37: Feeding Squirrels with Dad

37: Feeding Squirrels with Dad

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer's & Other Dementias

Feeding Squirrels with Dad

Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.

~Chinese Proverb

Every Wednesday, as I have for the past two years, I leave work and drive to the nearest fast food restaurant. I order a strawberry milkshake and make the twenty-five-mile trip to visit my dad, who has dementia and lives in a nursing home. The routine is familiar — parking, walking up the winding driveway, entering the tastefully decorated lobby and signing in with the receptionist. Then it’s a right-hand turn down the long hall to the wing where my father lives.

Dad won’t be in his room when I arrive. Members, as the residents are called, aren’t in their private rooms except to sleep. They are encouraged to be involved with one another and to participate in activities throughout the day.

As soon as I pass through the arches of the doorway I spot him. The aides that care for my father are angels. My father looks as he would at home — in casual slacks and a T-shirt or sweater, he is well groomed. Most days he also wears one of his beloved baseball caps. Usually it’s the red one that proclaims “My grandson is a U.S. Marine.” He has no idea which grandson the hat refers to, and if asked will usually tell a big tale of his time in the Marines (he was never in the military).

Within seconds his head twists around, his hand comes up in a wave, and a smile lights up his face as he spots me. My father doesn’t know what he had for lunch; he doesn’t know what year or month it is, but he knows who I am and he’s always happy to see me.

I reach his side and hand him the milkshake. We exchange the same greeting every week.

Dad says, “How did you know where to find me?”

I always respond, “Mom told me.”

As we wheel down the hall toward the main entrance he eagerly begins to drink his milkshake, telling me that strawberry is his favorite, and asking how I knew. On our way out the door, we pass staff members, other visitors, and members. All of them, and I mean every single one, smiles and greets my father by name. Even now, he is the man everyone knows and loves. Sometimes they will touch my shoulder and say, “Your father is such a delight.”

The facility has immaculate lawns with flower gardens and private areas for visitors to sit and spend time with their loved one. In my father’s previous world, as I refer to it before dementia, he loved roses. So our favorite place is the rose garden. As we make our way there, he will usually ask if I want him to push the wheelchair because it’s a lot of work. I smile and assure him that I can use the exercise. We stop and I pull up a chair and settle in; he is drinking his milkshake as I am catching my breath.

When my father became a resident of the nursing home, I was in the midst of my busy life. My middle son had been deployed to Iraq. I constantly worried about him, and I had two other sons still at home. I have a full-time job, a house, a husband, volunteer activities, and the same list of responsibilities as most busy women. There are a lot of Wednesdays when the workday ends and all I want to do is go home. I want to get dinner on the table, get my chores done, and try to squeeze in an hour of relaxing with my husband before going to bed and getting up and starting all over again. But I can’t. Because it’s Wednesday and the responsibility I feel to make sure Dad has a visit weighs on me.

Once I’m with him, my mood lifts. When we sit in the garden a sense of peace comes over me. The rest of the world doesn’t exist as we talk about the same things over and over or sit quietly together. I’m forced to set aside the rest of my life. I’m forced to be “in the moment.” In this day and age when all of us multitask to accomplish as much as we possibly can in twenty-four hours, it’s a rare treat to be this calm.

Sometimes it hits me that five years ago Dad had the same life most of us do. He was up before the sun and exhausted every night trying to get it all done. But then one morning, he woke up and that life ceased to exist. Dementia had taken its hold.

Now we sit in the rose garden and talk about how he “built” the building behind us. We talk about the weather, the trees, the roses, and whether he slept well last night. Ten minutes from now, we will talk about the exact same things, except it will all be brand new to him.

Soon, if we are quiet enough, the real reason we are here in this garden appears. Our special guests begin to arrive. One by one, their little legs carry them to a cautious spot not too far from us but not too close, either. Their beady black eyes and big bushy tails might turn some people off, but not us. I pull the bag of peanuts from my purse.

“Look, Daddy.” I point out their arrival as if I’m five years old, but now it’s my father who is childlike. I take the empty milkshake cup from him and hand him a bunch of peanuts. Slowly he tosses the first one to the closest squirrel, who eagerly snaps it up and stands on his hind legs to peel it. Dad grins and turns his focus to the next squirrel. Over and over he tosses peanuts to squirrels of all colors and sizes. One is missing half his tail, which prompts a weekly conversation about how we think he lost it. Sometimes a few chipmunks will show up, but mostly it’s the squirrels who, through some unspoken squirrel underground, have found out there are peanuts to be had.

Dad smiles at their antics and tells me for the sixth time in an hour that he loves “those little guys.” I smile and agree that squirrels are wonderful.

In his other life my father was able to coax squirrels to eat from his hand. Dad never made a ton of money, he wasn’t famous, and he didn’t own a fancy car or house, but he could get a squirrel to eat out of his hand and to him that was far more important.

Dementia robbed me of my father and robbed him of his life. I know that when I take Dad into dinner tonight, he won’t even remember I was there ten minutes after I leave. But in this moment, he knows I’m here and he knows he loves squirrels. So we feed the squirrels. Every Wednesday.

~Rhonda Penders

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