Those are lines from a song by FC Kahuna. They are simple and obvious. I have been listening to Visioneers radio on Pandora (yes, I still use Pandora). Instrumental hip hop with a loungey, jazzy, sometimes bossa nova feel. We all have “that thing” that makes us just feel really, really good — it’s what we listen to when we’re doing something we feel so great doing that it takes us to a higher state of existence, for a little bit. It’s what we listen to when we’re doing “that thing.” It could be snowboarding, sitting around a campfire, giving a presentation, making the perfect frittatta, having sex. It is what I listen to when I skate. Everything is congruent. Your brain and body are present and here.
That is a loaded word these days. I feel the need to be “here” on a few fronts. “Here” is at the hospital with my father. “Here” means home, where I come to (not) sleep and try to reconnect briefly with my home life. And “here” means with my cousin Katie, who has bravely decided to come home to convalesce rather than go through dialysis and other countless procedures of which she is weary. Ever since Katie made the decision to come home, I have been torn cleanly in half. My dad had been relatively stable, but is now on his fourth antibiotic for pneumonia. Late last week, the head nurse told me to not stop hoping, but I needed to prepare myself for the fact that my dad might not recover from pneumonia despite all of his cognitive progress. He is 75, and his body and brain have suffered so much trauma. It is a repeating cycle — his pneumonia is keeping his speech and swallowing therapy from being successful, and the speech and swallowing therapy failings are keeping the pneumonia going. After a brief but good visit with Katie last week, I got that phone call from the head nurse. How does one decide where to be when everywhere is everything? There is no right answer.
My cousin Rachael, Katie’s sister, gave me guidance — maybe unknowingly. She said whatever you do is exactly the right thing. I don’t know if she realizes how poignant that is. I feel that there is regret no matter what the choice is. But her words gave me strength. I made the decision to stay with my dad for the time being.
I went to visit Chisulo, the juvenile male lion that we sent to Fresno Chaffee Zoo in November. I saw him while out in California in early January, tagging along with my husband on his work trip. I drove 2 1/2 hours each way to see Chisulo. He didn’t show any sign of recognition whatsoever. I told his keepers that he must be so comfortable in his new home that he had forgotten all about us. That was a bandage over the disappointment I felt, since I was hoping for a slight sign of “oh yeah, I remember you a little.” I think I cracked a lame joke like, “Man, do you know how much I wrote about you? Do you know how far I drove to see you?!” It made me think darkly about how much of an impact we have on the animals in our care, and how much I had relied spiritually (or whatever) on him — or any of our animals. Is there any recognition of all of the time we spend agonizing over their well being? Their successes? Their death? It made me question for a moment all of the work that we do, trying to preserve species. My selfishness got the best of me. Zoos protect species in their own way, and inspire new generations to be passionate and actionable on conservation. I have seen it firsthand many times, and it is one of the reasons I remain committed to working with animals. For every kid whose parents let him throw rocks at the lions, there are kids who are inspired and thus inspiring. Sometimes the ratio seems 9-1 against us. It is a constant struggle between wrong and right. It is worth it to reach the few.
I have struggled with my own expectations regarding my dad’s progress, and with Katie’s. It is beyond anyone’s control but all consuming. It is mentally and physically debilitating. It is impossible to describe. Practical day-to-day execution is how you get through, either in Maryland (Care Team South, I call it) or in Pennsylvania (Care Team North). Emotions have to wait or be set aside, for now. I had to ask my dad’s nurse du jour to teach me how to turn on the suction machine to suck out his aspirations. (She should be doing that.) I manned the suction machine while he was in shock trauma, I say, but the machine was always on. My dad is able to suction his own mouth when he coughs, I tell her. I am there to coach him. He has to now, when I am not there. We just need the f-ing machine turned on.
Today, the speech therapist moved on from the usual reorienting questions to more complex questions with my dad. She said she was going to give him a category, and he had to list as many things in that category as he could. She said, “The category is animals.” He listed, in order: “Dogs, goats, cats, lions, tigers, anteaters, prairie dogs, caracals, bobcats, bears, elephants.” The therapist was surprised. I said, “That’s what happens when your daughter is a zookeeper.”
It is amazing how much one needs recognition in life sometimes. At least in my life. I have learned a lot about my father, my family, and myself in this time. I have disappointed my father greatly in my younger years, and made him very proud alternatively. I have realized that recognition has a different meaning now. Just being here, or there — present — is enough sometimes. Sometimes it is all we can manage.
Because there is no photo to accompany this post appropriately, here is a photo of better times. This was taken at Katie and Darren’s wedding. Cheers.