"A Crabbit Old Woman"


A colleague recently told me about a poem that was well known in the health and social care circles. The poem titled "A Crabbit Old Woman" or also know as "Look Closer Nurse" was apparently written by an elderly lady residing in a hospital in Dundee and only discovered after the lady died and a member of staff gathered together her personal possessions from her room.
In the poem the lady expresses how she feels and how she believes she is perceived by others, basically a nonentity. It is a sad reflection and an uncomfortable read. The poem made a huge impact on the member of staff and she wanted to share it with others so it was typed up and circulated to every nurse in the hospital. The poem also had a big impact on me so I decided to do a bit of research as to who wrote it and to see if I could find out any more about her and her life.
What I found was a bit of a surprise. The poem was in fact written by a nurse, Phyllis McCormack in 1966 and not by "A Crabbit Old Woman". According to her son the poem was only intended for the hospital newsletter, she submitted it anonymously with the title "Look Closer Nurse". I am not sure what impact Phyllis expected the poem to have but I am sure she could never have imagined what happened, the poem took on a life of its own. To the extent that it has not only become a legend within health and social care circles but it has also, over the years, found itself on the English curriculum for students and become a topic of discussion online, drawing comparisons with other literary works.
I don't suppose we will ever know the author's inention or indeed if Phyllis was the author. But one thing is for sure, it highlights the importance of maintaining the dignity of the lives of the elderly, not just as paitents in a hospital, but for all older people and for that alone it deserves to continue to be shared for the next 50 years.
"Look Closer Nurse"
What do you see nurse, what do you see
Are you thinking when you're looking at me
A crabbbit old woman, not very wise
Uncertain of habbit, 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 forever is losing a stocking 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, for you're looking at me
I'll tell you who I am as I sit here so still
As I use at you biddings, 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 sixteen, with wings on her feet
Dreaming of soon her 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
A woman of thirty, my young growing fast
Bound to each other with ties that will last
At forty my young sons will now grow and be gone
Af fifty, 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 to 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 now an old woman and nature is cruel
Tis her jest to make old age look like a feel
The body, it crumbles, grace and vigour depart
There isnow 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 all over again
I think of the years all too few - gone, so 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