Can I be old?

Public domain

Can I be old and hear the children playing –
a solid block of sound across the concrete yard?
High-pitched voices, ragged voices trailing,
shouts that drift up high above the rest? –
Those are the voices of the leaders, and I know
because I was once was part of it,
a docile follower in a single pack of kids.
Once I took turns, learned rhymes and copied steps,
was sometimes chosen, sometimes pushed aside,
sometimes a worthy player, sometimes last,
so now I stand outside the rusting wire fence;
feel with a child’s heart, see with a child’s eyes,
and remember how things were then,
how some were badly dressed and some were not
some were poorly fed, had colourless, pale skin
that looked as if they never saw the sun,
and beyond that child’s small world
nagging teachers, anxious parents,
unjust justice and the cruelty of place.

Can I be old and walk along the riverbank,
listen to the broken cries of geese,
screeching cries that sear the heavy autumn air,
like human voices? They seem to claim
all mortal suffering – distant killings,
mercenary wars, children dying crossing frontiers,
whole cities emptied so the fighting can go on;
five million fleeing from one country, half a million dead –
and more. By right, this is my pain, not theirs,
but I linger, caught inside the canopy of guilt they build.
They won’t die yet: here they nibble grass and grubs
on muddy ground and block the path of passers-by,
although one morning in the darkening dawn
before I am awake, they’ll arch up, lift their rounded bellies,
take off like clumsy missiles in the sky,
and some will lose their way and some will fall
buffeted by winds, worn down by hunger,
and I’ll be left hearing their incantations,
their noisy echoes of a hurt that never heals.

Can I be old and live among my books and photographs,
with paper, keyboard, radio, tv – all the things
that let me say my say and hear
what others say and do to little purpose?
Can I look down and see my ageing, knuckled hands
that one day won’t be strong enough to hold a pen?
White, bloodless fingers, reddened, blotchy backs –
These leper’s hands. Can I be old?
A useless, pointless question. – I am,
and what I have is what I’ve learned from living:
childhood, memory, connectedness.
Put together, they can make a space
big enough to save me from oblivion,
wide enough to hold me, and to be.


Catherine Watson is a member of the McGill Community for Lifelong Learning and lives in Montréal.