Photo by Haley Black

by Beth Burrell

For many years now whenever I visit my parents, I fill their bird feeder. It sits outside their kitchen table window, in perfect view. Both my parents are 81 and neither can fill it anymore. They’re unsteady on their feet and can’t manage the walk or carrying the bird food.

In the past, I haven’t wondered who I’m doing this for, but these days it seems mostly for me. I scurry around trying to keep things the same at my parents’ house and hold on to what I remember. But things aren’t the same.

They’re always grateful when they see the birds arrive though, and we sit and marvel at their splendor. We eat as we sit, exclaiming over the blue jays that barge in, seemingly bullying all the other birds off the feeder. They’re big and breathtaking and beautiful to be sure. We spent one afternoon pouring over photos in their book, Birds of North America, trying to identify a small off-white bird with light brown coloring on the feeder. We never could. But it was fun trying.

Because they live in a small town, their yard graced with towering pines and shadowed by woods, my parents’ feeder attracts many more varieties of birds than mine in suburban Philadelphia. I’ve always envied this about their home. Pileated woodpeckers, bright red cardinals, towhees, orioles and chickadees, and the bold blue jays, take their turn. I’m no birder but I’ve learned a lot sitting quietly and observing visitors to their feeder. Unlike my lightweight plastic feeder at home, theirs is a framed house atop a sturdy and strong wooden post. It is showing its wear, but has stayed steadfast over the 33 years since they built their house.

As the years go on and my parents’ health declines, their stalwart feeder has come to feel like a metaphor. It’s how I want my mother and father to remain, strong and robust, living on their own in the home they love, their lives staying vibrant, the two of them fluttering around doing all the things they love dearly.

It saddens me now to arrive at their house and find the bird feeder empty and silent, providing life and nourishment to no one. Inside, the kitchen too has become more pass-through than hubbub.

Just two weeks ago when I arrived, I forgot to fill the feeder. It can take a while for birds to rediscover there’s food. The next morning I remembered and hurried out, but the feeder still sat empty two days later. “Give them time,” my dad said. “They’ll come.“ But time felt short.

Last spring, I had the idea to move the big container of bird food out of my parents’ garage and into the house next to the back sunroom door. That way, they could more easily scoop up some food, gingerly walk outside and fill the feeder. But the container was probably a tripping hazard and the walk to the feeder too risky. The next time I visited, it was back in the garage, untouched and out of reach.

Last year my dad slipped going down the garage stairs, carrying a box to his car. If not for the box, he probably wouldn’t have fallen. But had the box not cushioned his fall, he probably would have been more seriously hurt. And further back about six years ago, my mother fell near the bird feeder when she tripped over a garden hose. She broke her shoulder and some ribs and couldn’t get up. My dad, when he discovered her, called 911.

Recently we talked about whether it was time for a ramp up the front door steps. But my mother’s not ready for a wheelchair, and she’s not ready to live anywhere but home either. I know that none of this is unique to my parents or to my family. But it’s a new world for me. Along with my sister and brother, I take it a day at a time, checking in on them, making suggestions, and hoping for nothing catastrophic to happen.

As my visit two weeks ago wound down, I began to despair that the birds would never come again. At the same time, I learned that my mom would be released later that afternoon from the hospital post-surgery. As I entered the kitchen, I saw a fluttering outside.

The birds had come. I sat down and gave thanks.