The Legend of the “Cranky Old Man”

Cranky Old Man - Old Hands

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.  This 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 . . . 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 Cranky old manoriginal “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.’

My Grandmother with Amanda and Ned

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.

Hello In There – John Prine

3 comments on “The Legend of the “Cranky Old Man”

  1. You can substitute man for woman …

    A Nurse’s Rebuttal

    I see you Old Man … I see your worth.
    I’m thinking of what you’ve seen … of your footprints on this Earth.
    A cranky old man … perhaps justified,
    Your habits are yours … judgment is not mine.
    You dribble your food … your stroke was severe
    I use this loud voice … because I want you to hear
    I want you to notice … the things that I do
    That I don’t get mad if you lose … a sock or your shoe
    Resist as you may … I’m going to keep you healthy
    and bathe you and feed you … for poor or for wealthy.
    You’d be surprised what I’m thinking … at the things that I see
    My eyes are open good sir … there’s a fire in me.
    Please tell me who you are … as I plot to make you better
    It’s me at YOUR bidding … to follow to the letter.
    When you were ten … where did you live
    and what kind of advice … can I beg for you to give?
    When you were sixteen … my experience to compare
    did you love cicadas … that warm summer air?
    You married at twenty … when I felt too young
    the honor of your word … the way it should be done.
    When you were twenty-five … responsibility galore
    Can I pull up this chair … while you tell me some more?
    I can’t even imagine … watching those babes grow up
    Like weeds they say … an overflowing cup.
    Forty years old … and you finally got your office
    Fading echoes of kids laughing … that beautifully loud ruckus.
    At fifty, round two … but not exactly the same
    you can send these kids home … sugar-rushed, insane.
    This part of your story … of your wife’s passing away
    I sit here in silence … there’s nothing I can say.
    I’ll be in your future … to help with that dread
    To do my best to be funny … to put smiles in your head
    Yes you’re now an old man … who feels nature is cruel
    But I see a hero … a man to look up to.
    Your body is failing … no one can deny
    But what I can do … is pick up what fell behind
    You say your heart’s a stone … but I’ve heard it beat
    You’re a man who holds an ocean … of knowledge elite
    You passed life’s perils … with cool dynamic might
    I’m honored to be chosen … to watch you through the night
    I’ll do it with charisma … not as though a curse
    I’ll do it good sir, with gusto … because … I’m your nurse.

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