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An unfortunate life

By Brian Holden - posted Wednesday, 20 February 2013


The old dilapidated wooden house fronted a lane behind a hotel at Maroubra Junction in Sydney. It was the only building on the lane and most residents of the "Junction" would not have known that it was there. I was paying my weekly visit to my dying uncle. This time there were three weeping women inside - his mother, an aunt and his girlfriend - a victim of cerebral palsy.

I entered his bedroom. To close his mouth, a rag had been tied beneath his jaw and over the top of his head , his ankles were tied together, his wrists were tied together and there was a penny resting over each eyelid. He was aged 43 and his cancer had finally killed him. His aunt had laid out the body as she had seen it done when she was a child at a time when many died at home. So ended the most tragic existence in my family history that I knew of.

A random unfortunate event sets forth a series of them

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The polio virus enters by the mouth. Of 100 humans it infects, it will attack the central nervous system of only one. In the picture, three brothers are sitting on the step. They were all bypassed by the virus's devastating crippling effects. It seemed that the invisible hand of the Goddess of Fate was pointing a finger at the brother at the rear. It was 1922 and Thomas Martin Holden was just beginning to walk when he became the one in 100.

His parents were working class - which in those days meant being barely literate. Professional people lived in a world which was alien to the Holdens in their rented, narrow fronted dump of a habitat in Redfern in Sydney. One day a doctor said that he could help Tom. They interpreted the word "help" to mean cure. Their yearnings would allow for no other possibility. Their infant son would be made whole again.

Abraham Maslow has warned us that if the only tool a man has is a hammer, then he will see every problem as a nail. So, the little slum kid had both legs opened their entire lengths by a surgeon because scalpels were what surgeons used in those days if they were to feel to be useful.

There was a complication which the medical men did not think of - and it was to ultimately cost Tom his life. This was a morbid fear of white coats and the smell of a hospital. At a time when his brain was at its most plastic, that fear was hardwired into it.

By his late teens, his legs were now the size that they will ever be. This was about two-thirds of normal size. They were so twisted that his whole body swung from one side to the other as he moved along.

He had the most positive attitude of anyone I have known. He laughed readily. He played the banjo and accordion. He even rode one of the first motor scooters to be sold in this country. But beneath his outward behaviour, he was acutely aware of his appearance. All crippled people are - but in him it manifested itself as a debilitating and life-long speech impediment that made normal communication with all but those closest to him barely possible. He once described this handicap as being more of a problem than his physical mobility.

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The beginning of the end

My father was Tom's eldest brother. (In the picture he is the one on the right with suspenders made from leather belts.) He had been diagnosed with tongue cancer at the age of 34. He was able to hold it at bay until his 47th year - at which time the battle was nearing its end. Tom would visit my father in hospital, but would say nothing. His mother told me that he did not speak at home and had barely eaten for weeks. I confronted him and asked him what was the problem. He opened his mouth for a second, and then turned away in embarrassment. His tongue was an amorphous cancerous mass.

If a sibling had tongue cancer, then any normal person would get a tongue lesion seen to as soon as it appeared. And, theses were the 1960s. Surgery was not the experiment it was in the 1920s.

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About the Author

Brian Holden has been retired since 1988. He advises that if you can keep physically and mentally active, retirement can be the best time of your life.

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