It was probably the most meaningful gift I gave anyone over the holidays. I spent days putting together pictures of my husband and kids, rounding up photos of my brothers and their families, and it took hours to match all the faces to the birthdays and anniversaries on the homemade calendar. I made it for my dad, but not because I was worried about him forgetting the special dates. I was worried about him forgetting us.

My dad has Alzheimer’s, and even though he is still in the early stages, there are already things that he can’t remember. His mind is like a giant mural, with each brushstroke of paint representing something he has witnessed or done in his 72 years. And then, suddenly, his disease paints a huge swath of black over a random section of his mural, and it’s gone.

Most of the memories that get obscured are the recent ones. He forgets what he did this week, or what he just said. He will tell a long story about something that happened when he was a young adult, then forget he has told the story and tell it again, almost verbatim. The most heartbreaking thing he has forgotten is my youngest child, Ozzy, who is just two years old. There seems to be a huge streak of black paint over the memory of Ozzy, of me being pregnant with him, of me taking him home to meet his grandpa. For my dad, he doesn’t exist. I cried while I was putting Ozzy’s picture and birthday in the calendar. Will he even recognize him? Will he wonder why his daughter put this child, this stranger, in his family calendar?

It’s not really so bad, at least not for my dad. There are lighter moments, such as the time he parked his car somewhere, and, unable to find it later, he reported it stolen to the police. And many of the things he forgets are convenient, relationships that soured, his indiscretions, embarrassing moments. He had a girlfriend for about 16 years after my mother died, and does not remember the girlfriend at all, not even her name. He even forgets he has Alzheimer’s, which is nice for him, but leaves my brother with the unenviable chore of breaking the news over and over again to his father that his mind is slowly dissolving.

It’s harder for everyone around him, especially my brothers, who live closer to my dad and are his caregivers. What really stings is the way the Alzheimer’s is attacking the most important thing to him: his mind. He was an engineer and taught graduate level physics, and is the most well-read person I have ever met in my life. He consumed books like air, and retained everything he read. Anytime I ever wondered about anything, I just had to ask my dad. How do planes fly? What year did Mount St. Helens erupt? How does gas make a car run? He seemed to know everything. He was my daddy, and as a little girl I believed that the universe stretched from one of his arms to the other; it never occurred to me that there was something more to the world than what my dad knew.

These days there are lots of things that he doesn’t know, some more painful than others. I can imagine what it is like for my friends whose parents are losing their physical faculties, parents who taught them to ski, bike, climb or run rivers. It is sort of the same thing, a gradual diminishing, until someday you are holding your mother’s arm as you walk her to the car, just as she once used to hold you. Or reminding your father who you are, his daughter, just like he once whispered to his baby daughter that he was her daddy.

So I guess I am hoping that the calendar will help somehow. I know that when I discard a calendar at the end of the year, the way we are all about to do now, it is fun to look back through it and see what I have scribbled on it and all that it represents. Parties, appointments, trips, special moments that I anticipated enough to mark on my calendar. Maybe it will be the same for my dad, when 2013 ends. The calendar is something tangible, something his Alzheimer’s can’t paint over in black. Maybe he will turn the pages slowly, remember our visits, some of the fun things he did during the year, and look at the pictures again. Maybe he will even remember Ozzy.

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