Gimme BABY bison!

At the Bronx Zoo! Photos by Melissa Larsen Maher. Sweet adorable video here.

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On the holidays… and change

christmasChristmas will never be like it was when I was a little girl. This is a post about how it used to be, and how things have changed. Lots go through it, and now it’s our turn.

When I was little, we didn’t have much — I will never forget one Navidad in particular in which my dad gave my brothers and I $3.00 each in a white letter-sized envelope. I wasn’t sad about the lack of toys for gifts, but felt awfully embarrassed for my father and told him it was OK. But it was awkward. I recall vividly that he handed us those envelopes on our way out to visit with family. We stuffed our stash in our rooms and piled into the car. The holidays were here and we were going to have a good time as we knew how!

Christmas time was filled with a jolly (yeah, that word describes things perfectly) times with our small, yet close, family.

My tio Raul (my father’s older brother and without question the uncle I was closest to) and tia Yolanda were always a part of it, as were my (distant? Not really, try super close!) cousins, Maria and Susy, whose mother, Mari, was my tio Raul’s sister-in-law. My aunts on my mother’s side (Mirta, Nina, Chiqui), their children/my cousins, and my maternal grandmother (abuela Esmeria) would get visits from us, as well. Gifts weren’t aplenty, but food was cooked with love, Colombian music—courtesy of my dad’s record player—filled the living room, and good times were had.

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The only way we can see my abuela now is by flying to Miami.

As we grew older, most of the family moved away to warmer climates. My father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in the late 1990s and things haven’t been quite the same every since. My maternal grandmother, now in Miami, would go on to develop Alzheimer’s, and later, my tio Raul, also in Florida, would find out he, too, had Parkinson’s.

Somewhere in there, I was married, then dealing with the spouse’s alcoholism. Then I was separated, and divorced. Throughout it all, there were no tears on my part, only would’ve, could’ve, should’ves. It’s like I lost my ability to feel.

Cousins got married, some moved away, and, as happens, life gets in the way. There are work and parenting commitments, as the next generation of children have to be raised, and so, not surprisingly, intimate family gatherings hardly take place.

Today, Dec. 23, marks four years since my tio Raul passed away due to Parkinson’s disease related complications. I got to see him at a nursing home a few months before he passed, and, honestly, I know he’s in a better place today. I miss him terribly, but Parkinson’s can be an awful disease. I say can be, because I acknowledge there are other illnesses that are much, much worse.

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My Tio Raul (left in L photo, center in R photo)

But Parkinson’s eventually imprisons one in their own body. It starts with nerves and muscles, but eventually takes your voice. I remember when I visited him, I could hardly hear him. I kept a happy face and joked around, as I always do, but it is awful to see. I didn’t want him to feel that way.

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The last time I saw my uncle in 2011. With my cousin Maria (L) and my tia Yolanda (R.)

Meanwhile, back home, my father was still as stable as the Deep Brain Stimulation surgery he had in 2006 could keep him. He hadn’t had the Parkinson’s tremors in a long while, but his voice and ability to speak were eroding, and rigidity was taking away his independence via walker. He became wheelchair-bound, but he was home for every holiday.

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Dad at two different Christmases.

However, this will be the first Christmas without him in the home while we have Christmas dinner, for instance. Here are some tips on how to cope with grief and loss throughout the holidays, courtesy of Fordham professor Lisa Cataldo.

“People think they’re supposed to be happy during the holidays. This is supposed to be a time of sharing with your family, of positive relationships, of celebration and joy,” Cataldo said. “Many people feel alienated, because they’re not in that space, and that idealized image of the holidays only makes them feel the lack of those things more acutely.”

 

Two thousand fifteen has been a tough one for our little clan. My father fell and broke his hip on Jan. 21, 2015, and was in and out of hospitals, knocking on death’s door at least three times through March. Since then, he’s been in a nursing home, and it’s not easy. Sure, it’s a facility that can serve his needs 24/7, but this comes with much advocacy from us. You have to be there to make sure he’s not neglected. Any sign of a temperature or low blood pressure can spell trouble. A very bad bed sore he developed in February is only now showing signs of progress. (This after I had a very honest discussion with one of his nurses, who said he’s probably go to the grave with that wound. It wasn’t harsh; just real.)

In late August, I had to put my best friend, my 14-year-old black lab mix, Skunky, down. A cancerous tumor forced me to put him down and I still can’t believe I live without a dog!

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Me and Skunky in Washington Heights.

Thanksgiving was sad, but no one talked about it. In addition to the fact that my older brother, wife, and nephew moved down to Orlando, the house was quiet. My mom and I visited my dad in the late afternoon/early evening. My younger brother stopped by as late as visiting hours would allow. Out by 8 p.m.

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Christmas 2014, my dad’s last one in his house!                                              With my nephew, RJ, and my mom, Maria. 

My younger brother’s girlfriend’s mom and brothers came over, which was nice, but it was very low-key. When the patriarch of the family isn’t around, and can’t even eat due to Parkinson’s related swallowing problems, it’s just sad.

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Happier times, despite the Parkinson’s.

To make things worse, we have not quite dealt with our feelings. In one of the bad hospital stays, where a very bad pneumonia caused ICU doctors to have to intubate him, and even insert an I.V. of antibiotics through his carotid artery, my mom and I cried a little, but something about our family of five prevents us from outwardly displaying our fears and general grief. Again, it’s like we’ve lost our ability to not be numb.

There are frequent spats between us, about who doesn’t visit, or visit enough, and the person who is doing the most, of course, is my mother. She is trying to live her life, joining a YMCA and attending classes, and doing better at not spending all day at the nursing home, which is draining.

It’s draining because my father tries to speak to us and we can’t understand him. It’s draining because there are so many residents who don’t get visitors and look to you for any little conversation. It’s draining because there’s a certain smell, a certain way the staff there is overworked and stressed, and, most of all, because we know he’ll be there for the rest of his life.

It’s also disheartening to recently read about nursing home employees sharing pictures of themselves mocking or abusing patients on social media. It just adds to my guilt that I need to be there more. Working in New York, living across the river in Jersey City, and having to drive further north to the home in which my dad now lives.

There’s a lot of wondering what life would be like had he not gotten sick, or remembering what he was like before he was diagnosed. It’s pointless, but it comes up in conversation a lot when we get visitors.

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With my brothers. I miss my sister-in-law (third from left), now in Florida.

I think a lot about possibly getting Parkinson’s myself. I dream vividly; I always have, but telling my mother about how it can signal Parkinson’s really upset her. But I’m just being realistic about the fact that it can very much be genetic. I spend a lot of the time at the gym because of this, since exercise has been shown to slow the progression of the disease, something we did not know when my dad was first diagnosed.

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My nephew, RJ, lives in Florida now, and I miss him so!

I was never really big on winter holidays. I always liked the Fourth of July and summer in general. I dislike the cold, the dark coming early, and having to stress out about gifts. But we’ll do it. Christmas will be fine, but figuring out how to be with my dad when the clock strikes midnight on Jan. 1 is another hurdle. (We’re not sure if visiting hours will be strictly enforced or whether we’ll disturb his three roommates.)

If I could have one wish for 2016, it’s that we deal with this better. It doesn’t seem like my younger brother and I have time for support groups or therapy with the full-time jobs and side gigs, and having to drive to visit mom and dad. But I’ll suggest it. We’ll see.

I am EMPHATICALLY grateful that my father is still with us. He doesn’t seem to be in pain many times, but as his nurses aide sometimes says when I’m in his room with her wonderful Haitian accent, “He seems miserable.” (I think it’s more aches that come with being bed-ridden most of the time.)

I pray 2016 brings us some better days.

The Bronx Zoo saved a cobra!

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Photo via Julie Larsen Maher

Via WCS: Two Bronx Zoo herpetologists rescued an Indian cobra (Naja naja) which was a stow away on a container ship destined for the APM Terminals at the Elizabeth-Port Authority Marine Terminal in New Jersey.

The approximately 18-inch long snake was found in poor condition, dehydrated, cold and exposed to oil residue in one of the cargo holds of the MV Maersk Sana.

The cobra, which is a protected species, was taken to the Bronx Zoo where it is being treated by veterinarians. The snake’s condition has improved since its arrival at the zoo.

Said Kevin Torregrosa, one of the two Bronx Zoo staffers who rescued the animal, “When we located the snake deep below the deck of the container ship, it was in very poor condition. We are cautiously optimistic regarding its recovery.”

The ship was heading from Singapore to the United States when the crew discovered the cobra in the hold on Dec. 10th.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service contacted the Bronx Zoo on Monday, Dec. 14 to help remove the cobra from the ship when it reached its New Jersey destination.

Torregrosa responded to the request for help along with fellow herpetologist Avi Shuter.

Once the ship docked, Torregrosa and Shuter, equipped with snake tongs and hooks, a snake bag, headlamps, and antivenin, boarded the vessel, descended eight stories below the deck, and began their search where the highly venomous snake was last seen by the crew.

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Looks SERIOUS. Photo: Julie Larsen Maher

It took approximately half an hour to locate the cobra and it was placed in a snake bag, hoisted back to the deck and brought to the Bronx Zoo. Torregrosa estimates the cobra is about one year old, and its sex is unknown at this time.

The Indian cobra’s native range is Southern Asia, including in India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. It can be found in urbanized and rural areas, as it preys on rodents.

“We have not yet determined if the cobra will remain at the zoo permanently” said Jim Breheny, Bronx Zoo Director and WCS Executive Vice President of the Zoos and Aquarium. “At present, the snake is in quarantine and under treatment at our wildlife health center. Our main concern is to restore it to good health. We were happy to assist the ship’s crew and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with this rescue.”

The Bronx Zoo is occasionally called upon by local and federal agencies to assist in situations with exotic wildlife due to the expertise of its staff.

 

My dog is dying.

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Skunky & I went on a long, 2.5 hour walk the other day. Yes, I brought water with us. He’s not the quick walker he once was, but I think he enjoyed walking along the Hudson River from the other side. Some of his best years were spent walking along the Hudson from the Washington Heights/Harlem side.

My dog is ill. He is dying, and I think it might be time to let him go.

Last month, when I found out the tumor on the roof of Skunky’s mouth was malignant (with hemangiosarcoma, a cancer that most often affects dogs), I felt numb to the news, in part, because, aside from being a little less active (he is 14, after all), he seemed fine. He was still eating normally and happy as ever to get out of the house and go for a walk.

The vet, who told me he would advise his own mother against putting the dog through chemo, radiation, or cryosurgery, told me to spoil him rotten, make him comfortable, and to monitor his quality of life as I’d know when it was time to let him go.

As a kid, if a horse or dog had to be put down in a book I was reading or a movie I watched, I never understood it. Why couldn’t the doctor patch them up?

But in the vet’s office that day, I recalled a time when I took Skunky to Inwood Hill Park when we lived in northern Manhattan some years ago. It was late fall, an absolute beautiful time in that park, and during our walk, we passed by a man wheeling his German Shepherd-mix around the trail on a dolly as, presumably, his elderly dog could no longer walk. That was no life for the animal, I thought to myself. That’s selfish. That’s keeping the dog around for the owner, and I won’t ever do that, I thought.

And now, I find myself at that fork in the road. Yesterday, one side of his snout began to swell. Again, he is still eating and will go on a walk, but the swelling looks pretty bad. And he knows that I know something is up. When I look at him, or pet him gently, he starts to wag and gives me that look of shame he so often gave me as a pup if he thought he did something wrong.

I think it’s time to have him put to sleep. I know I will miss how he greets me when I get in. I will miss his extreme loyalty that ensures he never leaves my side. He’s part of the family, and that’s why my mom, brother, brother’s girlfriend, and the other pet living in the house (a shorkie!), don’t seem quite ready for him to go.  (This is partly why I feel guilty about having to make this decision.)

I spoke with a colleague about this a few weeks ago, as he worked at a veterinary technician many years ago, and he said, more often than not, owners wait too long. It’s not like a pet can tell us if they’re really suffering, right? He assured me the dog wouldn’t feel a thing when being euthanized. That gave me some comfort.

But it’s still tough.

You see, this is happening at a time when my own father is nearing the end of his life. A very strong man who never had any health problems aside from his Parkinson’s disease, he’s been living in a nursing home for the past seven months. My father is not suffering, per se, but I wouldn’t say he has a great quality of life.

He is incontinent. His limbs are contracting. He is fed through a peg tube. He relies on nurse’s aides to reposition him every two hours. His ability to speak is pretty much gone. He does attempt to let us know when he is in pain. Sometimes, it’s not that, but it’s tough to understand what he is trying to tell us.

The best we can all do is make sure he’s as comfortable as possible. I thank the staff at the nursing home for doing that as best they can.

In many ways, it feels like he is already gone. I always loved talking to my father (he’s a very jovial and funny man) and I haven’t been able to do that in a long while. But, he’s not gone, and this is why 2015 has been a limbo year for me. I am constantly waiting for a shoe to drop. I cannot, I will not, enjoy myself. Being social is the last thing on my mind because it doesn’t feel right.

I control that, and I know I can make a better effort to “live my life” while my dad is at the nursing home, and while Skunky lives his last doggie days. But right now, I can’t seem to find my footing.