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Orlando Sentinel

Poinciana Woman Lived Life With Zest

BY Kelly Griffith

March 20, 2005
Copyright © 2005 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

You've probably never heard of Maria Zapata. Don't feel dumb. I hadn't heard of the 53-year-old Poinciana woman either until last week, but I'm sure glad I ran across her story.

I found some pretty bold assertions in her life, and I thought they were worth sharing.

Maria Zapata's love for all things adventurous shows in nearly everything she did. After getting an associate's degree in college in Puerto Rico and having two children, she decided the traditional path many Puerto Rican woman choose just wasn't for her.

"Back then, women married and had kids and took care of husbands," her daughter, Norma Nieves, 33, said of the late 1970s and early 1980s on the island.

Not Zapata.

She joined the U.S. Army, opting for the 82nd Airborne Division, the camo-clad bunch that leap with parachutes. She and her children shipped off to Germany for her stint, although she eventually opted out with a hardship discharge when marital problems became too much.

By 1982, she permanently moved from Puerto Rico to the United States, settling in Polk County, where her two young kids attended school. Zapata took a job in the Spook Hill Elementary cafeteria, but quested for something more daring.

She wanted to be a cop. Night classes at a police academy worked out, and she ultimately became the first woman on the Lake Wales Police Department. It was work she loved.

After a few years, she wound up moving into a victims advocate program, then into a rape crisis position, and finally, at the end of her working life, in a role working to help veterans with their benefits. That job was cut short in 1998 when a drunken driver slammed into her on the Osceola Parkway, leaving her with chronic and serious back problems.

She didn't hate the guy who did it. Instead, she urged him to get counseling, where she knew he had the greatest chance of sobriety.

Zapata was like that, too.

Before the injuries, Zapata was the kind who not only loved roller coasters, but always the tallest and fastest. She loved music and, for the quiet times, reading and poetry.

Her two granddaughters, though, sat center stage in her affections. The two girls, ages 3 and12, and their parents shared a Poinciana home with Zapata and cherished the time with her. Family was nearly everything to Zapata, and she was "a wonderful mother and a wonderful grandmother," they say.

Men, though, haven't been too far behind in Zapata's affections. She's loved them too and married five times -- three times to the same man. "Almost keeping up with Liz [Taylor]," her daughter said, though Zapata was currently divorced.

On Tuesday last week, Zapata felt off but wasn't sure why. She had a bit of a tremor in her legs, but she'd had something similar with an injury before, so she rebuffed any idea of going to the emergency room or doctor right away. She'd be fine, she said.

When her speech garbled, though, family members insisted she go to Osceola Regional Medical Center.

Zapata died that day, as unexpected as a summer snowstorm.

It was a brain hemorrhage, and she passed with her daughter, a cardiology nurse at another hospital, right there with her.

Nieves, her daughter, is still numb, not really feeling the brunt of this yet.

I imagine it will start to hit Monday when they remember Zapata in a memorial service, with family members coming up from Puerto Rico to share their grief. Her 82-year-old father, though, won't make it. The trip is too much for him right now, so he will say goodbye from a distance.

Maria Zapata loved life and lived it with zest. She took responsible risks and chances, leading her to live on different continents and jump from airplanes. She changed careers when the going got tough and husbands when they weren't working out. Her kids turned out as loving, educated adults and her grandchildren as beautiful and respectful children. They say good things when they remember her.

That sounds like a successful and strong woman to me.

When I go, I'd be lucky to be like Maria Zapata. Here one day and just like that, into the next world, where romping through the daisy field and watching your people from afar would be joyous sport. Don't give me any long, torturous hospital stays and hospice nurses. I can't say for sure, but I don't think Maria would have liked that either.

She died as fast as she lived.

Her short life maps the way to take chances, live life to its fullest expression, to be authentic and reach out to our dreams. Her death tells us something too: That is, be present in the moment, absorb the "now" while it's here and don't postpone the pursuit of happiness because, of course, tomorrow may never come.

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