At first, it just seemed like simple old age - forgetfulness, for starters. She couldn't remember where she put her purse. She'd misplace her house keys. My mother went over to her house one day and found her freezer full of cube steaks. She had gone to the store every day for a month or more and bought a new package of cube steak every day and couldn't figure out why there was no room left in her freezer for any more food.
A week later, she fell outside her house. Mom decided to take her in, and my daughter spent a lot of time over there, looking through her postcard albums and hearing stories about her life, how she played the piano for the silent movies when she was a teenager. How she drove a school bus and kicked a boy off for sassing her and made him walk to school in the snow.
After eighteen months of her living with Mom, she fell and broke her hip. It just wasn't working to have her stay at home anymore, so Mom and her sister Doris made the decision to move her into a lovely nursing home right in between where Mom and Aunt Doris lived called St. Jude's.
Three months later, she had a stroke.
To give credit to my grandmother, she is made of sturdy stock. The stroke paralyzed the right side of her face and affected her speech. Alzheimer's - or Old Timers disease, as my little girl jokingly called it - had begun to set in. She started to mix up our names. My mother was Doris, and Doris was Norrie, her baby sister, who (as my mother told me) had died in childbirth more than sixty years before. She called me Doris. She called my daughter, Ada, Lorraine, the name of another sister, long gone.
And the one we couldn't figure out was the way that she continued calling my husband Andrew.
My husband's name is Stephen.
"I've never heard her mention any Andrews ever before," my mother said, flustered.
Aunt Doris had the same reaction. "Our baby brother that died was named George Herbert after Daddy. No Andrews on either side of the family."
One night, the three of us - Stephen, Ada and I - went to see her at St. Jude's. We could tell the end was getting closer. By now, it was in sight.
We stayed, chatted with her, held her hand and my daughter stroked her hair. She kept her eyes, still sharp and unclouded with glaucoma or cataracts, on my husband.
"Andrew," she breathed. "Come here."
"I need you to leave now, Doris!" she commanded me. "You too, Lorraine. You don't need to be a party to this. Go on now. This is just between Andrew and I."
As Stephen looked at me in surprise, I shrugged helplessly as the two of us went out in the hall to wait.
Five minutes later, he walked out of the room, his face a mask of confusion.
"What happened?" Ada kept prodding him on our drive home. "What did Granny tell you, Daddy? What? Is it a secret?"
His eyes, still troubled, met mine at a stoplight. Whatever she had told him was obviously disturbing.
After we got home, we sent Ada to bed and I poured us each a glass of wine. As we sat at the kitchen table across from each other, Stephen began to speak.
"Andrew," he tells me, "was the name of her first lover."
"Okay," I start, confused. "And...?"
"Well, she and Andrew had a child together. It was the mid-forties and you know, unmarried girls didn't HAVE babies then. It wasn't supposed to happen. Well, her parents - your great-grandparents - sent her off to a home for unwed mothers."
"One of those work homes?" I ask in horror. I recently watched "Philomena", a movie about an Irish woman searching for the son she was forced to surrender.
"They weren't quite as bad here in the US," Stephen says, "but that doesn't mean it was a picnic for her. She said that she nearly bled to death, and when she baby was born, the Sisters wouldn't even let her see him."
"Him?" I ask. Through my mental haze, I am beginning to put pieces together. Stephen's father was adopted. "Oh, God," I whisper, taking a long swallow of wine. I know where this is going.
"Yes, him," Stephen says. "She gave me this." He reaches into his front pocket and pulls out an envelope. Wordlessly, he hands it to me.
Hands trembling, I open it.
Inside is a photo of a handsome, dark-haired man who is the spitting image of my husband. If the photo were colorized, it would be impossible to tell the difference save for the old-fashioned clothes. He has the same warm eyes as Stephen, the same broad shoulders, the same dark hair - although, of course, in the photo it is merely black.
The realization that my husband is also my cousin washes over us both at the same time.
We speak no words to each other, but at this moment we know that this will be a secret we each keep for the rest of our lives.