An energetic monkey who's one of the family brings delight to a woman with health problems.
By CHASE SQUIRES
Published October 5, 2003
[Times photo: Dan McDuffie]
Ashli perches on her changing talbe in her bedroom. Capuchin monkeys can live up to 40 years. "I never thought I'd be changing diapers for the next 30 or 40 years," Steve Tarrant says.
ZEPHYRHILLS - A tiny hand reaches toward Darlene Tarrant in her hospital bed at East Pasco Medical Center.
Tarrant, an intravenous needle in her right arm and exhausted from hours of treatment, smiles.
Ashli Nicole, an 8-pound, 15-year-old Capuchin monkey, curls up on her chest.
For the Tarrants - buffeted by bad health and a mounting pile of debt and uncertainty - Ashli offers furry comfort.
"There's times, I think Ashli has kept her alive," Darlene Tarrant's husband, Steve, said. "Knowing Ashli depends on her, needs her, keeps her focused."
For all the Tarrants endure, every day is a little brighter with Ashli, Steve Tarrant said.
She is more than a pet. For the Tarrants, she is virtually a daughter, forever a child, curious and energetic, sometimes affectionate, sometimes stubborn.
15 years old but forever a baby
Just like a little person, Ashli is a creature of varying moods.
She is spoiled. There is no question.
She has her own bedroom, decorated in pink and adorned with ceramic angels. She sleeps in a little pink crib with her favorite toy, a stuffed Grover doll. She has her own wardrobe (infant sizes, 6-9 months) and wears a different outfit each day. She is pampered with a weekly warm bath, special treats of creme soda or Publix vanilla milk, and regular trips around town in her own car seat in the family van.
"She's great," Esquire Barber Shop owner Larry Noble said. "She comes in here, and all the customers think she's great. She's so interesting, especially when there are kids in here; they love her."
And while the Tarrants struggle amid the complications brought on by illness and financial hardship, their schedule is worked around Ashli.
"She's a creature of habit," Steve Tarrant, 60, explained as Ashli climbed to the top of his head. "When you change the routine, then she doesn't like it."
Each day starts about 6 a.m. with the selection of an outfit and a fresh diaper, with a hole cut in it for her tail.
Steve Tarrant changes her, powders her and checks for signs of diaper rash. A tube of Desitin with aloe sits on the changing table.
Capuchin monkeys can live up to 40 years.
"I never thought I'd be changing diapers for the next 30 or 40 years," he said.
Then it's time for breakfast. Ashli eats meals Steve Tarrant prepares in advance, usually late at night, when he's alone, doing chores his wife can no longer do.
Ashli likes grapes and macaroni and cheese. She eats apples, diced strawberries, mini ravioli and mixed vegetables.
In some ways she's like a child, and the Tarrants are careful to keep her from putting dangerous things in her mouth. But unlike a child, Ashli is also a wild creature at heart. She is strong and fast.
She can jump 6 to 8 feet. She has thumbs on her feet that let her hang from any perch, and she has a tail as nimble as her hands.
She also had sharp teeth, until a veterinarian removed them when she was 4.
"It's a lot like taking care of a baby," Steve Tarrant said as he bathed Ashli in the kitchen sink. "But you have to remember, she's an animal, too, so you blend that."
As he talked, Ashli helped wash herself. She coughed on a bit of soap bubble, then splashed around in the water. Steve Tarrant reached for a towel to dry her.
"You always fuss at me when I try to dry your head," he said to her.
Ashli chirped in protest.
Sulking or grinning, she's part of the family
The Tarrants imported Ashli from Honduras when she was 8 weeks old. When she arrived, she was 8 inches long and weighed 12 ounces.
The couple said they learned to take care of Ashli as Darlene Tarrant's health worsened. Now Ashli is such a part of the family that on days when Darlene Tarrant is unable to get off the couch while her husband works, Ashli stays close to her "Mommy."
In a hallway in the Tarrants' compact Zephyrhills home, the wall on one side is lined with professional photographs of the family. Photos of daughter, Lisa, and sons, Scott and Sean, grown and on their own, line one wall. Looking back at them from the opposite wall are a series of Olan Mills portraits of Ashli in a variety of poses, dressed in her best outfits.
On the cover of an album of Ashli's baby pictures are the words "Precious Moments."
Like a child, Ashli can be uncooperative. She sulks. She gets angry. At bedtime, when she wants to stay up, Steve Tarrant said, she'll play games just like a child, pretending not to notice when he tries to pick her up, or feigning sudden interest in an old toy.
But when he spreads his arms wide and sings "Soooo big," and Ashli, delighted, plays along, mimicking him and grinning, she brings joy, he said.
A daily struggle, an uncertain future
It's that joy that drives Steve Tarrant through a grueling daily regimen.
On Sunday mornings, he clips coupons for Ashli's baby products, from diapers to sweet-smelling ointments, lavender soaps and tear-free shampoo.
He said life is a daily struggle for his family. The house needs work desperately, but with a pile of hospital bills he is afraid he can never pay, there is little left for other household costs, he said.
Darlene, 53, has been left severely disabled by a series of health problems that began with a genetically poor immune system that has led to strokes, falls, allergies, vascular degeneration and a heart attack.
Her monthly disability check is less than $400. And her husband's work schedule is limited to jobs he can work part time, because he never knows when he'll be needed to sit by her during an emergency hospital visit.
This weekend, Darlene Tarrant is back in a hospital as doctors wonder what to do about her gallbladder, her husband said. An operation is risky, but so is leaving the gallbladder intact.
Her husband works when he can at Rigsby's used auto parts in Zephyrhills. His boss is understanding, Steve Tarrant said, but the money can't keep up with the demand.
By the summer, $170,000 in hospital bills loomed. There's no way, he said, that he can keep pace. He worries about losing his house, his van. He can't afford health insurance for himself. And there are power bills and phone bills and a continuing cycle of conversations with state and federal assistance agencies that seem to go nowhere. He estimates he averages a $1,000 a month deficit.
He said he doesn't know where else to look for help.
Meanwhile, his wife's health worries him as much as their financial picture, he said.
Each new ailment seems to lead to another.
"She's only a shadow of herself," Steve Tarrant said, reflecting on his wife of 35 years. "Sometimes, she's so frustrated with herself that she gets frustrated with me."
"What else can I do?" he asked. "I just wake up before the alarm almost every day and start over again. I love my wife and family."
His wife tries to be optimistic on good days.
"God's been with me all the way," she said. "I should be dead, but I've still got things to do."
Ashli can't visit Darlene Tarrant in the hospital anymore. A memorandum from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this summer recommended against allowing monkeys in hospitals.
So Steve Tarrant finds a way to juggle his hospital visits to see his wife and quick trips home to comfort Ashli.
"She's our light," he said. "You come home to that big smile or she reaches out to hug you, and you melt."