Just like teachers, healthcare workers are told that it’s dangerous to have favorites, but I think it’s inevitable. Surprisingly, my pets seem to be the spunky, “non-compliant” ones. I knew as soon as I met Betty that she fit the bill . . . a defiant and rude priss-pot.
It was of utmost importance for Betty to maintain her regal appearance at all times. Her bushy wig was always in place. The staff couldn’t figure out how she kept it in place even when she slept. Her bright red lipstick and painted eyebrows were artistically applied as soon as she woke in the morning, and her ear-rings, matching pennant and necklace were all in place before breakfast.
To the naive observer, she appeared relatively well, but she had an aggressive cancer that she labored to keep hidden. She had a strong opinion about everything and although she was demanding, she was never cruel. That is until she graduated to the dreaded stage of grief-- anger.
Loudly barking orders from her chair, she didn't mind throwing a hairbrush or cup in your direction to make a point. Nothing we did even came close to pleasing her. In fact, the more we tried to caudle and reassure, the more hostile she became.
The staff quickly grew tired of dodging, and then, sweeping up broken glass, so I gave each a copy of the following poem.
Crabbit Old Woman
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 not 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, let's 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, you're not looking at me.
As I move 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.
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,
Who need me to build a secure happy home.
A woman of thirty my young grow fast,
Bound to each other with ties that should last.
At forty my young now soon will 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.
And now there's 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 so 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.
I had read the poem in a geriatric magazine years before. It was written that the poem was found among the possessions of an elderly Irish lady who had died in a nursing home. She was unable to speak but was often seen writing. The poem so impressed her nurse that she sent it to the local newspaper. It has since become famous among health care workers.
As we continued to treat Betty with respect, we gradually, ever so slowly, witnessed a softer Betty emerge. When she became bed-bound, we hung bird feeders and brightly colored hanging baskets in full bloom by her window. Her last command was to make sure we watered the flowers and kept the bird feeders full.
Thanks for the life lesson, Betty. Sometimes we have to look deep to find the essence of a person. It may be hidden under layers of hurt or buried in years of stubbornness. But it’s there. All we have to do is be persistent and open our eyes and see.