Loving Ingrid - Chapter 4
A promise he kept
By Janine Zeitlin Sunday, July 17 2011, THE NEWS PRESS
Nine children gathered around a grocery store cake thick with butter-cream frosting to sing "Happy Birthday" to Casandra Heller-Martinez.
The smiling girl with mussed, inky tresses squeezed her eyes shut to make a wish before blowing out the eight candles.
"Now, in Spanish!" her father, Craig Heller, urged.
"No!" Casandra shouted.
The singing stopped.
Spanish was the only language her mother, Ingrid Martinez Rico, would speak with Casandra and her older brother, Victor.
Cooing to them as infants, Ingrid would sing nursery rhymes from her childhood in Spain as they grew.
In the past three years, Casandra has refused to speak her mother's language, despite Craig's attempts to nurture the link to Ingrid.
I'm saving it until mama gets better, Casandra has said.
Some days, Ingrid is 23 years old. Others, 42 or 32.
Ingrid doesn't always remember the names of her daughter and her 12-year-old son, but she often asks how they look and what they like to do.
She recalls she has a husband she loves; his name is Craig.
In 2008, Ingrid, an associate professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, was on her way to campus when a dump truck smashed into her station wagon.
Her brain, the reservoir of her intellect and memories of her life with Craig and the kids, was irreparably damaged.
She's 47 and shares a third-floor room at Heritage Park Rehabilitation and Healthcare in Fort Myers, three minutes from where she once lived with her family.
Next to Lee Memorial, and across from a vacant pawnshop, the brick nursing home is set back from the six lanes of traffic that zoom down U.S. 41.
Inside, silence seems extinct. TVs in patients' rooms take the place of the voices of loved ones.
Ingrid is here because the director agreed to take her when most places would not because of her young age, violent outbursts and injury's unpredictability.
Craig is grateful.
They accept her Medicaid, but Medicare no longer covers any therapy.
Ingrid's once vivid life exists in a state of beige: the walls, floors and the curtain used to split her spare room, which sometimes smells of urine.
"My things aren't that good because there's nothing too spectacular about my life," she says, scanning the room.
Photos of Victor and Casandra sit on her bureau with a stuffed spotted dog Ingrid likes to cuddle. Tibetan prayer flags are strung above her nicked wooden bed.
Ingrid's days are spent strapped into a wheelchair. A nurse's aide spoons her oatmeal, tomato soup and other soft food.
After the accident, Ingrid fought to regain her ability to feed herself and even walk.
The money for the therapy that helped her get to that point is gone. She's regressed, to the heartache of friends and Craig.
They know she is capable of more — if only she had more stimulation.
Once an academic who wrote her 400-page dissertation longhand, her slender fingers now struggle to grip a pen.
Signs of her fiery personality and intellect remain. If a karaoke performer visiting the home sings off-key, she'll say loudly: "He's terrible!"
She still is fluent in English and German, but prefers Spanish. At a Christmas Eve service last year, she mouthed the words to "Ave Maria."
Chocolate makes her happy. So do friendly faces and kiwis.
A highlight of her week is a visit from Craig. Her pastor from All Faiths Unitarian Congregation also comes to see her.
Sometimes, friends and former students drop by, but they admit they should visit more.
The weeks get away from them. Seeing someone they so admired like this can leave them sad and remind them, "There but for the grace of God go I."
One of the first things Ingrid asks visitors is to take her outside, where she likes to smell the delicate pink flowers on the shrubs near a door. Live in the moment, she'll say to those who come to see her.
Pills have soothed her violence and her depression, but she's aware people don't treat her like they used to.
On visits, Craig often rolls her chair under a tree facing the parking lot near the patio where smokers gather.
"That man is crazy," she told Craig one morning about a man with a scraggly beard. Ingrid's voice is a strained version of the cheery one people knew.
Her words tumble out slowly.
"People would say the same of me."
Another highlight of her week is the Spanish-language church service offered by volunteers.
The old Ingrid, scarred by an early Catholic education, used to joke with her husband about throwing nun grenades.
Partway through a service one week, Ingrid leaned into Craig.
"Can we go to heaven? I want to go to heaven now."
"Not now," Craig said. "There are still many things to do."
With Jesus in their hearts, they are never alone, even if they're lonely, the woman preaching told them.
Despite what the woman said, Ingrid's life at the home can be lonely.
Ingrid wrung her hands one day, smudging the nails that an aide had just painted rose.
"What's wrong, Ingrid?" she asked.
"I'm thinking about my husband. I don't know where he is."
Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You" hummed on the radio. The aide and Ingrid sang a few bars together.
Another aide arrived to wheel Ingrid upstairs to the common room to join residents watching a baseball movie on TV.
"Give me your hand," Ingrid said to a gray-haired woman slouched nearby. "I'm not good because I'm dying."
"Oh, honey," the woman said and extended her hand.
Ingrid's touch is sprinkled throughout the family's Coconut Drive home. Her photos fill the entry. Art she chose hangs in the living room.
Craig has turned an 18-by-24 shot of Ingrid from their last trip to work with needy children in the Dominican Republic to the wall. It's too hard to see a reminder that life hasn't turned out the way they'd hoped.
Now, the charge of taking care of the family is his alone.
He's the one who struggles to keep up with the laundry and the bills.
He's the one who holds his daughter's hand, reading her to sleep as he once did for Ingrid, who feared the dark when they would drift to sleep. Their daughter shares the fear.
He thought he'd drop by the home every day when Ingrid moved there.
But being with her often breaks his heart. He visits once a week and may take her for a coffee or a massage.
One Sunday, Craig wheeled Ingrid to the nurse's station after taking her to church.
"Who's this?" an aide asked.
"My friend," Ingrid said.
"That's all?" Craig asked.
"Yes, my friend."
"What's your husband's name?" Craig asked Ingrid.
"What's my name?"
"Coincidence," he said, kissing her on her forehead.
Often, she grasps his hand when he moves to leave.
With fear in her eyes, she pleads: "Don't abandon me."
Today, she is quiet. Her eyes trail him as he walks away.
Craig meant it 20 years ago when he pledged to love and to honor Ingrid as long as they both shall live.
He has traded hope for reality that the Ingrid of before is never completely coming back.
He has started to sell hundreds of her books online and donated many to the library.
Knowing they were once important to her, he feels guilty, but doing that has showed him he can build a life on his own.
He wants a life partner. Recently, he started seeing a woman he met at All Faiths who understands his devotion to Ingrid, Victor and Casandra.
"I committed my life to her, and this is all part of that," he says. "She needs someone to look after her and that will always be me."
Victor and Casandra rarely ask about their mother. And they don't like to visit the nursing home.
It's a scary place, Casandra says.
Craig worries they'll forget about their mother.
He has taken them to therapy and plans to create a scrapbook about Ingrid with them. He has saved the outpouring of letters people wrote after the accident.
Someday, the kids will read about how their mother changed lives.
Victor spent the past year in Spain with Ingrid's sister to be with family, to practice his Spanish and to connect with his mother's roots — something Craig wants for his children.
For Casandra, Craig has stowed Ingrid's grandmother's shawl, the one Ingrid wore when she married Craig on a snowy Minnesota evening in 1991.
For the first time Craig could recall, Casandra told her father she wanted her mother to see her play softball and to bring her to a Mother's Day gathering.
Craig grunted as he heaved his wife's 120 pounds to a rug at Renaissance School in south Fort Myers, where Casandra attends on a scholarship.
He sat behind Ingrid's unsteady body. Alone in the room, they arrived earlier than other families because crowds can trouble Ingrid.
Casandra leaned over her father's shoulder, a buffer between her mother, as the girl showed them a book she had been writing.
Casandra read the portion on Mother's Day.
"Hi, Mommy, I love you mommy, mommy."
"How beautiful all of this is," Ingrid said, looking to the book and then to Casandra.
It was time to go.
Craig went to put Casandra's artwork in their van.
"You stay here with mama a second."
Casandra darted out the side door.
At Sam Fleishman sports complex, pint-sized players dotted the grassy field for the 6 p.m. game. Craig pushed Ingrid's wheelchair behind home plate and a chain-link fence.
"Open this," she demanded, repeating the words like a scratched record.
"Breathe," Craig said.
He inhaled deeply. She followed and relaxed.
They held hands as they often do.
From the dugout, Casandra flashed her parents a smile, wisps of hair sticking to the creamy skin she inherited from her mother.
"She's lovely," Ingrid said.
"Just like you," Craig said.
"You are a stupendous husband."
Craig often thinks about how the Ingrid of before would be much happier with him now.
The accident and its aftermath have forced him to be a more confident, competent man.
He leaned in and pecked her on the lips.
"I'll love you forever," he said.
To strangers, Ingrid may seem like just another woman in a nursing home. To those who love her, her life continues to inspire.
Even in her absence, Craig leads trips to the Dominican Republic through the nonprofit Global Community Engagement that he runs with their friends and former students.
Last year, he started the Ingrid Martinez Rico Women's Leadership Initiative, which seeks to help women and children.
It aims to raise $15,000 to run tutoring centers for poor Dominican children in hopes of preventing their abuse and exploitation through child labor or the sex trade.
One of Ingrid's former students brings students to the Dominican from the Miami-area university where she works as an academic adviser. Now in her late 20s, Bianny Fernandez also once baby-sat Victor and Casandra.
Each year, Bianny has a few student leaders travel from Miami to meet Ingrid.
"She was not just dead weight. She gave hope," she tells them. "She transformed. She changed the lives of dozens, if not hundreds, of people.
"If something was to happen to you today, what would you be remembered by?"
To learn about the Ingrid Initiative, visit www.joingce.org/Womens_Leadership.html.