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Abstracts and Brief Chronicles
By Ross Eldridge

There was a man, a composer of poetry, without a chin. He 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 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.

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.

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