Springs eternal

By David Walsh

I’ve been telling tales of death recently. At the risk of reinforcing what I believe to be an unfortunate stereotyping of my interests, here’s another. Just now I rang Jacqui, friend, singer, yoga instructor and, on the end of the phone, sadness personified. This, despite an attempt to conceal her suffering: as always she wants all to feel only good. With prompting she told me her friend had died.

Jacqui had asked for treatment advice for her sick friend. She told me that they had collected some cash to send this friend to an ‘alternate cancer therapist’, Ian Gawler, a long-term survivor of cancer and advocate of ‘mind-body’ medicine. I don’t know if I have accumulated sufficient audience attention, as yet, to not need to mention that I see no merit in such treatments. Survivors survive, and they maintain a dignified silence, or offer advice and therapies, depending on their state of mind before their status as a survivor was assured. Most don’t survive (actually that isn’t literally true, half of those diagnosed with cancer do survive). And some, but very few, haven’t survived at all, but have fabricated their disease and recovery. Noticing that cancer sufferers have little to lose, they peddle false hope for real money. This asymmetry – little downside but considerable upside – is verdant territory for a scammer to graze.

Despite all that, and now all this, I didn’t know how to respond. I muddled through by suggesting that the therapy was unlikely to work, but that they give her the money anyway; maybe send her on a holiday. But I accepted, and accept, that hope, even hopeless, desperate hope, springs eternal.

And that makes me mindful of a perversion of reason I used to subscribe to. I used to think granting the wishes of dying kids was a poor way to spend donated dollars. ‘Look after those who will continue living,’ I mentally admonished them. Now I stand astonished at my insensitivity, and my incapacity to reason my way around such simple moral obstacles. Each day alive is a day to be celebrated, if it holds any possibility of giving the liver of that day some pleasure. The cousin of my nephew went to a Clipper’s game in LA not long before he died, as a guest of Make A Wish foundation. The thrill of a lifetime and, for him at least, set to remain so. Surely a good thing remains a good thing when those who experienced and enjoyed it have died? Even if all memory has been erased? After all I, for one, do believe that the tree made a sound when it fell in the forest, even though no one heard.

My outrageous resistance to organisations like Make A Wish wasn’t just the result of immature reasoning (and at all moments in a life the receding opinions of earlier moments will seem immature). I had many opportunities to form different opinions. Years ago I read a great but obscure book of the human condition, Towards Asmara, within which was all the moral guidance I needed. During the most memorable moment of this most memorable novel, children are slowly starving as the Ethiopian Civil War, and famine, rages around them. The narrator has a conversation with the protagonist concerning the kids learning French and English as they slowly dwindle; as their bodies are distorted by kwashiorkor or marasmus, their minds remain vessels to be filled. They live each little bit of each little day for itself, having no other option. They learn to say ‘hello’. And ‘goodbye’.

Why that wasn’t sufficient to set me straight, I don’t know. And it wasn’t my only opportunity. Much earlier, I had read Fritz Leiber’s romantic science fiction tale, A pail of air, which memorably begins, ‘Pa had sent me out to get an extra pail of air.’ Earth, having been extracted from its orbit by a passing star, is now beyond the orbit of Pluto. A family lingers on, apparently the only people on Earth. They thaw oxygen to breathe. ‘Pa’ contends that

no matter how long the human race might have lived, the end would have come some night. Those things don’t matter. What matters is that life is good. It has a lovely texture, like some rich cloth or fur, or the petals of flowers… or the fire’s glow. It makes everything else worth while. And that’s as true for the last man as the first.

Our biological compulsion isn’t simply to propagate our race, it is more cunning than that. It is to build in the pleasure of living, and the pleasure of seeking to propagate. Most sexual liaisons have no possibility of producing offspring. But they do produce pleasure, and sometimes bind relationships more strongly. Maybe that’s why Leiber persecuted a whole family within his elegantly contrived allegory.

The other day Phillip Adams (and I harvest some pleasure at dropping such a name, but it stemmed from an interview, not a friendship) asked me if I fear death. I answered then, and mentioned to Jacqui just now, that I fear dying, as my biological nature compels me to, but that I contrive, through my evolution-given capacity to reason my way through my world, to see it as an undesirable side effect of the astonishing good fortune of having been born in the first place. The uncountable generations of successful matings since nature’s invention of sex over a billion years ago; the freakish chance of the one of my father’s sperm meeting the one of my mother’s eggs that were each able, through forthcoming fusion, to contain me therein; and the events since, that prevented my dying while allowing this moment and this thought.

To characterise all this more immediately and personally: an incompetent doctor, despite having been informed of my mother’s allergy, used penicillin to treat a minor infection. My mothers illness, and my parent’s anger at his blunder was soon tempered by their becoming aware of an impossible pregnancy, mum having been cured on an infection that had been surreptitiously preventing conception. My sister followed nine months later; I, third in line, emerged reasonably healthy seven years layer, but showing some of the characteristics (fortunately) that are associated with parturition beyond the age of forty. That the probability of my being alive will one day become zero doesn’t in any way change the fact that now that probability is one. Why should my boundless joy be tempered by comprehension of the most basic mathematics?

At Mona we have recently been working on exhibitions that reflect the involvement of evolution in art. That art is universal, and predates most of our cultural constructs, suggests that it is not only built into us, but also good for us (some theorists even assert that our capacity for cognition evolved to expand our capacity for creativity). One speculation is that storytelling, the creation of narrative fiction, allows us to learn to construct possible futures and react to them; to plan. I certainly had all the tools, through these stories and others, to produce a more reasoned ethical self. That I didn’t is a condemnation only of my use of these tools, not the tools themselves. But, here and now, the evolution of the propensity to tell stories, and to gain from them, compels me to observe that all that I believe may be overturned by future learning. If I think that everything I thought twenty years ago was flawed, why not extrapolate that in twenty years I will probably believe that most of what I think now is crap? I’m not suggesting that our lives are narrative and thus contain no reality, just that opinions ebb and flow. Only as a group do we make progress, and acquire knowledge. But if I advocate self-doubt, and I do, why write down something that I may come to believe was errant? I guess the answer to that is that I need feedback for my opinions to be fully constructed. To my surprise, Mona blog gives me that. When Elizabeth suggested it, I resisted. But I’ve learned. So now, when she asked me to write something, I groped about for inspiration, and as always it came from the way recent events have improved my accordance with verity. Jacqui’s friend kept a blog, which I only just now became aware of, within which there are many personal verities, and some things I read as larger truths. From an entry three months ago she reifies my notion of people living while they live, and continuing to attend to the things that make them feel human, and embody humanity; thus, just three months ago she would still ‘pout and wonder whether any true great love stories will ever involve a 30-something year-old girl with a diagnosis of stage 4 cancer and another soul who can see past that and love her right back anyway.’

The author of the book I mentioned before, Towards Asmara, is Thomas Kenneally, who also penned Schindler’s ark, on which the Steven Spielberg masterpiece Schindler’s list was based. My friend Martin Haywood, who has been the subject of a couple of blog entries from me, and whose probability of being alive recently fell by one, said of Schindler’s list: ‘I don’t want to watch such movies. I just want to know they are being made.’ Martin probably meant that we need to see our faults writ large. As a result of his demise, and his prior pattern of living with dignity, he has accidentally become the magnetic north of my moral compass, and so when his long-forgotten words renew my acquaintance, I allow them to direct my thoughts. We don’t just benefit from narratives that plot a possible future, we also gain from those that expose a moribund past. Selection will favour those who have a genetic propensity to learn from their mistakes. And also, as Kenneally and Leiber amply illustrate, from others’ mistakes. Our consciousness is extended by others, even (and often especially) dead others. And here I refer to the quote from Jacqui’s friend’s blog in the previous paragraph.

But evolution operates over a continuum of characteristics that contribute to a greater or lesser degree to our survival. Each of them individually, and together, participates in a strange sort of inverse statistical lottery, wherein luck giveth and luck taketh away. Yesterday Jacqui’s friend’s number came up. My numbers, and yours, haven’t. But we’re still enjoying the thrill of buying tickets.

They didn’t send Jacqui’s friend on a holiday. She had the alternate therapy which, for whatever reason, didn’t heal her. But it did empower her. Just three weeks ago she wrote:

Let me tell you that where I am at now is like having my feet on two very different paths. And it’s hard, but it’s real. One foot is on the reality path – the one with the CT scans, the doctors, the stupid tumours going bonkers, the daily morphine and pain meds… the other foot is on the spiritual, hopeful, optimistic, positive, determined healing path.

She died. But she did get a wish granted.

A few days ago I read in the Age about a terminally ill woman who had met her biological father, an anonymous sperm donor, whom she had been seeking for fifteen years. Despite her considerable effort that anonymity had been preserved until her cancer diagnosis had induced government intervention. She met her father and, as the article recounted, ‘There was an instant connection – how could there not be?’

That article appeared on March 17.  Then, on March 27, Jacqui was sad, because her friend, Narelle Grech, who had just met her father, died the day before. Her father, who one month ago didn’t know he had a daughter is, presumably, distraught. And all the better for it.

I don’t know much

I don’t know a lot about permaculture, but I know that the reason it works is that it increases the number of interactions between the species in a given plot. This makes the system less prone to disruption by an impactor on any given species and thus the system is more robust. This resilience is in stark contrast to the many ‘single points of failure’ that a monoculture has.

In fact, a permaculture is better than merely robust, it is antifragile. Robust systems are impervious to impactors; antifragile systems actually improve when perturbed. We design very little of our world to be antifragile. We should do that more, at least if a new text by Nassim Taleb has any merit. And it does.

Some years ago my formerly sick friend Martin told me about permaculture, and he made the observation that such a system improved on robustness. He had an inkling of antifragility. I mostly missed the point at the time. Sorry, Martin. I gave you credit, but not enough.

Martin is my ‘formerly sick friend’ because he is dead, as of last night. Bugger. But not really bugger because dead is not really that much worse than dying, when dying is a process ‘undertaken’ as a result of the terrible intervention of a tumour (are there any nice interventions by tumours?). The bugger was the diagnosis, not the dying. Nevertheless, I shed a tear. And am seeking consolation in these words.

Many years ago, but not so long at all really, Martin and I had an argument. It concerned who should get credit for a particularly clever way of grouping a list of trifectas into boxes, a faster but less precise way to take them. I gave Martin credit, but not enough.

A few months later, in June 1991, I was at Caulfield Racecourse, filling in for my brother, Tim. Betting on the last race of the day, I ran out of time. I used the box trifecta algorithm and put on only one bet, a box of seven horses. That probably means nothing to you but, in the event, I won $19,000.

Later, I told Tim of our win (he had a share). He quipped, ‘I am dying within my means.’ This was three months before his cancer mediated death. That’s why I know the date.

Martin and Tim you may not know. But a small part of these things that I can share, Mona and these thoughts, I can share because they lived. Because an idea is not held in the dominion of one, but many.

– David Walsh

Life’s greatest invention

Last night my friend Martin hugged me twice. The first was the normal friend-departing sort of cuddle. The second had a distant intimacy, and I immediately recognised that paradox as a marker for the mindset that enabled it – Martin had identified, and then inadvertently transmitted to me, that this was the last time we would see each other.

Once, during the second third of our lives, we had been very close. Although the contact had petered out (in fact I didn’t see him for the last three years) we were still fast friends.

We didn’t see each other for the last three years because Martin moved to North Carolina from Tasmania, following a dream – or it might have been a fantasy. He won’t be going home. He has pancreatic cancer and, unless he manages to die of something else in the next few months, it will be the cause of his demise.

It turns out that the most common cause of pancreatic cancer, adenocarcinoma, allots you just four months from diagnosis. Strangely, having drawn the shortest of short straws in this dastardly lottery, you are better off pulling off another long shot. The rarer form of pancreatic cancer is survivable. But Martin hit the diabolical jackpot only once.

There is a form of chemotherapy that gives you a bit more than four months but it can be horrible. Martin tried it, and then he decided he would rather be human and soon dead than a shell of himself but dead slightly less soon. A brave decision for most people, not for Martin. For him it was obvious. The need to spend ‘quality time’ with the kids and wife was obvious, and paramount.

So now I’m on a plane, bound for New Orleans, a city that promises debauched fun, but this time it also promises guilt. Each fried thing or sazerac that I gulp down will remind me that Martin can only tolerate his body because he gulps morphine, ironically one of the debaucheries practiced by many of New Orleans’ transients, and not a few of its denizens. And he will gulp morphine and he will suffer and he will sleep and he will be confused and he will struggle to shit and he will die. Just like my brother, twenty years ago, he will die.

And I will think about him and feel sadness and grief, and a cocktail of guilt and relief that it wasn’t me, and the eruptions of grief and guilt will, over the great deal of time that I imagine is available to me, be fewer, and farther between. And then I will die. And then we all will die.

And all that doesn’t matter. Because each moment is a tool. I sharpened my tools with Martin when we argued about infinity, and when we out-implemented each other’s algorithms, and when we ran out of petrol after driving 200 kilometres to get a milkshake, and when he reminded me that we ran out of petrol thirty-three years later, and when he hugged me, bearing the burden of his mortality, and thus imparting to me the certainty of mine.

Our bubbles will all burst. Last night I watched his thinning, but as it thinned the light shone more brightly through.

-David Walsh