Riding with the wind

Photo taken today in Central Park: http://scenebygina.tumblr.com/post/122200618607/great-ride-using-my-jamis-commuter-bike-around
Photo taken today in Central Park: http://scenebygina.tumblr.com/post/122200618607/great-ride-using-my-jamis-commuter-bike-around

My father has been doing somewhat better. He continues to stay free of any infections, and I’ve been sitting him up whenever I visit. It’s tough, his arm and leg muscles seem to get more contracted as he’s been bedridden for six months now, but I don’t care; I see him more alert and awake when I help him sit up.

In the meantime, a hobby that my father enjoyed in his 20s is something I’ve picked up: cycling. I use a Giant Sedona CX (2005) for riding around Jersey City, and various New Jersey parks. I had a great two and a half hour ride along the Hudson waterfront, from Newport in Jersey City to Weehawken this past weekend.

I also have a a Citizen Tokyo folding bike for shopping at the produce market nearby. It’s ideal for short trips only.

And I just bought a 2011 Jamis commuter 3 bike for CITY riding! I rode an hour through Central Park today, up to 110th street and back to the Columbus Circle area. It was hot today, but that doesn’t stop the action in Central Park, which was full of runners, cyclers, roller bladers, and more.

I can see why my dad loved to ride his bike. (I remember he rode a Gazelle.) Like running, it clears the mind, but it’s much more relaxing. Something about that wind hitting your face. (I imagine it’s what people who ride motorcycles love, too.)

And, of course, I’m doing something I know my father loved.

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Celebrating my dad: ‘a tough guy, a smooth talker, a brave man and an undeniable natural comic.’

My dad, Virgilio Vergel.
My dad, Virgilio Vergel.

Having an illness or being close to death is not a competition, but as my father’s Parkinson’s disease progresses to a point where he can no longer safely swallow food or drink, I can’t help but think of people who have definitely had it tougher:

Children with cancer. Young people whose lives were taken by horrible accidents, senseless violence, or grave illnesses. Mothers who have died after difficult childbirths, and so on.

This is not to say that my father’s illness isn’t a big deal. At this very moment, it pains me to see him going through bouts of discomfort (but no pain, thank goodness). But knowing that, save for the past two weeks since he suffered a fall and hip fracture, it’s important for me to recall, and remind others, that he has lived a pretty wonderful and full 71 years, and he may continue to do so, albeit with some changes (such as a feeding tube).

My dad with me and my brother, Rich, in Wildwood, NJ.
My dad with me and my brother, Rich, in Wildwood, NJ.
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Thanksgiving eve in 2011 (?) with my cousin, Maria, her husband, Gonzalo, and my brother, Richard.
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Baseball? I learned that from my dad. (After my brother, Richard, took an interest in the Yankees, my dad bought us some Yankees hats, and took us to some games. Yet he preferred the Mets a bit more, because they had more Latinos on the team. Ha!)
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Hanging out with my brother, Richard, and my dad, as usual!
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Mom and dad by the Christmas tree at their first home in Paterson, NJ. This was a big accomplishment for them. They wanted us to grow up in a house they owned.

Don’t get me wrong, this is, without a doubt, the most incredibly difficult thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. But this isn’t about me. This is about the man who raised me and how I choose to remember, celebrate, and even laugh, about the way he was.

Such as:

  • The time he taught me how to ride a bike, and later, how to drive a stick shift. (There was lots of yelling by him, whining by me [I can’t do this! I don’t get it!], and finally, victory.)
  • The countless time he played music from his beloved Colombian coast. It taught us such an appreciation for our parents’ home country.
  • The times he taught me to dance salsa and shimmy my shoulders along to various Colombian songs.
  • The jovial attitude he had with my friends, from making Kimberly laugh on our way to school (he often drove us), the joking around with Judy and Sibila after church, to actually going to happy hour (!!!) with Ysa, Barbara, and Melinda when they all worked part-time at Home Depot.
  • The jokes he always told among his and my mother’s family and friends. He consistently had his audience in stitches!
  • The time he and my ex-husband, Dave, grabbed pineapples off of the swim-up bar in Cancun and posed for a silly picture.
  • The way he enlisted my little brother, David, for various fixer-up projects around the house. It made David very good at carpentry and things.
  • The way he and my mom proudly bought his first home for us in Paterson, NJ, and later, their second home in Clifton, NJ.
  • The way he made sure to take us on a vacation on more than a few summers, even though it was right in state, since it was all we could afford: a full week in Wildwood, NJ. It was heaven! My dad loved to swim and he spent hours in the ocean with us.
  • The way he and my mom tried so many ‘firsts’ with their first-born, Richard. From karate classes to Boy Scouts, Richard was their first-generation dream realized.
  • The way he always talked a mile a minute in between his full and part-time job, or on his lunch break, going over his never ending to-do list.
  • The way he preferred to drive home for lunch, because he always preferred my mother’s cooking to anything else.
  • The way he had sheer pride in my mother. He always bragged about how beautiful she was when he met her on a bus in Barranquilla, Colombia, and how beautiful she was every day.
  • The way he loved his two sisters, “as elegant as they are beautiful,” he’d say, and he felt the same way about all of his nieces.
  • The way he was very proud of his younger brothers, as they were able to attend colleges and go on to stable careers.
  • The way he preferred soccer to baseball (who wouldn’t?) but because he had so much pride in having children born in the United States, he’d take us to Yankee games, and wanted us to speak to him in English as much as possible, so he could learn.
  • The way he and my uncles would take us to the park on spring and summer Sundays for pick-up games of soccer and softball, keeping my brothers and cousins entertained for hours on end. (And, again, despite not liking baseball, he was awesome at hitting [what we thought were] the biggest home runs, ever!)
  • The way he bought us puppies from the pound to have as pets in order for us to have the full ‘American’ experience (even though he didn’t exactly love dogs.)
  • The way he picked up slang from his co-workers at the General Electric plant in Paterson. (He’d come home saying phrases like, ‘What it is?’)
  • The way he initiated conversations with strangers and quickly won them over with a sense of humor, or genuine interest in where they were from. It’s something I inherited.
  • The way he never compared me to other girls or women, respected my choices (from my decision to get separated, and later divorce, to my more than one career changes), or pressured me to have children.
  • The way he encouraged my love of travel. After all, it’s what he and my mother came to this country for: for us to do the things they couldn’t.
  • The way he loved to dance at parties. This wasn’t limited to salsa, merengue, and I’ll never forget him asking me and my friend Marisol to get on the dance floor when they played a dance pop song at a Sweet 16 (I was mortified, at first; there was no one else on the dance floor!) and instantly having us laughing with his ‘pop’ dance moves. Mortification over.
  • They way he was passionate when arguing. (To put it bluntly, his quick and fiery temper, which I inherited!)
  • The way he adored cinema, especially Westerns. (Steve McQueen was one of his favorite actors.)
  • The way he bragged about my writing, and later, my journalism career. (It meant a lot to me.)
  • The way he’d lift weights at home, and cycling with his Peugeot 10-speed was always his favorite form of exercise. Getting us used bikes was a priority, and he always encouraged us to go for bike rides.
My dad and my nephew, RJ, at a birthday dinner we had in 2012.
My dad and my nephew, RJ, at a birthday dinner we had in 2012.

These are just a fraction of memories of my father and I love that writing the list brought many smiles to my face.

As a reporter for the Home News Tribune, I wrote a column about my dad (read it below), when he was about to get Deep Brain Stimulation surgery in 2007. This excerpt encapsulates why I always knew this disease, while not as terrible as some others, would become progressively difficult for him to accept, and for his loved ones to see:

I’ll always remember the day dad told me he thought something was “off” with him physically. He and I were eating breakfast at the kitchen table, and he actually looked scared — something rare for him, at least in my eyes.

This is a man whom, ever since I was little girl, I’ve looked at as a larger-than-life personality with an appetite for hard work. He is a tough guy, a smooth talker, a brave man and an undeniable natural comic.

It seemed his Parkinson’s progressed slowly at first. We have had such great laughs, and he’s enjoyed time with us, and with his grandson, RJ, who made him light up so many times. But as the years passed, he has became more of a prisoner in his own body. The way Parkinson’s affected his vocal chords is especially tough, as this is a man who loves to express himself.

Nearly 17 years after he was diagnosed, this fall that fractured his hip, this one acute trauma—a common one for the elderly in this country—was enough to alter his status. This is not going to be easy for us, but, again, my main concern is that he is not in pain, and above all, comfortable.

I’ve always heard the following advice from people who have lost parents: spend as much time with your parents as you can, because you will miss them when they are gone. It is true. I’m grateful that we have had so many good quality years with our father (and, of course, that my mother is as healthy as she is hardworking). But for those of you who live in other states or countries from you parents, this doesn’t mean you can’t do the same. Though I’ve always lived in close proximity to my parents, I feel that simply keeping them informed about your achievements, your adventures, or your travails, is important. This is the kind of thing that brings joy to my immigrant parents. And I know this from the many conversations I had with my dad early on in his Parkinson’s diagnosis. Parents want to know they’ve raised happy children. So tell your parents how much you love them, yes, but just tell them about your life. They’ll appreciate it.

Home News Tribune Online 03/17/07

GINA VERGEL
gvergel@thnt.com

As my father was wheeled away into the surgery wing at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital earlier this week, my mother, brother and his girlfriend and I all looked at each other as if to say, “What do we do now?”

The answer was simple. All we could do was wait.

On Tuesday, my 63-year-old father — the superhero of our family — underwent nearly seven and a half hours of Deep Brian Stimulation, or DBS, surgery in an attempt to slow down the progression of Parkinson’sdisease that he’s been living with for the past nine years.

Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disease whose primary symptoms are tremor, rigidity, and postural instability. The tremors that once plagued my father have long passed. It’s the rigidity and postural instability that severely interfere with my parent’s quality of life — dad wakes mom nearly every two hours at night so that she can help him adjust himself in bed or take a trip to the bathroom.

It’s tiring.

Almost one year ago, I dragged my parents to a support-group meeting for patients who have had DBS at Robert Wood Johnson. While the surgery does not cure the disease (there is no cure), it can help manage some of its symptoms and, hopefully, cut down on the amount of pills (25) that dad pops every day.

My father, stubborn as always, wasn’t exactly thrilled to go to a support meeting an hour’s drive away from my parents’ home in Clifton. What he saw there, however, led us to that waiting room this week.

People he thought were relatives of Parkinson’s sufferers began speaking about their recovery after the surgery, flooring my father with their varying degrees of composure. He was sold.

I’ll always remember the day dad told me he thought something was “off” with him physically. He and I were eating breakfast at the kitchen table, and he actually looked scared — something rare for him, at least in my eyes.

This is a man whom, ever since I was little girl, I’ve looked at as a larger-than-life personality with an appetite for hard work. He is a tough guy, a smooth talker, a brave man and an undeniable natural comic.

That day, however, something was wrong. A slight but frequent tremor in his right arm, he said, scared him into avoiding the doctor. Eventually he went and found it was the beginning of Parkinson’s disease.

So began a long and hard journey that included him having to retire early and, even worse, having to give up driving. A difficult part for me was how the natural charismatic expression on his face was replaced by a gaunt look — another symptom.

On Tuesday, as my mother and I took a seat in one of Robert Wood Johnson’s waiting rooms, mom turned to me and said something that I’ve never given much thought to.

“Isn’t it something that in the 37 years we’ve in this country, we’ve never had a hospital stay, much less a surgery,” she said. “We’ve been lucky, thank God.”

And yet here we were, stuck waiting as surgeons performed a crainiotomy on my father.

While the wait was tough, chatting with relatives of others in surgery was a positive experience.

Surgeons said the operation was a success but that my father would have to work hard when he got home.

And so with our help, he’ll work hard. Anything for our superhero.

Gina Vergel can be reached at (732) 565-7228 or at gvergel@thnt.com

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With my parents, Virgilio and Maria.

English Café in Southwest Florida: where English conversation is on the menu

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Conversation. The best way to learn a language. Making mistakes is part of the process.

With all the 24-hour cable news channels and news blogs reporting on the seemingly never-ending immigration debate with a side of bitter polarity, you would think the United States is chock full of folks who don’t want to learn the language, and another group demanding they learn it somehow– and fast!

Well, that’s just not true.

Take the “English Café” at the Lee County Library in Fort Myers, in Southwest Florida. This is a program where non-natives with little (very basic) command of English spend 90-minutes chatting with English as a Second Language volunteers. They also read English-language newspapers. Best part? The service is free, participants may start at any time, and advance registration is not required.

My parents immigrated to the United States in the 1970s. Back then, my dad was able to get a job at a factory, and it was survival of the fittest. If he didn’t know English, he wouldn’t be able to fully understand his boss or communicate with his coworkers. He muddled along picking up scraps by watching television shows and movies. (Lots of westerns, ‘pilgrim.’) But it was rudimentary at best.

Fast forward to the 1980s, and he was able to get a much better job as a machinist at the General Electric plant in Paterson, N.J., a very urban area where most of the workers at this General Electric plant he was working at were working class white or African American. His English had to improve because this was a job he wanted to keep.

So how did he learn? By speaking with us (he often asked us to respond to him in English so he’d get it), and talking with his (mostly) African American coworkers as they worked side-by-side with him. As a result, his English was hip! He would actually get home and say, “What it is?” Ha!

In today’s Internet-addicted world, my father’s scenario would be much tougher. And that’s why programs like English Café are a treasure.

There are many programs like it across the country. But unless one is very involved in local news and services, they may not know such opportunities exist. This is why I’m glad Univision Southwest Florida program, D’Latinos Al Día, reported on English Café. Watch the report below.

(Bonus fact: my aunt is a participant. A recent widow, she’s learning to do more on her own, and as she says at minute 1:33, she feels more equipped to speak English thanks to this “marvelous program.”) 

For more information on Lee County’s English Café, visit the library’s website.

Working out? Do you love it? Hate it?

Screen shot 2013-10-23 at 11.17.25 AMI grew up in the city of Paterson, NJ, and aside from riding my bike almost every day in the summer, playing in the house, and gym class during the school year, I didn’t get a ton of exercise. There weren’t any organized sports in the tiny Catholic School I attended and the city I lived in didn’t have any recreational leagues.

Not surprisingly, I gained (and lost, and sometimes gained again) the freshmen 10 in high school and the freshmen 15 in college.

I started working out (aerobics classes and the like) my senior year of college and have been pretty hooked ever since. There was a two-year period in my life where it was obsessive (two hours or more a day) and when I got help for that, I cut back. Eventually, I found a happy balance (I go anywhere from 3-5 days a week for cardio and strength training) that includes walking my dog for about 40-60 minutes per day. And I live in a place where a ton of walking is commonplace — New York City!

The reality is I’ve always had to work out and watch what I eat. Luckily, I enjoy the working out part the best. But there are some people who have never had to work out (like my brothers!) who, later in life, are finding they have to. And they don’t always like it. Here’s a piece about the fitness as an adult by my older brother, Richard Vergel, in Vida Vibrante.

A Latino Dad Reflects on Fitness

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I hate working out.  Always have.  It’s a chore. It hurts.  It’s not even free. Think about it: Gym memberships, brand name sneakers, well-built bicycles, boxing gloves, track suits, tennis racquets, etc. Whatever you’re into, money will be spent. My point is growing up, I wasn’t the most active kid in the world. But I was lucky, because I looked decent considering I didn’t work out; I wasn’t el gordito or el flaco.  I was height-weight proportionate since puberty, so I got away with not working out.

We won’t get into why I didn’t play school sports right now (I’ll save that for another article) but I wish I did. Playing sports as a kid usually leads to a healthier lifestyle, and improved social and leadership skills. Still, I shied away from physical activity. Yet, ironically, I always had friends who were into fitness, ever since high school. They always tried to get me to lift weights with them, and I would try it, see zero results, and go back to my favorite sport – couch surfing.  But that was then, this is now.

Now I’m a 42-year-old dad, who likes to eat his rice and beans and chorizo from time to time. I still look pretty good, thank you very much, but now my metabolism has slowed down and I have no choice: I’ve got to work out to stay in shape – no – to GET into shape.

Read the rest here