She falls into my daily routine. We become friends. I talk to her. She listens. She’s gentle and humble at heart, the only of my dogs who likes watching baseball with me.

She’s a pretty girl. Sophisticated walk. All business. She’s trotting a dirt road, wearing a purple collar, no tags.

I’ve seen her here for a few days now. I have a feeling she’s far from home.

I call to her, but she’s skittish.

I finally negotiate her into my truck. But not because I am skilled in canine dialect—I am not. It's because I bribe her with raw, room-temperature hamburger. She pees on my seat cushion. She is old.

I take her home.

She’s white, but covered in mud. She hates baths—this I discover the hard way. I turn on the garden hose; she breaks away and runs for Nolensville, Tennessee.

I am able to coax her to return with more ground beef. She eats another pound. This dog is going to land me in the poorhouse.

I scrub her with Dawn dish soap. I have seen television commercials featuring eco-activists washing baby ducks rescued from Gulf oil-spills. They use Dawn.

I call her Bobby Jo Gentry.

Then, I dial the vet and ask what I ought to do.

The lady on

the phone laughs. “Just love her,” she says. “You might never find her owner, might have to keep her.”

Bobby Jo becomes part of my life for a week. She sleeps with my dogs in my bedroom. I buy a forty-dollar dog bed, a neon-orange collar, and canned food for elderly animals.

She gains weight. There is nothing I like more than fat dogs in orange collars.

She falls into my daily routine. We become friends. I talk to her. She listens. She’s gentle and humble at heart, the only of my dogs who likes watching baseball with me.

A knock on my door.

It’s a weekend, midday. I am listening to Atlanta play Milwaukee while in my office.

I look out the window. An unfamiliar car in my driveway. Jehovah’s Witnesses, maybe. I am prepared to answer…

Then, a call from dispatch. A single-vehicle accident on County Road 606. Pilot Chad Hammond checked the weather. There was a stiff fog rolling in.

Troy University—one year ago. It’s raining hard. The bleachers in Sartain Hall Gymnasium are filling with people.

Outside the gym: a Haynes Life Flight helicopter parked on the pavement. There are fire trucks, police cruisers, and five-hundred acres of ambulances.

They’ve come from Coffee, Pike, Covington, Dale, Elmore, and Montgomery County. They’re here to honor their own.

On the free-throw line are three caskets draped in American flags. Most in attendance wear EMS blues, flight suits, and class-A uniforms. Many are on-call.

There’s an audio recording playing on the sound system. It fills the room with the last radio transmission for Haynes Life Flight 2—which crashed eighty miles south of Montgomery, days earlier.

“November-Nine-One-One-Golf-Foxtrot,” dispatch says to the deceased. “We show you departing with four souls onboard, we’ll take it from here…”

If there are dry eyes in the county, they aren't living right.

The accident happened during the wee hours of Saturday. The helipad crew at Troy Regional Medical Center was having a quiet night.

Then, a call from dispatch. A single-vehicle accident on County Road 606. Pilot Chad

Hammond checked the weather. There was a stiff fog rolling in.

He made a judgment call, then radioed back, saying something like: “Copy that, dispatch, we’ll take it from here.”

The three-person crew loaded supplies, working together like a symphony. First responders are a family. They log twenty-four-hour shifts together, laugh together, cook together, they get on each other’s nerves.

That night, their bird clipped along the Coffee County fog searching for wreckage. They found it. They touched down, loaded the critical patient—Chad probably helped with the stretcher.

“Chad was a helluva a pilot,” says one first-responder. “Lotta pilots don't help load patients, but he did.”

And it would be his last time.

The funeral is interrupted.

A radio sounds in the back row. It's loud. A few fire-medics slip out the door. Sirens blare. It's a noise everyone in…

The young woman interrupts, “Cut it short, it's way too long.” Then, she returns to the sitting area and sits beside me. The barber trims the man’s mop with commercial hedge-clippers.

He’s sitting beside me. We’re both waiting for haircuts. His hair is thick, pure white. His beard is shaggy. He’s got skin like old boot leather.

There’s a woman with him, she’s in her late-thirties. Maybe forty. She is wearing a Pizza-Hut uniform.

The barber calls out, "I’m ready for you, sir,” while sweeping clumps of blonde hair from his recent victim.

The woman helps the old man to the big chair. He holds her arm. The barber asks what kind of haircut he wants.

“D-d-d-d...” the old man struggles to say. “S-s-s...” He’s working hard to make words.

But nothing.

The young woman interrupts, “Cut it short, it's way too long.” Then, she returns to the sitting area and sits beside me. The barber trims the man’s mop with commercial hedge-clippers.

“What about the beard?” the barber asks. “You want it trimmed, too?”

The old man stammers so hard, his face contorts. He looks like he’s in pain. His heart is there, the words aren’t.

The young woman hollers, “Give him a shave. He needs it.”

She leans backward into her seat and

takes a deep breath. She sighs, closes her eyes. She is too young to be so tired.

Her phone rings. She walks outside to answer it. She paces the sidewalk, flinging hands in the air, talking into the mouthpiece. Whoever she's yelling at is getting an earful of words.

A customer enters. When the barbershop door opens, I can overhear her outside. She’s saying, “Can't this wait? I've been working all day...”

She’s outside for a good while. When she returns to her seat, she has a red face—she's sniffing, wiping her eyes.

When the barber finishes, he removes the old man’s cape and spins him toward his reflection. He gives him a hand-mirror. The old man’s hand shakes so violently, he drops it.

Then, he tries to form words, but can't.

The young woman springs…

“It changed me,” says Steve. “Used to, I’d hear about kids with cancer and think, ‘That’s awful,’ and just go on about my day. Not after Cody died.”

Dothan, Alabama—three years ago today. The television is playing in Steve Hardwick’s living room. It's one of those home-shopping channels.

Steve is the fella in the recliner. He has a perpetual smile. White goatee. He is the kind of man who parks a Harley in the garage.

The television advertises a KitchenAid mixer. A miracle-appliance made for bread, pizza crust, pasta, sausage, baklava, schnitzel, pedicures, cutting residential lawns, filing taxes, and whipping up poundcake.

Steve turns the volume down.

“Betcha I could make a few cakes with that thing and raise a few hundred bucks for Cody Hayes,” he says.

Cody Hayes.

The boy from Ashford. Seventeen. A hunter, Jeep-rider, a ‘Bama-cheering, camo-hat-wearing kid with leukemia.

It was an impulsive thought.

“I’d never even met Cody,” Steve tells me. “Only saw pictures on Facebook.”

Steve's idea was simple. Sell poundcakes; raise money.

He bought the mixer. Then, the thick-framed man baked one hundred cakes. He titled the fundraising effort, “Cakes for Cody.”

He hoped to drum up few hundred bucks. But it didn't go as planned. He raised nine grand.

Then Cody passed.

“It changed me,” says Steve. “Used to, I’d hear about kids with cancer and think, ‘That’s awful,’ and just go on about my day. Not after Cody died.”

No.

Steve started more fundraisers: Cakes for Libby. Cakes for Conner. Cakes for Paresia. Cakes for Paisley. The list is long. But not long enough for Steve.

He says, “These families need money bad, I hear lotta sad stories. One parent told me they almost lost their home.”

Late one night, while Steve sat in his chair, he received news of another cancer-death. A girl. It stabbed at him.

“Thought to myself, ‘I’m tired of people forgetting about these kids who die.’”

So, he launched a different kind of fundraiser. The next day, he met with city commissioners, county officials, and the mayor. This was bigger than poundcake. It…

Her grief got interrupted. It was a phone call, midday. A high-pitched voice on the other end of the line. A five-year-old in Oklahoma.

The doctor told her she couldn’t have kids. It made her feel broken. Like a busted washing machine. That is, until she met a man with a daughter.

She launched into being a mother.

Motherhood suited her. The little girl's name was Ella, she came from her husband’s first marriage.

His previous wife disappeared years earlier, turning him into a single father overnight. Some said the woman left because of drugs. Others said she was certifiable.

But none of that mattered now because Ella had a new mother.

The wedding was in a courthouse. After signing the wedding certificate, the happy couple ate lunch at a steakhouse.

"We both had that honeymoon glow," she said. "It was all I thought it would be.”

Eight months into marriage, the glow got snuffed out. Her husband was on his way home from Atlanta. They believe he fell asleep at the wheel. His car caught fire. He didn't make it.

“I pretended like I was strong,” she said. “But it was a lie. The whole time, I was like 'Why God, why? I didn’t even

get a full year with him.'”

Why.

Her grief got interrupted. It was a phone call, midday. A high-pitched voice on the other end of the line. A five-year-old in Oklahoma.

“Hello ma’am,” said the voice. “Did my dad die?”

The words hit her like a stiff slap.

The little girl’s name was Sandra. His ex-wife had told nobody about her birth. One September day the woman dropped Sandra at a friend's house and said, "I'll be back in a few days, honey."

She never returned.

Our heroine couldn’t sleep for two nights. She thought about Sandra, even though she'd never met her. She re-dialed the Oklahoma number one night.

“Would you like to meet your older sister?” she asked the five-year-old.

Sandra said yes.

She used her vacation time and drove with Ella from Alabama to Oklahoma.…

His daughter told me he parked himself by the window and talked to his best friend every day—morning until night.

DEAR SEAN:

I don’t mean this to sound mean-spirited, but I've read some of your stuff and I can’t tell if you’re a real Christian or not.

There are no gray areas, sir, you’re either all in, or not. Your use of swear words is not cool, or glorification of alcohol and tobacco... Substances that promote destructive lifestyles.

I’m just trying to figure out what you believe, as well as urging you to consider your eternity. No offense.

PRAYING FOR YOU

DEAR PRAYING:

None taken. I wish I could answer this, but I don’t know how. Most anything I say will be the wrong thing. And I might inadvertently cause you to worry for my soul even more.

So.

Yes. It’s true. I cuss sometimes—mostly on accident. Some phrases come from my blue-collar ancestry.

And I promise: I only use three of the six major swear words. Though in very rare cases—like blunt trauma to the kneecap—I’ll use a fourth.

But I still haven't answered your question. So let me tell you what an eighty-nine-year-old preacher once told me.

I'll call him Brother Jay. I wrote

a report for a world-religion class. I visited Jay at his home. He was white-haired and slumped in a wheelchair.

His daughter told me he parked himself by the window and talked to his best friend every day—morning until night.

I saw him by the window, moving his mouth. I didn’t see anybody with him.

Jay was a preacher’s son. His uncle—also a preacher—sexually abused him as a boy. When Jay blew the whistle, his mother sent him away to a boys home.

He grew up an orphan. His family never visited. Not ever. The word loneliness comes to mind.

A woman took him under her wing. She was a custodian at the shelter. She brought him home with her. She took him to church. She introduced him to his best friend.

Then, something…

Don became head coach for the underdog team at Oneonta High. He was overqualified, it was a gutsy career move. They were a group who hadn't made it far in the playoffs. Nobody expected much from Oneonta.

It’s a sunny day. Coach Don Jacobs kneels by two headstones. Both bear his last name. On the left: his late daughter, Sarah Jacobs—she died too young. He cries.

Men like Don Jacobs do not cry.

Don played for Bear Bryant. Starting quarterback. Late ‘70’s dream-team. He helped Alabama take the ‘79 national championship.

He was a young man when Bryant first said to him—in a trademarked Biblical voice: “Ain’t what happens to you in life, son, but how you deal with it.”

Don’s life was a good one. After college, he had a promising career in coaching. A talented leader. A good family. Then, one of his daughters died. She was fourteen. Beautiful. Smart.

Her car was found twisted around a telephone pole. Everything changed.

Life went on. Don bounced the small-town high-school football circuit like a pinball. Luverne, Robertsdale, Coosa County, Elkmont. A faceless local hero, teaching basic drills to boys barely old enough to shave.

He taught patience, morality, and fight slogans favored by coaches across rural America. Such as: "When you win, nothing hurts."

Or:

"Winners never quit, and quitters never win."

Or: “‘Ain’t what happens to you in life, but how you deal with it.”

Don became head coach for the underdog team at Oneonta High. He was overqualified, it was a gutsy career move. They were a group who hadn't made it far in the playoffs. Nobody expected much from Oneonta.

Then, his wife got pregnant.

It was bliss. Euphoria, even. But his excitement was short-lived. Their son, Joe, was born with a hole in his heart.

I don’t know whether Don was angry at God, but he had every right to be.

He spent most of his days in a Birmingham hospital, the rest on the turf. His team should have started to fall apart. It didn’t.

“It was the opposite,” says his wife. “The players pulled for our baby, prayed for him.…

The family hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in months. They live in the Birmingham hospital. They eat whatever they can get out of vending machines.

Birmingham, Alabama—a hospital room. A steady beeping noise. The fluid bag doles out one drop at a time. Fluorescent lights. The god-awful smell of disinfectant.

Four-year-old Paisley Corbitt is a long way from her home in Graceville. She's fast asleep. When her mother walks in, she doesn’t wake her.

Paisley is worn thin. She's been through hell. Sleep is precious.

Paisely is a towhead with the face of a cherub. She has slept in this bed for too many nights—off and on. This small-town girl would rather be fishing for bream, running in the woods barefoot, or watching TV.

Anything but this.

In January, she got diagnosed with neuroblastoma. If you don’t know what that is, think: the worst cancer imaginable. Then triple it. Then, multiply it by sheer horror. Carry the two. Divide by your worst nightmare.

Her treatment clipboard reads like the unabridged Japanese Dictionary. Five rounds of chemo, invasive surgery, more high-dose chemo, stem-cell transplant, radiation, immunotherapy.

Like I said. Hell.

The family hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in months. They live in the Birmingham hospital.

They eat whatever they can get out of vending machines.

“It’s been hard,” says her mother. “Even harder with two kids. Her brother doesn’t realize what’s happening, he just wants her better so she can play again.”

That makes two of us.

Paisley is weak. She’s lost weight. Her skin is pale. Her hair is falling out. She wears a mask. It is a long, woeful road ahead. A fight. But she is not alone. And that’s why I’m writing this.

“Our community has overwhelmed us,” says her mother. “Graceville has given so much support, food, and love… People have even thrown fundraisers.”

There's a local flyer. It reads: "Team Paisley Raffle." On the front is the photo of a smiling four-year-old with white-blonde hair. Five dollars per ticket. Win a Yeti cooler. I understand they sold a shipload of…

It’s all around us—whatever you call it. I suppose it's always here, hanging in the air like potpourri my mother would make on the stovetop.

Cracker Barrel, 8:17 P.M.—it's busy tonight. There’s a boy in a wheelchair at the table beside me. His father is spoonfeeding him cooked apples.

When the boy's sister says something funny, the boy claps and laughs.

His father wipes his face with a rag and says, “You’re my special boy.” Then, he kisses his forehead.

A nearby girl wanders toward the boy. She is four, maybe. Her hair is in dreadlocks. She stares at him with her hand in her mouth.

“Is he okay?” she asks.

The boy leans and gives a big “HELLO!” There are apple bits on his chin.

The girl gives a smile brighter than a Christmas tree. “HI THERE!” she says in return. Then, she skips off.

Three tables from the boy is an old man. He is a wearing ball cap, Velcro shoes. He’s sitting at a two-top. He orders chicken-fried steak and potatoes. He has no cellphone to occupy his attention. No reading material. He sits.

He and I share a waitress. Her name is Blanche—it’s embroidered on her apron. Whenever he speaks

to her, he holds her hand. Something you don't see much.

He has a voice that sounds genteel enough to predate the War Between the States. It's a wonder he's all alone.

Behind him is a table of Mexican workers—men, women, and kids. They sit covered in paint and grit. They speak rapid Spanish. Lots of laughing.

One Mexican boy crawls into his mother's lap. She strokes his silk hair with her paint-spotted hand, saying, “Cariño mio,” over and over.

And though I don't know Spanish, I imagine this, more or less, means: “You're my special boy.”

To their left: a teenage couple. He weighs a buck ten, she is a foot taller than him. They hold hands when they walk out. They kiss. They look drunk on each other. What a feeling.

When I pay my tab, Brooke is my…

One night, she approached the homeless man with the offer. She walked right into his camp. This woman is fearless.

This is the quintessential beer joint. There are pool tables, chain-smokers, dartboards, a jukebox, and a plywood stage. There’s a young guitarist. He knows three songs. He repeats them.

I think he's overdue for a break.

My friend tells a waitress that I am a writer—if that's what you call it. My pal is only teasing me. The waitress says she has a good story.

And without awaiting my response, she's already telling it.

She is the quintessential barmaid—a no-nonsense woman, mid-fifties, a few tattoos on her forearm. Tough.

“Okay,” she begins, like she’s rehearsed. “So there was this homeless guy..."

I like the story already.

She tells me the man rode his bike all over town. She often saw him on her way to work and wondered where he was going.

So one day, she followed him. He lived behind a strip mall, in the woods. She discovered he had a son.

“It was enough to break your heart,” she adds. “They were living underneath a tarp.”

The next day, she and a friend delivered gift bags. A prepaid cellphone, snacks,

clothes, toys, food. As many items as they could fit into a few gym bags.

“He was skittish,” she said. “Very protective of his son, didn’t want us getting close.”

She couldn’t get him off her mind. She contacted her brother-in-law—a church deacon. She convinced his church to offer the man a room and meals.

One night, she approached the homeless man with the offer. She walked right into his camp. This woman is fearless.

He refused. He told her he didn’t want her charity.

"So I got in his face," she says. "Told him if he didn’t take my handout, I was gon' call the law and have his kid removed."

Magic.

He moved into a small Sunday-school room which she and her friends had outfitted with beds and a mini-fridge. The church agreed to hire him…