It was summer. I remember because my truck was covered in yellow powder. And if you don’t know the yellow powder I speak of, you might be from Ohio.
A lot of people who move to the South from other places think our biggest problems are humidity, mosquitoes, or evangelical fundamentalists. But those are nothing. We have dehumidifiers for humidity, citronella for bugs, and fundamentalists won’t bother you if you play dead or talk about beer.
No, one of our biggest pests in these parts is the Satanic tree dust that kills innocent woodland creatures and ushers in Armageddon. Pine pollen.
Long ago, I tried to start a landscaping company. It was a bad idea and a colossal failure. I bought a utility trailer and some equipment. And when pollen season hit, I put a few fliers in mailboxes.
“FIRST LAWN-CUTTING IS FREE!!!!” I advertised, and I used four exclamation points, since four is better than three.
One of my first customers was an old man. He hired me to re-sod his entire front yard during the height of pollen season. I paid my friend Adam to help me.
Adam and I worked like rented mules. We replaced almost half an acre of centipede grass until our noses were running and our eyes were totally swollen shut.
“This pollen’s killing me,” I said to Adam.
“Who said that?” Adam answered.
While we worked, an old woman came walking out of the house. She wore a nightgown, her hair was white and messy. She wandered through the yard like she were in a daze, letting the sun hit her face. She smiled. She sneezed.
“Oh, Carl!” she shouted. “There are boys out here!”
She sneezed again.
“Boys!” she said. “Two boys!”
I was afraid this woman was going to boil us in a kettle with some toe of frog and the eye of newt.
Finally, the woman announced that she wanted us all to have a tea party. She clapped her hands together and hollered, “A tea party!”
The old man made little sandwiches for everyone. He placed fine china on a yellow-dusted patio table. We sipped from little teacups and talked about the weather. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a woman eat so many Zapp’s dill-pickle-flavored potato chips and live to tell about it.
When we finished, the old woman barked to her husband, “Carl, get my easel.”
The man went to the other room and gathered oil painting supplies. He set up a makeshift studio in the backyard for his wife. A chair sat opposite of the easel. I was instructed to sit.
The woman painted, and when she held her brushes, she became fifty years younger. She kept reminding me to hold completely still and suppress my sneezes. She made grand sweeping motions on the canvas. She stared at me with brilliant eyes.
Behind her, I could see the old man was crying.
After what seemed like hours, she finished my portrait. She displayed it to us. It was incredible. This woman was not just a painter, she was a master.
The old man took the canvas into his careful hands. He led us to a room at the end of a long hallway. Inside were paintings of all kinds. Colorful flowers, figure studies, still-lifes, and portraits.
“Thank you for posing,” the old man said. “You don’t understand, my wife hasn’t painted in fifteen years. Most days she can’t even remember my name.”
He went on to say that his wife started taking art lessons long ago when she turned forty. She turned out to be a natural, and nobody would’ve ever guessed it. Soon, all her friends were visiting the house to pose. The woman painted furiously through her forties, fifties, and sixties.
Then Alzheimer’s happened.
It came hard. One day, they closed the doors to her studio forever. Overnight, the man transformed from husband into caregiver. And there is a special place in heaven for caregivers.
I don’t remember much more about that day except that my friend and I laid sod after dark by the glow of outdoor lights. I also remember that the old man paid us too much for our work.
Before we left, we saw the man and his wife through their lit-up windows. The man was helping her into bed, but she was fighting him. He was patient, and she was really letting him have it. I will never forget that.
Yesterday, I drove through a familiar neighborhood and I saw that old house. A young couple lives there now. There were children playing on lush green grass. A young man was outside working in the yard. I asked the man if he knew the people who lived there before him.
“Yeah,” said the man. “Those were my grandparents, did you know them?”
I told him that long ago I was once fortunate enough to have tea with those two beautiful people. And I told him about a great artist I was introduced to that afternoon who painted my portrait.
The pollen suddenly became more than our eyes could handle.
God bless all who are touched by Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Jimmie Slaton - September 23, 2021 7:06 am
God bless you Sean! Dementia related diseases are the absolute worst! My father was a victim of dementia. The same guy who led the building of the paper mill in Brewton and several more in the south. He went from bigger than life to a mere child. I hate these diseases but I love you reminding us of the great folks we loved and lost! Thanks!
orgillian - September 23, 2021 8:04 am
I am watching (and helping) my 86 yr old mother fight against this scourge. Some days are better than others but it’s always in the back of your mind when someone you love has literally lost pieces of theirs.
Floyd Budd Dunson - September 23, 2021 9:24 am
Dementia from what ever cause is a double killer it kills the person with the disease and it kills the partner. I saw some notes I had made on the ambulance the other day. An elderly man with dementia demanded that I not carry him to the nursing home but to his house. He was going to sue me if I didn’t and he wanted his wishes written down. I wrote them out and included that he was suing me. The really sad part is there was no family at the nursing home. I remember being called to organize a search for his dad who had rapid onset alzheimers. We did a hasty search and then got organized alzheimer patient walk in a straight line and the bounce off of blockades. I remembered an older gentleman at church telling me th old hwy ran though the woods to the mans old house. We live ed up and walked straight away from the door he had gone out . Minutes later we found the man tangled in a fence. This is one of the happy stories, there are many that are so sad. Like the woman who wandered away and survived for 4 days in the cold and rain, and passed away at the hospital or the woman who wandered away from her much younger husband, she was never found.
Jackie - September 23, 2021 9:26 am
Thank you for this tribute… I lost my mother to this terrible disease just this month. No, that’s not true. I actually lost her years ago, her body left us this month, she was gone years ago.
Connie - September 23, 2021 9:34 am
Dementia is the most heartbreaking thing in the world. My mom’s symptoms started early but the last 3 years were hell to watch. I always likened it to an alien taking over her body. Watching that vibrant, loving, wonderful human disappearing by bits-well, the people who have been there know this. The ones who haven’t been touched losing someone to this will never understand. Sending love to you and Jamie.
Jan - September 23, 2021 10:40 am
Amen and amen!
Steve McCaleb - September 23, 2021 11:05 am
Alzheimer’s is one of those horrible diseases where a person dies twice….first your sense of who and what you are as a person goes and then the wasted abandoned shell follows. It’s almost more than a human can can bear. Pray for a cure….please.
niobrarariverrat - September 23, 2021 11:12 am
Thank you, Sean.
Jean - September 23, 2021 11:37 am
Amen! There are many out there who deal with this every day. God bless them all!
Dr. James Stewart - September 23, 2021 11:57 am
Sean, my dad, I miss him so much. He was my hero. He mentored me and loved me and was the most patient person I have ever known. Whatever got him, took his mind so fast that it was shocking to those who knew him especially to those of us closest to him. Diseases of the brain are thieves that steal from us while we are sitting right there watching and we are helpless to do anything about it. My mom has replace my dad as my hero because caregivers have superpowers. I will never be able to use words to tell the full picture of the amazing love, dogged determination and tremendous pain that my mom experienced in the years she alone cared for her love, my dad. Her generation is full of people just like her and the world is not worthy of such devotion. As you described Jamie’s care for Mother Mary, I read your words and saw a mirror image of what my mom was giving to my dad and what she experienced. We buried what was physically left of my earthly dad a week before you buried Mother Mary. A sense of normalcy has return albeit with a great sadness and black hole once filled by a man who lived larger than life itself. A man who carried me everyday of my life until he no longer could and then I helped my mom carry him across the finish line of his race. Thank you Sean for your gentle spirit and for how you selflessly share it with me everyday. I know you are not a preacher and would never think of yourself in that way but your daily missives are sermonic to me and speak of devotion to God and love for others in ways that lessor men could only dream of accomplishing. You have tremendous God-given abilities and heart and you are using everything you have been given with tremendous consistency and wonderful impact. God bless you Sean Dietrich. God bless you real good!!!
Teri Easterling - September 23, 2021 12:48 pm
MaryAnn Dunham - September 23, 2021 2:16 pm
Amen! Amen! Amen!
Debbie g - September 23, 2021 12:27 pm
Amen dr Stewart thank you for telling Sean so beautifully how much he means to us and how much he is loved. !! Love to all
Pamela Williams - September 23, 2021 12:35 pm
Teri Easterling - September 23, 2021 12:46 pm
💜💜Blessings on all dealing with the thief of dementia!
Steve Leachman - September 23, 2021 12:48 pm
My grandfather had dementia of some kind. My wife saw it in his eyes when we brought his first grandchild to see him. After he held his grandson he said “This is Stevie’s son?” She said “your Papa is having memory problems.” After that visit he got worse and eventually he had to go a nursing home. I couldn’t go and see him there. What was the point? He wouldn’t remember me and the pain was too great for me. I wanted to remember him as the big strong timberman he used to be. Sean, God bless you for these stories.
Shelton A. - September 23, 2021 12:58 pm
My mom died of dementia. It’s awful.
Greg Cleveland - September 23, 2021 1:03 pm
Nancy - September 23, 2021 1:04 pm
What a gift you gave twice!!♥️😭pollen here too!!
Pollen – Virginia Belle - September 23, 2021 1:11 pm
[…] Pollen […]
Stacey Wallace - September 23, 2021 1:15 pm
Sean, God bless you for this story. I lost my Daddy to Alzheimer’s on April 22, 2018. But I really lost him on Thanksgiving 2017 because he couldn’t remember my name. May God bless those with Alzheimer’s or any type of dementia and their caregivers.
Sherry - September 23, 2021 1:17 pm
It is hell on Earth.
Joy A Chanin - September 23, 2021 1:35 pm
I always love your column. And, I totally understand the yellow pollen. And I love this story. Just so you know, the yellow pollen is seldom the reason for sneezing- since it is so heavy and falls to the ground. It is everything else that blooms at the same time as the pine trees are beginning to develop what will become their pine cones (offspring). Those poor pine trees (usually the Loblolly pines) get such a bad rep.
Billy D - September 23, 2021 1:43 pm
One of your best ever!!!! (And that’s saying a lot!!!! … note FOUR exclamation points.)
Russel Tordoff - September 23, 2021 2:01 pm
Norma Den🇿🇦 - September 23, 2021 2:05 pm
My husband is suffering from Alzheimer’s too. Going on 4 years now, still fairly aware but very confused and unable to communicate properly. From a big man, excellent sportsman, company executive, world authority on brewing to this is heartbreaking. It’s taking its toll on all the family and I’m exhausted but we want to keep him at home, where he has the garden, dogs and company for as long as is possible. We’ve had close on 60 years together, four marvellous children and seven grandchildren. I’m in awe and admiration for carers all over the world, it’s not easy. One thing I refuse to ask is Why Me, those who may have read the interview with the legendary tennis player Arthur Ashe will understand that. Bless you Sean for your “epistle” every day. It’s something we have to look forward to, something to cheer, commiserate and enjoy in tough times.
Leigh Amiot - September 23, 2021 2:06 pm
Hard to pick a favorite of your essays, but this one sure ranks high.
Linda Moon - September 23, 2021 2:16 pm
….and God Bless You for telling their stories that they can no longer tell.
Charles Vianey - September 23, 2021 2:17 pm
I watched my elderly Mom care for my Dad day in and out for over 8+ years. Thank you for this article. Blessed are the caregivers.
Al Cato - September 23, 2021 2:18 pm
Amen Dr. Stewart and Amen again. Sean, have Dr. Stewart’s posting etched into a fine piece of wood. Mount the piece in a prominent place in your home so that if doubt ever, ever crosses your mind and you question your writing skills, please pause a moment, look up and read Dr. Stewart’s message. It contains the sentiment of all of us. Blessings to you and Jaime as always.
Lucinda - September 23, 2021 2:30 pm
Sean, thank you for the story today, your MM posts and also the comments from Dr. Stewart. Those of us that have experienced losing loved ones from dementia appreciate knowing there are so many out there suffering similar loses. The first hint that my outgoing and lovely mom had a major issue was when we were leaving for a shopping trip and she told me that I needed to whisper so the guy in the back couldn’t hear us. There was no guy in the back. When I asked her about him she informed me that the man and a lady had just moved into her apartment. They were bossy and she didn’t like it at all. Other than that we had a fun day together. But other changes begin to happen rather quickly. She moved in with my sister where she remained until her death. I was still teaching at the time but when I would visit each day there were still some good times and sad ones too. One humorous thing is one afternoon she told me she didn’t know who that man(my sister) was taking care of her but he was really sweet to her. 🥲 My mother also had myelodysplasia and the oncologist treating her told us to take her home, call hospice and that she would be gone in 6 months. Her mental decline was rapid, she became bedridden, and sadly the doctor was correct almost to the day. My heart aches for those of you that have experienced the excruciating loss and sadness that comes with losing a special person to dementia. 🙏🏼
Brenda M, - September 23, 2021 2:36 pm
Amen! And God bless,
Mm - September 23, 2021 2:39 pm
LORD, bless Sean of the South for ALWAYS helping us SEE. Amen.
dixie7744gmailcom - September 23, 2021 2:45 pm
Your writing touches my heart because you recognize the heart of what matters. Thank you for stopping at that residence and telling them of the wonder of your experience when meeting their grandparents. ❤️
Christina - September 23, 2021 3:00 pm
The pollen season just started after reading your column.
Lulu - September 23, 2021 3:07 pm
Sean, my husband…my hero died two years ago with Parkinson’s/dementia! The deadly combo took a piece of his body plus a piece of his mind at a time. And this giant of mine suffered long and hard. I had to move him to Memory Care for the last two years of his life because I could no longer keep him at home. He was a soldier for 32 years and was a leader. It was so difficult to no longer ‘lead’ but to be controlled. It was horrible. I guess it was a good thing for him when the last year mostly all he wanted to and did sleep, sleep, sleep. He died in his sleep, thankfully. He prayed for years for God to take him and God did. My heart aches for all those w/Parkinson’s/alzheimers and dementia. They are horrid killers.
Thank you Sean and thank all the commenters…love wrapped in peace and joy!
Nancy Crews - September 23, 2021 3:11 pm
❤your writing. Love caregivers.
Liza - September 23, 2021 3:32 pm
What a beautiful reflection on that couple’s lives!
Latane Barton - September 23, 2021 3:56 pm
this one really touched my heart. You see, my husband had Alzheimers. I lost him 10 years ago. Sure miss his humor and his love of life. He couldn’t paint like that old woman did but he sure could make you laugh.
Becky - September 23, 2021 4:01 pm
Reading this as I feed my precious bed bound mom who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Thanks for bringing light to this horrible disease.
Debbie Schmidt - September 23, 2021 4:15 pm
Each time I am reminded of the heartbreak of “the long goodbye” Psalm 139:7-12 comforts me. God can shine His light into the darkest night ……even the long, dark night of dementia.
Harriet - September 23, 2021 4:22 pm
Oh my gosh. I own a landscape company and understand laying sod in the pollen and the heat. And my dad has Alzheimer’s – he’s starting to get rebellious.
I love this story Sean.
Tammy S. - September 23, 2021 5:24 pm
Is there anything more beautiful than the patient, deep love of a caregiver to one who has already disappeared, but still needs care. I have seen it with my Mom with her Mom, my husband and I with his Mom, who passed just three weeks ago tomorrow, and our grandsons great grandfather for his beloved wife. There are hard moments. And often caretakers struggle through tough moments alone. And some moments you laugh to keep from crying. My precious Mother-in-law was a true southern lady to her core, and she never would have cussed before she began having moments of confusion. Some of those moments were funny. She mistook her son, my husband, for her husband and told him one day “I’m done with you, I want a divorce.” Later she would cry and say she was sorry, and she was just confused. We knew. It was an honor to love her and to watch the love of my Mom, my husband and our grandsons great granddad love so very well the ones who had once upon a time loved them the very most!!! It is a holy thing to behold that kind of love.
Anne Arthur - September 23, 2021 5:47 pm
Wow, Sean. This is a beautiful. God bless you for honoring this couple by telling us their story.
MAM - September 23, 2021 6:45 pm
I can commiserate with everyone above who has been through taking care of someone with dementia. My mom “disappeared” for years, very slowly at first, but the day she thanked me for visiting with her in her room and then immediately asked, “Who are you?” the pollen hit for sure, although I managed not to cry until later. She’s been gone more than 16 years now, but her real self shows up regularly in my dreams. Thank you, Sean! Your godliness shows through in your writing and your caring.
catladymac - September 23, 2021 7:18 pm
Trust me Sean, there is PLENTY of pine pollen in Ohio ! Not to mention ragweed…
Gayle Wilson - September 23, 2021 7:45 pm
Sean, Amen to your last line.
Patricia Harris - September 23, 2021 7:54 pm
My darling husband of 56 years died in early 2019 of Alzheimer’s. I was his caretaker. We were madly in love from the ages of 15 and 16. Married at 19 and nearly 20. We had two daughters and five grandchildren. This lovely msn was sometimes hard to handle but I loved him every minute till his last breath and beyond. Fir the most part he knew me even to the end. I miss him every day and will until I die.
Karen Snyder - September 23, 2021 11:14 pm
Mom’s dementia diagnosis came near the end of her life. As her primary caretaker, I was very blessed because she remained sweet and agreeable, only occasionally confused or stubbornly childlike, and she never displayed any combativeness or non-recognition of those around her. I am very aware how much more difficult it might have been, for both of us. She’s been gone nearly thirteen years now, but we miss her every day.❤️
Jennifer Ashworth - September 24, 2021 3:06 am
My mother-in-law has Alzheimer’s. I have been her caregiver for seven years. I think some days the pollen is so bad, I won’t make it through. I live in Southern California.
Tawanah Fagan Bagwell - September 26, 2021 2:45 am
Did you ever get to see your portrait? I would think the son would give it to you. It is a sweet story.