In the years before losing his memory, Jose Arevalo, 83, would still dedicate some of his favorite norteño melodies to his wife.
“La Prieta Linda,” said his wife, Berta Ruiz, 64, with a soft smile. “The pretty dark-skinned girl.”
Though Arevalo — or Don Lupe, as most call him — lost his memory through the years, he never forgot her: the woman he met nearly 50 years ago and the one who took care of him through the good and bad times.
The grandfather of 11 was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2014. Although it progressed slowly, the last two years were extremely difficult for the family, his wife said. But not once did it cross their mind to put him in a nursing home.
“We love him so much, and I said I would take care of him until I couldn’t anymore,” Ruiz said in Spanish.
On Tuesday morning, Don Lupe was found dead in North Riverside after going missing on Dec. 1, when he walked out the back door of his home in Berwyn. Community members from all over Berwyn and all the way to Little Village rallied to help search for him after his daughters pleaded for the public to help find him.
Despite the tragic end to the search and their grief, the family said that Don Lupe has already left a mark in this world: Their desperate call for help has raised awareness of Alzheimer’s disease and the way it affects families. That has given his family comfort and strength to deal with their loss.
“In a way, it has given us some peace,” Amanda Arevalo, one of his daughters, said. “Who would have known that such a tragedy would be able to help other families dealing with the disease?”
In the early stages of the disease, Don Lupe agreed to donate his brain to the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center, his wife said. Now his family is planning to donate any money that’s left from their fundraiser for funeral costs to that organization. According the medical examiner, Don Lupe died of cardiovascular disease, and his manner of death was natural.
“It’s a cruel illness,” Ruiz said. It was painful to lose her life partner little by little and while he sat next to her, she said. There were sleepless nights when she had to watch him and make sure he wouldn’t leave the house or hurt himself.
Most times, though, Don Lupe would say he needed to go home.
“‘This is our home,’ I would tell him,” said Ruiz, but Don Lupe would insist on leaving.
While he was missing, the family thought maybe he would try to trace back his steps to the Little Village garage that served as his mechanic shop for more than a decade and the place where he would spend most of his time.
Little Village became home to him and his family — Ruiz and their three daughters — after he immigrated to Chicago from Monterrey, Mexico, in 1974. But over 20 years ago, the family moved to Berwyn.
Even after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Don Lupe still tried to fix cars and play the lottery, his wife said. He refused to accept the new reality. Through the memory loss, he still smiled.
“He always made jokes — about everything,” Arevalo said. That’s one thing she learned from him, she said. “To take life lightly and work hard.”
A self-taught mechanic, Don Lupe always encouraged his daughters to go to school and get a degree. It was one of his goals, Ruiz said.
Their three daughters all attended college and have a job they enjoy.
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But Don Lupe didn’t only care for his three daughters — he also mentored young boys in Little Village, taking them under his wing and teaching them what he could about fixing cars.
He was disturbed by the number of young kids going into gangs, so he did what he could to keep them out of trouble, Arevalo said.
Though he was always a good man, his wife said, she was still surprised at the number of people who have supported the family — first in the search and now as they get ready to lay him to rest.
But the support goes beyond the Arevalo family. Don Lupe’s memory is now helping others learn to love those with Alzheimer’s, and to be more empathetic and understanding of them and those who care for them, Arevalo said.
“Take care of your elders,” she said.
After years of attempting to leave, Ruiz said she is glad that her life partner, Don Lupe, is finally at his home, resting.