There Are No Weeds

by Mel Kelley

When the body temperature drops below 95 degrees, hypothermia sets in. It can kill you quickly, particularly if you are elderly or infirm. It is nine degrees outside, and there is snow on the ground. If only Dad could still walk, I could get him up and out, and he could be knocking on death’s door in no time. It’s a relatively painless way to die. You basically become very confused, very tired, and soon you are drifting off into oblivion. If he could only walk and we were still home, I could suit up in my woolly coat, my striped hat, purple gloves, and we could slide stealthily out the deck door into the onyx jewel of this bitter winter night. We could walk one last time around the lake that he loved, tracing his steps, echoic memories surrounding us. I could leave him in thin, worn, navy flannels and slippers, no socks, on his favorite bench, kissing him goodbye as he slipped easily into a much sweeter abyss than the one he has inhabited these past six years. He would be free and so would I.

In Richard Taylor’s stunning book, Alzheimer's from the Inside Out, he says, “There is a very practical explanation as to why individuals with end-stage dementia do not take their own lives, nor do they ponder or plan the act. They simply lack the intellectual capacity and the physical ability to end their lives. However, what are individuals diagnosed with the disease to think when they are staring at a video of an individual in the end stages of Alzheimer’s? What are we to think as we stare down the gun barrel of death, but have yet to crawl into it?”

Reading that passage kept me up one night, tossing and turning, caught between sleeping and dreaming, my mind overwhelmed with thoughts of Dad wanting me to help him die but not being able to articulate his wishes. What if he had intended to kill himself but had forgotten to do it?

The clock on the wall in Dad’s tiny nursing home room reads 3:45 p.m. Vivaldi is heralding spring in his Four Seasons Suite, but spring seems quite distant on this frigid January afternoon. Sun shadows creep across the broken concrete courtyard outside the window. He has nothing of nature to look at, much less look forward to. His prison cell is clean, but sparse, his world reduced to four walls, a room without a view, and a TV he can’t watch. Just a guy on a noisy ventilator with three barely edible meals a day. More drugs than he needs accompany him. His captors conspired early on to keep him from walking, which he still did very well when he left home three years ago. Their job is so much easier if they can plant him in a wheelchair. They don’t have time to help him walk. They don't want him free to roam. He might fall; they’d be held responsible. So, they strap him in a chair as soon as possible, robbing him of one of his last gifts: mobility.

Dad hasn’t spoken for nearly two years now, but he still smiles and hums sometimes, and he is fairly content, traveling easily between here and hereafter. Every day during that time I asked my mother if she would come and get Dad and take him back with her. I don’t understand why she didn’t come. She never remarried and took only one serious lover in the forty years since the divorce. I knew she still loved him. But then, a year ago in October, she died after the third operation on her heart.

I sit in Dad’s office, happy and sad to be in his safe place, grateful that it is still available to me. Oak bookshelves line the walls. Oh, how he loved to read! Thoreau, Matthew Fox, Anne Lamott, Ted Loder, May Sarton, Buckminster Fuller, Mary Oliver, and Jimmy Carter. There must be over a thousand tomes weighing down the shelves, their stories treasured, their poetry recited, their wisdom shared. He was a well-read, interesting professor and spiritual director. Even in the late stages of the disease, when he could no longer read or write, Dad would sit here for hours fondling his books, studying them as if he could still unlock their meaning and perhaps his mind. I can still smell sandalwood from the incense he sometimes burned while reading. He loved the smell and the mood it created in his little sanctuary.

On the wall above the desk hangs a weathered yet colorful embroidered message: “There are no weeds.” Long a master gardener, Dad loved this saying. “If there are no weeds, then every living thing is welcome my dear,” he would tell me. “Isn’t that a lovely idea?” He would smile and laugh, the lines and wrinkles on his face an ode to joy.

How ironic, now that the tangles and plaques of dementia have invaded the garden of his brain. Weeds that cannot be killed or even slowed. Weeds that have stolen his words, his wisdom. Weeds that have choked out his spirit, silenced his voice. So many fucking weeds that we can never get them under control. The tenacious little bastards grow too fast. The only thing that will kill them is a hard day’s night of single digit temperatures.

Looking back I can mark that moment in the timeline of Dad’s slow and sometimes comical descent into the darkness of dementia. That moment when he first visibly went off the road, off the map into uncharted territory. It was at my niece’s wedding in September 2007.

During the reception, my dapper-looking, tenured, seventy-two-year-old college professor father went to the dessert table, loaded his plate with pieces of fruit and bite-sized nibbles of cake. Then he put the plate down and thrust his hands into the chocolate fountain as if he were a child. With great delight and a chuckle, he licked his fingers, not embarrassed at all, totally enjoying himself. None of us knew what to make of it. Was he playing a joke on us? Entertaining the grandchildren?

The line at the chocolate fountain backed up. People noticed. My stepmother, Thea, was embarrassed as she came toward Dad, napkin outstretched, and began to wipe his hands. His face held a quizzical look and then he appeared to pout. He clearly did not know what he had done wrong. She held his plate under the fountain and guided him back to the table to enjoy the chocolate-covered treats.

“What was Dad doing?” asked my sister Donna.

“I don’t know,” I replied.

“Do you think he was playing around because of the grandchildren? Liam and Brittany were close by when it happened,” she said.

“I really don't know, Donna.” Anger rose on my face. Fear slithered down my spine. I was incensed that I was expected to have all the answers. Where once Mom and Dad expected me to shoulder extra responsibilities and carry more of the load of looking out for my four younger sisters, now those sisters expected me to know everything, to lead and make the hard decisions regarding our parents.

“Poppa is acting really funny, Mom,” my ten-year-old son Liam said as he returned to our table with a chocolate treasure trove of his own. “Thea is pretty mad at him.”

“Did he say anything to you or Brittany?” I asked. “Was he joking with you kids?”

“No, he just looked at us, laughed, and then put his hands under the chocolate,” Liam said.
“We didn’t know what he was doing.”

“I better go talk to them,” said Donna, my therapist sister. I imagined her putting on her Analytical Annie hat and starting her sentences with “perhaps” or “maybe” before completing them with her theories of what was unfolding.

Looking over at Dad’s table I observed him and Thea head to head in a quiet conversation. They were holding hands and both appeared to be sad. “Give it some time. Let them recover. You don't want to set Thea off for God’s sake. This is supposed to be a celebration,” I pleaded.

“What the hell just happened?” asked my youngest sister, Cary. “I just heard that Dad put his hands in the chocolate fountain and caused a scene. What is going on?”

“Poppa’s acting funny…pissing off Thea,” Liam said as he bit into a chocolate-covered strawberry. Brittany laughed as she ate her chocolate banana bite.

“I believe Aunt Cary was speaking to me, Liam,” I said, as my uneasiness began to get the better of me. “You kids finish up those treats and go play.”

“Is this a secret powwow or can anyone join?” asked sister number four, Laura. “Ya’ll talking about Dad?”

“The kids weren’t in on it,” I said slowly, each word landing with a thud.

“Dad sent me a birthday card in June,” Cary said, a tear rising in her eye.

“Did you get a card?” I asked Laura, who is the June birthday girl.

“I did,” she said, “but now that you mention it, he mixed up how old I was by several years and the writing was very messy, somehow off. I chalked it up to age.”

“Thea seems unusually distant,” Donna said. “She’s always aloof, but this visit she seems almost afraid of interaction, as if we might ask her a question she doesn't want to answer.”

“They’ve begun refusing invitations,” I said. “Normally Dad is at every soccer game, every school event, you name it. He totally dotes on Liam.”

Panic overwhelmed me. The room spun. I imagined the crystal chandelier crashing down onto the parquet dance floor as people screamed and ran. I grasped the pink slipcovered chair, sat down, and put my head between my legs. A fast-moving video played in my brain displaying disturbing scenes over the past year. I told Dad I had a tumor in my kidney and had to have surgery and he forgot to tell Thea. The bank called to say he couldn’t remember his account number or his social security number. He lost his temper at lunch and cursed the waiter. Something was terribly wrong, and everyone thought I knew what it was, but I didn’t.

“Kelley girls!” called my sister Chris, the mother of the bride. “They are playing our song, and you are not on the dance floor! Come on!”

Sister Sledge blasted from the DJ’s turntable. “We are family, I’ve got all my sisters with me. We are family. Get up everybody and sing,” We all joined her, reluctantly at first, and began to dance. The bride and the kids joined us and then Dad danced his way onto the floor and into our hearts. His blue eyes were smiling, and he looked like he did forty years ago when we were little, and we danced to a Motown soundtrack in the kitchen after dinner while he did the dishes. For a few moments all was well. We were in one piece. We were whole. The circle was unbroken.

Once we drove away from Normal, we arrived at Things-Will-Never-Be-the-Same-Again sooner than any of us realized. A week or so after the wedding, we all received a letter from Thea and the truth began to spill out, bleeding its way onto the page and into our world. She had been noticing changes for nearly a year. Initially Dad had put up resistance to seeing a doctor. I had no trouble believing that. He did not like doctors, pills, or anything of the sort. He believed in faith, family, exercise, and healthy food as the building blocks of a good life.

Thea confessed that her fears had grown when a work associate of Dad’s contacted her. He was missing appointments and seemed often confused about time. Similarly, a neighbor mentioned that he had not realized Dad had coached basketball at Western Carolina University for years. Dad taught there but never coached the basketball team there or anywhere else.

“I’d like you to know that we have the full support and blessing of your father’s regular doctor for what he’s doing to get better. He thinks they are all great ideas,” Thea wrote. “He doesn’t believe that what’s going on implies that there might have been a stroke or that there’s incipient Alzheimer’s—thank God. I think I need to say that it looks like the time is here—at least temporarily—for there to be a slight shift from the emphasis on father taking care of daughters to daughters taking care of father. It’s the kind of turn in people’s lives that almost always comes as a surprise.”

I felt the weight of the world shift onto my shoulders at that moment. Tears came quickly, and I stopped reading. I felt short of breath. I was caught off guard. I didn’t want our roles to change. I still needed fathering, especially while I was mothering my ten-year-old son. Thea described them as being “protective of themselves, staying home doing quiet things more than they used to.” That explained the recent refusals of invitations from us.

“P.S. You may be thinking why I didn’t say this before. Well, we’ve tried to respond when asked how it’s going, but have otherwise been buried under the intensities of the day. To be honest, it never occurred to me that initiating periodic updates with you all should be on my list. To those of you who expected it, I apologize.”

I was stunned. We live in the same town. How many times had we seen each other in the past year? How often had they sat at our dinner table or we on their porch? How many times had Thea and I talked alone while the boys shot hoops or walked ahead of us around the lake? How many opportunities were passed by or thoughtlessly discarded because she didn’t think it should be on her list? I balled up the letter and threw it across the room.

I was not satisfied. Dad needed to see a neurologist. His friend from work, the one who had alerted Thea to Dad’s missed appointments, recommended a Duke-trained physician nearly 100 miles away in Hickory. Thea agreed and scheduled an appointment with Dr. Schmeckel in January 2008. We were all invited to attend.

I was shocked at the results of Dad’s initial mental test. He could not draw the clock, or tell the doctor his address, or correctly identify the ink pen Dr. Schmeckel showed him, or remember the three words—apple, dog, bed—that he was told at the beginning of the session. When the doctor offered him a key and asked what it would be used for, Dad had no idea. When he asked him to spell the word “world” backwards Dad said wod. Dad scored 20 out of 30 on this test. A score of 20 to 24 indicates mild dementia.

The ninety-minute ride home was excruciatingly quiet. The only words were spoken by Dad. “I do not like that guy at all,” he repeated. As we passed caution signs and flashing lights on Interstate 40 and three lanes became two, I was acutely aware of feeling constricted. I wasn't ready to merge. Doors were closing. It was getting dark fast. I was afraid.

Suffocation is another fairly painless way to die. If an angel surprises you in your sleep, they need only the strength to hold that pillow firm for a short time until you gasp your final breath. Suddenly, peace. Mourning has broken. I imagined helping Dad die a thousand times during those long stretches in the afternoon when we were together and alone, hardly ever an interruption to our routine. I could have easily set us both free and walked right out unnoticed. No one would have been the wiser. No one would have been sad. His death would have accurately been described as a blessing. People would have remarked that I had been a saint, standing by his side all those long, lonely years as my middle age disappeared over the horizon. Many of those people would have been the same ones who left me lonely when death took too long to arrive.

I lifted weights to build up my arm and upper body strength every day in preparation.

Almost immediately things were different. I began spending two or three afternoons a week with Dad. Every visit would cause me to wonder how this happened. When did this happen? How could I have missed so many of the signs? I watched Dad in the kitchen as he traced the inside of empty bowls with long bony fingers exploring their shapes, investigating their structure. How had they been made? What materials were used? His engineering days were long gone, but his mind still questioned. He worked the counter from one end to the other, holding and touching each bowl, trying to uncover its secrets, all the while missing the blue-and-white antique china bowl that held his steamy, sweet, hot, steel cut Irish oatmeal.

“Are you hungry, Dad?” I reached out to touch his sleeve.

“Yes” he said with a smile, clapping his hands like a small child who was about to be served ice cream.

“Let's sit at the table.” I guided his arm with one hand and transported the oatmeal with the other. At the table, I pointed to three chairs hoping he would choose one and sit. He couldn’t figure out what to do. “Sit down, Dad, and you can have your oatmeal.”

“Okay,” he said cheerfully as he touched the table, investigating it the same way he did the bowls. Pistons firing. Engine stalled.

“Dad, do you want pancakes or eggs this morning?” I asked.

“Yes!” he replied, so I ordered eggs.

Eating remained a great pleasure and something he looked forward to. He managed as best he could, resorting to fingers and grins if he couldn’t figure out utensils. Like a child, he was blissfully unaware of his ineptitude, proud that he could do something by himself. In restaurants, small children were drawn to him as if they sensed he was of their tribe. It was one of the small delights left to see him engaged in this pure, simple exchange of happy smiles and silly faces. Laughter leapt from his lips, reminding me of earlier times and a younger man who found joy in creating fun activities for five little girls—the movable wooden hurdle he built in the front yard one summer to encourage us to run and jump. The bar that stretched between two wooden posts could move from a foot off the ground to three feet. We spent many an hour and broke countless bars that summer trying to best each other in our Kelley Family Olympics.

Watching Cary with Dad was seeing grace in action. “Hello handsome,” she said.

There was an immediate connection. Her energy was palpable. She radiated like a sunbeam. Dad responded positively, becoming more of a leprechaun when she was around, giggling for the fun of it, smiling big and wide. He also whistled. He whistled for Cary as if he was calling her. It was endearing.

Cary was a single mom and a special education teacher. Her days were filled with needy children, her approach to the world colored by them. I thought she connected with them so easily because she was a broken child, the baby in a family of divorce. She was only eleven when Dad left us and not yet eighteen when Mom moved to Australia right after Cary’s high school graduation. She carried her child self on her sleeve, often self-parenting. It made her a more present parent to her own daughter and a strong and steady teacher to her students. She brought a light-heartedness, simple joy with her wherever she went. It permeated the house, remaining even after she was gone. I was so grateful for her presence with us while Thea took a much-needed break for a few days. It would’ve been hard to care for Dad on my own for that long.

“The things we do for love,” I said wearily, as I came downstairs, after finally getting Dad bathed, changed, and into bed. “I never imagined I'd be seeing him naked.”

“Well better you than me, Sis. Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve laid eyes on a penis? Probably twenty-five years.” She laughed. “Why, I’d probably have a heart attack!”

We fell into each other cackling like a couple of schoolgirls.

“How is Betsy?” I asked. “What’s it been now? Fifteen years you two have been together?”

“Almost twenty. Can you believe it?”

“We ain’t no spring chickens, Sistah!”

“You got that right,” she said, laughing.

The next morning, we were all in the kitchen. Cary was setting the table. I was flipping flapjacks, and Dad was exploring. Cary disappeared for a moment then returned with a boombox.

“Family dance party, she proclaimed as she strutted into the room singing to KC and the Sunshine Band.

“That's the way, uh huh, uh huh, I like it, uh huh, uh huh.” Pretty soon we were all dancing, and Dad was waving a kitchen towel, smiling as he sang loudly and joyfully.

After Cary returned home, we fell into a new routine, because Dad got his days mixed up. He roamed the house in the wee hours, now, so I began spending nights there. As his world continued to shrink, he became more interested in the tactile quality of objects.
After making his bed, he spent an hour or more smoothing the worn, chenille bedspread. If he came across an object of interest, he examined it closely, wheels turning, as he tried to decipher what it was, its purpose, or maybe just its shiny or attractive attributes to determine if it was worthy to join the saucer, hearing aid, cassette tape, and part of a cookie that stayed in his pocket.

Often, he would hum as he worked. His memory bank still held old tunes from earlier days. Church hymns. Camp songs. Nat King Cole’s Mona Lisa, Christmas carols. He remembered them the way he remembered prayers, perhaps because they had been repeated hundreds, maybe thousands of times. Perhaps they held deep meaning to him. Perhaps their memory was stored in a part of the brain unaffected by dementia.

He came down the stairs humming “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and then went right to his office to work. There were books to touch and arrange along with files, plaques, pictures, and awards. There were stuffed animals and childish drawings. There were lots of pocket mining material to sort through—keys, pens, coasters, a small statue of Mother Mary, rosary beads, letter openers, paper clips, erasers. We were thankful for these obsessive-compulsive foraging journeys that Dad began anew each day. They kept him occupied and for the most part, happy, now that his orderly, educated sensibilities had left him broken down on the roadside.

Dad was an avid reader and a poet. Dementia had robbed my father of those most beloved activities. I remember wonderful connections with him when I was a budding writer of twelve or thirteen. Poetry and journaling were outlets for my teenage torment and tantrums. I filled tall, skinny, lined notebooks with my growing pains, pouring out my heart in Catholic school cursive, written neatly with a purple or turquoise Flair pen, stars and hearts filling the borders of the pages. I raged over injustices, drooled over older boys, compared myself to other girls,
especially my four younger siblings who all seemed prettier than I. I wondered how Miss
Finola McGuirk, one of the few lay teachers at Christ the King School, would ever find a
husband when all the men around her were priests.

Then Dad invited me to write with him late at night. He had always been a night owl, and I was following in his footsteps. My mother insisted on a 9:30 bedtime even after I entered high school. But I found it hard to fall asleep before 10:30 or 11. She always turned in early to read, so when I heard old floorboards creaking above me and the sound of bed weight shifting as she climbed in, I quietly crept out of my own bed and down the hall to find Dad waiting for me in the cozy den, pen and paper in hand. Often, we would write silently, each of us absorbed in our singular stories. Other times one or both of us would share what we had written. Dad listened. I felt heard. I felt seen. “Stay open to surprise,” he would say as we drank mugs of steaming hot milk before I went to bed.

Alone and together, Dad and I sat on the sagging sofa as another day grew old. He fidgeted with his socks, pulling them off, trying to put them back on. His anxiety heightened, and he was up, wandering, trying the front door, then the back, frustrated that he couldn’t escape the prison of his own home. He paced, stepping over throw rugs as if they were holes. Before I realized what was happening, he upended potted plants onto the white carpet in the living room. I grabbed the pots and implored him to stop. Chastised, he sat in the oversized rocker and pulled a blanket over his head.

Later, when we were side by side on the sofa holding hands, I said softly, “It’s going to be okay, Dad.”

“No, it’s not,” he said with absolute clarity. “No, it's not.”

I knew he was right. He was a war-weary soldier. He fought Alzheimer’s all day. Maybe he would rest that night. Maybe we both would rest. I raised the white flag to signal our surrender.

Mel Kelley is a poet, a gardener, a mother, and a world traveler. She lives in Weaverville with her husband David. Mel leads WORDPLAY, the Weaverville Poets Collective, which offers workshops at the Weaverville Community Center and the library. Committed to keeping the doors of the world open for people living with dementia, Mel facilitates monthly support groups for them. This excerpt is from her memoir in progress, and Mel expresses her deep gratitude to Jennifer McGaha and the writers in the “In Over Our Heads Together: Intensive Creative Non-Fiction Workshop” classes at the Great Smokies Writing Program for their feedback and encouragement.