It was more than 30 years later that I found out my life meant something to a stranger. In a cramped little room, the walls dripping with cables and boxes of glittering electronica, a three year old girl I would never know, showed me the facts of life.
In 1966 I stood in a crib bed, a blue child in a monolith, a faint glimpse of the real world beckoned from one of the high hospital windows. This memory is perhaps installed by my mother as I was a mere two year old at the time, a wheezing squid of tubes, awaiting a medical procedure that didn’t yet exist. Into the anxious pacing and torn hand wringing of my parents came a disciple of South African pioneer, Christian Barnard. He would explain to the enraptured locals how best to slash open the chest of this tiny body, sever the heart, pare it open, stitch it up and then put the whole quivering mess of gashes back together. Preferably still alive. This would be the first time such a thing had been done here. How exciting for them, it’s not every day you get to try something new.
Ron and I have cracked a beer. It’s late on a hot Friday, an Adelaide afternoon when the land gasps as the sun and the asphalt hurl heated insults at each other. In winter I never would have known the truth but it was hot so I was wearing an open necked shirt. We were perched on the scorch marked benches of Ron’s tech room. From here he would heal the various machines required to operate the radio station. Over the years we had become loose friends as I was often the one who damaged his precious technology, but always in the pursuit of the type of radio that ensured we all made a good wage. Many of our previous conversations had been variations on:
“Yeah Ron, the show went great... but this microphone kind of fell in the toilet...”
“What! How did you... oh never mind... give it to me... I’ll fix it.”
And he always did. But this day is different. It is Ron’s last day. Not his last day ever, just his last day working here.
“A couple a things, a bit of consulting work, that sort of thing. Prob’ly travel a bit...”
As we sip back soothing memories in companionable quiet, he notices the open neck of my shirt. The scar is rather obvious.
“Yeah, when I was a kid. Shark attack.”
“Nah, kidding. Mum always said to say that if I got picked on...” In fact, when I was about 10 she had offered to knit me a wig of chest hair to hide the white train line ridge that lashed down the centre of my body. I don’t think she realised that a 10 year old with a hairy chest was more bizarre than a ten year old with a Frankenstein scar.
“... I was about two...” I mutter self consciously over my beer “... open heart surgery.”
“Oh... right” and softness seems to wash around him. I don’t notice the change until after I have added “…first kid in the country apparently. Right here in Adelaide...” and as we rest in the heat and cool beer, celebrating the technician’s career at the radio station, the older man begins to cry. Softly. Not a blubbery grizzle, not pained even, just a subtle tear, a recognition of something incredible, something only he could understand.
The surgery which awaited my little blue body in 1966 required stopping, disconnecting, repairing and then, some hours later, reattaching and then restarting my heart. All this on a body reduced by lethargy and illness. There was no guarantee. The only wise thing to do was to practice, make sure they can actually sever the connections, properly splay the arteries, connect the heart lung machine effectively, ensure the blood flow can be diverted efficiently.
“I...it was so long...” Ron is shaking a little and his calm, the assurance that dresses those who know what they are doing, has slipped from him, leaving him naked, exposed. “Our daughter was in the Royal Adelaide. A tiny thing... and... she was going to have an operation that would fix her up...” His eyes leave me, they look back to that shiny linoleum room in the big hospital where his daughter had died only a day away from the impossible surgery that had opened my chest. His voice continues to echo down those mourning corridors. “They asked us if they could use... use her body. To try the surgery on her... corpse... before they did it for real.”
I stare at his distant eyes, the tears, the grown man with the daughter who had never grown up. This daughter who fell short of the dream, the prayers fallen still, the body failed… and then they had dared to ask if they could hack into her, to use her death, his grief, to help some other child, some stranger, some nobody he would probably never know.
He looks up at me and I braced to see pain, maybe even accusation. Blame perhaps. I was here and his daughter wasn’t.
He wipes at a tired eye and raises his bottle to me.
“Well...” he croaked “... It’s good to meet you.”
“Grown don’t mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown. In my heart it don’t mean a thing.”*
As our children grow and become more independent, we might become a wee bit complacent about their existence, lost in the daily grind and focusing on the world outside the home. But it doesn’t take much to realise how shockingly fragile human life is, and how quickly childhood will be over, though the connections and feelings that bind us will remain for eternity.
* Tony Morrison (American novelist, editor, and professor)