Sandy’s Story: A Tribute to My Father

By Sandy Fleming

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A young Sandy with his father.

My most influential early memory of my father is of the day he gave the eulogy at his own father’s funeral. Even though I was only 10, I remember being rapt with admiration at the awesome composure and eloquence with which he delivered what must have been the most difficult address of his prolific public speaking career. That moment held particular meaning for me because it was the first time I had ever heard anyone adequately express the combination of affection and veneration for their father that I felt for him. I was listening to my hero describe his hero in a way that validated my own filial pride as his son.

My Dad is the middle of three sons born to a World War II Army Intelligence Officer turned political science professor and the Parisian hat seamstress he fell in love with while deployed during the Nazi occupation of France. He was so proud to be his parents’ son, and he worked tirelessly to live up to their example of intellectualism, patriotism, and compassionate civic duty. He somehow managed to be the smartest person in most rooms without betraying a hint of superiority or pretention. I loved to do crossword puzzles with him, but I always walked away with the sneaking suspicion that while he’d let me work out a couple of the clues so I could feel like I’d contributed, he probably could have done it faster without me.

He was fiercely passionate about his moral and political beliefs, but he never let his passion supersede his courtesy and composure. He practiced a nostalgic style of etiquette and chivalry, to the point that the only times I remember him losing his temper were when I talked back or lied to my Mom. While honesty and respect were nonnegotiable, his love for me was unconditional.

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(From right) Sandy, his mother, and his father

I never really thought of my dad as old, though I suppose in retrospect he was on the older side relative to my friends’ parents. When I left for college in 2007, he was 58 and had retired from his career as a litigator and public servant. When you’re away from someone for extended periods of time, the gradual changes in their behavior are a little easier to spot because you witness their cumulative effect all at once, instead of constant, desensitizing exposure to the slow, subtle deterioration. Every time I came home from school, the frequency of little uncharacteristic and absentminded mistakes began to steadily grow. Reluctant to inflict the devastation she expected from me, my mom waited until I had graduated in 2011 to tell me that my dad had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease earlier that year. She was astonished at my lack of surprise. He was 62.

By now I’m sure you’ve realized how fortunate I feel to have been born to my parents. Trust me, I could write just as long and heartfelt a tribute to my mom, particularly in light of her heroism since my dad’s diagnosis, but for your sake I’ll save that for another piece. It is a cruel affliction to lose a parent you worship just at the age that you finally grow up enough to appreciate the titanic generosity of parenting and start to look forward to an adult relationship with them. It is something worse to watch their eyes slowly cloud with fear and confusion as their mind, their most reliable asset, begins to betray them with accelerating frequency. There is no better moniker than “The Long Goodbye.”

Since his diagnosis, one of the only comforts for my family has been the support of the Alzheimer’s Association. Not only do they raise desperately needed funds for cure seeking research, but they also provided my mom with reassuring but candid information about the realities of caretaking for loved ones with Alzheimer’s. I could always hear relief in her voice when we would talk after a meeting with their support group, a community of patients and caretakers that helped to mitigate the isolation and stigma of an early onset diagnosis.

Last fall my fiancée, Brianne, recommended that we volunteer to participate and help fundraise for The Palm Beach Walk to End Alzheimer’s. I immediately called my mom to verify her experience with the Association because I knew she would give me her candid opinion of the organization’s services. She unequivocally told me that the Alzheimer’s Association had been an invaluable resource to her, particularly during the early stages when she was seeking information about treatment, expectations for the disease’s progression, and future external care options. Her resounding endorsement sprung us into action and we began soliciting our personal and professional networks for walkers and donations.

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Sandy and Brianne at the 2016 Walk to End Alzheimer’s

At 28 years old, I should not have to refer to my living father in the past tense. Alzheimer’s disease is not reserved for elderly people who have lived full lives and had a chance to know their grandchildren or remember their son’s wedding. Today, I try to be worthy of sharing his name, my most prized possession, and I hope that I find a way to emulate his parenting when I have kids, even though I won’t get to ask him for advice. Our donations of time and money are the lifeblood of organizations like the Alzheimer’s Association who provide comfort to patients and loved ones through support and community, and fight every day to help find a cure.

Remembering Longtime Supporter and Donor, Theresa Esman

The Southeast Florida Chapter is saddened by the passing of Theresa Esman, a longtime supporter of our cause.  Since it’s inception in 2008, The Saul & Theresa Esman Foundation has donated close to $500,000 to the Alzheimer’s Association.  More recently, they funded a campaign in Miami targeting the Hispanic community to ensure that Spanish speaking members of South Florida can be aware of the services of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Executive Director Murray Levin, a personal friend of Theresa Esman’s, will continue to head the Saul and Theresa Esman Foundation and continue the legacy the Esman’s left behind.

He said, “She would want to be remembered as helping you [the Alzheimer’s Association] especially as her own younger sister is living with the disease to the point where she didn’t recognize her on the phone. The reason we went with the Alzheimer’s Association is because it is the premier organization confronting this disease.  She knew the Alzheimer’s Association is trying to slow it down and would often tell me how much she appreciated the wonderful work your organization does.”

The Southeast Florida Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association is one of the charitable organizations supported by the foundation since its start, and it remains one of the 14 organizations currently supported by the foundation.  Grace Grant-Brown, CFO of the Southeast Florida Chapter said, “The Alzheimer’s Association has lost a very dear friend and donor. Theresa Esman, through the Saul & Theresa Esman Foundation, contributed generously to our cause in pursuit of an end to Alzheimer’s disease. Through the foundation, she has left a lasting legacy that will continue to positively impact the lives of people in our community. We at the Alzheimer’s Association, extend our condolences to Murray Levin and the team at the Saul & Theresa Esman Foundation. Mrs. Esman will be sorely missed.”

Saul and Theresa Esman moved to south Florida in 1979 and began supporting local charities, funding research to fight various diseases. Theresa Esman founded the foundation in 2008 to carry on the couple’s legacy, impacting medical research in south Florida for many years to come.

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Advocates return from the Annual Advocacy Forum inspired and ready to fight

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Last Wednesday, more than 1,300 Alzheimer’s advocates from across the country, and 21 advocates from Southeast Florida, descended on Capitol Hill in a sea of purple. This moment marked the finale to an inspiring and motivating Advocacy Forum in Washington, D.C.

The three-day event is held annually in the nation’s capital. Advocates from across the country flock to D.C. to share their stories; learn from each other; and fight for legislation to support those with Alzheimer’s and ultimately find a cure.

Doris Sanders on stage, representing Florida at the Annual Advocacy Forum.
Doris Sanders on stage, representing Florida at the Annual Advocacy Forum.

The Forum kicked off with the roll call of states in which a representative from each state provides an update on the past year’s legislative victories. Florida was proudly represented by Southeast Florida advocate, Doris Sanders, who discussed the attendance of our state advocacy day in February and the success we’ve seen securing additional funding for respite services and research funding within the state.

“It was an honor to represent Florida in the roll call and to share what we have accomplished,” said Doris Sanders. “This year’s Forum was exciting and inspirational, and as someone who has attended this event for several years, to see the growth and increased awareness was incredible.”

LGBT Alzheimer's Advocates at Annual Advocacy Forum.
Southeast Florida advocates Gordon Broom and Larry Jordan presenting at the Annual Advocacy Forum.

The next day, advocates heard from caregivers, individuals living with Alzheimer’s and Alzheimer’s champions about the need to continue the fight. Our advocates Gordon Broom and Larry Jordan took the stage Tuesday morning to share their story.

Gordon was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s in 2007 and, as he said in his remarks, “he would not suffer in silence”. He has been an outspoken advocate ever since. Gordon and Larry also spoke of the outreach they have been able to do in the LGBT community. Their remarks and devotion to each other drew a standing ovation from the crowd. Many caregivers came up to them thanking them for sharing their story, as they too were a part of the LGBT community and resonated with their journey.

Throughout the day, the advocates participated in advocacy trainings to learn more about our two legislative priorities: an additional $414 million in funding for Alzheimer’s research, and support for the Palliative Care Hospice Education and Training Act (PCHETA). The advocates were briefed on the costs of Alzheimer’s and the stark divide in the amount spent on research as compared to Alzheimer’s care (for every $100 spent by the NIH on research, Medicare/Medicaid spends $16,000 on care). For more Alzheimer’s facts and statistics, please visit the 2017 Facts and Figures.

The advocates were also educated on PCHETA. This legislation aims to increase palliative care and hospice training for health care professionals; launch a national campaign to inform patients and families about the benefits of palliative care; and enhance research on improving delivery of palliative care. There is a lot of misinformation regarding palliative care, making this legislation crucial. Nearly half of all people with Alzheimer’s are in hospice care at the time of their deaths.

One of our Southeast Florida advocates, Dr. Hilary Glazer from Memorial Hospital, was able to shed light on palliative care for the group and reinforce why this legislation is so important for those living with Alzheimer’s. As Dr. Glazer said when addressing the group, “Palliative care identifies the individual goal of the individual and family- for example, whether they wish to stay at home”.

The day ended with the National Alzheimer’s Dinner, emceed by actor and Alzheimer’s champion Peter Gallagher. Awards were given to Alzheimer’s champions such as Rep. Tom Cole (OK) and Rep. Nita Lowey (NY).

Journalist Maria Shriver speaking at the Annual Advocacy Forum.
Journalist Maria Shriver speaking at the Annual Advocacy Forum.

The highlight of the evening was when Maria Shriver was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award for her endless advocacy and persistence in finding a cure. Maria has been outspoken advocate ever since her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. As a journalist, she has turned her tenacity into a lifelong passion to find a cure. She founded the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement after discovering Alzheimer’s disproportionately affects women. Maria left the crowd inspired and ready to take our fight to Capitol Hill the next morning.

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Advocates at day 3 of the Annual Advocacy Forum.

The final day of Forum was Hill Day. The hotel lobby was wall-to-wall purple as advocates came together to don purple sashes. Buses filled with advocates ready to make a difference. We embarked on our mission to share the cost of Alzheimer’s with our elected officials, ensure they make it a priority, and share our personal stories with them.

Advocates from throughout the state of Florida packed Sens. Nelson and Rubio’s offices. Both senators are on the Select Committee on Aging, and we discussed the reality of Alzheimer’s in Florida with them, including that Florida has the second highest incidence rate in the country.

Advocates spent all day meeting with legislators and their staff sharing their stories and helping move the needle on the progress that must be made.

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(Clockwise from top left): Advocates with Rep. Frederica Wilson; Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen; Rep. Mario Diaz Balart; and Rep. Brian Mast.

It was a remarkable to see no matter where you turned in the Capitol complex, there was someone in purple.  That gives me hope that we are increasing awareness and getting closer to finding a cure.

Now, we wait to see if our Congressional delegation will support our requests.  Even though we had positive meetings, our work has just begun. We cannot get complacent; we must continue this fight, and we cannot do that without your help. If you are interested in getting involved with our advocacy efforts, please contact Jennifer Braisted, jbraisted@alz.org.

The Southeast Florida chapter had 21 advocates in attendance, ranging in age from early 20s to early 80s. Some were former caregivers, including Leslie Rivera and Doris Sanders, who are continuing the fight to end Alzheimer’s even after losing their loved ones to the disease. Several current caregivers, including Cherise Fletcher, Marta Junco Ivern and Valerie Detweiler, attended in honor of their loved ones living with the disease.

Other advocates included those living with Alzheimer’s disease. Gordon Broom, a younger-onset advocate who has been living with the disease since 2007, courageously shared his personal story and his family experience with this disease at Forum.

Finally, many advocates work in the field and see the devastation the disease causes first hand. Amy Adaniel, Cristina Rodriguez and Crystal Collier attended Forum to show their support and work for a world without Alzheimer’s.

We want to thank all of our advocates for making the journey with us to Washington, D.C. last week. We cannot make a difference in the fight against Alzheimer’s without you!

Local chapter launches Young Professionals Group to change face of Alzheimer’s disease

By Jennifer Braisted

Brittany Carel was 13 years old when her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Now a junior at Florida Atlantic University, Carel wants to use her personal experience with the debilitating disease to help educate the community and change the face of Alzheimer’s disease.

Carel and other young advocates are the reason why the Southeast Florida Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association are creating the Young Professionals Against Alzheimer’s group.

“ The purpose of this group is to end the stigma that Alzheimer’s is an older person’s disease,” said Jennifer Braisted, staff liaison for the group, “ We need to educate our community on this disease and help people realize that Alzheimer’s affects people of all ages.”

The Yong Professionals Against Alzheimer’s will consist of four main committees that focus on education, advocacy, fundraising and marketing.  The aim is to make sure that all young professionals are able to be fully immersed in our organization.

Invitation young professionals usableThe kick off for this group will be on Wednesday, Aug. 24 at Rythm and Vine in Fort Lauderdale. Membership is open to any young professional ages 18-40 who lives between Fort Pierce and Key West who has a passion for caring for those with Alzheimer’s and finding a cure.

“I am eager to see this group take off because at the end of the day, we are the generation that will end Alzheimer’s disease,”Braisted said.

For more information, please contact Jennifer Braisted at 561.967.0047 or jbraisted@alz.org

Local staffer gives updates from AAIC16

IMG_6875This week, more than 5,500 Alzheimer’s researchers and Alzheimer’s Association staff are in Toronto, Canada for the 2016 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference. More than 20 researchers from Southeast Florida are attending and nine are presenting. Also in attendance is one of our very own staff, Micheal Pearson who is the Vice President of Programs and Public Policy. Micheal has been sending updates from the event each day. Check them out below.

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St. Anthony Catholic School students raise more than $1,000 for Alzheimer’s

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(L to R) Amy Jones, Molly’s mom; Tom Jones, Molly’s father; Molly Jones; Corrie LeMay, Development Manager for the Boca and Broward Walks; and Mandy Cerrone, Molly’s 7th grade teacher pose at the Broward Alzheimer’s Association office.

When 7th grader Molly Jones was asked to think of a topic for an end of year service project at her school, she didn’t have to think long.

Molly’s grandmother, a former principal of her school, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s before Molly was born. She wanted to raise money for the cause and educate her classmates on the neuro-degenerative disease. She was surprised by all the support from her peers she received. She and her classmate Christian Mote lead the service project.

“Our classmates jumped on board,” she said.

Her service project group decided to do a “purple dress” day fundraiser for Alzheimer’s. Students were allowed to dress out of uniform and wear purple for a day for $5. Molly, Christian and their classmates went around the school collecting money from those who dressed in purple and explained to the classes what Alzheimer’s disease is.

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Molly Jones and her teacher Mandy Cerrone present a check to Corrie LeMay at the Broward Alzheimer’s Association Southeast Florida office.

Molly expected the event to be successful but never expected it to raise more than $1,000. Her teacher was not surprised though.

“Molly was a great leader,” said Mandy Cerrone. “The students and I saw how passionate she was for this cause.”

The money raised will go to the Broward Walk to End Alzheimer’s. Jones and her family have been involved with the Broward Walk to End Alzheimer’s held in Hollywood for a couple years and plan to go every year. This year’s walk will be on Oct. 22 at Hollywood North Beach Park. Find out more about how you can get involved with your local walk by going to alz.org/walk. Find out more about Alzheimer’s and our programs at alz.org/seflorida or by calling our 24/7 Helpline number, 800.272.3900.

Join us at a Paint the Town Purple event

Next week, the Alzheimer’s Association Southeast Florida Chapter will host Paint the Town Purple events throughout Southeast Florida. June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month, and these events aim to raise Alzheimer’s Awareness in our communities. Find an event near you, and join us.

Take a spin at Downtown at the Gardens

Invitation to Downtown at the Gardens on SaturdayHead to Downtown at the Gardens to ride the carousel on Saturday June 25 and raise awareness and funds for Alzheimer’s. All proceeds from the coin machine next to the carousel on that Saturday will go to the Alzheimer’s Association Southeast Florida Chapter.

 

Sailfish Fountains, Lady Abundance and the Roosevelt Bridge go purple for Alzheimer’s

Invitation to stuart lighting

Come out Mulligan’s Beach House in Stuart,  61 SW Osceola Street, for appetizers on Monday, June 27, and  then join us as we head over to see the the Sailfish Fountain, Lady Abundance and the Roosevelt Bridge turn purple for Alzheimer’s. We will be at Mulligans from 6 to 8 before walking to the lightings. RSVP to Jennifer Braisted 561-967- 0047 or jbraisted@alz.org.

Freedom Tower, Miami Tower and InterContinental Hotel go purple for Alzheimer’s

Invitation to Miami invitation

On Tuesday, June 28 the Miami Tower, Freedom Tower and the InterContinental Hotel will turn purple to raise Alzheimer’s awareness. Join us for light appetizers at Hard Rock Café Miami at Bayfront Park from 5 to 8 p.m. before we walk over to see the lightings. RSVP to Jennifer Braisted 561-967- 0047 or jbraisted@alz.org.

Bank of America goes purple for Alzheimer’s in Ft. Lauderdale

Invitation to Bank of America lighting

Join us at Alex and Ani, 1012 Las Olas Boulevard, on Wednesday, June 29 from 5 to 8 p.m. for light appetizers before heading over to see the Bank of America Building going purple. RSVP to Jennifer Braisted 561-967- 0047 or jbraisted@alz.org.

 

CityPlace goes Purple for Alzheimer’s in downtown West Palm Beach

Invitation to cityplace lightingJoin us at Mellow Mushroom in CityPlace, 700 S Rosemary Ave, on Thursday, June 30 from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. for light appetizers before heading over to see the CityPlace fountains go purple. RSVP to Jennifer Braisted 561-967-0047 or jbraisted@alz.org.

Go purple this month for Alzheimer’s Awareness

This June, go purple for Alzheimer’s.11924772_841409865978362_5081367608228824160_n

June is Alzheimer’s Brain and Awareness Month, and throughout the 30 days the Alzheimer’s Association aims to raise awareness and educate the community about this epidemic. 

During the entire month, the Association will be sharing the 10 warning signs of Alzheimer’s and then on June 20, the longest day of the year, the association will host its second signature event – The Longest Day.

The Longest Day is a sunrise-to-sunset event to honor the strength, passion and endurance of those living with Alzheimer’s disease and their caregivers. The event takes place on June 20, the longest day of the year, but participants can complete an event prior to that date. Participants will complete approximately 16 hours of activity ranging from running, cooking, knitting to playing bridge, to help advance Alzheimer’s care, support and research.

11905788_1019727178059796_3112657969368306695_n - CopyRight after Longest Day, the Southeast Florida Chapter is hosting its second annual Paint the Town Purple event. During the week long event – June 24 to July 1 – landmarks from Stuart down to the Keys will be purple. Landmarks going purple include the Roosevelt Bridge, the Sailfish Fountain in Stuart, the Jupiter Lighthouse, the fountains at Downtown at the Gardens, the fountain at CityPlace, the fountain at Mizner Park, the Bank of America building in Fort Lauderdale, the Miami Tower, Intercontinental Hotel and the Freedom Tower in Downtown Miami.

 “We want people to see purple everywhere and to start to connect that color with our cause. If we raise awareness, we are one step closer to accomplishing our mission,” said Ann May, CEO of the Southeast Florida Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Alzheimer’s disease is a growing epidemic and the nation’s sixth leading cause of death. More than five million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s, including more than 510,000 Floridians.

If you want information about the disease or need to know about resources available in your area, please call our 24/7 helpline at 800.272.3900.

Find out about our Paint the Town Purple events here.

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GO PURPLE to #ENDALZ

Help us raise awareness this month by:

  1. TURN FACEBOOK PURPLE

    Change your profile picture to raise awareness in June. Click here to learn how.

    turn-fb-purple

  2. SHARE WHY YOU GO PURPLE

    Use hashtags #ENDALZ and #GoPurpleForALZ to let the world know why you go purple in June. See what people are posting

    hashtag-endalz

  3. PUT UP A YARD SIGN

    Share the message with this yard sign. Pick one up today from one of our offices.

    Paint the Town Purple - Yard Sign.jpg

  4. COME OUT TO A LIGHTING

    Follow us on Facebook and come out to see a building near you go purple.

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  5. START A TEAM

    Start a Longest Day team. Register today.

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Mother’s Day is day to make, cherish memories

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Brittany and her mom pose for a photo.

Mother’s Day is the one day a year where we show our mom a little extra attention and love. We pamper and shower her in hugs, kisses and gifts, creating everlasting memories together.

But with a mom with Alzheimer’s disease, the holiday is different. My mom doesn’t remember the flowers and all the sticky crafts I gave her. She doesn’t remember the smell of breakfast and coffee lingering from the kitchen. And she doesn’t remember the cheesy Mother’s Day cards we picked out.

IMG_1025 (1)I wish she could remember walking into our messy kitchen as my brother and I attempted to bake a cake for her. I wish she could remember the smile on my face when I finally saved up enough money to buy her a picture frame and make her favorite chocolate cake – not burnt this time. I wish Alzheimer’s didn’t take her away so quickly.

This Mother’s day, I will visit my mom at a nursing home. I will wear a name-tag and tell her all the stories from previous Mother’s Days. I will wait for a response to my stories, knowing no words will come from her mouth but hoping for a smile letting me know she is listening.

As I hold her hand, I will remember when she held mine through the good and tough times, as a mother should. I will realize how much she has taught me in a short amount of time. Mother’s Day has not been easy for me these past nine years.

I wish she could be here for when it’s my turn to celebrate my own Mother’s Day. I wish she would be there watching me react to eating a burnt piece of cake and attending Mother’s Day events in school  like she for me.

As I sit with my mom this year all grown up, I will remember what Mother’s Day is all about, showing our moms a little extra love and attention one day a year.  Although my mom won’t remember, I will.

Happy Mother’s Day Mom! I love you!

Brittany Carel

Brittany is a intern with the Alzheimer’s Association Southeast Florida Chapter and a student at Florida Atlantic University.

How my grandmother lost her language, and so did I

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Lyssa Goldberg’s grandparents pose for a photo in Havana, Cuba in the mid-1950s.

By Lyssa Goldberg, Guest writer

What a happy couple. They’re sitting on a boat, captured in a moment of nautical bliss — posed, smiling, and unrecognizable. Jaime with his sailor’s hat, clean-shaven aside from a thick mustache, and Gela by his side, with a pair of maracas in her hand as she leans against him.

In Jaime’s left hand is a pair of sunglasses flung casually to the side, while his right hand caresses Gela’s neck. The void between where their heads and shoulders unite creates a diamond-shaped window into another world: mid-1950s Havana, before Fidel Castro came to power.

I’m looking, really looking, at this photo that my uncle found after searching through my grandparents’ emptied home last Thanksgiving. I’ve seen black-and-white photos of them before. But here in this picture, and now especially, they look so different from the grandparents I grew up with.

Frankly, his hair cut was still the same, and I recognize the curve of her nose that she passed on to me, but there’s a spark in my grandfather’s eyes I never saw in the 20 years that I knew him. So much has changed. He’s gone now, for starters, and her memory is gone now, too.

I bet they didn’t speak a word of English back then. It doesn’t seem like they had any clue they’d need to — that is, to leave all their belongings behind in Havana, take only their one- and two-year-old sons and their wedding rings with them, and learn the English language in order to build a new life in the United States. A few decades earlier, both of their parents had done the same when they had to leave Eastern Europe and start families in Cuba.

My grandfather learned to speak English — I know he did — but the stubborn, old Cuban man that he was, he loved to refuse to speak it.

“How are you today, sir?” a cashier at Publix might ask him. After he retired, he went to Publix almost every day.

On a good day, he might half-smile back uncomfortably, tightening his mustache into a bundle, and then walk out with his grocery bags full of two-for-one cupcakes and 2-liter soda bottles.

With me, he was curt, but at least he tried.

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Lyssa Goldberg ‘s Wita smiling at Miami Jewish Home

“You have no school today?” he would ask me every weekend.

“No, I’m off today, but I have a lot of homework to do,” was my go-to response.

“You go on Monday?”

“Yep,” I’d say and smile back, worried that if I said too much, he wouldn’t understand.

My grandmother used to speak English perfectly, but she barely speaks it anymore.

Our conversations nowadays go something like this:

“Wita, how are you? Did you enjoy lunch?”

I couldn’t say Abuelita when I was little, so I took the liberty of shortening it, and Wita stuck.

“Sí, creo que la novia no se parecen en labios.” 

Translation: Yes, I think that the bride does not appear on the lips. I never learned to speak Spanish fluently, but I know enough to understand that she’s only speaking nonsense.

“What bride, Wita? Where did you see a bride?”

“Mine shtivl a bi gezunt.”

Translation: Something about boots and health. I don’t know any Yiddish, and didn’t even realize my grandmother spoke it until the Alzheimer’s got this bad.

“What do you mean, Wita? Are your shoelaces too tight? Do you want to go for a walk?”

“La ventana camina a la tienda sin sombras.” 

Back to Spanish again. It seems she thinks the window walks to the store without shadows.

It’s not uncommon for late-stage Alzheimer’s patients like my grandmother to lose their ability to carry on a conversation. As their cognitive functions decline, language processing skills can become impaired.

Translation: Wita can no longer say what she means.

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Lyssa Goldberg’s grandparents

It’s in these moments that I regret not practicing my Spanish with my grandparents when I’d had the chance. Maybe if I had, I would actually be fluent. And maybe if I truly understood the language, I would be able to unscramble what Wita meant to say, even if her Alzheimer’s stops her from getting all the words right.

During this conversation, we’re probably sitting in rocking chairs in front of the fourth floor TV in the Miami Jewish Home’s Chernin Building, where Wita has lived for four years. Or if it’s a bit earlier in the day, I’m trying to get her to talk to me as she’s still having lunch.

I’ve gathered that the disease takes her mind back to Cuba, especially when she sees my father and calls him her brother. Maybe when she speaks to me in Yiddish, she thinks she’s talking to her mother, who continued to use Yiddish in Cuba the way my own grandparents held on to their Spanish in the United States. When Wita speaks now, however, it’s not merely Spanish or Yiddish. It’s like she’s created her own made-up, mashed-up foreign language that imparts whatever meaning I make of it.

Wita comes to me in my dreams sometimes, speaking to me in English, the way I will always remember her. She stands tall, with a vigor about her that rivals the agile grandmother who used to push me in a stroller from her home to the park nearby. She exudes the same tenderness that she did when she’d visit my house every weekend all the way through early high school.

As I sleep, I talk to her the way I can’t anymore. I tell her about how well I’m doing in college, about to graduate, in fact. But I say that I wish I’d learned all the Spanish I could in 5th Grade when she started teaching me words and phrases after school.

When my grandfather left us last year, it struck me that Wita would never even know she lost her husband. Maybe that’s a good thing. But it also means that now I can’t hear my grandparents hablan en español once a week and hope to pick up new Spanish vocabulary along the way.

The photo of my grandparents that my uncle found had been sitting in a closet filled with memories: boxes of family albums, a foreign coin collection, their assortment of gaudy jewelry. All of these remnants are the traces of my grandparents’ past, the life they lived here while holding onto their love for Cuba.

These mementos shouldn’t have been secrets stuffed inside guayabera pockets. If I had been able to connect with them in their native language, I would’ve known more about my own grandparents and the rest of our family. In Spanish, I could’ve asked them all the questions that their forsaken belongings have now started to answer.

Looking at this photo again, now saved on my phone for me to peek at from time to time, I see more than a happy couple sitting on a boat. I see the direct connection I had to a history I’ve only learned of through textbooks. I see the people whose life experiences it took me too long to be curious about. I see the missed opportunity for real conversation, but I see my motive for putting together the pieces of my family’s story.

Lyssa Goldberg is a writer and editor in South Florida. Lyssa wrote this personal essay about a decades-old photo of her grandparents in Cuba one year after her grandfather, Jaime, passed away. His wife, Gela—Lyssa’s grandmother—had Alzheimer’s in her old age. She has also passed away since this was written.