Spring forward, fall back

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The ridiculous, nit-picky, trivial bits in life are sometimes just what we need. A facepalm, a doubled-over laugh. It’s what makes life survivable and fantastic. It saves me on a daily basis, always has. It really helps these days. It helps lift what feels like a boulder sitting on my chest. It has been a tough month so far after a few in a row. Last week, I was driving on my daily trek to see my dad at his sub-acute facility in Baltimore. The RAV-4 in front of me had two juxtaposed stickers on the back: “I LOVE MY GRANDDOGS!” and a crab-shaped sticker with the pattern of a Confederate flag. My first thought was, “How can you have so much love and ignorance and hate in one place?!” My second thought was preceded by a sigh, then, “Oh, Maryland…”

Today, I was at the Maryland headquarters for vital records. The Maryland headquarters for vital records is inside a small, crappy, not-really-a-mall. It’s right next to a Payless Shoe Source! Vital records AND cheap sequined flip-flops, all in the same 100 square feet. (No disrespect to Payless — I’ve bought many a pair of non-sequined flip-flops there.) Across from the vital records “office” is a mall kiosk that sells really shitty jewelry. Next to that kiosk is an unmanned kiosk where you can fill out a form for whatever records you need. The forms were scattered there haphazardly. There were no pens at this completely unofficial kiosk, so a new line formed at the shitty jewelry kiosk to borrow the visibly angry vendor’s single pen. It turned out that the pens attached by a metal chain, inside the “office,” had all been stolen. Laughable.

I was there to obtain a death certificate for my mother, to prove to Medicare that my father (who is applying for Medicare through me) is in fact a widower, after recently losing my cousin Katie. I was thinking, sitting in the clammy little waiting room, this is kinda weird. Most people in the “office” were rocking new babies, waiting excitedly for birth certificates. It made the wait a little shorter looking at such optimism and cuteness.

My father is going to a nursing home this week. He is sort of trapped in his own body right now, but very cognizant of his situation. His occupational and physical therapy has essentially ceased, as they said that he has hit a plateau in terms of mobility. I complained — if he is destined to be confined to bed/a wheelchair, teach the man how to use the goddamn wheelchair. I told the therapists, “I have been showing him how to steer using his feet, while using his good hand to unlock the brake and roll the wheel.” The therapists said, “Oh, great idea!” (Why is this news/my idea? FACEPALM — been down this road before with health care.) I’m afraid of when I’m not there — do they even bother putting him in the chair, given that it takes two people to do it? Unfortunately, traumatic brain injury therapy not only takes a lot of time and energy, but is subject to the limitations of health insurance — as are all injuries. Because of the setbacks from his pneumonia cycle, he has been in make-up mode trying to gain back the ground he lost on therapy. How is that “they” have given up before he has? I want better for him, as does he. I am so very, very proud of my father. He puts full effort into every therapy session and deserves better. My time spent watching his therapy sessions will help me help him in the days ahead, I hope.

Yesterday, his hair had been slicked over to one side and he was puffing on his breathing treatment. I told him, “You look just like George Burns, puffing on a big cigar!” He got a hearty laugh out of that. I am struggling to get things in line so he can move this week to his new home and continue his healing without financial burden. Good thing I can still make him laugh.




Two people in this photo have been lost to breast cancer. My mother, and now my dear cousin, Katie. We lost Katie this past Tuesday, after a hospice stay at home surrounded by those who loved her best. I feel fortunate that I was able to spend time with her before she was gone. I am saving the words I have written for her, about her, for a brief remembrance at her Celebration of Life service. It is an immense loss and I will leave it at that.

It so happens that Katie’s service will be held on the same day that my father is scheduled to be discharged to a nursing home. I worked on my words for Katie as I drove around, taking tours of potential new long-care facilities for my father. I kept thinking how ridiculous it all was, the sequence of events of this week. Where is there room for anything else? How much grief can a family take in such a short span? Fortunately, I am surrounded by a very small, yet very durable group of relatives. We can laugh together at the absurdities and small blips of positivity that we experience. Everything is a learning experience. Everyone who has suffered a loss in life knows that. For those who haven’t, know that to be true.


I have always loved waterfowl, from when I was very young. When I was first hired at the zoo, I worked at the bird house. It accelerated my love for waterfowl and educated me beyond words. We have four very recent additions to the farm: two French Toulouse and two Brown Chinese goslings, all hatched one week ago today. Although 2016 has brought more challenges than I thought I could take, our new charges add a little joy to spring. When you can’t fix things, you just take care of things.


“Don’t think about all those things you fear. Just be glad to be here.”

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.img_0534

Stumble in my footsteps

I’ve switched off of classical music. On the drive to and from the rehab facility, it was so ambient that I tended to let my mind drift too much into anxiety thoughts, and sometimes another lane, as well. For a few days, I was listening to some of my old favorite 80s songs just so I could belt out the lyrics at the top of my lungs. I was feeling tired and pissed off enough most days that I had worked out a script to anyone who looked at me strangely at an intersection. “My dad’s in shock trauma, asshole!!! Now let me get back to singing with The Smiths!” Even though my dad is out of shock trauma, I thought it would be easier to yell than, “My dad is in the University of Maryland Rehabilitation and Orthopedic Institute, asshole!” More “shock” value, if you will. That traffic scenario never played out — we are all so distracted with our own lives (and, to be honest, phones) that I never got a second look. I guess I was just looking for a fight, no matter how insignificant. That is one of my faults. So is bottling up things until I hit redline.

Redline was achieved last Friday evening. I had a complete breakdown. The stuff that Hollywood actresses would dream of achieving during a gut-wrenching scene. Snot, wailing, throwing myself on the floor. All of it just came out in a torrent of physical meltdown. I did not go to the rehab facility to see my dad that weekend. My husband went in my stead and made sure I was ok (I was not okay, and he was clearly very concerned. I was completely incapacitated physically and emotionally. I was a fetal position diagram with red golf balls for eyes.) I didn’t want him out of my sight, I thought that something might happen to him. I told him at one point when he got home that I had imagined it would be easier not to be alive. I have not felt that way since after my mother died. It had been a long time. He took the best care of me. I told him early after my dad’s fall that you know you love someone when you would volunteer any day of the week to take on this kind of pain and frustration so that he wouldn’t have to. I meant it at the time, sincerely. I would sign up a million times to deal with all of the emotions and gut stabs so that he would not have to. I would still sign up, but in my initial frazzled state, I of course neglected the fact that he has suffered along with me. In a different way. Arguably a more difficult way, supporting/feeding me/worrying in his own way. He has been an amazing man through all of this.

I think the tipping point was being excited about Dad being moved to rehab but already being slated for release on March 4th. He still has a feeding tube, catheter, and is confined to bed or a special chair. I thought about how I had to go through the vetting process with a whole new system of techs, nurses, and doctors. I had been keeping myself “ok” during shock trauma by saying to myself, “Ok. This is my dad right now.” Friday, for some reason, it hit me like, “HOLY SHIT, THIS IS MY DAD NOW.”

Last Friday night, while excruciating, was a good release for me. It was like some sort of tension demon had finally escaped.  I realize that a small part of my misery was that I wanted my dad to be back to how he was before the middle of January — for me. Now I can get back to cheering my dad on. His victories – no matter how incremental — are his. And I couldn’t be more proud of him.

February 10th

It has been one month and one day since my dad has been in shock trauma. It also happens to be his 75th birthday. Not really our choice of venue for a party, but I told all of the nurses throughout this past week that February 10th is a big day. They ask him his birthday every day as part of his cognition questionnaire.

I tried to make it a little festive, within the strict confines and definitively non-party atmosphere in shock trauma. Dad got some happy birthdays from the staff as they walked by. Yesterday, he was able to swallow a little applesauce, so I was optimistic that he could have a birthday treat. When I arrived with a large sheet cake in hand, his nurse du jour shook his head and apologized. Dad hadn’t passed the barium swallow test this morning, so no cake, not even mushed-up, softened cake. I held up a grocery bag and asked, “Ok, how about some chocolate pudding I brought as a backup birthday treat?” The answer was again an apologetic no. Dad’s birthday desserts were then donated to the nursing staff. It actually turned into a thank you gift for them, since Dad is being released to the rehab facility this evening. This is a huge milestone. This is the next stage. This is where they say incredible transformations happen. It is an excellent birthday present.

My dad fought his way here, even when he didn’t know he was fighting. I tell him this. Yesterday was the first day that he initiated a conversation in brief phrases, strung together fairly coherently. I have been keeping a daily record of my dad’s ups and downs. I scribbled furiously to capture all of the words he was saying. Out of the blue, he said, “I love you, Kris.” When the speech therapy pathologist came in to see him yesterday, he read the name and title off of her badge, “Vanessa, speech therapy pathologist.” He told her, “My daughter is a lion keeper.” She looked at me quizzically. I nodded. When I first learned a month ago that my dad had stroke-like symptoms and couldn’t speak, I had gone through my voicemail and retrieved as many of my dad’s old messages, regardless of how brief or goofy, as possible. Yesterday was a wonderful day.

Today, February 10th, ends with much hope as we face the challenges ahead.

B positive

Today marks three weeks that my dad has been in shock trauma. The past few days have been stable for the most part, and we were anticipating hearing that soon he would move to the rehab facility. His 75th birthday is 8 days away.

When I arrived at his room this morning, it was dark and empty. He had been moved back to ICU late last night when he exhibited great difficulty in breathing. I had not gotten a phone call. He was not in the best of spirits when I left him last night, but he has had ups and downs overall so I was not expecting a dramatic shift.

His nurse in ICU is fantastic, though. The doctor made an appearance. I feel that I know exactly why my dad was moved, and that the doctors have a plan. It is a setback, for sure. But I’m learning that this is how these things work.

Camp Clark

I have set up camp here, more or less. I recognize a lot of the families camped in the waiting room, a lot of the nurses and I exchange friendly hellos. I ask Yolanda if she had fun with her grandson in the snow last weekend, David and Sara pull up extra chairs when they see family in Dad’s room and shake hands. The other families and I give smiles of encouragement or shrugs of the situation we are sharing. It is familiar. For the next month, it is my job and I punch in /punch out, much like the hospital employees do. I think about what they do when they go home, how they unwind. 

I entertain myself by giving back-stories to the hierarchical levels within a hospital as I observe them. The radiology techs are two men, very short and stooped, devoid of smiles — they reside in the bowels of the hospital, crawl up when summoned, and push the mountainous machine shaped like a Zamboni. They are like trolls, skulking around until they are no longer needed. They never speak. No one speaks to them.

The nurses are like robots, repeating the same script room by room, poking/prodding/squeezing/changing and tossing soiled linen. “Can you open your eyes?”, “Say your name for me!, “What’s your name?” Down the line they go. In every room, a crumpled human being in varying stages of disrepair and indignity. I don’t know how they do it. It is probably hard enough to deal with the monotony of their work, much less chat with a family member perched expectantly at bedside. I write all of their names down. I assume they take a long shower when they get home. They pet their cats or feed their fish, because their schedules don’t allow for dogs. 

The ladies (they are always ladies) who fly by with the liquid meals for shock trauma patients have the same body type, same demeanor: short, pudgy, sweet and effervescent. They are delivering what they feel are good things in white gift bags. They are always brief but charming in their exchanges. They are always too blessed to be stressed.

The doctors have been, before today, mythical beings that are rarely spotted. They swoop, speak in hushed tones, their tired eyes blank except for the reflection of the pink and beige monitor displays in front of them. They whisk away before you can snap a blurry, Sasquatch-retreating photo. There is a hierarchy within the doctor hierarchy. The students are exhaustedly enthusiastic, the residents carry an air of undeserved swagger combined with competitive nervousness. At rounds, they travel in a tight cyclone.


Trying to adjust cable under normal circumstances is painful. Trying to cancel cable for a loved one in ICU, it turns out, is an ordeal. I was told I needed verbal confirmation to authorize myself to end my dad’s cable. I told her that was impossible because my father was on a respirator. I ended up hanging up on her. If I had legal evidence, I could use that as well. My dad and I haven’t shared as much as we should have on these things. Phone and medical bills are the same way. I need to prove that I am the only next of kin and have power of attorney. To cancel a cable service. Unreal. 

I confirmed my dad’s blood type today. He needed a pint of blood and responded quickly after it was administered. It changed his status from comatose to slightly reactive. I joked with the nurse, “Actually, he’s a vampire, is that not on his chart?” 

His blood type is B positive. Sounds like a good strategy. Cheers. 



I have been in Baltimore for two days, fortunate enough that one of dad’s lifelong friends allowed me stay in his apartment to ride out the storm while being closer to the hospital. Baltimore is my family’s hometown.

There has been no singing the last two days, and I have been frustrated with Dad’s care. I had to tell a nurse that my dad’s blood pressure spiked, or that he needed suction to remove the heavy congestion in his chest. 

Solace in the small

Three minor high notes today… Although Dad was not verbal today, he smiled at me. When the charge nurse asked him, “I’m David. How are you today, sir?”, my dad didn’t speak but extended his right hand. The nurse moved around the room and I said, “David, don’t leave the man hanging!” And he shook my dad’s hand. I wondered if my dad was happy that someone addressed him as “sir”, rather than “buddy,” “darlin’,” or “friend.” It is hard to find humanity in shock trauma. David is a wonderful nurse and answered a lot of my questions. I told him the posse of residents and doctors didn’t even touch my father at rounds, much less make eye contact with me when I was a foot away. He listened with genuine empathy, and for that I will remember him and hope that he remains on the schedule of nurses during my dad’s stay.

My dad’s anxiety has dovetailed with mine. Early this morning, I dreamt that my mom brought our dogs to the apartment I’m staying in. I remember saying, “Mom! Dad will be so excited to see you!” And then I woke up. My mom has been gone since 1992. It was nice seeing her for a few brief moments behind my eyelids.

Yesterday Dad was really out of it and it was the first day he didn’t seem to know I was there. Today was a small blip of improvement, and I am so thankful for it.

I am also thankful for my boss and coworkers, who towed the line all week so I could have this time with my dad. Like police, firemen and women, nurses, and doctors, they were there during the storm taking care of their charges. I hope they know that I would do the same for them.

Travel time

I am staying in Federal Hill and have been walking to the hospital. My walks take me past some landmarks that I hold dear. They have brought me joy during the trudge. Seeing so many people walking around the snow-jammed city — snowball fighting, sledding, laughing at themselves falling into a snowbank — really made me happy. Here are some photos of my walk back this evening. I took them not only for fun, but to show my dad tomorrow so he can see the snow (which he despises) that I’ve been telling him he’s missing. 

Light Street

Bromo Seltzer Building
Harborplace with a ghostly USS Constellation
And the flag was still there!
No, not really …

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