It is the cycle of life we all have to go through ~ birth, growth, decay and death. Yet for some reason, humanity by and large seems to brush aside the last two as if they can never happen; and when old age does creep up one day, it is overwhelmingly difficult to cope with…not just for the individual but even those around. The fact first struck me while taking care of my mother and mother-in-law~ one physically debilitated by disease, and the other by old age dementia. At first there was denial, a shock that this can’t happen to my parent. After all they are supposed to be the rocks you lean on. As reality of what was happening slowly sank in there was anger against the ‘fate’ that did this, heartbreak and helplessness at what they were going through and one’s own inability to alleviate the situation. Complete acceptance of the loss never really happens…you just learn that life has to continue. Today a family member shared a poem “Crabby Old Woman” and the painful memories all came back.
The apocryphal story about this poem that has been circulated on the web talks of how it was found among the ‘meagre possessions’ of an old woman who died in the geriatric ward of a Dundee, Scotland hospital, and was later published in the “ News magazine of The North Ireland Association for Mental Health”. A host of other claims surround it and sceptics even say that it has obviously been written by someone else imagining what it would be like being trapped inside a failing body but still having a vibrant mind. The logic being that if the old woman could write such a coherent poem and she wanted to be treated better, wouldn’t she have given the poem to the nurses herself? Some have traced it back to a nurse named Phyllis McCormack who wrote it for a hospital magazine way back in 1969. It was originally called “Look Closer”. The reference says that it was copied from the magazine by a patient in her own hand and later found in her locker when she died. Of course this is deviating from the main point that is not about the poem’s origin but it’s poignant content. Whoever wrote it has simply made an impassioned plea to not brush aside an old person without looking at the young soul within. In the arrogance of youth we tend to treat the old as ‘invisible’. This is a poem for being gentle and understanding about old age…and to remember that time goes by for everyone…
Crabby Old Woman
What do you see, nurses, what do you see?
Are you thinking when you are looking at me…
A crabby old woman, not very wise
Uncertain of habit with faraway eyes.
Who dribbles her food and makes no reply
When you say in a loud voice: ‘I do wish you’d try.’
Who seems not to notice the things that you do
And forever is losing a stocking or shoe:
Who, unresisting or not, lets you do as you will
With bathing and feeding, the long day to fill.
Is that what you’re thinking? Is that what you see?
Then open your eyes, kids – you’re looking at ME.
I tell you who I am as I sit here so still
as I act on your bidding, as I eat at your will.
I’m a small child often, with a father and mother
Brothers and sisters who love one another.
A young girl of 16, with wings on her feet
Dreaming that soon now, a lover she’ll meet.
A bride soon at 2O – my heart gives a leap
Remembering the vows that I promised to keep.
At 25 now, I have young of my own
Who need me to build a secure, happy home.
A woman of 3O, my young now grow fast
Bound to each other with ties that should last.
At 4O, my young sons have all grown and gone
But my man’s beside me to see I don’t mourn.
At 5O, once more babies play round my knee
Again we know children, my loved one and me.
Dark days are upon me; my husband is dead
I look to the future and shudder with dread.
For my young are all rearing young of their own
And I think of the years and the love that I’ve known.
I’m now an old woman and Nature is cruel
‘Tis sad to make old age look like a fool..
The body it crumbles, grace and vigour depart
There now is a stone where I once had a heart.
But inside this old carcase, a young girl still dwells
And now, again, my battered heart swells.
I remember the joys, I remember the pain
And I’m living and loving life over again.
I think of the years, all too few, gone too fast
And accept the stark fact that nothing can last…
So open your eyes, kids, open and see
Not a crabby old woman – look closer, see ME!