This I wrote in 2005, about a year before my grandmother died at the age of 104. She spent her last few years at the Westmeath Residential Home, shown above. This article appeared in FRESH YARN, an online magazine.
THERE WAS A MAN, a composer of poetry, without a chin. He had lost it to a cancer. He kept some of his mind, however, and recognized an opportunity when one came along.
My grandmother, at 103 years of age, watches the other residents of Westmeath slip away, and most go down in the elevator to the ground floor, and then out the back entrance. I think you know what I mean here.
The man, the poet, stayed on longer than most; he seemed a prisoner of the past in the present. He had passed around a book of some of his poems that he had written during a love affair that had ended unhappily eighty years earlier. In his present deformity, he could hardly read them aloud easily, assuming poetry is to be spoken, heard and perfectly understood. I never heard him try. He feared facing the public so damaged as he was, this poet, and his only excuse for using what was left of his face was a certain hunger that remained. There was no starving to death by choice or through circumstance, only hunger.
His craving never eased as he allowed himself to be caped and covered by a large, moisture resistant cloth, because no matter how carefully he spooned his food towards his throat, it tended to slip down from where his chin once had been. He didn't want help with his difficulties.
He would walk up and down the corridor in the Intermediate Wing, such a tall man, he had been in the British military and it showed. An officer, I believe, but I didn't see the obituary.
For a time, a contemporary of the poet with his own cancer came to visit him and they were able to converse quite satisfactorily. There is much to be said silently between friends. And the friend from the outside died first. After that, the poet often got lost. Which door on a corridor might be his room there on the upper floor? How many paces to get you to the place where you belong? Right turn? Left turn?
The poet's room at Westmeath had a view through a south-facing double window directly opposite the door to the corridor. He found his room on his own at times, more by luck than calculation. Often he would step into another room and be ordered out with a "Go to your own room!" When he did end up in the right place, he could go and look from his windows to see orange trees, oleanders and a jacaranda across the lawns and below.
One morning, the poet raised his window, pushed out the screen, and slipped away to the concrete below. He did not die immediately, but days later in the main Hospital. His was a big body, he'd kept himself active: upright posture, no bending over a cane or walker. He'd have needed to push very hard to go through the window, and to go quietly as well.
My grandmother was not sure who might have gathered up the poet's clothes. His late friend had been his only visitor. Copies of a slim volume of his love poems had circulated among the residents who were well enough to see them -- if not to understand the revelations and sentiments -- but the poems slipped away too. I am wondering if, when my grandmother moves along, we might come across the poet's work, tucked away in a bag or parcel, or below some underwear she no longer requires. She wears diapers now. Perhaps hidden with something of hers that we had not known about.
The residents at Westmeath do not discuss those who have gone down in the elevator a final time. Rather, there is an empty seat in the dining area for a day or two, and then a new face arrives that few notice. My grandmother is the only resident on that floor with a functioning memory. She tells me all the gossip. She knew her neighbour, the poet, had slipped away, and how. We spoke of him for no more than a minute, and then she moved on. I found I could not leave it behind that easily -- I've tried to write poetry myself -- and wonder if these words on this page will mark the point of a departure.
I've assured my family members that I will not write about them -- as if they really had important or necessary secrets -- in their lifetimes. I'm afraid of losing my own memory, or my ability to convey my words. Sorry, folks.
Since she turned ninety-eight, my grandmother has lived in Westmeath. Five years have gone by; we've observed one crisis of health after another, one departing face after another. This former grand home is a desirable residence for seniors, with monthly fees that suggest some luxury of food, excellent medical treatment, care-giving, and companionship. Of course, I would be correct in admitting that most of the residents haven't a clue where they are, many don't even respond to their own name being voiced. It might be wasteful to feed them anything but macaroni and baked beans. They do better than that.
My grandmother has lived on and kept her senses because, I believe, she has many visitors. She reads the newspapers, does jigsaw puzzles, and converses about politics and religion, and -- very reluctantly -- how it was to work as a child in a mill in Lancashire. The memories of the cobblestone streets of Harle Syke are not lost -- we can pick things up where we leave off, and go into details. Sometimes I have to draw her stories out. We are hearing of events that most of us, in her family, had not a clue about. I feel I must mark these, get them on the page.
It is the latest missing face in the dining room, noted succinctly, that gets left behind as my grandmother and I continue our own journeys back in time, and in the present whilst draped in a cloak, a patchwork of everything that has happened 'til that moment. We don't look far ahead; I have no idea if my grandmother has given my uncles her preferences for when her funeral comes. Around me, she wishes aloud that there were a crematorium in Bermuda. So do I. When she is tired or bored, I offer to open her bedroom window just as I'm leaving. I'm making a joke. She says: "Don't bother, it might rain." I leave smiling, and she waves me out. That's what you do at 103.
Another writer showed me some of his poetry this week. I had felt impressed to try and contact him after many years. He had been a long time friend of my parents, an employee of the same bank where my father worked, and a neighbour for forty years. His late wife brought flowers each week from their garden to my mother who had such bad luck with her own. I felt that if I did not see the man immediately, I would have to admit, head bowed, to the memory of the poet: "I didn't see you, old friend, while you lived among us, but now that you're dead I wish I had."
So, I telephoned the elderly man, now in his nineties, and quickly told him I was coming 'round to see him the next day, and gave him a time. I felt sure he'd have settled for a telephone call if I'd paused on the line, and I wanted to avoid that. I still wondered if he'd be at home when I turned up, or hiding away, not wanting to answer the door.
As children, we had visited the couple often, until the wife died, and I always went to the kitchen door -- in Bermuda it is unusual to use a front door, no matter how grand the occasion -- and rarely stepped inside. Rather, we might be offered a cold drink on the back patio and a look at the friends’ cats. This week, with one part of me in the past and another part a bit worried about the present, I went to the kitchen door. It was closed, but there was a doorbell, and I pressed on it. I heard the "pong" inside.
A voice called out my name, "Ross, you'll have to go 'round to the front door, the back one's jammed shut." I walked through the garden, noting how overgrown it was, and how the house was in poor condition. The shutters were closed, and had missing slats and hung crookedly, paint peeling off them.
The closed shutters were not all that surprising as our police force and security people now tell us that we should not only close and lock our homes when we leave them, but also when we are home. We should lock ourselves in. As a boy, I believe I could have walked in and out of two dozen houses in our neighbourhood without worrying anyone and not needing to force a lock. I could call out: "It's Ross!" without frightening anyone. I might be given a biscuit and a glass of milk, from a real bottle, milk with the cream on the top. If it looked like rain, I'd take the neighbours' laundry in from their clotheslines if they were not home, or were taking a nap from the humidity of a summer day in Bermuda.
I rang the bell realizing that I'd never been through the front door at the old friend's home. His wife grew African violets in the reception area so many years ago. Those did not interest me then, though it might have been an emotional moment to find them now. The main door opened, and I saw it had been pushed into the closed position by several large bricks wrapped in cloth on the floor. We got the door open, and the reception room had no plants at all in it. Things change, I thought. Shaking a very firm hand, I stepped into the darkened room.
I was offered several seats, as my host settled back into his own reclining chair. I sat near him, and directly faced him. I knew he was blind in one eye and had limited vision with the other eye. We both felt awkward, and I wondered what to say to get things going.
"How's your health these days?" was how I started. I'd noticed that besides his firm handshake, he was well-dressed in clean, casual clothes, and had nicely cut hair -- more than mine -- and a trimmed moustache. There was no odour in the room, and I know about those from visiting my grandmother in her upscale residence. There was no dust on the coffee table in front of me, but there were several boxes on it holding medallions and ribbons below glass lids. I knew enough to appreciate they had been awarded to my friend's wife by the Crown.
"I'll start at the top," he replied. And we got through headaches, dodgy hearing, a blinded eye, sore throat, tummy troubles and gall bladder surgery. That was as low as I wanted to go. I mentioned that he'd certainly trumped any aches and pains I might confess to. And then I asked how long it had been since his wife had died. He told me the exact date and time, 17 years earlier, and in the darkened room I noticed that the house was not furnished the way an elderly gentleman might do it.
Everything was set in its place, upholstery was worn and split, photographs and portraits on the wall remained from the days I'd seen them as a child -- old men with beards, now I noticed they'd been done when the subjects were much younger than I am now -- and the paint on the walls was peeling in sheets. Curtains slumped next to the shuttered windows.
Odder still, were several quite lovely cigarette boxes and lighters -- his wife had been a smoker, and died of cancer -- I wondered if the boxes might contain cigarettes still, 17 years later.
There was something different, unusual: The dining room table was heaped in bottled water containers. He offered me a drink: "Water or Sprite?" He explained he took a diuretic for his blood pressure and peed a lot and needed to replace the fluids. The water in the tank under his house was not potable, and he only used it for laundry and flushing. He used bottled water for everything else.
At that moment, he went off to pee and I opened my knapsack and took out a newspaper and slices of plain cake and fruitcake, and rested them near all the water bottles.
"What's this?" he asked at his return.
"Ah, I brought the newspaper, thought I'd read it to you if you wanted."
"Can you leave it for me?"
"I figured you probably were told not to eat cake, and you could enjoy some."
The spell was broken. We talked about old times, really old times, when their home was built a few months after my parents' place. Neighbours that we shared. We quickly realized nearly everybody of his -- my mother's -- generation on that street had now died. But we raised them up for an hour.
This old family friend revealed that he only went to the grocery store once every three weeks with a volunteer who took him in her car. I asked: "Fresh vegetables?" and he shook his head. "Many visitors?" and he shook his head again. I'd noticed a radio, but not a television. He listened, he said, to call-in radio shows. I told him that I found those too confrontational. I confessed to having a home computer, one nine years old now. "I mostly write these days," I offered. "It's a compulsion. I have to get things down on the page."
He reached over to a table at the side of his recliner and drew several pages from a yellow pad. He studied them carefully, put a few back and finally handed two pages to me.
"These are some poems I wrote recently." He explained. "Would you like to read them?"
"Of course, let's have a look."
They were written in impeccable handwriting, in ink -- he had been a bookkeeper at the bank so many years ago -- and two lines into it I realized they were comedic. The first was about his poor, worn out body with everything broken or bent or missing, and all written in clever rhymes, and going south of the gall bladder that we'd discussed earlier. He'd written it very recently. I was reminded of a famous gravestone that reads: "I told you I was sick!" Might it be Mark Twain? No, don't think so, but worthy of Twain.
The second poem was a commentary on the loss of innocence in Bermuda: Crime, gangs, fear, high prices, shortages, rude children and their rude parents, and endless industrial disputes. In the poem he had not written in so many words that he missed his wife, though as I read his couplets, I appreciated that he missed her more than anything else, but was glad she had not lived long enough to see these days. The house they had lived in - closed and shuttered against time, the master of all thieves - is still as it was the day she died, only the dust has been removed.
I did not offer to open any windows. This poet had almost completed his love affair with his wife; it was still evolving. When I left, returning another firm handshake, I warned I'd like to come back soon.
"Yes. That's OK, Ross," he said.
"Don't forget the cake."
"Oh, I won't!"
Walking out of his garden that was so unchanged, I passed the house my mother lived in for 40 years until her death in 1992. I knew it had been rebuilt. The house itself had been rundown but the land was valuable. The hedge of bougainvillea and hibiscus that I'd planted for my mother was now so high and thick that I could not see the house behind it. I saw some children's toys in the driveway.
And I walked to the bus stop. Feeling good about love.