Diary of a disaster?

By David Walsh

My nearly-nine-year-old daughter was leaving a high-rise apartment building in Sydney with her mum, Jemma, when she was struck on the back of the head with a rock, apparently dropped by some witless miscreant from a high floor.

As far as I can calculate, at the precise time of this incident I was inside a James Turrell installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a Ganzfeld machine, which overloads senses with colour and sound, a human creation capable of inducing euphoric states not accessible through nature. This great artist will soon be represented at Mona. He also has plans to do a residency at the school Grace attends. A pleasant coincidence induced by the fact that James Turrell is a Quaker and Grace’s school is the largest Quaker school in the world.

The heightened sensibilities induced by one man were displaced by a sense of powerlessness induced by another (I think it reasonable to assume Grace’s assailant was male).

I desperately scrambled onto the next flight to Sydney and that is where I am right now, twelve hours into a fourteen-hour flight. I’ve therefore had no news for half a day.

The last information, reported to me by Jemma just before boarding, was that Grace’s frequent vomiting had been curtailed, and her obs had improved. Earlier news was that she had a fractured skull, contusions, amnesia and confusion, and some vision deficit. But also that she reminded her mum to cancel a dentist appointment she had later in the day, and that she apologised to the hospital staff for the trouble she was causing each of the many times she vomited.

I will see her soon. Of course I hope everything will be all right, the human body is resilient by design, and I have faith in western medicine. The neurosurgeon I spoke to inspired confidence, particularly when she asserted that observation, rather than intervention, was appropriate.

The chance of hitting someone with a stone from above is minuscule. The thoughtless fool who dropped the stone was extremely unlucky. But Grace was much more unlucky than he. A question I know is important, but that I can’t fully explore at this point is: should the consequences for him depend on the consequences for her? My superficial response is that they should not, he should be punished and remediated for his astonishingly negligent action, not the appalling outcome. And yet it would be hard not to squeeze if my hands were around his throat. That’s why we can’t take the law into our own hands, my most personal experience of this important principle.

Even if she weren’t a good girl she would still be my girl, and still be loved by those who raised her. But she is a good girl, a wonderful girl, and as a result many more suffer as she suffers, because many more love her. I’m racked with worry. So I’m writing these words to crystalise my thoughts, to pass the time, and to keep me sane.

Interval: focusing my thinking on the frivolous.

After reading this excerpt from my autobiography, wherein my twenty-year-old self is expressing his opinion on the relative importance of culture and biology,

I contend that beauty itself is biologically sourced. Symmetry reflects good gene expression and therefore desirability as a mate, red is a warning flag suggesting toxity, green means photosynthesis and thus nutrient content, mimicry generates visual acuity because it generates a need to tell the real from the fake. Bitter versus sweet defines nutritious versus potentially poisonous, aversion to the smell of shit, scatole in shit to stop us eating bacterial contaminants. The list goes on and on.

my friend Anthony asked the following questions:

Why doesn’t snot contain scatole or another foul-smelling chemical to generate an aversion to eating it? Does the absence of any such chemical imply it is ok to eat snot?

At the time (a few days ago) I didn’t have a satisfactory answer but on the plane, with nothing else to do but worry, I figured it out, I think. So Anthony, here’s what I think Darwin would have thought:

Snot forms and resides in the nose. Any such noxious compound (like scatole) in the nose would affect our capacity to detect foul/friendly odours in the environment. We therefore would evolve in the direction of not detecting odours emanating from our nose, and the production of such compounds would be a waste of energy. And if the compound employed was scatole we would lose our capacity to detect it in faeces.

Since fetid snot could not evolve, the fact that we don’t have it has no direct bearing on whether we can eat snot. However, because we can’t prevent ourselves, using chemical markers, from eating it, selection pressure would, most likely, render it as harmless as chemistry would allow. Simply put: we couldn’t avoid it if it were harmful so it has to be harmless.

Interval ends. One hour and four minutes until we land. I had eggs for breakfast. Can Grace eat?

A few hours later. First, Grace can eat, sort of. She is consuming, with vigour, her second icy pole of the last day and a bit, the only thing she has been able to keep down.

Two bits of good news. She will be ok, most likely. The cut is appalling, the fracture pretty scary since there is some depression, but she will recover. She could be stuck in Sydney for at least two weeks, which might be a small silver lining for her mum.

Also, the police believe that the stone fell from the roof, after being placed near the edge by crows. My little darling was stoned by crows. It’s something of a relief that all this suffering wasn’t the outcome of an belligerent gesture by a broken man.

Just now Grace vomits. Apparently even lemonade icy poles are beyond her fragile disposition. Nobody deserves what she is going through. But an accident mediated by inadvertently murderous crows isn’t something anyone deserves. My mother would have disagreed. She believed that God dispensed only justice, but it was beyond the capacity of mortal man to comprehend his mysterious ways. Other concepts of remedial justice have emerged that are employed to justify bad luck, such as reincarnation. Those who subscribe to such beliefs would presumably believe that the crow and the laws of physics were collaborating to inflict punishment for a crime Grace committed in a previous life (perhaps in that previous life she was a crow). But bad luck is just bad luck. Laws of nature do not have the same characteristics as laws of man. Laws of nature do not attempt to perpetuate justice. And although laws of nature can accommodate appalling outcomes, they do so without malice or forethought.

A long day. Vomiting everything from painkillers to a bite of a banana. Enduring the pain, which is concomitant with a blow to the brain and throwing up painkillers. Drifting in and out of sleep but waking periodically to make a joke. High-level care, but all the hospital staff asking the same questions: what’s your name, age, address? Testing peripheral vision. So many lovely, caring people making Grace’s life a little bit tougher to maximize their chance of detecting a hematoma early enough to intervene. She’s asleep now. But they’ll wake her up all night.

Just when I thought everyone at this impressive hospital is lovely I met the paediatrician assigned to Grace. She told us off in no uncertain terms for the over-stimulating environment surrounding Grace (too many people) even while acknowledging that no one had told us that a low-stimulation environment was called for. She also contradicted the advice of other doctors, and when Jemma gently pointed that out, she retorted, ‘We all are in agreement, we just express it differently’. Her bedside manner brings to mind Basil Fawlty, if he had chosen a medical career. I can only hope that she is a pretending to be a paediatrician and will soon be exposed, like Frank Abagnale in Catch Me If You Can.

Two days later. Steady progress punctuated by one four-hour calvacade of calamities, wherein the IV line went troppo, she vomited many times, and her headache escalated. Just now, possibly against the advice of the toxic child doctor, I’ve allowed Grace to watch a Barbie movie on the iPad. The doctor demanded a low-stimulation environment. I personally think a Barbie movie she has seen many times is less demanding than staring through a window at a brick wall, and that is the other high-stress option Grace has available. And now the nurses are here to take the IV lines out. As I said, steady progress.

Quantum multiverse.

In most folds of the quantum multiverse I’d be driving Grace to school right now.

According to those who invoke the quantum multiverse to simplify the behaviour of quantum mechanical systems, every time the universe has options all of them are explored. This is one possible solution to the problem of assigning a probability to a unique event (another: Quantum Bayes, but you’ll have to read my forthcoming memoir if that makes you curious, or better yet, type it into Google).

The stone that hit Grace on the head was instantiating a very improbable event. Therefore, in the multiverse, it mostly didn’t happen. She doesn’t have a sore head, isn’t constipated, doesn’t have a shaved patch in the back of her head. She is on her way to school. So should I consider her very unlucky?

Of course, it’s easy to riff off an event that happened, and consider the chance that it didn’t happen, or consider the chance that it happened and the consequences were more severe (if it had hit her on top of her head, rather than merely dealing a glancing blow as it followed its vertical path, she could not have survived). But, of course, in the multiverse many unlikely things happen an enormous number of times. And the ghosts of the things that didn’t happen are ignored. It’s the nature of ‘survivor’ bias. In many worlds, but a low percentage of worlds, I just crashed the car. And there is a minuscule probability, but in many worlds it still happened, that the blow to the back of Grace’s head and the consequent bleeding flushed out an incipient astrocytoma, and thus prevented death. And maybe, just maybe, one of those worlds was this one.

We can control only the things that we are aware of, and then only to a limited extent. Good parenting only looks like good parenting if we avoid misfortune. And it is always worth reserving judgment when assigning culpability, because in this vast multiverse it can be hard to differentiate between malice, negligence and misfortune. The idea is to manage your deeds so that they are most likely to achieve the desirable and avoid the undesirable, while appraising the deeds of others in the knowledge that in most universes they might have achieved a better, or worse, outcome. If this sounds like sentimental bullshit forgive me, mostly I wouldn’t have written it, because the stone would have struck me, or Jemma, or someone I don’t know or, with a probability very close to one, no one at all.

Later. Our negotiations to secure permission for Grace to leave have fallen at the paediatrician hurdle. Although the neurosurgeon and the nurses thought it was fine for Grace to go home without a bowel movement (I faltered here, not knowing whether to use my argot, or Grace’s, or theirs) since she has to come back tomorrow to have stitches removed, the paediatrician demurred (although she is far from demure). She gave Grace a laxative which, it seems, will take some time to work, thus ensuring Grace is here until tomorrow.

Now the waiting game begins. The superb hospital staff make the waiting at least bearable (always excepting our nemesis paediatrician). The physiotherapist took Grace to the gym to test out her balance and decided she was secure. Just in the last half an hour we have had a teacher and a play therapist visit and offer resources. Even so the waiting is boring, but this boring has an uncharacteristic aura, following on from the terror, angst and stress. While I’m writing Grace is interrupting with questions about prisms and cylinders, good questions that were precipitated by the school pack the teacher gave her. I love this terrible place (a few nights ago a nurse told me that they love Grace because ‘she is one of the good ones’. Here the ‘good ones’ are those who will leave via the front door).

An odd thing. One of the delightful nurses just walked in and said, ‘You can go now’. Apparently the team had decided Grace had served her sentence. A little victory, since the neurosurgeon must have overruled the prickly paediatrician.

Grace is now excitedly shaving the head of Jemma’s boyfriend, Matt (who is agreeing to be shorn out of solidarity, since Grace has had some hair removed). Thus the world revolves. And as I already knew but now my knowing is renewed, my world revolves around my children. Through Grace’s misfortune, and through her fortune, I feel pain and I feel joy. And I feel her travails and triumphs more bitterly, and more exultantly, than I feel my own. That’s what love is.

49 thoughts on “Diary of a disaster?

  1. eighteen years ago my daughter catapulted herself out of a hammock strung over a one metre verandah. she was leaning out trying to see her twin brother and friend hiding beneath. the rest of the family were gathered around a table about to eat christmas dinner. she was 4 years old and unconscious for 3 days except for when we called her back asking her name over and over again. then she’d slip away to wherever you go. every emotion in the palette was tuned to maximum hue especially gratitude when she left via the front door. i’m very glad your grace is back-for everyone.

  2. I’m sitting here in the Royal Hobart Hospital watching my 18 month old little girl whilst chancing upon your fresh blog. I’m glad your story ended well. And I’m glad a theist of sorts can inspire you.

  3. …I remember many years ago my mum saying “you will know love when you become a parent”…wise words indeed (my life revolves around my kids too). So pleased things are on the up 🙂 p.s. I will remember the facts about snot next time I pass a tissue to the snot eating kindergarten child at school…

  4. i like how you wove a bit of info about snot into this story. it was unexpected. it was like…moving story about a child in peril…your concerns…side bit of sciency stuff to do with bodily functions…more concern about child again…bit of a whine about cold-hearted medical staff with no people-skills… which everyone can relate to…and a bit about crows as a quirky turn of events. I really like crows. but very unfortunate about the stone and your daughter. does make me wonder what it thought it was doing…leaving that there. and i have a completely unfounded theory that there’s some element in snot that maybe neutralises potential germs…a bit like saliva does…cos i dont think your body would leave a entrance wide open like that without a bit of protection.

  5. David..thank you for “one parent to anothet” reminding me of so many “close calls” that we can witness in the lives of our kids and how it can, if need be, deepen our appreciation for love & life. No doubt, “rocks n’ crow” stuff happens every day in this random universe but “Thus is not just some random child….this is MY child Like the time I was debriefing after a particularly ugly/messy/threatening public display of verbal and physical abuse recently. Someone nearby, said, “This things happen to lots of people, you are not the only one. “Correction”, I said…”I’m the only one of me”! Grace is the only one of her..unique, if not special kind. She’s her mum’s and your daughter, but she is first & foremost “her Grace”. Her own self. As fellow travellers in this universe we celebrate “Grace..her autonomy and yet her care & keeping that has been nominated to you & her mum. You have been chosen to look after her from conception and through her development years which is, in most cases 75% less than any other time in her life but still sets that very stage for success or failure. So I read this post with genuine empathy for you and Grace”s mum. For, as my now 34 year old son could attest, we have had to trust, in our vulnerability, our “fifth wheel” feeling when “we know that we must not rail against what we know not. He was living with mum and her partner at this time. He rang, at age 16 to get ” “dad advice” about whether he should ignore this “sense of warning” about going to the lake with school mates for their three day school holiday. He needed counsel & advise on this.. He did, with firm conviction, save himself from going.but that, in fact he saved his very life as that car was struck head on later that weekend and two of the four passengers were killed instantly. Random? Yes, perhaps, but still as a parent, I was moved to the place where no parent should have to consider…that I might out-survive one of our sons. Cheers mate to you. Grace is fortunate that you are her dad…Jemma is her mum. Well done all of your family and close friends of yours who supported and will, no doubt, continue to be there for/with you. Sorry for such a long reply .

  6. I am so glad you are taking Grace home safely, I find a few things poignant and one odd fact I wish to let you know. I read that there is a researcher who is checking whether eating your snot actually assist your immune system via exposure in a safe way! I have been a Nurse for 20yrs and an artist for 15 and the philosophy of life and its pressure points has been so evident to me through this experience. Art has been my saviour on the other side of heart felt work with families – you have provided a beautiful exultation of art in Australia which I commend you for, also your frank thoughts on this most heart felt experience! I have also encountered many Basil types masquerading as medico’s but it seems more are actually developing social skills thankfully! All the best on your journey of caring and recovery. Warmly Tara

  7. Hi David. So sorry to hear about this. I won a trip to the Mona & stayed in the Sidney Nolan suite & met your lovely partner. Its good that you are writing to get through your family ordeal on that long flight. On Grace’s way to full recovery a sacro-cranial massage would help or osteopathy as head injuries need attention and can take awhile to fully heal. Love, Claire Ashton.

  8. Am empathising David – recently my son was recently admitted to hospital after a very bad fall . He was unconscious for a while and concussed. Thankfully he is OK now, but was very, very lucky. When this happens you cannot but accept we live in a capricious universe – and that here is no limit to the depth of love we have for our children.

  9. Oh David, that is such an awful thing to happen, but I am so happy that it has ended well for you and let’s hope her recovery (and yours!) continues to go well. Best wishes – Robyn

  10. Thoughts for Grace.

    Thoughts re snot. Since snot is mostly eaten by children (I hope) and all behaviours in children serve some learning purpose, I think snot must contain remnants of the germs found in our environment, so teaching childish immune systems how to protect against them. In adulthood, snot eating is too little too late. And gross.

  11. stone the crows. I am thankful that Grace is making a full recovery. you are a very lucky man. And the anguish of Jemma must have been terrible. we must thank fate that the outcomes could have been worse. I have two friends Robert and Nicole who have both a son and daughter, both born perfect but due to circumstances in the hospital are now and have always been severely disabled. They have never heard their children speak. This has been their lot for more than 20 years. They only get a few hours of respite a week, and they usually spend it with Vanessa and I or they go out to MONA. When MONA opened I won a competition on Facebook for tickets to the opening which allowed them to attend, both the opening and the party afterwards, until the wee small hours of the morning. They are the most dignified people and shun any sympathy. They have filled their lives with beauty and art. Robert has a wonderfully seductive charm, and speaks with a melodious Irish accent , calling films filums , that you wouldn’t ever dare to correct. They enrich my soul.Your gallery has provided them with sanctuary since it opened.. I hope Grace’s recovery is swift, all the best. Shuvus

  12. Lots of wonder-filled wishes coming Grace’s way from my magic wishing chair.
    I’m so sorry this happened.
    I’m so glad that Grace will make a full recovery. Diane

  13. Hey David,
    So glad to hear your daughter is alright, my son fell in a rock climbing accident aged 14 and I had some very similar feelings, he also recovered well, great outcome x

  14. Your story brought tears. As a parent of 3 kids – only one of whom seemed prone to accidents: broken teeth, broken head, broken wrist, smashed elbow (and he was and is a gentle lad), but daughters who suffered their share of broken hearts….. and now grandparent of eight, it is always useful to be reminded of our impermanence, and therefore increase in great surges and spurts our appreciation of our precious ones.

  15. Wow, what a story. Hope she is well again soon. Best wishes to you and your family. (from a Hobart mum at your daughter’s school)

  16. I’m a Tasmanian, living in Harare, and today is Election Day in Zimbabwe. I am struck by the similarities in all things…..Grace ‘s accident, her father’s fascinating words, the indomitable human spirit, Robert Mugabe and the evil pediatrician……

  17. Just prayed for Grace for her full recovery and you & others not to worry. God does protect and love us. We can always turn to Him for answers. He will answer our prayers.

  18. We could also ‘tune out’ the smell of mucous at the smell processing level in our brains.
    Glad to hear your daughter has recovered too.

  19. Dear David What a wonderful gift you have to be able to write while you are experiencing such terror.I just went into a frozen heap of misery all my thoughts just going around in circles.How could such a horrific and bizarre thing have happened?There can be no one more loved than Grace and no one more deserving of love.Her given name describes her so well.She brings grace to our family gathering and amazingly wise council to anyone of any age.She is our peacemaker and Maddox and Dexter adore her and are at their best when Grace is with them.I’m rambling now because my relief is so great .Our Grace is whole .She,who is an amazing mix can be both pragmatic and highly Imaginative and with a well developed sense of the rediculous .Her spirituality which comes from no one else and speaks of before life experiences and a continuation of the developed personality to another plane .She can explain these beliefs in such a matter of fact way. Oh how I love her. One day I said to her ” I’m so sorry you inherited my awful nails darling” to which she replied “Don’t worry Gran nan.You see they came as a package .I also inherited your imagination.”

    • There is so much pain in loving and I have collected so many people whose lives are more important to me than my own when they are in pain It literally makes my heart want to stop and I forget to breath .but I wouldn’t trade the grief card for one that didn’t have the flip side of the joy of sharing the lives the wonder of birth ,the delight one finds in their growth and development ,and each humans uniqueness.I am impatient to see my Jem and my Grace .I have a great need to cuddle them closely.You and Jem are great parents as Grace can attest. Thank you David for sharing your time of living through our shared nightmare All my love Jane Gaddx

  20. Very eloquent thoughts on the fragility and resilience of life and love. Your thoughts on parenting and probabilities are so true. Best wishes and hope your daughter continues her recovery!

  21. David, we’re all saying prayers on this site to no god in particular, for the recovery of a lovely child and for comfort for her anxious parents. I want to add mine, but to a borrowed god, ie Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god who is said to help remove obstacles or to Dhanvantari, the god of ancient medicine. Another possible god to beseech in such circumstances is a convenient invention, specializing in medicine and the exquisite scientific “art” of healing. So, god speed for your recovery Grace, get well soon darling. I can’t wait for your book David, you write from the heart with grace and tremendous insight…And for the magnificent James Turrell to arrive in Hobart; that is sincerely an answered prayer to another invented unknown god! Finally, given your mention of the quantum folds of the universe, I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t been hit on the head by a flying ladder in Delhi! http://archive.tehelka.com/story_main16.asp?filename=hub031106Fursat_Mein2.asp

  22. Pingback: Consider the Fuhrer | Mona Blog

  23. Pingback: My most familiar faith | Mona Blog

  24. Pingback: Atmosphere | Mona Blog

  25. Its been a long time since this incident yet I was just informed and feel complete empathy (after Isabel was in the hospital with a life threatening respiratory disease) at this moment that I am crying and dare I say praying (when I am not even religious?) and chanting for her wellness. . I am so glad Grace is doing well and hope there are no serious residual effects after the incident in September. I have always hated crows and now, even more. I shall work on a farther range with my sling shot.

  26. Pingback: Here’s hoping | Mona Blog

  27. Pingback: Thank you and goodbye Oliver Sacks | Mona Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s