Monica Zapata Notzon speaks with reverent tenderness of her mother, Beatriz Zapata.
Though the subject at hand is Alzheimer’s Disease, the conversation returns repeatedly to the superlatives that have identified Beatriz’s life as a learned career woman, a loving mother, and lifetime partner to Renato Zapata Jr.
For almost 40 years Beatriz was a U.S. Certified Court Interpreter for the Southern District of Texas, fluent in English, Spanish, and French.
Notzon said her mother was a perpetual student — a scholastic high achiever at Ursuline Academy (Class of 1958) who undertook part of her education in France and Switzerland and completed an undergraduate degree at Incarnate Word College in English and a Masters in English at Laredo State University.
Beyond the classroom, Beatriz enriched her mind and satisfied thousands of literary and other curiosities by reading, curiosities and a love of reading too big for a book store and more in line with the inventory of the Laredo Public Library.
Much as her parents, José María and Brigida Chapa Villarreal, did for her, Beatriz inculcated her children — Renato III, Monica, Claudia, and Gustavo — with an abiding respect for the written word and the value of an education.
Beatriz Villarreal, the daughter of a newspaper publisher, grew up in Nuevo Laredo’s Colonia Hidalgo.
“My parents met at a pigeon shoot in Nuevo Laredo,” Notzon recalled, adding that her father was so taken by Beatriz, who attended daily Mass at Blessed Sacrament Church, that he made a point of taking his mother to the same Mass.
Beatriz and Renato married in 1963.
“My mother juggled her fulltime career to ensure a happy, healthy home for us at our house on Garfield and later in Del Mar. I can still see her in what she wore after work — a cotton Mexican dress and Daniel Green slippers. While she prepped for supper, she would serve us an appetizer assortment of healthy things like guacamole, carrots, and jicama,” Notzon said, recalling, “My mother poured herself into us. She was part of what we were learning. She read our essays and papers.”
Notzon took the bench of 111th District Court in 2011. She said her mother, then near 70, underwent two knee replacement surgeries. “After the second surgery, she seemed confused and blamed the post-surgery medications. I think she didn’t come back from the anesthesia. She seemed to be slipping away from us and was forgetful and sometimes agitated,” Notzon said.
Beatriz was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease when she was 71. “There was some denial, and she said she didn’t like the doctor. There was a moment when my mother was cognizant of the diagnosis and she accepted what that meant. She implored God to give her a reason for the illness. She cried and was sad. There were moments when it felt that she was in the fight against the disease,” the jurist recalled.
Notzon said the six years since the diagnosis have been gut-wrenching. “She could still drive back then and manage a bit of grocery shopping and cooking and walk to the mailbox with her beloved rescue dog Picaro,” she said.
“My children and I lived briefly with my parents in 2013. Being there day to day, I could see how quickly things were changing — that she was over-feeding Picaro because she’d forgotten that she had already fed him. That she could no longer follow simple instructions or watch a movie, that she’d forgotten the order of her kitchen. That year, still early in the disease, we planned a family trip to Napa, California to celebrate my parents’ 50th anniversary. It’s the last time we were all together as a family. She thought we were going to France,” Notzon said.
“This is when the grief started to set in heavily as the smart, vital person we had known began to disappear into the disease.
In 2014 we took her car away. In the following year she started to get lost. When she came out of an appointment for lab work at the ambulatory center on McPherson, she didn’t go to where my father waited for her. She left and walked along McPherson and crossed Del Mar to get home, walking with her trademark book in her hand. She still knew who we were then,” she said wistfully.
According to Notzon, “The most visible decline in my mother’s health began in 2017. She wouldn’t take her medications and often became belligerent and childlike. She was still capable of a little conversation, but she was losing the memory of how to walk.”
She continued, “This is a disease that makes everyone uncomfortable, and so friends and family began to stay away. Nothing prepares you for the cruelty of the illness or its stealth or how it will go for the patient or her family.”
Notzon recalled her mother’s precise and proper demeanor and her incredible, sure-footed sense of herself. “She became someone else, childlike, a person who began to ask for donuts and candy, things she never ate, and who wanted to dress in clothes she had never favored. These days she still knows who my father is. In this last year she has stopped responding to me. There’s a sense that she is looking through you, and there is a sense that every minute some part of her that we cherished leaves us. Now and again there is a lucid moment. Last Easter I started to cry, and she admonished me as precisely and clearly as she did when I was a child, ‘Don’t start crying.’” she said.
According to Notzon, her mother is at home in the best care possible. “All those years she worked for the federal government have provided a pension that lets us keep her comfortable. We are fortunate in that respect,” she said,
“One of my best memories of her is a mother-daughter trip to New York to shop for my wedding dress,” Notzon recalled. “She was a huge presence in our lives, always there. When I was a little girl, I spent time with her in the old Federal courthouse. I would help her update law books with inserts. I will always remember how much I loved being with her, how much I love being her daughter.”
Notzon spoke of gratitude for the woman who “worked fulltime, made our lives have purpose and meaning, cooked, drove four children to dancing classes, piano, baseball and football. Her devotion to us most resonated to me in my 20s and 30s as I struggled to find the balance of my career with what my children needed.”
She would say, ‘Charity begins at home.’ I repeat these words constantly to frazzled working parents who come through the judicial system. She taught me it was more important to spend time reading to my children at night or playing games with them than attending a social obligation after working all day. I followed her advice. I still do, remembering these words in lieu of stretching myself thin. That one phrase has had the most bearing on my life, and I am forever grateful to have heard it from her. That advice is my most special moment with her. My children — Natalie Angela, Ana Claudia, and Jack — are blessed and successful because of their grandmother. At that time and in the end, reading The Cat in the Hat was the good cause.”
Notzon spoke of the effects of the disease on her father. “After the diagnosis, my father was sad and sometimes angry, skeptical, and impatient about the changes in their lives, about how this could happen to someone who had been so smart and good and a devout Catholic, but then his coping skills kicked in. We are part of each other’s support systems.
“The hospital bed, the wheelchair, the houseful of caregivers — those things will always seem foreign to him. He has learned how to shop for groceries and be in charge of managing his own household. My parents were very social. He misses their Saturday and Sunday breakfasts out of the house and their great conversations,” Notzon said.
Renato Zapata spoke plainly “I have lost who I want to be out in the world with. She was my best companion. This disease brings death twice, the one they suffer through as they lose the life they had as loving human beings and the memory of it, and then the inevitable one that comes when the struggle is over.”
“I miss her, and I wish I could talk to her and be close to the comfort, support, and joy she gave all of us,” Notzon said.
It is her mother’s long slide into helplessness that weighs heavily on Notzon. “In losing her ability to speak, she can’t say that something hurts her or that she is in pain. I can’t begin to say what that does to me.”