Emily Parnell — It’s hard to know how to help

01/14/2014 5:19 PM

01/14/2014 5:20 PM

Do you ever worry about squirrels? I lie awake fretting about their predicament.

Not every night, of course, only when I know they’re struggling against Mother Nature. On frigid, winter nights when bone-cracking temperatures reach sub-zero levels, or in the dead heat of summer when the heat has absorbed every last drop of water available, I stare at my bedroom ceiling and wonder. Apparently they were made to withstand such extremes. They wad leaves and twigs around themselves into big nest balls high in the trees and cram themselves inside wearing their permanent fur coats. But I wonder if they truly stay cozy on those brutal, double-digit-below nights.

Sometimes I throw out a little corn or birdseed for them. In summer, I leave out water. The feed is a mess, the water a mosquito hazard, but it seems like the least I could do for these chatty little creatures that stay out of my way, usually looming just within my peripheral vision. They’re easy to ignore.

I have to concentrate to worry only about the squirrels. At times, my mind will wander to other, more concerning topics. Other things that aren’t immediate concerns in my life. Such as other people’s pets. When temperatures reach extremes, I know there are outdoor cats that remain outdoors. Dogs that cower from the cold with inadequate shelter. I think of my own beagle, padding across the hard, frozen snow, slowing as the cold penetrated her paws, limping after only a few minutes outside to potty. I think of how I dashed outside to carry her inside and know that many dogs have no one rushing to help them. But like the squirrels, other dogs aren’t my responsibility either, are they? Not directly, for sure. Still, it hurts to think about it.

If I’m not careful, thoughts of the people seep into my mind. Dirty, scraggly, scary people who huddle God-knows-where through the nights. (Does it matter the adjectives we apply to these


?) Hopefully they’re equipped with blankets, with coats. I pull my own thick blankets over me, fending off the slight draft that invades my warm home, listening to the wind whistle, and I simply can’t imagine the bitter ache of living in the elements.

It angers and frustrates me, overwhelms me with agitation, wishing for all I’m worth that I could do something. I’ve seen those helping on the news, caring people who drive around warning the homeless of the cold, offering blankets, offering shelter. Many times, they’re turned down. “I’m fine, thank you,” a man said after accepting a warm cup of soup.

I go over the short list of things I’ve done that might help, and it never seems to be enough. How could it possibly? How can I add to the list, I wonder? My own experience with an elderly homeless friend reminds me those with the least are often mentally ill, making them particularly difficult to help. My friend’s paranoid schizophrenia left her terrified that everyone was trying to kill her. Her mind twisted offers of help into threats and tricks designed to trap and harm. It was so hard to know what to do.

I let my thoughts catch a ride on the next blast of arctic air and ride it back up into the trees, whistling between the branches, tossing nuts onto the roof of my house. Easy access food for squirrels. Squirrels designed to withstand extreme temperatures. Squirrels that aren’t really my problem to worry about. And I vow to grab a handful of dried corn and spread it for them in the morning.

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