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Diary of a disaster?

David Walsh

Posted on Tuesday 30 July 2013

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My nearly-nine-year-old daughter was leaving a high-rise apartment building in Sydney with her mum, Jemma, when she was struck on the back of the head with a rock, apparently dropped by some witless miscreant from a high floor.

As far as I can calculate, at the precise time of this incident I was inside a James Turrell installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a Ganzfeld machine, which overloads senses with colour and sound, a human creation capable of inducing euphoric states not accessible through nature. This great artist will soon be represented at Mona. He also has plans to do a residency at the school Grace attends. A pleasant coincidence induced by the fact that James Turrell is a Quaker and Grace’s school is the largest Quaker school in the world.

The heightened sensibilities induced by one man were displaced by a sense of powerlessness induced by another (I think it reasonable to assume Grace’s assailant was male).

I desperately scrambled onto the next flight to Sydney and that is where I am right now, twelve hours into a fourteen-hour flight. I’ve therefore had no news for half a day.

The last information, reported to me by Jemma just before boarding, was that Grace’s frequent vomiting had been curtailed, and her obs had improved. Earlier news was that she had a fractured skull, contusions, amnesia and confusion, and some vision deficit. But also that she reminded her mum to cancel a dentist appointment she had later in the day, and that she apologised to the hospital staff for the trouble she was causing each of the many times she vomited.

I will see her soon. Of course I hope everything will be all right, the human body is resilient by design, and I have faith in western medicine. The neurosurgeon I spoke to inspired confidence, particularly when she asserted that observation, rather than intervention, was appropriate.

The chance of hitting someone with a stone from above is minuscule. The thoughtless fool who dropped the stone was extremely unlucky. But Grace was much more unlucky than he. A question I know is important, but that I can’t fully explore at this point is: should the consequences for him depend on the consequences for her? My superficial response is that they should not, he should be punished and remediated for his astonishingly negligent action, not the appalling outcome. And yet it would be hard not to squeeze if my hands were around his throat. That’s why we can’t take the law into our own hands, my most personal experience of this important principle.

Even if she weren’t a good girl she would still be my girl, and still be loved by those who raised her. But she is a good girl, a wonderful girl, and as a result many more suffer as she suffers, because many more love her. I’m racked with worry. So I’m writing these words to crystalise my thoughts, to pass the time, and to keep me sane.

Interval: focusing my thinking on the frivolous.

After reading this excerpt from my autobiography, wherein my twenty-year-old self is expressing his opinion on the relative importance of culture and biology,

I contend that beauty itself is biologically sourced. Symmetry reflects good gene expression and therefore desirability as a mate, red is a warning flag suggesting toxity, green means photosynthesis and thus nutrient content, mimicry generates visual acuity because it generates a need to tell the real from the fake. Bitter versus sweet defines nutritious versus potentially poisonous, aversion to the smell of shit, scatole in shit to stop us eating bacterial contaminants. The list goes on and on.

my friend Anthony asked the following questions:

Why doesn’t snot contain scatole or another foul-smelling chemical to generate an aversion to eating it? Does the absence of any such chemical imply it is ok to eat snot?

At the time (a few days ago) I didn’t have a satisfactory answer but on the plane, with nothing else to do but worry, I figured it out, I think. So Anthony, here’s what I think Darwin would have thought:

Snot forms and resides in the nose. Any such noxious compound (like scatole) in the nose would affect our capacity to detect foul/friendly odours in the environment. We therefore would evolve in the direction of not detecting odours emanating from our nose, and the production of such compounds would be a waste of energy. And if the compound employed was scatole we would lose our capacity to detect it in faeces.

Since fetid snot could not evolve, the fact that we don’t have it has no direct bearing on whether we can eat snot. However, because we can’t prevent ourselves, using chemical markers, from eating it, selection pressure would, most likely, render it as harmless as chemistry would allow. Simply put: we couldn’t avoid it if it were harmful so it has to be harmless.

Interval ends. One hour and four minutes until we land. I had eggs for breakfast. Can Grace eat?

A few hours later. First, Grace can eat, sort of. She is consuming, with vigour, her second icy pole of the last day and a bit, the only thing she has been able to keep down.

Two bits of good news. She will be ok, most likely. The cut is appalling, the fracture pretty scary since there is some depression, but she will recover. She could be stuck in Sydney for at least two weeks, which might be a small silver lining for her mum.

Also, the police believe that the stone fell from the roof, after being placed near the edge by crows. My little darling was stoned by crows. It’s something of a relief that all this suffering wasn’t the outcome of an belligerent gesture by a broken man.

Just now Grace vomits. Apparently even lemonade icy poles are beyond her fragile disposition. Nobody deserves what she is going through. But an accident mediated by inadvertently murderous crows isn’t something anyone deserves. My mother would have disagreed. She believed that God dispensed only justice, but it was beyond the capacity of mortal man to comprehend his mysterious ways. Other concepts of remedial justice have emerged that are employed to justify bad luck, such as reincarnation. Those who subscribe to such beliefs would presumably believe that the crow and the laws of physics were collaborating to inflict punishment for a crime Grace committed in a previous life (perhaps in that previous life she was a crow). But bad luck is just bad luck. Laws of nature do not have the same characteristics as laws of man. Laws of nature do not attempt to perpetuate justice. And although laws of nature can accommodate appalling outcomes, they do so without malice or forethought.

A long day. Vomiting everything from painkillers to a bite of a banana. Enduring the pain, which is concomitant with a blow to the brain and throwing up painkillers. Drifting in and out of sleep but waking periodically to make a joke. High-level care, but all the hospital staff asking the same questions: what’s your name, age, address? Testing peripheral vision. So many lovely, caring people making Grace’s life a little bit tougher to maximize their chance of detecting a hematoma early enough to intervene. She’s asleep now. But they’ll wake her up all night.

Just when I thought everyone at this impressive hospital is lovely I met the paediatrician assigned to Grace. She told us off in no uncertain terms for the over-stimulating environment surrounding Grace (too many people) even while acknowledging that no one had told us that a low-stimulation environment was called for. She also contradicted the advice of other doctors, and when Jemma gently pointed that out, she retorted, ‘We all are in agreement, we just express it differently’. Her bedside manner brings to mind Basil Fawlty, if he had chosen a medical career. I can only hope that she is a pretending to be a paediatrician and will soon be exposed, like Frank Abagnale in Catch Me If You Can.

Two days later. Steady progress punctuated by one four-hour calvacade of calamities, wherein the IV line went troppo, she vomited many times, and her headache escalated. Just now, possibly against the advice of the toxic child doctor, I’ve allowed Grace to watch a Barbie movie on the iPad. The doctor demanded a low-stimulation environment. I personally think a Barbie movie she has seen many times is less demanding than staring through a window at a brick wall, and that is the other high-stress option Grace has available. And now the nurses are here to take the IV lines out. As I said, steady progress.

Quantum multiverse.

In most folds of the quantum multiverse I’d be driving Grace to school right now.

According to those who invoke the quantum multiverse to simplify the behaviour of quantum mechanical systems, every time the universe has options all of them are explored. This is one possible solution to the problem of assigning a probability to a unique event (another: Quantum Bayes, but you’ll have to read my forthcoming memoir if that makes you curious, or better yet, type it into Google).

The stone that hit Grace on the head was instantiating a very improbable event. Therefore, in the multiverse, it mostly didn’t happen. She doesn’t have a sore head, isn’t constipated, doesn’t have a shaved patch in the back of her head. She is on her way to school. So should I consider her very unlucky?

Of course, it’s easy to riff off an event that happened, and consider the chance that it didn’t happen, or consider the chance that it happened and the consequences were more severe (if it had hit her on top of her head, rather than merely dealing a glancing blow as it followed its vertical path, she could not have survived). But, of course, in the multiverse many unlikely things happen an enormous number of times. And the ghosts of the things that didn’t happen are ignored. It’s the nature of ‘survivor’ bias. In many worlds, but a low percentage of worlds, I just crashed the car. And there is a minuscule probability, but in many worlds it still happened, that the blow to the back of Grace’s head and the consequent bleeding flushed out an incipient astrocytoma, and thus prevented death. And maybe, just maybe, one of those worlds was this one.

We can control only the things that we are aware of, and then only to a limited extent. Good parenting only looks like good parenting if we avoid misfortune. And it is always worth reserving judgment when assigning culpability, because in this vast multiverse it can be hard to differentiate between malice, negligence and misfortune. The idea is to manage your deeds so that they are most likely to achieve the desirable and avoid the undesirable, while appraising the deeds of others in the knowledge that in most universes they might have achieved a better, or worse, outcome. If this sounds like sentimental bullshit forgive me, mostly I wouldn’t have written it, because the stone would have struck me, or Jemma, or someone I don’t know or, with a probability very close to one, no one at all.

Later. Our negotiations to secure permission for Grace to leave have fallen at the paediatrician hurdle. Although the neurosurgeon and the nurses thought it was fine for Grace to go home without a bowel movement (I faltered here, not knowing whether to use my argot, or Grace’s, or theirs) since she has to come back tomorrow to have stitches removed, the paediatrician demurred (although she is far from demure). She gave Grace a laxative which, it seems, will take some time to work, thus ensuring Grace is here until tomorrow.

Now the waiting game begins. The superb hospital staff make the waiting at least bearable (always excepting our nemesis paediatrician). The physiotherapist took Grace to the gym to test out her balance and decided she was secure. Just in the last half an hour we have had a teacher and a play therapist visit and offer resources. Even so the waiting is boring, but this boring has an uncharacteristic aura, following on from the terror, angst and stress. While I’m writing Grace is interrupting with questions about prisms and cylinders, good questions that were precipitated by the school pack the teacher gave her. I love this terrible place (a few nights ago a nurse told me that they love Grace because ‘she is one of the good ones’. Here the ‘good ones’ are those who will leave via the front door).

An odd thing. One of the delightful nurses just walked in and said, ‘You can go now’. Apparently the team had decided Grace had served her sentence. A little victory, since the neurosurgeon must have overruled the prickly paediatrician.

Grace is now excitedly shaving the head of Jemma’s boyfriend, Matt (who is agreeing to be shorn out of solidarity, since Grace has had some hair removed). Thus the world revolves. And as I already knew but now my knowing is renewed, my world revolves around my children. Through Grace’s misfortune, and through her fortune, I feel pain and I feel joy. And I feel her travails and triumphs more bitterly, and more exultantly, than I feel my own. That’s what love is.