When An Old Woman Dies


You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.

– Kahlil Gibran –

It’s been at least two weeks since I last cried. Depression does this. It brings tears when you don’t expect them… but you learn to live with it. Much as people may look awkward at me when tears roll down my face while I’m standing with a bunch of bananas in my hand in a supermarket aisle, I know I’m not crying because the bananas are too ripe. What the people think… well, that’s up to them.

I’ve learned to listen to my tears and to look at what lies beneath the surface. Sometimes they fall because the smell of peaches takes me back to my childhood, or a song reminds me of a day on the beach with a lover, or the taste of ripe tomatoes brings back memories of my mother… In my world, tears are just an expression of emotion, which sometimes simply show that I’m experiencing something very deeply.

Today I cried when I found this:

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 women 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.


There are many versions doing the rounds trying to explain the origins of this poem. The most credible report suggests that the poem was written by Phyllis McCormack in 1966, who at the time was working as a nurse at Sunnyside Hospital, Montrose in Scotland. Originally entitled Look Closer Nurse, the poem was written for a local magazine. 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 the poem in her own handwriting and kept it in her bedside table. When she passed away, the poem was found and submitted to the Sunday Post newspaper, who attributed it to the Ashludie patient at the time of publication.

Since Phyllis McCormack died in 1994, her original poem has travelled all over the world… without her knowing about the impact it has had in people’s lives.

The Butterfly Effect is probably not something we pay attention to every moment of our lives. The consequences of our thoughts and actions, good, bad or however mundane, rarely enjoys our attention. However, if it did, perhaps the magnificent beauty of life and the significance of every waking moment and every person who crosses our path might overwhelm all of us more often… not just once a year when we shake out the tinsel and decorate our Christmas trees.

This is why I cried today: There is so much beauty in the small things and they often go unnoticed.

Old Woman Swimming - Unknown Artist

Old Woman Swimming – Unknown Artist

Images: Old Woman by Elaine Short.
Old Woman Swimming – Unknown Artist.
Text: FR Lubbe
Poem: Crabbit Old Woman – Phyllis McCormack, 1966


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