposing shores of the bay where Toby’s finger is marooned. Another steel sigh and the disc surrenders. Toby’s finger is free. Watching Aladdin and his magic, he pays no heed to our drama.
Two more fingers to go. Pincers, saw, wrench – all are deployed in unhurried speed. Nick frees Toby’s digits, tears gather at the edges of my eyes as Rachel kisses those finger tips.

Dominic examines the fingers minutely. He is checking for tissue damage. There is the small skin indentation one sees when a ring has been a little tight. The skin is pink.
Dominic tells Toby to wriggle his fingers. Toby does so, his expression of scornful surprise registering wonder at the obtuseness of the adult world.
Dominic wants to be certain that there has been no damage to nerves and blood vessels. After x-rays he will keep Toby and Rachel here, in an annexe, until the morning, “just to be sure”.
The morning is not many hours away. I kiss my grandson and I hold my daughter’s face in my hands and squeeze her beloved flesh. Then I drive home.
On the way to the car, I phone Annette and share the news. And I forget all about phoning Pablo and Naomi.
***

In the bath a few weeks later 7 year old Jesse has an idea: “Why don’t you see if you can get your fingers into the bath hole, Toby?”.

 

* Pablo translates: With patience and with saliva, the elephant fucked the ant.

Melbourne Boy Rescued After Plug Hole Drama

Melbourne Boy Rescued After Plug Hole Drama

 

Carrots and Jaffas Reading and Chat with Clare Bowditch

Once upon a time a redheaded warbler sang a song to a crowd of people gathered to hear her and readings from a book about two red-headed twins. The singer was Clare Bowditch, songwriter, mother of twins-plus-one, social activist, philosopher and entrepreneur.
The reader was Howard Goldenberg, author, GP and marathon runner.
In this 3 minute video Howard reads from Chapter 1 of his novel ‘Carrots and Jaffas’, a book about two identical twins whose intimate bond is ruptured when a kidnapping occurs.

Please let me know what you think. Should I publish an audio book?

The Twin Bond

He’s a big bloke in all directions, tall and broad. His face is round and it smiles widely as he enters the Doc’s consulting room. He has an open gaze.

The Doc makes room for the big man to pass.

“Thanks Doc.” He offers a large hand. Doc’s hand disappears inside his patient’s. The grip is manly firm, manly gentle.

“My name’s Alexander, Doc. Call me Alex.”

“Good to meet you, Alex.”

“I’ve got hypertension. Need a repeat of my tablets.” He smiles, his jowls rise and shine and recede. He tells the Doc he is sixty six. He is a man who invites conversation.

The Doc asks Alex where he lives.

“Port Augusta. Been there forever. Born there. Father met mother there, in primary school.

They’re long gone.

I’ve got a sister, a good bit older.

I had a brother – we were twins…”

The glow on Alex’s large face gives way to something deeper as the man slows his flow. Something is happening. Homage? Damage?

The Doc wants to know: “Were you identical?”

Alex nods. “And close.”

He clears his throat.

“What happened to your twin?”

“Cancer.”

In Alex’s mouth, the word is a sentence.

“You know we only saw each other three times in the last thirty years, but we were close.”

The Doc looks at him.

“Very close…Thirty years back he went to New Zealand for a fortnight and he stayed. He came back to see me, stopped with me here, for 12 months. Here we are together.” Alex fishes in his wallet and pulls out an old colour photo. Two large round men in their thirties sit in a small fishing boat and smile goofily into the sun. The light bleaches their faces and sets fire to their red hair. One of the men rests his hand on the other’s shoulder.

“After that year he went back to N.Z. To his friends and his life.

Then he got sick and died. Cancer.”

“It was tough?”

The serious face recedes inward for a moment. The Doc is forgotten. Alex is alone with memory of the feeling, with feeling returned.

He looks out at the younger man: “Knocked me around something terrible.” He stops, shakes his head.

“People used to ask us: ‘What’s it like being twins?’

We’d ask each other: ‘What’s it like not being a twin?’”

The Doc looks away while the other man composes himself. At length he resumes. His face is earnest now as he searches for words to carry feeling: “You know, I lost my son. Suicide.

My wife and I only ever had the one son… Terrible…

I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

But it’s my brother I think of. Half of me is gone.”

The old man’s eyes are wet. “It’s been seven years…”

A pause as he searches for dates…“Seven years and one day.

There wouldn’t be a single day when I don’t think of my brother.

The large man takes his prescription and shakes the Doc’s hand. He conjures a smile for the Doc and he leaves.