06/12/2012 12:49 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

It's a Long Story


"Pepe has a new girlfriend," said my mother. "She's coming to Thanksgiving."

You know your social life is failing when your grandfather is getting more dates than you are. "What's this one's name?"

"Well, that's the funny thing, we're not quite sure. It sounds like Jenny but with her accent and Pepe's, it could be Jeannie."

"What does Pepe say?"

"Kind of a hybrid of the two."

"Ja-eanie it is then."

And so arrived the day when American families give thanks, despite our unique family members. It's an awkward situation. I gave mom the place cards: one for each of us and eleven for Ja-eanie. My mom gave me the same puzzled look I often give her.

"I didn't know how to spell it, so I went with all of the above. Dad can figure out which one to use when she gets here."

We have spent over a dozen Thanksgivings now without my true grandmother, Mami Olgi. She was classically elegant, wearing large hats and sunglasses to the beach but never entering the water. The pearls around her neck never held back her humor. I remember sitting on the kitchen counter as Mami Olgi danced on her toes in fear and sang "La Cucaracha" as the relevant bug crawled across the kitchen floor.

One particular summer at the beach remains with me now. We hopped in the water, wading over the shallow sandbars. I turned around to swim back and there was Mami Olgi, right behind me, sand in her hair, gliding with us through the water.

Even in my youth, I knew something was different. She passed away a month later.

It was not long, however, before we had our own Spanish soap opera. Pepe soon introduced us to Rosita, his first love from Cuba. Dumfounded and still reeling from my grandmother's passing, we were offended by his ability to move on, or worse, the possibility that he had been waiting his entire marriage to return to a long-lost soul-mate.

We knew the company would be good for him and Rosita was a wonderful companion but no one could have compared to Mami Olgi. Rosita didn't have her elegance, her charm, or her chocolate mousse recipe. She was with us for about five years before they broke up and my grandfather moved on.

And now, this Thanksgiving, there was Ja-eannie. She came to Thanksgiving bearing gifts and saying, "I never had daughter. I always want to have sister." Everything I had held against her fell to the floor. Her name turned out to be Genny, which we learned just in time to make place cards for their wedding.

Following the old adage that it's bad luck for the groom to see the bride before the third wedding, my brother and I started to lead Pepe from his apartment, leaving his bride-to-be behind to get ready.

Pepe placed his keys in the door. In his fractured English he said, "We have to lock door because Genny not home."

I shot my brother a quizzical look as he chimed in, "You mean we have to lock it so no one comes in while Genny's changing, right?"

"Right, right, that's what I said." Pepe dismissed the accusation of forgetfulness with a wave of his hand.

Knowing even young grooms get wedding-day jitters, we decided to give Pepe a pass since our groom had 84 years behind him.

It must be terrifying to be clear enough to recognize that your memory is failing. Out of denial, embarrassment or confusion, Pepe had attempted what many on the brink of decline do: Hide his frailty.

It was the first sign that a disease was taking his memory.

Looking back, it still seems like the Alzheimer's came on at once. There may be a reason why. Intelligent people can often hide their disease and hide it well.

According to Lisa Gwyther, the director of the family support program at Duke University Medical Center, some people "can get quite adept at hiding [their disease] from others."

We were already in the hospital when I asked Genny when she first noticed Pepe's dementia.

"He been confused for while," she said matter-of-factly, "but we went to doctor." He should have gotten help earlier, but he isn't alone.

The Alzheimer's Foundation of America hosts an annual National Memory Screening Day where they provide free memory testing to promote "proper detection of memory concerns, including Alzheimer's disease and related dementia."

In 2007, over 2,000 adults took part in the testing. "Of the respondents, 68.1 percent self-reported memory complaints but only 21.1 percent had discussed them with their healthcare providers."

We were part of that silent majority. As scary as it can be, the only way to face Alzheimer's is head on. It is a reminder that, as individuals, we should work harder to take care of our own mental health and that of our families.

As a doctor of medicine, Pepe should have known better. His family should have, too.

"This is your grandmother?" the doctor once asked as he entered the room.

"Yes," I said. For all intents and purposes, it was just easier to say yes. Plus I didn't want to hurt Genny, saying otherwise. She was now part of the family.

She was no longer just a girlfriend but a caring wife with a place at the family table. Which made it all the more surprising when Genny quickly stated, "No."

The doctor looked at me perplexed and I offered a wave of my hand, not unlike Pepe's, and a roll of my eyes that gave him my real answer: it's a long story.

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