Bird By Bird
Life Measured in Feathered Followers
The sparrows are getting fat. This summer, my 97-year old mom has decided she’s nearing her end. In the meantime, she’s determined that the birds be well fed. The goal is less feeding their hunger than her boredom. Stuck in her wheelchair, she is parked on the back porch from morning to dusk, with visitors invited to partake in the only entertainment on tap – the bevy of birds bustling about her blessedly shaded city garden. Her fascination is limitless, her guests’ interest often disappoints.
It's a motley crew, getting slightly larger every day. We are up to 1 cardinal, 2 chipmunks, 3 pigeons, half a dozen squirrels and a dizzying mass of sparrows my husband calls LBJs (Little Brown Jobs). The most urgent task every morning upon waking, even before coffee for the hapless humans tending this zoo, is to fill the bird feeder. The last task of every dying day, is to bring the emptied container inside - because God knows the raccoons might make off with it. These are the most important rituals remaining, imbued with a profound, if hard to fathom, significance. They are demanded, monitored and then approved by the tiny autocrat from her deck. Then we spend the day sitting, watching and commenting on the frenzied feeding. “They don’t fight,” says my mother in some wonder, having survived a world war and deportation to camps where food was often fodder for violence. I suggested they don’t have to. Abundance reigns. This generation’s worries often comes from too much, rather than too little. The birds, like the rest of us, risk obesity. And their extending tummies and well-fed complacency are tempting the cat. Political metaphors come to mind.
A beautiful black and white cat from next door pokes his very pretty nose around the fence. He prowls menacingly, eyeing the flashy, gorgeous cardinal longingly. He reminds me of all the threats that lurk this summer, like the energy crisis hanging over the paradox of Europe’s current heatwave but future cold crunch (and The Economist’s leader on this illustrated by a huge black Russian bear hovering threateningly over a tiny Little Red Riding Hood - who looks a lot like my cardinal).
A new report from the US’s AARP, in partnership with National Geographic, suggest that America’s older folk are much happier than we think and often fear (and that the media’s stereotypes often portray). They point to the stresses and mental health challenges of the middle aged as a contrast. It’s a refreshingly different narrative of ageing. (My FORBES article summarises it here). They document older folk who don’t deny the physical decline they may face, but as long as they are able to soldier on with some modicum of control and independence, are remarkably content with life. The report is also yet another clarion call that relationships matter most. And the older you get, the more it’s family first.
So as my fiercely independent mom finally loses control over almost everything but the bird feeder, the family starts to circle in. Interestingly, we are no longer necessarily who she prefers to have nearby. Now, she’s more enamoured of those who (obediently) attend to her every daily need. Her rather extraordinary carer L., who she has announced she would like next to her by her deathbed. Her decade-long helper she long called ‘my Muslim lady’ who visits daily and plays Solitaire with her on her Ipad. And husband Tim whose patience is limitless and whose kindness is now legendary – especially among the small collection of women who surround my mother. Her carers, one from Nigeria and one from St Lucia, stare at him as at a miracle from outer space. They tell me, repeatedly, how lucky I am. So does my mom’s best friend. So does my mother. “He’s so intent on helping,” she’s just repeated to me as I type, “everyone appreciates him so.” It’s starting to grate on my gratitude. It’s the adulation that gets to me. Most of the women I know doing the same job don’t get half the kudos. And the 20 years of heavy lifting that came before is out the door, I think grumpily - and then, guiltily, feel even worse. Memories, the research around peak-ends and the associated ‘recency bias’ shows, comes from what happens last.
My mom, I’m happy to conclude, is incredibly well cared for. And incredibly impatient. When coffee takes a minute to boil she’s tapping a virtual toe at the help. A small handful of humans is at her beck and call. But life has been hard and she’s pretty convinced she got served a rum deal. She’s horrified at the ignominy of her forced immobility. At her dependence on others. At a life she didn’t feel delivered on some half-expected promise. “Not surprising,” writes my friend Bonnie, “my mom is the same. Women of that generation didn’t have the opportunities nor resources we had. They were often subjected to wars and other interruptions.”
“Ageing is just as unequal as much of the rest of life. She would hate me for suggesting she was one of the lucky ones.”
Yet I’m weirdly becalmed as I sit with her under the shade of the garden’s huge, untended trees, watching the birds clean out the remains of the day. I did not share with her that June 15th was the UN’s Elder Abuse Awareness Day. That 1 in 6 people over 60 experienced some form of abuse this past year. That my ALI colleague Luis Gallegos is working on a UN Convention for the Rights of the Elderly. That ageing is just as unequal as much of the rest of life. She would hate me for suggesting she was one of the lucky ones.
I’ve learned a lot from accompanying my mother through these last couple of decades. My biggest personal takeaway is that the Fourth Quarter will take as much thoughtful preparation as the Third Quarter does if you aspire to what my Indian friend Dr Swati Lotha wonderfully refers to as a ‘wise demise.’ Getting backed into a predictable physical predicament without having done any emotional or spiritual preparation ain’t a good look. What happens to those who are deeply dissatisfied with what life served up? It leaves a bitter taste in your heart and a legacy of guilt for your kids. That’s why I love the kind of ‘life digestion’ work that my friend Deborah Briggs does via her Sage-ing International work. It paves the way for a degree of serenity and acceptance.
It’s a whole other story I hear from friends with relatives who’ve had wonderful, fulfilling and/or purposeful lives. Juliet’s mom just got the Order of Canada at the ripe old age of 88, a professor who wrote and researched more after retirement then before it. My friend Adriana shares that her much-beloved uncle just died this week. He spent his last months saying goodbye to all the people - family, friends and employees - that had richly populated his full-to-the-brim life and legacy. She is proud of the man who was orphaned young but built a family and a series of initiatives that made him much loved by many. A very different flock of birds.
Another inspiring role model I spoke with this week is Phil Pizzo, the Founder of Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute. He shared his plans for life after stepping down from his decade-long stint developing a Third Quarter transitions program at Stanford (after a long career as a physician). At 77, he’s starting a full-time, 5-year rabbinical studies programme. What better way to sort through all that life has served up than to delve into thousands of years of human philosophising? Having returned to school at 60, I got a sudden glimpse of what 80 might offer.
In the meantime, the sun is setting. It’s time for the bird feeder to come down. How do your parents feel about their lives - and how does that impact you? And how do you think you will feel in the end about what you are doing now?
Friends, may you stay in the shade of this week’s rays. And may the cardinal be with you.
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