Mickey Curly knew something was wrong, dreadfully wrong, the day he found fried flounder on the front lawn. His dad, the stubborn Irishman who had raised him, the man who drank with him at the pub up the street and shared his son's house for a quarter-century, suddenly had decided to show his distaste for his dinner by opening the window and tossing it out.
The birds have to eat too, 82-year-old Matthew Curly explained later.
Soon, "Pop" began hanging his soiled diapers on the bed post or stuffing them in the drawer, munching on crayons, Rolaids and bullion cubes; feeding chicken to the goldfish; stockpiling raw eggs, macaroni shells and kitchen utensils in his room and daring anyone to touch them.
Mickey Curly, a white-haired 59-year-old retired warehouse worker who sports khakis and a blue work shirt, still shudders as he recalls he and his wife watching Pop retreat into a world all his own.
"We didn't know what the hell was happening," Pop's son says. "We didn't know if he was going crazy, we were going crazy or what. We panicked. We didn't know where to turn."
For Mickey Curly and his wife, Jackie, life hasn't been the same since Alzheimer's or dementia -- they've never had Pop formally tested -- began stealing away Pop's memory two years ago.
This certainly wasn't the retirement the couple had planned.
They arrange their days around Pop's needs, feeding him, shaving him, cleaning him, helping him to the bathroom and, above all, staying within earshot of him.
Whenever they walk out of the house -- even to sneak off to the back yard in tears when they can't bear to see his decline -- he demands to know where they're going and when they'll return.
Jackie Curly, a cheerful, attractive woman whose smooth skin hardly shows her 58 years, says she doesn't know what Pop would do without them.
She'll probably never find out: They rarely leave the house for more than an hour or two and never without turning off the circuit breakers first.
Overnight trips are out of the question. An uninterrupted night's sleep is a rare luxury in the blue shingled home that sits a a few blocks from Stony Creek in Clearwater Beach.
Pop refuses to leave the house, preferring to sit in his big leather chair by his bedroom window watching cartoons. Bugs Bunny's his favorite.
Occasionally, he waves to the neighborhood children. Some of them asked Mickey Curly why he put one of those fake waving hands in the window.
Soon after Pop's decline began, the Curlys sought relief at the county's Department of Social Services. Confused and bordering on despair, the family thought the county might send someone to help Pop with daily tasks like eating and shaving.
Somebody handed them a pile of forms and told them to fill them out in 10 minutes.
"We said 'this is so hard for us,' and they made us feel like bad school children," Jackie Curly remembers. "I thought, 'You're playing with people's lives here.' " The couple never returned to Social Services.
Occasionally, someone comes in for a few hours to watch Pop, and an Alzheimer's support group foots the bill.
The family hopes to get help with expenses, like diapers, but their name has yet to come up after a year on a county waiting list.
As the family looked for help, Jackie Curly remembers, countless friends, nurses and a few relatives offered unsolicited advice.
"Everybody said, 'Jackie, this is too big for you. You can't handle it. You have to put him in a nursing home.' " She would hear none of it.
"You just don't abandon someone," she says. "You just don't throw them out and forget about them."
On a sunny fall afternoon, the three of them sit in a bright, airy kitchen.
Pop holds court at the head of the table, his place since he moved in when his wife died 28 years ago.
He wears flannel pajamas covered by a blue-and-red flannel shirt, and bifocals with black frames dominate his thin, wrinkled face. The other thing you notice about Pop right away is that he smiles almost constantly.
Outside the window, toddlers chase one another and squeal in the sunshine.
Pop peers at them, scratching his forehead, perplexed.
Pointing out the window, he says, "Those kids, they play out there every day in our yard. Now, you know that's not right."
"They're your great-grandchildren, Pop," Jackie Curly says. "You remember them, don't you?"
The two children live next door, with the Curlys' son and his wife.
They all came over for Pop's birthday party last February. When everyone left, Pop turned to his son and asked, "Whose birthday is it, anyway?"
Jackie Curly lowers her voice, almost to a whisper, so Pop can't hear. She swallows hard.
"I know," she says, "I know every disease is sad, but this, this one -- having no memory -- is the saddest of all."
She stabs at her heart with her right hand, as if running an imaginary stake through it.
"It hits you right here so hard. It's just so heartbreaking. The hardest part is living in a house with someone you can't possibly communicate with."