I came across the following post on Facebook:
When an old man died in the geriatric ward of a nursing home in an Australian country town, it was believed that he had nothing left of any value. Later, when the nurses were going through his meagre possessions, They found this poem. Its quality and content so impressed the staff that copies were made and distributed to every nurse in the hospital.
One nurse took her copy to Melbourne. The old man’s sole bequest to posterity has since appeared in the Christmas editions of magazines around the country and appearing in mags for Mental Health. A slide presentation has also been made based on his simple, but an eloquent poem.
And this old man, with nothing left to give to the world, is now the author of this ‘anonymous’ poem winging across the Internet.
Cranky Old Man
What do you see nurses? What do you see?
What are you thinking … when you’re looking at me?
A cranky old man,.. not very wise,
Uncertain of habit … with faraway eyes?
Who dribbles his 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 sock or shoe?
Who, resisting 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, nurse .you’re not looking at me.
I’ll tell you who I am . . . As I sit here so still,
As I do at your bidding… as I eat at your will.
I’m a small child of Ten…. with a father and mother,
Brothers and sisters… who love one another
A young boy of Sixteen . . . .. with wings on his feet
Dreaming that soon now . . .. . . a lover he’ll meet.
A groom soon at Twenty . . . ..my heart gives a leap.
Remembering, the vows .. .. .that I promised to keep.
At Twenty-Five, now . . . . .I have young of my own.
Who need me to guide . . . And a secure happy home.
A man of Thirty. .. My young now grown fast,
Bound to each other . . .. With ties that should last.
At Forty, my young sons … have grown and are gone,
But my woman is beside me . . to see I don’t mourn.
At Fifty, once more, .. …Babies play ’round my knee,
Again, we know children . . . . My loved one and me.
Dark days are upon me . . . . My wife is now dead.
I look at the future . . . I 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 man . . . and nature is cruel.
It’s jest to make old age . . . . . . . look like a fool.
The body, it crumbles .. .. . grace and vigour, depart.
There is now a stone . . . where I once had a heart.
But inside this old carcass. A young man still dwells,
And now and again . . . my battered heart swells
I remember the joys . . . I remember the pain.
And I’m loving and living . . . 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, people… open and see.
Not a cranky old man.
Look closer . . . see… ME!
In the above post, the story that introduces the poem is fictional. In fact, the origin of the poem is not known for sure. The claim that the poem was found among the belongings of an elderly male resident of a geriatric ward of a nursing home in an Australian country town has not been proved nor was it found among the possessions of any other old man who died in a hospital in Florida, or in any other equally fictional hospital in the United States.
An American poet, David L. Griffith of Fort Worth, Texas, adapted the original poem known under various names, and called it: “Too Soon Old.”
What do you see, my friends, what do you see… what are you thinking when you’re looking at me?
A crabby old man, one not very wise, uncertain of habit, with faraway eyes.
Who dribbles his food and makes no reply… when you say in a loud voice, “I wish you’d try?”
Who seems not to notice the things that you do, and forever is losing a sock or shoe.
Who, resisting 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 my friends, you’re not looking at me.
I’ll tell you who I am as I sit here so still, as I live at your bidding, as I enjoy company at your will.
I’m a small child of ten with a father and mother, brothers and sisters, who love one another.
A young boy of sixteen, a football in his hands and with wings on his feet, dreaming that soon now a lover he’ll meet.
A marine soon at eighteen — my heart gives a leap, remembering the oath that I promised to keep.
At twenty-five now, I have a platoon of my own, ‘who need me to guide them and secure a trip home.
A man of thirty, my youth now going too fast, hopefully, bound to others with ties that should last.
At fifty my daughter and sons have grown and are gone, and I have no one beside me to see I don’t mourn.
At sixty no more babies play round my knee, again I know heartbreak, my loneliness and me.
Dark days are upon me, my dreams are all dead; I look at the future, I 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 man and nature is cruel; ’tis jest to make old age look like a fool.
The body, it crumbles, grace and vigor depart, there is now a stone where I once had a heart.
But inside this old carcass a young man still dwells, and now and again my battered heart swells.
I remember the joys, I remember the pain, and I’m loving and living 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, my friends, open and see, not a crabby old man; look closer — see ME!!
~ © 1986-2001-2010 ~ ~ David L. Griffith ~
The currently circulating version of the poem called the “Cranky Old Man” is a variant of Griffith’s poem. It is also known as a “Crabby Old Man.”
The original poem itself has a long and somewhat perplexing history. It features an old woman as the protagonist rather than an old man and is set in the United Kingdom. Originating from a non-academic source, humbly vernacular in form, it has no obvious value beyond the immediate feelings it provokes on reading.
The poem has been included in various publications under different titles in the United Kingdom often accompanied by the claim that a copy of the original poem was found by the nursing staff among the belongings of an old woman named Kate who died in a hospital’s geriatric ward. Some versions claim that the hospital was located in Scotland. Others claim the hospital was in England or Wales.
The key contributory factors to this poem are the stories of its origins, stories which almost always accompany the poem wherever it appears and which, like the poem’s own words, is virtually unchanged since those early days such as:
The writer of this poem was unable to speak, although was seen to write from time to time. After her death, her locker was emptied, and this poem of her life was found. (Searle, 1973, p. 8).
and more recently:
Get the hankies ready…this one’ll get ya!
Crabbit old woman’s life has ended in a nursing home. While the nurse is packing her meagre possessions, she finds a poem written to the staff of the hospital by the apparently senile and mindless old lady. (Rexanne.com, 2005).
Another version of the origin of the poem says that it was found at Ashludie Hospital, Dundee; that copies were duplicated and distributed to all nurses in the hospital; that a young nurse at the hospital sent a copy to ‘Beacon House News’ at the Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health’; and, that the author’s name was not known.
From time to time the mystery of the poem’s origins surfaces. For example, in 2003, an entry on Seniors Network UK, mentions ‘Mattie’s Poem’, with the story that
Mattie was a very dear family friend. She had been a very bright 90-year-old but her body was badly ravaged by time – she died in the Geriatric Ward of a hospital in Lanarkshire in Scotland.‘
According to credible reports Phyllis Mabel McCormack might have penned it in the early 1960s when she was a nurse at Sunnyside Hospital in Montrose, a coastal resort town and former royal burgh in Angus, Scotland. Originally entitled “Look Closer,” she wrote it for publication in the Sunnyside Chronicle, a magazine produced by the staff of Sunnyside Royal Hospital, Montrose, for circulation within the hospital. She submitted it anonymously as she felt it was critical of some of her colleagues.
In 2005, Joanna Bornat in her work “Empathy and stereotype: the work of a popular poem“, a report for ‘Perspectives on Dementia Care‘, 5th Annual Conference on Mental Health and Older, notes:
Amongst the responses to a small survey which I carried out in 1998 while researching attitudes to the poem was a cutting from the Daily Mail newspaper in which the son of Phyllis McCormack, whose name is often linked with the poem as its discoverer, explained:
My mother, Phyllis McCormack, wrote this poem in the early Sixties when she was a nurse at Sunnyside Hospital in Montrose.
Originally entitled Look Closer Nurse, the poem was written for a small magazine for Sunnyside only Phyllis was very shy and submitted her work anonymously.
A copy of the magazine was lent to a patient at Ashludie Hospital, Dundee, who copied it in her own handwriting and kept it in her bedside locker. When she died, the copy was found and submitted to the Sunday Post newspaper, attributed to the Ashludie patient.
Since my mother’s death in 1994 her work has travelled all over the world… – (Daily Mail, 12 March 1998).
Somehow this explanation rings true, though it immediately begs the question of how the origin story was constructed in the first place and whether the poem depends on an apparent myth for its continuing appeal. Encounters have been mixed as responses to the 1998 survey suggested.
These intriguingly mysterious origins greatly add to the poem’s effect. The story of a mute, unidentified and neglected woman creates pathos. It is a parable for ageing times with lessons about listening to our elders and empathy towards older people.
The poem is written in the voice of an old woman in a nursing home who is reflecting upon her life. Here is the original poem in full:
I have reproduced the original poem below entitled “Crabbit Old Woman.” In Scottish, Crabbit means “bad-tempered” or “grumpy”. It has also been known variously as “Kate“, “Look Closer“, “Look Closer Nurse“, “Open Your Eyes” and “What Do You See?“
Crabbit Old Woman
What do you see, nurses, what do you see?
Are you thinking when you are looking at me
A crabbit 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 for ever 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 are thinking, is that what you see,
Then open your eyes, nurses, you’re not looking at me.
I’ll tell you who I am as I sit here so still,
As I used at your bidding, as I eat at your will,
I am a small child of ten 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 at 20, 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 30, my young now grow fast,
Bound to each other with ties that should last,
At 40, my young sons have grown and are gone;
But my man’s beside me to see I don’t mourn;
At 50, once more babies play around my knee.
Again we know children, my loved one and me
Dark days are upon me, my husband is dead,
I look at the future, I 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 an old woman now and nature is cruel
’tis her jest to make old age look like a fool.
The body it crumbles, grace and vigor depart,
There is now a stone where once was a heart
But inside this old carcass, a young girl still dwells
And now and again my battered heart swells
I remember the joys I remember the pain,
And I’m loving and living 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, nurses, open and see
Not a crabbit old women, look closer — see me.
- Too Soon Old (spotlightdavid.com)
- Crabbit Old Woman (en.wikipedia.org)
- Cranky Old Man Poem (hoax-slayer.com)
- Empathy and stereotype: the work of a popular poem (mchschurch.org)
- WHEN AN OLD WOMAN DIES (littleredshoes.me)