40: Two More Years

40: Two More Years

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Messages from Heaven

Two More Years

God pours life into death and death into life without a drop being spilled.

~Author Unknown

It was March 23, 1992, 4:31 a.m. The shrill ringing of the phone jarred me awake but I hesitated. My husband, Art, stirred beside me, prodding me to answer. My father had been hospitalized for over a month during which time I had returned to my childhood home to step into my father’s shoes and take care of my bedridden, partially paralyzed mother. As we feared, it was a nurse at the hospital calling to inform us that my father, Joe Bellinghausen, had died of a heart attack at the age of eighty-seven.

An only child, I had no siblings to consult about taking my mother, Dolly, from her familiar surroundings of eighty-eight years and moving her to Texas. I pondered the wisdom of such a decision, worrying that if she died on my watch soon after, I would never forgive myself. But the thought of abandoning her in a nursing home so far away from me was abhorrent. So, after much soul-searching and praying to have her with me for at least two years, we brought her to live with us in Friendswood, Texas.

For the past sixteen years, since her stroke, I had written my mother every day. Lately my father had warned me she wasn’t reading the letters and he feared she was “losing it.” I sloughed off these observations, since to me she seemed fine. But I soon learned that she had rapidly advancing Alzheimer’s.

We had great days and horrible days, weathering many problems. As Mother’s illness progressed, her ups and downs became more extreme. She would be hyper for three days — always happy but unaware — then she’d go into what we called a “coma” for three days where we couldn’t rouse her. Hospitalized many times, she always miraculously rallied and returned home to us.

Eventually, Mother lapsed into a coma and then developed pneumonia. The doctors and home healthcare nurses said death was imminent and that I should allow her to die at home. But after a sleepless night of listening to her death rales in the next room, I called the ambulance. She was taken to the hospital, where they said to prepare myself for her impending demise. How many times had I heard that?

Four days later, her doctor suggested we put her in a nursing home for her final days, again stressing the urgency of the situation. I reluctantly agreed; she had now been in a coma for a month. I visited her daily in her bright room and rang bells, shook clackers, even tap danced, doing my best to wake her, but to no avail.

She had been in the nursing home for over a month when I skipped my daily daytime visit. Since Art and I were taking dance lessons near the nursing home, we went to see her that evening after our lesson. When I walked into her room, she was sitting up, laughing and talking to a nurse. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

She looked at me happily and said in a clear and distinct voice — one I had not heard for over seventeen years — “What are you doing here?” I couldn’t believe my ears.

“We’ve been to our dance lesson,” I stammered.

“Well, then, let’s see what you learned.”

We were in shock, but Art dutifully cleared the room of chairs and rolling tables, and we danced for my mother. I hummed the glorious foxtrot, waltz and swing ballroom music of her youth, while she kept time on the bed rail with her good left hand and giggled. I couldn’t believe it.

After our impromptu recital, I asked her, “Do you know who I am?” She had not recognized me for many months.

Eyebrows arched, sighing, she slowly nodded her head. “Why, of course.”

“Well, then, who am I?”

She couldn’t understand why I was asking such a silly question. “My daughter, Marilyn,” she answered, a “shame-on-you” look on her face.

“Good! Who’s this?” I pointed at Art. She had been unable to remember his name for a year, not to mention completely forgetting our last name.

Tired of such easy questions, she answered wearily, “Art Zapata.”

We stood staring at her. Art recovered first and, giving her a kiss, said he was proud of her. She glowed. An incredible visit followed, reliving precious memories and family jokes — an unexpected gift.

As we prepared to leave, I said, “It’s been great, Mother. I’ll be back tomorrow.”

She held up her finger and shook it, “Don’t bother, honey. I’m going home.”

“Sure,” I said. “Now that you’re better, you’re coming back home with us.”

“No,” she persisted. “I’m going to my home. Joe is coming to pick me up tonight.” She seemed really excited about this prospect, so I played along, not to spoil the mood.

“Well,” I said, “tell him ‘Hi’ for me.”

That night, the shrill ringing of the phone jarred me awake but I hesitated, fearing the news. Art stirred beside me, prodding me to answer. It was the nursing home calling to inform us that my mother, Dolly Bellinghausen, died during the night of natural causes, at the age of ninety.

I hung up the phone; there was a pause. Then in the darkness, Art softly asked, “Do you know what day it is?” I didn’t. He said, “Think hard.”

The realization struck me like lightning. I looked at the clock. It was March 23, 1994, 4:31 a.m. I took a deep breath and gathered my thoughts. It was two years to the day, to the hour, to the minute, that we had received the call that my father had died. My prayer had been answered, granting me exactly two extra years with my mother.

I can picture it now. Into my mother’s room strides my tall father puffing white clouds of condensation. I see his breath evaporate into the warm room. Like many a scene from my youth, he wears a snow-flake-sprinkled hat and tartan muffler wrapped securely around his neck. His left hand is gloved with a well-worn leather mitt and holds the glove’s stiff mate. He blows into his clenched right fist, warming his exposed hand. I hear his car warming up outside. Then, pointing to his watch, he says for the last time, “Come on, Dolly. It’s time. Let’s go. We don’t want to be late!”

~Marilyn Zapata

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