Thursday, 11 February 2010

The Climbs They Are A Changin

Alzheimer’s disease runs ‘club-footed’ through my father’s side of the family. I say ‘club-footed’ because I come from a family of shoemakers – my uncle’s an orthopedic shoemaker - and doubt whether Alzheimer’s will jump a generation: it lies in wait, like a blackboard rubber between me and oblivion. My grandparents, their brothers and sisters – my grandfather was one of thirteen - all ended their lives as ‘old children’ in old-peoples’ homes, as did their parents before them; and now, my uncle has just been diagnosed. Like Larkin says, in ‘The Old Fools: “Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms inside your head, and people inside them, acting. People you know, yet can’t quite name; each looms like a deep loss restored…”
One thing I’ve noticed about Alzheimer’s: where, so much - once so close - becomes detached, old rhythms and rhymes, seem to stick. Where any kind of meaningful conversation is impossible and they no longer recognised their children (or spouses), and they’re missing their mouths with food (for ‘died of Alzheimer’s’, read, ‘died of starvation’), many Alzheimer suffers are still able to recite nursery rhymes - sing hymns and songs -, are wet-eyed with recognition during old sing-a-longs.
It’s with this in mind – with a dry eye on an old age, when I won’t be able to recall past-times, unless they’re preserved as rhymes – that I’ve begun to commit some of my ‘key’ experiences into rhyming verse.
This is a climbing holiday in Austria, in the 1990's, ruined, when we had our tent stolen from right under our noses. No: stolen from right under our toes. And seeing as rock climbers rhymes with Alzheimer’s, what better place to start?
It happened just as the poem says: we were a high – a good couple of rope-lengths - up a limestone cliff, climbing in the valley above our campsite, near Innsbruck, the day we were forced to watch our tent (and all our belongings – we hadn’t come by car) being stolen. It all happened as if in slow motion. We screamed at ants – carrier-ants: we were tied-up, in a tantrum, and to the world (the rocks, the sky, the birds) must have appeared mad. Perhaps that’s what it’s like, being old?

Watched My Tent Being Stolen (to be sung to the tune of, 'The Climbs They A Changin')

I watched my tent being stolen
Whilst dangling from a rope,
Halfway up a rock-face,
As if backwards through a telescope.

Hung helpless from a rusty peg
As they up-rooted my tent-pegs:
The view between my legs,
Ripped-off condom-sized sleeping bags.

Climbing a cliff above our campsite
(Too high-up to read their number plate),
Passports stolen in broad daylight,
Halfway through our July fortnight.

Yet, as the airbeds deflated
I could only feel elated;
Like the sea had just parted,
Like all the junk I’d carted,

Like the groundsheet had been pulled from under me
(They’d even taken my identity):
Like a vagabond - the chance to be free –
A new start in a foreign country?

But I abseiled down to the embassy,
Checked the cover on my indemnity,
Reversed charges to those close to me.
Reverted to whom I’d chosen to be.

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