The “Cranky Old Man” is a touching poem about aging that has moved countless caregivers around the world to tears. But where did it really come from? From Zeus and Europa, to Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, every culture has its requisite legends and tall tales.
The culture of caregiving is no exception.
Thanks to a post by JessieBelle, one of our AgingCare Caregiver Forum members, we recently came across one of these legends in the form of this poem. The tale is said to be authored by an anonymous elderly gentleman, living in an Australian nursing home:
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!!
After the man passed away, the nurses at the care home where he resided allegedly found this unpublished poem among his possessions. They were so inspired by its contents that they felt compelled to share his words with the world.
To be sure, this piece presents a poignant examination of the unforgiving, un-halting progress of life, not to mention the sense of invisibility felt by many older people.
But, there's more to the story behind this verse than most of its readers realize.
The original "Cranky Old Man"
Another version of this tale holds that the "cranky old man" wasn't really a man at all—he was a woman. A nurse named Phyllis McCormack, to be exact. And she wasn't really cranky; merely empathetic to the plight of the aging adults she cared for.
McCormack, so the story goes, penned the first draft of the poem while working in a British hospital, sometime in the mid-1960s:
Crabbit Old Woman (aka: Kate, or Look Closer Nurse)
What do you see nurses? What do you see?
What are you thinking? When you are looking at me
A crabbit old woman not very wise,
Uncertain of habit, with far-away 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 this what you're thinking? Is this 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 use 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 girl of sixteen, with wings on her feet,
Dreaming that soon now, a lover she'll meet:
A bride 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 5
Who need me to build, a secure happy home.
A young woman of thirty, my young now grow fast,
Bound to each other, with ties that should last:
At forty my young ones, now grown will soon be gone,
But my man stays 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 husband is dead,
I look at the future, I shudder with dread,
For my young are all busy, rearing young of their own,
And I think of the years, and the love I have 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 vigour depart,
There now is a stone, where I once had 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 woman, look closer - see ME.'
According to a 1998 article in the "Daily Mail" (a British newspaper), McCormack's son claimed that his mother had written the original verse for her hospital's magazine.
The "Cranky Old Man" version of the poem is said to have been later adapted from McCormack's version by David Griffith, a U. S. poet.
True legends need no author
The various legends surrounding this particular poem are so complex and have been re-told so many times that it's likely the original writer of the piece will never be truly verified.
A fact that does little to diminish the power of this epic ode.
Like the legends of old (the ones that resonate in the hearts and minds of people across the globe), the "Cranky Old Man," has taken on an identity of its own.
It doesn't have just one author—it has many.
The true poets are the older adults who feel forgotten and invisible, the doctors and nurses who provide much-needed medical services for these elderly men and women, and the caregivers who give comfort, care and support to their aging loved ones.
They are the ones who keep the story alive, however they choose to tell it.