Good Reading : April 2008
APRIL 2008 ı goodreading 19 behind the book Swathed in blue surgical scrubs, a silly cap and mask, I peered through a small hole into a stranger’s brain and felt noth- ing but awe. Here was the organ that drove every function of the human body, the centre of intellect, the personality, the emotions and – some would say – the soul, the frontier for surgeons, scientists and philosophers. At the same time, Charlie’s operating theatre was a lively place, highly disci- plined but often filled with his favourite music – Elvis Presley, John Denver, Abba – and his explanations of his intricate work. I kept going back for more. Before long, these two intriguing heroes inspired me to write a book. It was a classic drama with a happy ending: the triumph of medicine and the human spirit. But in early 2004, when I was almost due to deliver the manuscript to my publisher, phone calls from Aaron and Charlie brought shattering news. Aaron had been diagnosed with secondary cancers in his bones. Because his cancer was such an unusual type, no one quite knew how the disease would progress or how to treat it. As Aaron went in and out of hospital and tested Charlie’s skill, I thought I couldn’t con- tinue with my book. All I could do was offer support to my subjects who had also become friends.The story would be oo depressing for readers, I magined, and I was in no motional state to write it. However, Aaron remained an inspiration. Of course there were times when he was frightened and debilitated.Yet he remained optimistic that he could beat the disease and, even when it was winning, he concentrated on life. Music, family and friendship were everything to him. He kept performing and when that became impossible he organised events for other pianists and turned his mind to composing. With his encourage- ment, I realised the book could, and should, be written. As he joked to anoth- er friend one day in hospital, ‘Susan said the book was too short so I thought I’d give her another chapter’. Other writers urged me on with the advice that this was now a more complex and true-to- life story. Indeed, Aaron’s new predicament represented a more realistic case study of the neurosurgeon’s work and of Charlie’s never-say-die philosophy. It raised ques- tions about how long doctors should fight for their patients’ survival and whether there is a ‘good’ way to die. As always, the narrative took unpre- dictable turns and I was there, whether at Aaron’s bedside or a party, in a con- cert hall or an operating theatre. Bringing a meal or a book, and a notepad or a tape recorder, I was in the writer’s odd posi- tion of being both insider and outsider. Occasionally I cried, but not when I was with Aaron; with him there were always stories, plans and entertainment. I grew to know Aaron’s mother, Gail Puckett, and his other relatives, friends and admiring visitors, who included the NSW Governor Dr Marie Bashir; the broadcaster Alan Jones, the dean of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Kim Walker; and the cricketer Steve Waugh, whose wife, Lynette, had become another of Charlie Teo’s patients. Both Aaron and Charlie had been subjects of ABC-TV’s Australian Story and other media, and it always seemed that their fates were being followed by millions of people.When Aaron died last May, the news flew around the world as I sat at his side with Gail, drinking tea and holding his fine, long-fingered hand. Those hands would not play the piano again. But Aaron’s final project had been to compile a CD collection of all his recordings so that music lovers could hear him for ever. As the great pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim has put it, recordings ‘preserve the unpreservable’. I hope my book helps to do the same for Aaron himself.Though sad, his story was also uplifting to write and made me focus not so much on death – though that is an engrossing and mysterious sub- ject – as on the challenge of living well. In the Australian Story program filmed before his surgery back in 2001, Aaron had calmly told his viewers: ‘Just as a game, tell yourself that you could be six weeks from the end of your life right now.You could be. Suddenly a lot of complicated things become very simple…’ It’s not a lesson that should confront anyone in their twenties, nor one that we should live by all the time. But amid the clamour of a busy life, with all its distractions, annoyances and post- ponements, it’s worth a quiet thought. Susan Wyndham’s Life In His Hands: The True Story of a Neurosurgeon and a Pianist is published by Picador, rrp $32.95. I had never planned to write a book about brain surgery… But they say books choose their authors and to my surprise, Life in His Hands chose me. Soon after Aaron’s surgery in 2001, Charlie invited him to go kayaking on Sydney harbour.