The old woman’s purse starts ringing. She digs through it. Soon, she is talking on a flip phone. She’s using a voice that’s sweet enough to spread on toast.

Cracker Barrel—I’m eating bacon and eggs. In the background: Ernest Tubb is singing about waltzing across Texas. I've been on an interstate all morning.

There is an old woman at a table near ours. She was here before my wife and I arrived. Her white hair is fixed up. She is wiry, wearing a nice zebra-striped Sunday blouse.

She smiles at me.

She is alone, sipping coffee. It doesn't take long to strike up chit-chat.

She has lines on her face, and a husky voice. She is from the old world. She calls me “sweetheart” twice in the same sentence.

And even though I don’t know her, I know her type. I'll bet she prepares chicken and dumplings that would make clergymen use the Lord’s name in vain.

She tells me that for most of her life, she’s been a mother and a wife.

Her husband died many years ago. She has two kids. A son, a daughter. She hardly sees either.

“My daughter and I are supposed to be having lunch today,” she tells me, looking at her watch.

“My grandbabies should be here any second. I can't WAIT to kiss them all.”

Those lucky grandbabies.

From what I learn, the aforementioned daughter and grandchildren lead busy lives. The grandkids stay occupied with soccer, baseball, ballet, mission trips, and various special activities that require special T-shirts.

The old girl tries to get together with them as often as she can. But schedules get in the way.

Last week, she decided to drive a few hours to attend her grandson’s soccer game. She packed her folding chair, her snacks, and arrived early.

She waited for one hour on the sidelines of an empty field. A maintenance man told her the game had been cancelled.

Nobody had told Granny.

The old woman’s purse starts ringing. She digs through it. Soon, she is talking on a flip phone. She’s using a voice…

And look at all these birds, perched on fence posts, flying in the air. I wish you were here with me. You might see these birds and think like I'm thinking

DEAR SEAN:

I'm pretty sure my mom is dying and we don’t know if she’s going to make it long. A doctor told us she will probably not and she wants us to start talking about funerals. I’m so afraid of life right now, please write something for me.

THIRTEEN AND I DON’T WANT TO LOSE MY MOM

DEAR THIRTEEN:

The sun is coming up over the green hills of Crenshaw County right now. Rutledge, Alabama, isn’t far away from me.

Have you ever been to Crenshaw County? It’s nothing but hayfields, chickenweed, and cattle.

This sun is spectacular. No. It’s breath-stealing. Especially with all this hay around.

There is something about the way hay smells in the morning. It makes me feel a pleasant, heavy feeling in my chest. It makes me feel—how do I put this—very, very small.

See, while I write this, I'm looking at seventeen trillion acres of hay bales. I’m on a two-lane highway, I have the windows rolled down.

If that doesn't make you feel small.

And look at all these birds, perched on fence posts, flying in the air. I wish you

were here with me. You might see these birds and think like I'm thinking.

Did you ever wonder how many meals a bird eats? Or: who feeds them? Or: how many meals YOU'VE eaten since you were born?

During my time on earth—and this is only a rough estimate—I’ve eaten fifty or sixty THOUSAND meals.

That’s not even counting boiled peanuts or ice cream.

You heard me right. No matter how sad things get, nor how bad life seems, I am like a bird who manages to find food. Somehow.

Anyway, the sun is getting higher now. It glows orange on the world.

I see a horse. She’s gray, and she's galloping with a colt who's keeping pace behind. You ought to see them, they're poetry.

I wonder where they’re going?…

The days that followed were the worst of her life. Not only because he was gone, but because a piece of her had been buried, too.

The picture of her son was a wallet-sized, high-school portrait from the late sixties. The boy’s hair was painfully dated. His smile was easy.

He was a good kid. That’s what they say.

He and his mother were close. Best friends, even. She was a single mother; he was a mama’s boy.

They were driving home from Atlanta one afternoon. They saw a car stalled on the side of the road.

“Don’t pull over,” she told her teenage son. “We don’t have time. Don’t wanna be late for kickoff.”

In those days, high-school kickoffs ruled the world. Her son was a good fullback. There was even talk about recruitment. Not serious talk, but talk.

Either way, he was a poster child. He had high cheekbones, promise, a sweet girlfriend, good grades.

“I gotta pull over, Mama,” he said.

He veered to the shoulder. He stepped out to help an old man change a tire.

She didn’t actually see it happen. But she heard the old man shout, “Move!”

And out of the corner of her eye, she saw the man jump. Then, a crash. Skidding.

And her boy was gone.

The days that followed were the worst of her life. Not only because he was gone, but because a piece of her had been buried, too.

Someone once heard her say, “I asked God to take me on the day of his funeral. I wanted to give up living.”

But God didn’t take her.

One sunny day, a knock at her door. Her son’s girlfriend. They sat at a table together. They cried big tears. They looked at photos. They held one another.

The girl told her she was pregnant.

And I understand that his mother’s happiness outweighed sadness.

The pregnancy was a normal, joyful one. Still, for each “congratulations" someone offered, an “I’m so sorry" followed.

But babies are immune to sadness. They make people feel warm, no matter…

My father once wanted to be Navy pilot. He failed the physical exam into flight school. He was deaf on his left side. He’d spent a childhood wanting to see the world from the top, but he had to settle for posters.

Hank Williams music is playing on an old radio, sitting on a workbench. I’m nine. Hank’s voice bounces off the garage.

The room smells like gasoline and dirt. The walls are covered—and I mean covered—in posters of jet planes.

My father once wanted to be Navy pilot. He failed the physical exam into flight school. He was deaf on his left side. He’d spent a childhood wanting to see the world from the top, but he had to settle for posters.

“Toss me that wrench,” says Daddy.

He slides from beneath the Ford. There is a longneck bottle in his hand. Daddy sings along with the radio. He sounds like a dog with a chest infection.

“Daddy, will you ever fly a plane?”

“Nah, too deaf and stupid. Pilots ain’t deaf or stupid.”

“YOU’RE stupid?”

“Compared to a pilot. They got big IQ’s, they can practically move inanimate objects with their minds.”

“What’s inanimate?”

“It means UN-animate-like.”

My father walks to a white Philco refrigerator. He removes a bottle. He pops the cap with a box-wrench.

“You know,” he says. “I didn’t WANNA be a steelworker. I was kinda

backed into it. Always WANTED to be a pilot. Wanted to see the world from up top.”

I look at him. He's bone skinny. He has grease on his face and hands. There are scrapes on his veiny forearms. My father always had cuts and scrapes. It was the price of blue-collar workaholism.

“But Daddy,” I suggest. “You can STILL be a pilot. Billy’s daddy knows a man who gives flying lessons.”

My father takes a pull on the bottle. He smiles. He is all stubble and crow’s feet.

“Gotta be rich to take flying lessons,” he says.

“We could save up.”

“Take a lotta saving.”

“I’ll save ALL my money.”

He rubs his chin. It makes a sandpaper sound. “Guess I could take up flying during retirement,” he says.

“What’s…

The man says, “To see my son get excited about a new hat is the highlight of my day. I’d sell everything I own just to see him smile. I love him more than my own life.”

A dinner rush. There’s a line of young, fashionably dressed people in this fancy restaurant, waiting for tables. Actually, it's more like an angry mob with skinny jeans and low blood sugar.

I’d rather go to a Waffle House, if you ask me, but my wife is hellbent on eating here.

There’s a child ahead of me. He's with his parents. He’s an animated kid. I notice him because he is wearing a leather football helmet—the kind college lineman wore in the ‘20’s.

I ask the kid about the piece of nostalgia on his noggin.

The child seems uncomfortable. He doesn’t look me in the eye. He looks at the wall and says in a loud voice, “My linebacker hat.”

I ask if he’s a linebacker for the Tigers.

"No,” he says. “I just like hats.”

Well, as it happens I am a hat man myself. For my first day of school I wore a ten-gallon hat, chaps, and holster.

My teacher stopped me at the classroom door, reminding me that gentlemen never wear hats inside. Then, she told

me to check my iron at the door.

It was to be the last day I ever wielded dual peacemakers.

“We have TONS of hats,” says the boy’s mother. “My husband was online last night ordering a hundred more.”

She explains that her son has autism. He also has a major stockpile of headwear. Sailor hats, baseball hats, flight gear, astronaut caps, stocking caps, even a genuine Auburn football helmet.

“At first,” she said. “We couldn’t get him to wear ANYTHING on his head. It would make him freak out. But then, something changed.”

It started with a knit cap she bought from Target. Her son liked the color of it. He wore it until the thing started to fall apart.

One day, her husband found a leather gridiron helmet in an antique store. He bought it to decorate his home…

And I wish you could hear them. They are your ancestors. And mine. They are soft, but not weak.

Greenville, Alabama—welcome to Country Place Senior Living. I’m playing guitar for a room of people who have more life-experience than a sackful of white hair.

My guitar is beat-up and old. It once belonged to my father. It’s been with me a long time.

It’s traveled to a lot of places. Beer joints, all-you-can-eat-catfish joints, weddings, crab boils, Baptist chapels. And nursing homes.

I’m not a good guitar player per se, but here I am just the same. I’m standing before a ninety-nine-year-old colonel who sits in a wheelchair. He is watching me sing.

Life is funny sometimes.

I'm taking requests from the Southern Baptist hymnal.

The Colonel calls out, “Play ‘When the Roll is Called up Yonder.’”

“Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” suggests one woman.

“Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

“Precious Memories.”

Another woman claps in rhythm to “I'll Fly Away.” She barely has enough stamina to clap two full verses.

A lady says, “Can you sing ‘Blessed Assurance?’”

I give it a shot. It’s been a long time since I last sang the great Fannie Crosby anthem. I get through verse one.

Then, I

forget the words to the second verse.

And even though long ago I won a county-fair talent show singing this EXACT American classic; even though I took the blue ribbon playing this VERY guitar; even though I have bellowed this song a hundred times before in the church; I have to stop singing.

Life is funny sometimes.

Alaina, the activities director, knows the lyrics. She starts singing for me.

“Perfect submission,
All is at rest…”

She has a good voice. And while she sings, I hear more than just her. I hear old folks singing.

The old colonel’s voice is strong and sweet. Hazel—the ninety-four-year-old—sounds like country chapels and chess pies.

And I wish you could hear them. They are your ancestors. And mine. They are soft, but not weak.

“This is…

Some people might call this the Middle of Nowhere. But they’d be wrong, I think. The Middle of Nowhere is any place that's empty, with no heart.

Big trees hang over Highway 31 South. The sun is out. I am riding behind an eighteen-wheeler whose signage reads: “Eat Alabama Beef.”

I’m passing through Pintlala. It’s a one-horse town—maybe two horses.

I also pass plenty of kudzu, Spanish moss, live oak groves, secluded railroad tracks, and red-dirt road offshoots.

Rusty mobile homes with Lexuses out front. A John Deere 5100 MH parked beside a clapboard general store.

Old churches.

I like antique churches—the kind that struggle to pay electric bills. Buildings with window-unit AC’s, and cemeteries out back.

Somewhere along the way, churches traded small graveyards for slide-projectors and rock and roll instruments.

On the highway shoulder: a girl riding a four-wheeler. She has a mile of traffic behind her. She wears pigtails and camouflage.

I ride past beat-up service stations. They’re a dying breed.

In this part of the world, these convenience stores are more than gasoline pumps. They are milk, eggs, after-work twelve-packs, Red Man Golden Blend, and gossip.

They sell things like live crickets, red wigglers, and green peanuts from coolers.

The Pit Stop Food Store, for instance,

has a lettered sign which reads: “Now we have pistols and rifles.”

I pass cattle. Mudholes. Ancient farmhouses, white-washed before the Battle of Chickamauga.

“Now entering Lowndes County.”

My wife's family has a hunting camp here. I could die happy in Lowndes.

I see a roadside sign which reads: Greenville; 21 miles. Mobile; 165 miles.

In other words, this exact piece of world is approximately 150 miles from any city.

Some people might call this the Middle of Nowhere. But they’d be wrong, I think. The Middle of Nowhere is any place that's empty, with no heart.

I’ve been to New York City. New York City is the Middle of Nowhere.

I see a faded, handwritten sign on a pine tree: “Deer processing and taxidermy for cheap.”

Another sign: “I can fix your i-fone.”

Now entering Butler…

“I’m made to help people. My whole life, people have helped me time and again. I wanna do something to give back for once. Make my own way.”

Birmingham, Alabama—Jeremy sits behind a volunteer desk at Children’s South Pediatric, greeting visitors.

You can't miss him, he’s the only black man in a wheelchair who is smiling more than the legal limit.

Jeremy is a soft-spoken, thirty-one-year-old. He has cerebral palsy. His speech is labored. His eyes are strong.

His birth-mother put him up for adoption as a newborn when she discovered he had problems.

“Had fluid on my brain,” says Jeremy. “My mother couldn't deal with it. So, I was on my own, so to speak.”

So to speak.

He's always been on his own. Nobody adopted him. Jeremy became part of the Alabama foster machine. He underwent God-knows-how-many operations in his lifetime. He learned to be tough and tender at the same time.

Our chat is interrupted by a mother with a sick baby. Jeremy rolls into action. He greets her, then tells her which doctor is on which floor.

“Nurses raised me,” he explains to me. “Spent almost my whole life in Children's Hospital, from ten months old until twenty-five. They my real family.”

It was in the wings of Children’s Hospital that nurses, doctors, and therapists took turns loving the sweet-mannered baby with the big eyes.

Women in scrubs became his mothers. Men in lab coats became his brothers. He taught them about the human spirit. They taught him to smile.

And he smiles a lot. Even though life has been a battle.

He doesn't mind battles though. In fact, that's how he earned his degree from Lawson Community College. It's how he survived childhood.

Recently, he moved into his own apartment. It was a major victory. After a lifetime of hospital beds, foster homes, and rough neighborhoods, Jeremy is a first-time bachelor.

“I LOVE it,” he says. “But sometimes at night, it gets creepy. Ain't used to being alone.”

His coworkers threw him a housewarming party. It was a real shindig. They loaded his…

I don't care how tall you are. And I don’t believe life is about math quizzes or homecoming contests. Good grades are nice, but they're just letters from the alphabet.

DEAR SEAN:

I’m a big freak. I’m taller than everyone my age... And no, I’m not very good at sports. I’m not even good at school, and I have to go to special tutoring because it takes me longer than my friends to actually get it. I'm basically a big loser.

Sometimes I wish I could ride shotgun with you and your dog in your truck and just be a cool person for a day.

NINTH GRADE SUCKS

DEAR NINTH GRADE:

It’s early morning. I am sitting in my truck. I woke up before the sunrise on accident—sometimes that happens when you get older.

About my truck: I promise you, it’s NOT a “cool” person’s truck. And its owner isn't "cool," either.

My vehicle is a hog pen. Ellie Mae, the coonhound, has ruined it. Think: ripped upholstery, slobber on windshield, coffee stains, rotten apple cores, fruit flies.

Right now, it’s still dark outdoors. My first routine pit-stop is a convenience store. The place is empty this early.

Justine, at the counter, knows me. She knows I’m here to buy coffee and a newspaper.

Some days, I

buy scratch-off tickets, too. Today is one such day. I buy two $10,000,000 Florida Cash scratch-offs. I whisper the Serenity Prayer, and scratch.

I lose.

Justine laughs. “My daddy ALWAYS said lottery tickets are a tax on stupid people.”

Justine talks too much.

I ask about her kid. Her teenage son lives in North Alabama with his father. She never sees him. The kid is a cracker-jack third-baseman. She misses her boy.

I’m driving again. The sun is behind the trees. The sky is orange and purple. I’m heading to a spot on the Choctawhatchee Bay that I don’t think anyone knows exists.

But I’m wrong. People must know about it. Because when I arrive, I see an abandoned plastic chair in my headlights. There are empty beer cans scattered in the sand.

Truth told, I always wished I were a poet, like my friend. But I’m not. I use too many words for poetry. If I WERE a lyricist, however, I know what I’d write about.

I got a note from my friend in the mail. He just got married. It was a private ceremony, he didn’t invite anyone.

He enclosed a handwritten poem:

“Thought I’d be single until I rot,
But someone thought I was hot,
Look at me, I just tied the knot.”

Cute.

My friend is a bona fide poet. He went to school for such things. He was an eccentric free spirit who lived alone in a poet’s ratty apartment—which smelled like a wet bird dog.

He stayed up too late, writing poet’s poems. He ate ice cream for breakfast. Cereal for supper.

He had big plans for his life.

Then she happened. He met her at his nephew’s soccer game. She had three kids.

Our middle-aged, fun-loving, bird-dog smelling bachelor became a family man with three kids, a minivan, and a backyard that won’t mow itself.

Yes. I like love.

I know another woman who found love. Her husband divorced her at age seventy-three. She was a wreck. She didn’t think she would survive.

She stayed indoors for a few years, and hardly ever saw

the sun.

Then, something happened. She began to make friends. She went to the beach some. She stayed up late, she went on dates.

Then, he happened. She met a retired boat captain—he steered barges on American river routes.

She married him. He asked what she wanted for a wedding gift. She wanted to see the world. He booked a one-year trip to Europe the very next month.

I could tell love stories all day.

Like the one about Stephanie and her husband—now there’s a story. They were told they couldn’t have kids. It devastated them.

A few years later, her best friends passed away unexpectedly. Her friends were in their thirties, with a two-year-old son.

Stephanie adopted the orphan and welcomed the child into a pink-walled nursery she’d already given up on.

Then,…