What happens when you put children and elderly people together under one roof?
The tale is told of an old man—irascible, unlovable—who died alone in his room in a nursing home. Later, the nurses, who had referred to him dismissively as the “cranky old man,” found the following poem, written in a trembling hand, among his things:
Cranky Old Man
What do you see, nurses? What do you see?
What are you thinking when you look 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 a 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 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 16, with wings on his feet
Dreaming that soon now, a partner he’ll meet.
A groom soon 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 guide, and a secure, happy home.
A man of 30, my young now grown fast,
Bound to each other with ties that should last.
At 40, my young sons have grown and are gone,
But my woman is beside me to see that I don’t mourn.
At 50 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 vigor depart,
There is now a stone where once I 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!
According to the story, the nurses were so inspired by the poem they had found that they saw the “cranky old man” in a completely new light. Wanting to share their inspiration, they sent the poem out into the world, where it has been seen and read by millions.
But wait. There is another story about this poem’s origin. It was originally entitled “Cranky Old Woman,” and it was written by a geriatric nurse who was so empathic toward the elderly patients she cared for that she penned this poem, for which she never took credit.
Its true author will probably never be fully verified. It is a poem filled with the voices of our elderly, who can sometimes feel invisible and forgotten.
Those feelings are palpable when you walk into a nursing or old-age home. The first thing that hits you is the quiet, the kind of quiet that is thick and real and absorbed into the walls.