Feeding the Squirrels

The squirrels are eating the birdseed and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. 

Also, what makes the squirrels less deserving than the birds? Why do we feed the birds but not the squirrels?

I am sitting outside with my coffee this morning. It is just past seven AM and the sun is up. Grandma is still sound asleep. Grandpa is in a hospice house for five days of respite. The mornings have been so quiet since he has been gone. I know he probably does not want to be there. Of course, he prefers to be at home. 

Before this week, I did not know that “respite” was a word. Respite is defined as “a short period of rest or relief from something difficult or unpleasant.” Respite is not for the dying, but for those that care for them. Out of necessity, we have chosen to take this opportunity. We—my grandmother, my mother, and me—need these five days to regain our energy, to experience a silent house free from my grandfathers constant needs. 

He has always been so terrified of his own death. Determined to solve every medical problem thrown at him throughout his life. He bought books, listened to lectures, made appointments with hundreds of doctors, and filled any moments of silence with stories of his growing knowledge of trigger points, carpel tunnel, and how gluten contributes to memory loss. He’s still fighting. His fighting has brought him to this moment, away from home and in the kind of place he would have never chosen to spend his final days.

When I am not here sitting outside, the squirrels probably eat this birdseed all day long. Today I am sitting here and aware of it, so I want to control and fix it. What if instead I just watched the squirrels eating their birdseed breakfast, without getting worked up about a situation in which no one is in harm, and over which I really have no control? Can I do that? Witness without trying to control? 

This is so hard for so many of us. Grandpa tried to control his health, denied his own demise, and because of that he didn’t plan a damn thing. He refused to sell the lake house, he bought a new house when he was well into his late seventies, and he would not consider any assisted living situations—he was not “that kind” of elderly person. It’s actually a miracle that he decided to sell the bed and breakfast, that he was able to see an end to his working life. He retired from owning his own company in New York City, only to begin running a small bed and breakfast in Upstate New York. He officially stopped working once he reached his early eighties, forced by the desperation of my grandmother who finally demanded rest. 

He was the invincible business man, perpetually in a state of work, produce, consume. Should I admire him for this? For his hard work that is now paying off in the form of around-the-clock personal caregivers at 22 dollars an hour? Or should I take it as a lesson—to slow down, neither producing nor consuming—the absence of the one inevitably cancelling the other out. Or maybe I could produce just enough to consume only what I need. Is that selfish? Could I instead sit in the mornings without rush and take time to ponder my own powerlessness, over the squirrels and otherwise—my own lack of control, my own demise? 

We are all destined to grow old and if not, we are all at least definitely going to die. Grandpa had the great fortune to grow old. However, his growing has finished. He is now in a state of retreat, finally facing the fear and paranoia that was probably plaguing him all along. What if the paranoia is not a symptom of his dementia but instead just a surfacing of what was always inside of him, inside of us all—the fear of death and deterioration, the fear of being alone? But he was always alone, we are all always alone, and almost always living in the perpetual state of “Me, me, me, what will become of ME?” 

We all have our stories. Grandpa mostly only told stories of himself, but maybe that is all I am doing too. We all have our stories and we are desperate for someone, anyone, to listen. My mom visited grandpa in respite yesterday. She said he found a quiet old man to tell his stories to. His years of running a business, of traveling for work, of attending night classes for his MBA. Stories I have heard a hundred times. Where is the line? When do we stop listening? When is the time to draw the line, recognizing our own exhaustion, our own need to retreat inward and away from the stories of others? And when is listening an act of love that we must practice? Where is the boundary between drawing inward and expanding outward? Listening to a dying man’s finally attempt to tell his stories is tiresome, but don’t we all deserve to be heard? 

I know grandpa is afraid. Maybe he is afraid that when he goes, his stories will go with him. That may be the case as most of us tired of his stories long ago. Ultimately, his legacy is not up to him. We will remember him in our own ways, hand-picking memories to soothe a very complicated grief. 

There are three squirrels now. They are arguing over the birdseed, jumping from tree to tree as they plot their launch to the bird feeder. The birds have been scared away, probably for good. Yesterday in a moment of lucidity, Grandpa asked me to fill the bird feeder whenever I get a chance.

I think I will do that today.