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.
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-