By Kim Villalva
The other day “It’s a Wonderful Life” was on TV and I chuckled as I remembered how long I held out before ever watching that movie. I think it was the famous movie lines that kept me away. That was until one day when there was nothing else on and I needed background noise while cleaning my apartment…and wouldn’t you know, I cried at the end because an angel had gotten its wings!
That beloved movie is now one of my favorites and it even has extra special meaning because of the ending with that bell ringing and those angel wings.
Mom was my Grandma’s caregiver for 20 years, ever since Grandma had a stroke and lost her mobility. Mom devised a system where Grandma could ring a bell anytime she needed her. It was an old cowbell that Mom painted white so it was easily visible. TV channel need changed? Ring! Is dinner ready yet? Ring! What are we having for dinner anyway? Ring! Ring!
If Mom wasn’t in the room with her, Grandma could ring that bell and know that Mom would stop whatever she was doing and come running. Even if Mom was outside taking trash out or feeding the farm animals, if Grandma rang that bell, whoever was in the house with her knew to get Mom if we couldn’t get what Grandma wanted. We’d step out on to the back porch and yell for Mom. It could be the coldest winter night and Mom would trudge through the snow, her barn boots dripping on the rug as she’d dash in to see what Grandma needed.
Even though she’d deny it, the way Mom responded to that bell ringing time and time again, showed us all how generous and selfless someone could be in caring for another. It didn’t matter if she was sick, tired or right in the middle of baking Christmas cookies, she answered the call of that bell. If there was ever a person who could earn her wings, Mom would be an easy pick.
Eventually, Grandma’s mind finally caught up with her weakening body. Dementia set its eyes on Grandma and sadly, we noticed more and more differences in her behavior. Blank stares. Speaking in Slovak. Not being able to find the right word when she wanted to ask something. Trailing off in a conversation.
And then there were those behaviors that were very hard to watch. Ripping up a pile of papers that weren’t hers. Getting angry when she found out she couldn’t go to bed if it was only 4 p.m.…or get up yet if she had only been in bed for an hour.
Grandma passed away this summer and just the other day I looked into her living room expecting to see her sitting with her feet up, afghan on her lap, and that cowbell on the end table next to her. I can still remember hearing the bell ring and seeing my mom truck on through to see what Grandma needed. And I can also remember watching Mom run ragged at times trying to meet Grandma’s needs, especially as the dementia worsened.
This Christmas, Mom’s old farmhouse is quiet. The bell doesn’t ring anymore, but it still sits where Grandma had last used it.
In the movie, “The Polar Express,” Tom Hanks’ character narrated the ending scene and said that his friends could no longer hear the bell once they grew up, but that he still could. He then added, “The bell still rings for all who truly believe.”
Grandma’s cowbell may have gone silent this Christmas, but the memory of what it stood for in that old house will never be forgotten. Perhaps it is in our greatest trials that we find what is truly important to us. We believe that despite the costs to us, giving the gifts of our time, energy and talents to others is worth it. When we set our eyes on helping others through the storms in their lives, we are demonstrating the love that the Christmas season is all about. We believe that selfless love can lend us all the wings we need to keep soaring through difficult times.
In a world where our spirits can be easily dampened by tragedies, sorrows and trials, you never know when you can answer the call of someone else’s bell.
For me, the bell still rings. I believe.