What Do You See?

I walked down a busy hospital corridor today and, while I wasn’t focused on orienteering in the maze that is Southampton General, I noticed the people who had cause to be there with me.For quite some time I walked behind an elderly gentleman. I couldn’t see a lot of him – just the back of a grey-haired head, a brief glimpse of his face as we parted ways, a wrinkled hand and a pair of comfortable brown slippers with an innocuous little hole in the left one’s toe.

He was perhaps somebody’s husband, maybe a father, a brother, certainly someone’s little son once. The two nurses (one at the head end and one at the foot of the bed) were complaining loudly and enthusiastically to each other about something. At first glance I thought how lovely it was that they were holding such an animated conversation with the man in the bed, and then I realised that they weren’t talking to him. In fact, in the entire length of the long corridor they didn’t even look at him.

I’m not particularly trying to cast aspersions on these two nurses…the fact is I don’t know what was going on in that situation. I don’t know what the nurses were complaining about, I don’t know whether or not the man on the bed was hard of hearing, or the most curmudgeonly and grumpy man to walk the earth. Maybe his isolated bubble in that crowded hospital was nothing to do with his age at all, but I just couldn’t help but wonder at what point we stop talking to older people? Or worse, at what point do we stop even seeing them?

Let me take you to later today, it’s afternoon and a small miracle has just taken place in the car. My two and a half year old has listened/ignored (whatever, he was quiet) to a whole fifteen minutes of Radio 4. Hurray!!

He was obviously as entranced as I was by what happened to be a rather timely piece for me today; an extraordinary monologue on ageing and death called Three Score Years and Ten: Dancing towards Death. Ok, perhaps not the most cheery of listening but an incredibly interesting programme drawing on literary and cultural influences to illustrate some fascinating ideas. It is written and presented by Bishop Richard Holloway (with not a hint of religion as far as I could tell) and is just one from a whole series by him on this topic.

In today’s programme Holloway talked about a range of things from the first sign of ageing for him (balding) and how he coped with it (tablets & comb-overs) to light musings with a serious kick on the minor irritations of the elderly (his wife’s hearing struggles winds him up for example). I was particularly struck by the idea that life would be best if lived backwards…that you would have got death out of the way first thing, you’d be kicked out of the old people’s home when you got too young and then you make your way backwards through working life enjoying a ‘retirement’ of youthful hedonism and play before ending up floating around for nine months warm and safe.

So, all-in-all, today got me thinking (in case you hadn’t worked that out yet!) and it also has prompted me to share with you the following poem that I’ve been meaning to put on here for a little while. You may well be familiar with it already, I think the poem (and the urban legends about the authorship) is quite well-known.

I first heard it as part of an incredibly powerful short film that was shown at my hospital induction. The film and the accompanying stories had me in tears that evening but is a message that is SO worth remembering…if all goes to plan we all hope to live a while longer. Any one of us could be the ignored man in the hospital bed today, contemplating the hole in the toe of our favourite slippers that we kept meaning to replace but didn’t have time.

Look Closer
By Phyllis McCormack

What do you see, nurse, what do you see?
What are you thinking, when you look 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 is fill.

Is that what you’re thinking, Is that what you see?
Then open your eyes, nurse, you’re looking at me.
I’ll tell you who I am as I sit here so still!
As I rise at your bidding, as I eat at your will:

I’m a small child of 10 with a father and mother,
Brothers and sisters, who loved 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 20 – my heart gives a leap,
Recalling 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 is 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 ones 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 is crumbled, grace and vigour depart,
There is now 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 joy, 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, nurse, open and see,
Not a crabbit old woman, look closer-
See Me.

Mummuddlingthrough
Best of Worst
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20 thoughts on “What Do You See?

  1. Wonderful post. In a very visualise where youth and beauty are considered one in the same it is so common to look past the elderly as if they have less to offer but many have so much. I have had close friends in their 80’s and been the better for their part in my life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So true, they have whole lifetimes of experience to offer don’t they? And, of course, people are people there’ll be ones we get along with and ones we don’t but ruling out an entire age from the ‘relevant’ scale (which to some extent I think does happen) doesn’t make sense. Thanks for commenting x

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  2. Old age is a scary prospect, isn’t it? But it all depends on your attitude I suppose. My Nana lit up the nursing home with her cheeky wit and all the nurses loved her. My Grandad (though I loved him) could be a grump who made life difficult for the people caring for him when he decided to. I hope I can be the loveable cheeky type when I get there!

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    1. I think you’re absolutely right, it all depends on your attitude. I think in our society we often dismiss the elderly and I think that’s because of a pervasive fear of growing old – it can’t be healthy, and I suppose we never know how we are going to feel about any stage of our lives. Your grandparents both sound like right characters! Thanks for commenting X

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    1. Isn’t it? Such a lovely poem. I know exactly what you mean about parents and parents’ peers. Suddenly you realise that they are not indesctructable, along with the fact that it will be us in the not too distant future. Like a said, cheery. Thanks for hosting #coolmumclub x

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  3. I love that poem, i’ve seen it a few times and I find it so poignant. I’ve always taken my youth for granted, but lately i’m starting to realise how quickly the years pass and the older I get, the more I have to say goodbye to my loved ones, friends and neighbours. Lovely post xxx #bestandworst

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    1. I know exactly what you mean, my husband and I often comment about how we are getting to an age in recent year where more sadness and more goodbyes are happening and that’s only going to escalate. Thank you for commenting, I’m glad you are a previous fan of the poem…it’s lovely isn’t it. I think I’ve come to it a bit late!

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  4. I love this post as it reminds me of my Grandma who died before Christmas at 95. I could never understand how hard it must have been for her to lose her husband and she openly missed her earlier years. I’m so glad I saw her a lot in her last years. Thanks for sharing with #bestandworst xx

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    1. Thanks Sarah, I’m glad it made you think of your Grandma. I’m sorry to hear she died before Christmas…95 is an amazing age to get to but i suppose it also means you have more years of missing peers, friends and loved ones doesn’t it? It’s lovely to hear that you can be happy about how much you saw her in the recent years, I don’t always think that’s the case in every family, like the song sometimes – ‘you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone’. Anyway you did and that’s really special. Thank you for hosting #bestandworst

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  5. That’s a wonderful (if sad) poem. I’m getting so worried that my parents are getting older, I know it’s a part of life, but that doesn’t make it any easier, does it! Becky x #coolmumclub

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  6. Hello lovely – congrats on being Sarah’s favourite post on Beautiful things.
    This really puts me in mind of my grandad who has dementia. He is in a home in your neck of the woods – a couple of hour’s drive from us. I am ashamed to say that I don’t make it down to see him as often as I should – when we have been it seems to cause him nothing but distress as he tries to get rid of us from the moment we arrive. I think it’s his way of trying to hide his confusion as to who we are. It is so sad to think of how isolated he must be. We used to be able to talk about the past and the happy and sad times he has been through in his life, but that is impossible now. Beautiful post and thank you for introducing me to the poem.
    x A

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    1. Dementia seems to be one of the cruellest things. The visits sounds distressing for him and you. I don’t know much about dementia but are there moments of time when things are lucid for someone suffering? I’d like to think so, maybe in the middle of the night they wake and remember all sorts of things that they don’t anymore. Maybe that’s just me wishful thinking and maybe if it was me suffering with it I wouldn’t want any moments like that, because woudn’t you then also remember that you don’t remember? I don’t know. I read your comment this morning before heading out and it has stuck with me all day, I’ve been thinking about your grandad lots today, I suppose particularly because he’s not that far away…we drive/walk past lots of care homes (as everyone does everywhere) and it struck me that I rarely really, really properly think of the people inside.
      Thanks for commenting. I’m aiming for a high comedy post next! X

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      1. Thanks for thinking of him – that’s very kind 🙂 I wish he was nearer to home.
        He used to have moments of lucidity. The funny thing was he seemed to remember Chris and my brother’s girlfriend much better than he remembered my brother and I. Chris thought it might be because he still thinks of us as the little children we were, but he has only ever known Chris and Anh as adults.
        He used to call me my nan’s name – apparently I look a lot like her – but now he’s just baffled by us both.
        I look forward, as every, to your next post xxx

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  7. I think it is fear, personally. I think there is a human tendency to avoid and side line the elderly because we fear ageing and we fear death, and we struggle with having to face those fears. It’s not right, but I suspect that is often what it is.

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