Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Anyone who's read Helen Garner's The Spare Room will probably remember this scene. For those who haven't: Nicola is in the advanced stages of cancer, and has come to Melbourne to stay with Helen while she has 'alternative' treatment. Helen's granddaughter Bessie lives next door. Now read on ...

Flamenco shoes tapped on the bricks, thundered on the veranda. The back door burst open.

'Here I am! Are you ready for my show?'

Nicola couldn't turn her head. She had to swing her whole body around. 'Who is this glorious señorita?'

Bessie leaned back from the hips and flung her arms in a high curve round her head. The blood-red nasturtium she had stuck into the elastic of her ponytail trembled there, its juicy stem already drooping. She bent her wrists and began to twine her hands round each other. her fingernails were grimy, her palms padded with thick calluses from the school-yard monkey bars. She lowered her brow in a challenging scowl and paced towards us, flicking aside the bulk of her skirt with every step.

Nicola reared back on her stool. 'Stop. What's that cack on your lip?'

Bessie dropped her arms and ran the back of one hand under her nostrils. It left a glistening trail across her cheek.

'Oh shit.' Nicola got off the stool and backed away. 'I'm sorry, darling, but you can't come in here with a cold. I've got no resistance left. Helen, you'll have to send her home.' She shuffled as fast as she could down the hall into the spare room, and pulled the door shut behind her.

I picked up a pencil and took a breath to start explaining cell counts and immune systems, but Bessie didn't ask. She stood in the centre of the room with her arms dangling. Her face was blank. I heard the neighbour over the back lane slam his car door and drive away. At once his dog began its daily barking and howling. We had adapted our nerves to its tedious racket and no longer thought of complaining, but maybe the wind that morning was blowing from a new direction, for the high-pitched cries floated over the fence and right into our yard, filling the sunny air with lamentation.

One of my oldest friends is due just after Christmas for her third round of chemo. She has become a connoisseur of anti-nausea drugs. The wig is fabulous, though she says it's very irritating when people who haven't seen her for a while come up to her and say 'Wow, what have you done to your hair, it looks fabulous!'

I've known her since we were in our late teens. We shared a student house in our early twenties for two and a half years; we used to sing together a lot, and the other week we were driving to the supermarket when the young James Taylor appeared on the compilation CD singing 'Sweet Baby James' and we swung in behind him with two different harmonies. I was a witness at her wedding and a wet mess at her husband's funeral.

Now on the day before Christmas Eve I'm recovering from a very bad upper respiratory tract infection; though functional, I am still a little rattly, sodden and febrile. Every day, by email, she and I defer and renegotiate a meeting to exchange Christmas greetings and presents, which may have to become Proclamation Day greetings and presents (special SA public holiday) or possibly even New Year greetings and presents. Because she must not catch this. It put me in bed for the best part of three days, and my immune system's pretty good.

What floors me is the power of the drive to disregard it: the ferocious sense of what's good and proper that tells me I can't possibly not see her and her daughter, the fourth-year Aerospace Engineering student who at the age of eleven introduced me to Harry Potter, for Christmas. Everything about staying away seems mean-spirited, ultra-cautious, ungenerous, unloving. Which in the face of the immunological facts is clearly absurd.


Helen said...

Talk to your GP - mine (or one of my interchangeable legendary two) is of the opinion that once you're at the coughy-throaty stage, you're not "shedding virus" (as he puts it). But not on my second hand say-so, of course!

Helen said...

Talk to your GP - mine (or one of my interchangeable legendary two) is of the opinion that once you're at the coughy-throaty stage, you're not "shedding virus" (as he puts it). But not on my second hand say-so, of course!

Helen said...

Your comments system has reflux, too, but I don't think that's catching!
Merry Christmas to you Pav, and happy new year.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Thanks, Helen -- I had some vague idea about post-infectiousness, but not enough to act on the strength of it. But that sounds right to me. And a merry Christmas and a happy new year to you too!

Unknown said...

Well, if you're sure. But my inclination would be, I must say, that if you're not sure, you shouldn't go. Ring up, send a strippogram or a chorus of Christmas carol singers and make a donation to the Salvos if they visit the hospital when she's there, make a video of yourself singing, send flowers or whatever.

Or go, and wear a mask?? Or ring the doctor. *Her* doctor...

Honestly, she won't thank you if she does get sick(er). And she won't want to be worried about the prospect, either.

And I know she wouldn't mind getting together for a New Year's occasion, once you're better.

I once visited a friend in hospital while I was getting over a nasty cough. The deathly glances the nursing staff shot my way as I coughed down the corridor have stayed with me, you know?

So really, you're right. It's absurd, and also testimony to how much you love her...

Deborah said...

I'm with Stephanie. Send a strippogram.

Elisabeth said...

I'd be inclined to talk to both GPs and your friend. I wouldn't insist on staying a apart because vulnerability comes in many shapes and sizes.

Sometimes our minds are more powerful than the bugs that float around us. It might be more important to risk the contagion of the physical proximity for the emotional closeness, especially at such a time for all of you.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

No no, I didn't mean I was going to go. I am holding out for good sense. All I meant was that Helen's point about virus-shedding was one I'd heard elsewhere in more than one place. But I'm not completely sure I've escaped a secondary bacterial infection or something like that. I won't be going there till I'm considerably, erm, dryer than I am at the moment.

Stephanie, I thought of a mask too! But it's not only that, it's hands to surfaces to faces, too, and all sorts of casual small things we don't usually think about. Gah.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Sorry, Elisabeth, comments crossed. Yours articulates exactly why I'm so bent out of shape about it.

BwcaBrownie said...

I hope you will both be laughing about this next Christmas and the one after.

GS said...

Am currently on day 3.5 of cold-from-hell and have no choice but play the role of Typhoid Mary and head out to the airport to pick up very old parents and sister. They are both frail with old people diseases but no cancer (just missing a bit of lung and the like).

I'd leave the final call up to your friend. It is her life after all. She can talk to her doctor and decide. Or you can sit on either side of a glass door or something. Or both of you mask up, where latex and ....where is House when you need him? He'd know what to do.

Anonymous said...

When my sister had leukaemia we all had those thoughts. I stayed away even when I was 99% sure it was only hayfever. It was really hard, but my sister wasn't interested in taking chances. My mother proved once and for all that one really can avoid catching anything for a year with the use of pure Mother Willpower and therefore visited everyday.

Merry Christmas Pav, and I hope you and your friend are both feeling much better very soon. Cancer sucks, I even have it on a badge that says so.

Tatyana Larina said...

As a reader of this blog, I'm sorry to hear about your cold and hope you get better very soon.

(I too was looking forward to the pictures of the gingerbread cats, but after the updates about your cold, I was actually hoping you wouldn't attempt to do the baking, and the special icing that has to be applied wearing white clothes. That last bit sounds very mysterious.)

I have experienced the sort of urge you describe here, but only in reverse. My child had swine flu earlier this year, and I was astonished I didn't catch it; apart from being meticulous about hygiene, I certainly offered frequent physical comfort.

I agree with Elisabeth about the power and the importance of psychological comfort, but, I guess I'm also a rationalist who believes that infections can be contagious, and yours sounds as if it might be, so I really don't see the correlation between feeling 'mean-spirited' when faced with the possibility of transmitting infection. If we accept this, why be self-punishing?

Of course, it's a great pity, but 'unloving, ungenerous'—certainly not. I'm also regretting, reading this post, that you are not able to see your friend, for your own sake (as well as for hers). If your blog readers can get a sense of the generosity of your character (I apologise if I sound familiar), then your friend is likely to know you very well. This is a delay of only a few days.

I think it's important to be self-forgiving. You haven't been well, but this illness will pass quickly, and I'd also visit a GP. (I'm sorry to sound bossy as well.)

This friend will see you at an even more important time during her treatment.

Best wishes, and take care of yourself.

Zoe said...

As someone who was recently given a hideous cough/sore throat/flu by a neighbour who dropped over to borrow my computer, I think you are doing the right thing....especially given the circumstances.

Anonymous said...

Try Barbara Ehrenreich in SMILE OR DIE, on the curse of positive thinking. Her very dignified but angry account of breast cancer and the cutesiness associated with it is health writing at its best. I prefer it to Garner. Lucy

Feral Sparrowhawk said...

Graeme Laver, who I'd trust over an average GP, told me that it was "probably true" that you weren't infectious by the point where you're at the coughy-throaty stage, but that we didn't understand enough about the virus to be absolutely sure.

OTOH, there recent is research showing that surgical masks don't work at preventing flu transmission, except perhaps to a minor extent.

Zoe said...

omg, there's another Zoe on the intertubes! Again!

Anyhoo, sucks, doesn't it? When Jet had his hip operations, there were signs all over the hospital saying keep away with your filthy germs, particularly chickenpox. Poor little babes with no immune systems.

My mother's best friend is dying, Pav, of cancer, and it's breaking her heart. I would love to give you a big germy hug right now, because we can.


Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Thanks all for good wishes and suggestions, much appreciated.

Didn't want to labour the point, but I put in the Garner scene to show that moment of violent impact. Garner has always been brilliant at confronting that moment when two of one's cherished principles (like, say, not hurting children's feelings vs not infecting a dying person with no immune system) collide head-on like semi-trailers at 120 k's on the Western Highway, right back as far as Monkey Grip where all the female characters struggle constantly between the rock of feminist theory and the hard place of sexual jealousy, whose existence it would be madness to deny. And that moment from The Spare Room is the same kind of unbearable moment where all choices feel wrong.

I felt much better and less soggy today, so dosed up on drying-up medication, took my own personal bottle of hand sanitiser, and trundled down for a short visit and chat from over the other side of the room, careful not to touch anyone or anything and definitely no kissing. I was reminded of Christmas Eve 1987, which I also spent some of in their company, when the youngun was four months old and her mother left her in my care in an empty conference room while she went off to deal with some custody emergency of the kind lawyers encounter so often on Christmas Eve. When the baby got restless and whimpery I sang carols to her till she went back to sleep. Today she played 'Hark, the Herald Angels Sing' and 'O Holy Night' on the piano and her mother and I sang whichever bits of the soprano and alto parts we could remember. The fact that I could hit any note at all in that register tells me I'm nearly better.

Zoe, that is so sad for your mum. I am very sorry. I think my mate D will stay with us for a few years yet through sheer force of will.