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The vibrant girl is gone, but not his love for her.
By ALEXANDRA ZAYAS, Times Staff Writer
Published November 30, 2007
Reinaldo Montoto strokes her gray hair and whispers her name.
"Isi," he calls the tiny woman with the breathing tube and barely open eyes. "Isi."
Reinaldo knows Isabel won't respond. She hasn't in eight years.
The 74-year-old often sits in his living room chair and thinks about all the things he could've asked her, things he still didn't know about his wife after almost 58 years of marriage.
The question that irks him the most dates back more than half a century, to their teenage years.
Reinaldo spent his childhood like most of the neighborhood kids in West Tampa, watching Superman flicks at the Centro Espanol's Royal Theatre.
But this day, his friend was looking to meet up with a girl.
"Why you need me?" 13-year-old Reinaldo asked him. But he went along for support. Doing the same for her friend was the skinny 14-year-old Isabel with long black hair and dark eyes.
Reinaldo remembers, "It hit me right there."
After that day, he always sat next to her at the movies, slinking down in his seat when her overprotective Italian dad walked into the theater. He gave her a birthstone ring for her junior high school graduation.
He walked Isabel home one night after he started high school.
Reinaldo didn't have time for a girlfriend. He was a Jesuit basketball player who wanted to date cheerleaders from Sacred Heart and the Academy of the Holy Names.
"I'm not coming anymore," he told her.
But two years later, he changed his mind and visited her at Rey Park, where she took care of kids.
"Hey," he told her, "I want to get back together."
"You know," she said, "you came just in time."
Reinaldo thinks an older guy was circling her, probably because she was so cute. He still wonders what her life was like those two years he missed. But he never asked.
"She was always waiting for me," he said.
He wishes he hadn't made her wait.
- - -
They married, and two years later, Isabel had their daughter. Two babies followed, but Reinaldo never changed a single diaper. He worked long hours as a truck mechanic and would collapse in his chair when he came home.
Isabel kept the house spotless and made time to cook his favorite meal, lasagna. She was a quiet, intelligent woman who called her husband "honey" and sewed the leisure suits he wore when they ballroom danced on the weekends.
In 1985, the dancing slowed when Isabel started feeling pain in her arms and legs. Reinaldo took her to six or seven doctors, but only the last figured it out.
The doctor wiggled her wrist in his hand and knew. It was Parkinson's disease.
For five years, Reinaldo convinced himself Parkinson's wasn't that bad. He knew plenty of people who lived with the degenerative disease of the nervous system.
But then, Isabel started getting confused. She turned the wrong burners on the stove and mixed up the knobs on her sewing machine.
"Honey, what's wrong with this thing?" she'd ask.
Reinaldo once left her in the car for a few minutes to pick up something at the grocery store but returned to find her searching in the parking lot.
"She was always looking for me," he remembers.
Isabel had been working at a fabric company after the kids grew up. One day, Reinaldo peeked in through the window and saw Isabel wandering. She had dementia.
He told her it was time to go home.
Eight years ago, Isabel fell and broke her hip. Doctors put her to sleep for surgery. When she awoke, he never saw her walk or talk again.
A neighboring patient in a rehabilitation center was the last to hear her speak.
"Honey," Isabel called. She repeated it all night.
- - -
Piles and piles of colorful fabrics fill the garage of the home Reinaldo built his family in the Pinecrest neighborhood 48 years ago.
Frozen meals line the freezer. Reinaldo isn't much of a cook.
The days are mostly the same. Every two hours, he turns Isabel to keep her from developing bed sores. Nurses and social workers from LifePath Hospice are amazed at how clean he keeps her skin, and their house.
Reinaldo doesn't like to trouble his kids for visits. Holiday traditions like Spanish "good luck" grapes on New Year's Eve and Christmas trees have slipped away. Now 75, Isabel doesn't recognize Reinaldo when he stands by her side, but her ears perk when she hears the garage door open, as he leaves for errands twice a week. He tries not to leave her for long.
"I want to be close to her," he says.
Reinaldo sleeps in a twin bed near hers and keeps a light on - Isabel doesn't like the dark. And every night, he turns her body toward his.
He says, "That way, she can see me."
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 226-3354.
About Holiday Hopes
Holiday Hopes is a series profiling people in need and their wishes this season. City Times will update readers if and when wishes are granted. To read other Holiday Hopes stories go to hillsborough.tampabay.com.
Among the many things Reinaldo Montoto, left, misses about his wife is the way she used to cook. His freezer is stocked with microwave dinners, but for Christmas, he wants a home-cooked meal.
To give: Contact Patty Klein at LifePath Hospice at (813) 871-8085 or e-mail her at email@example.com.
[Last modified November 29, 2007, 07:47:19]