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?…

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.

I’ve seen her stand in a funeral line, shaking fifteen hundred hands. I’ve watched her work pitiful jobs, just to raise dimes for her children. I’ve heard her cry in the bathroom with the door shut.

DEAR SEAN:

I'm getting married on September 9th.

My old boyfriend of twenty years took his own life, I lost everything. I still have pain. But I really want to move forward with my new husband.

Can you give me some advice? I want to be the wife he deserves.

I understand if you don’t have time to answer,

HURTING BUT MOVING FORWARD

DEAR MOVING FORWARD:

I am in a hotel room. Hurricane Irma is swimming toward Florida and we are heading the opposite direction. I have waited until today—your wedding day—to answer your letter.

Listen, I don’t do advice, but I can tell you about someone I know.

She was like you. Young. Smart. Pretty. Her husband swallowed the barrel of his hunting rifle and left her entire world black and blue.

I won’t tell her story because you’ve lived it.

You already know what happened to her. She wasn't the same. She didn’t eat the same, sleep the same, think or talk the same—her posture even changed.

Once upon a time, she stood straight and confident. Afterward, she slumped.

Tragedy will do that to you.

But this

woman has stamina. She’s seven kinds of strong, by God, and sweet. She is made from one-hundred-percent heart-muscle, unsalted butter, and powdered sugar.

I’ve seen her stand in a funeral line, shaking fifteen hundred hands. I’ve watched her work pitiful jobs, just to raise dimes for her children. I’ve heard her cry in the bathroom with the door shut.

She met someone recently. A good someone.

They started doing fun things together. They walked the beach, they went to hear live music. They danced.

This woman hasn’t shaken her tail feathers since the Nixon administration.

Death has a way of making you quit dancing. It makes you hate good and bad things alike. It cheats you. It tries to step on your chest and take your breath. It makes you afraid…

...I got into the habit of visiting nursing homes for stories. I’ve visited multitudes of them. I’ve met some stone-tough people there. I remember one in particular. I’ll call him Tom.

DEAR SEAN:

I’m crying while writing this in my car. My doctor just told me I have a health issue that could kill me, he actually said those words. ...I have kids and a wife, and I'm scared as hell. Tell me a story, man, I need cheering up.

Thanks,
A WORRIED MAN

DEAR WORRIED:

When I finished school, I decided to try my hand at writing professionally. I got laughed out of a newsroom.

An editor told me to “Go find some kick-ass stories, then maybe we’ll talk.”

Of course, I'm not a “kick-ass” type of guy. My expertise is more in the half-assed arena.

Anyway, I got into the habit of visiting nursing homes for stories. I’ve visited multitudes of them. I’ve met some stone-tough people there.

I remember one in particular. I’ll call him Tom.

In his young days, he was a high-school coach in a one-horse town that had a water tower and a party line.

He'd never had a winning football team. In

fact, some seasons he had to shut down the football program—there weren’t enough players.

One summer, doctors diagnosed him with cancer. He got so depressed that he stayed indoors and gave up living. He resigned before school started.

One day, he laid in bed, feeling sorry for himself. He heard heavy footsteps on his porch. All day, the footsteps. One pair after another.

He kept his curtains drawn.

When the footsteps finally quit, he peeked through his window. There were so many bouquets and thank-you cards on his porch that people started leaving flowers on the sidewalk.

On the first day of school, a friend called to tell Tom that thirty-some boys signed up for the football team—more applicants…

I don’t do well with dares. In the fourth grade, I was double-dog dared to stand on a ladder and pee over the hood of my friend’s daddy’s Oldsmobile.

DEAR SEAN:

I just can’t read you anymore. At first you were cool, but now you’re a @!#$% dork. There have been tons of national events in the news... And you just ignore them… You're all busy writing about your stupid dog and @#$%.

Sometimes I just want to say, “Nobody cares about your dumb dog!”

I dare you to write me back,
AIN’T NOBODY GOT TIME FOR SEAN OF THE SOUTH

DEAR AIN’T NOBODY:

I don’t do well with dares. In the fourth grade, I was double-dog dared to stand on a ladder and pee over the hood of my friend’s daddy’s Oldsmobile.

I didn’t have enough back-pressure in my nine-year-old bladder to clear the hood. My friend’s daddy nearly had a heart attack.

My mama made me peel potatoes until I was thirty.

Anyway, I just read your letter aloud to Ellie Mae. I wish you could've seen her face. She’s crushed. She wears her feelings on her collar, you know.

Today, Ellie Mae woke earlier than normal.

Most often, she rises at the crack of noon. This morning, she woke at 5 A.M. because of a persistent ear infection.

I’ve taken her to the vet six times in the last five months. I took her yesterday.

You’ll be thrilled to know the vet says her ears are getting better. He also says that her problem is just part of having long, floppy, magnificent, voluptuous, comely, silken, ears.

Then, he rubbed her belly and said, “I think Ellie is one of my favorite patients.”

His favorite.

A remark like that deserves celebration. I took Ellie to Pet Smart as a reward. She sniffed a few employee hindparts, then made friends with a Corgie named Jim.

[READ MORE...]

I was at a gas station a few mornings ago, in Holt, Florida. The sun was shining. I sat on my tailgate, eating a honey bun. My father liked honey buns.

DEAR SEAN:

This morning, my sister and I made the decision to have our mama taken off of life support. It’s the hardest decision I've ever made. She’s my best friend and the most self-sacrificing mother. I only hope I can be half the mother she was.

I was wondering if you could write something about grieving?

Thanks so much,
GRIEVING FOR MAMA

DEAR GRIEVING:

I was at a gas station a few mornings ago, in Holt, Florida. The sun was shining. I sat on my tailgate, eating a honey bun.

My father liked honey buns. I never cared for them when he was alive. Everything changed when he died. I changed.

Two weeks after his death, I walked to the service station a few miles up the road. I was twelve. On the walk, I kicked dust. I hummed to myself. I felt guilty for not sitting in my bedroom and crying.

That’s grief. You feel guilty for doing things other than crying.

I had a pocketful of cash. I wanted to spend it and be happy. I wanted to

smile—even if only for a few seconds.

I bought Coke and salted peanuts. Something came over me when I saw the honey buns. I bought nearly every one in the display box —$.35 per bun.

I carried them all home and never ate a single bun. I couldn't bring myself to.

Until the other day, I hadn't tasted a honey bun in years. Usually, when I walk into a gas station, I’ll only glance at the mass-produced pastries, then walk on by.

But a few days ago, when I wandered into the mini-mart to use the little cowboy’s room, I saw them. A big cardboard case. $1.69 per bun.

Inflation has really done a number on honey buns.

I bought one.

It was impulsive. I haven't bought a honey bun since age twelve. I peeled the plastic. The…

“You’re gonna be okay,” my mother said. “One day, you’ll look back and feel silly about this.”

DEAR SEAN:

My first day of school is tomorrow. I'm at a new school and don't know people and I’m scared. Mom says don't be because everyone always likes me.

FIRST-GRADE ‘FRAIDY CAT

DEAR ‘FRAIDY CAT:

My first day of kindergarten scared me. I thought it would be an awful lot like going to kiddy prison.

Namely, because they had schedules for everything. Schedules for eating. Schedules for recess. Schedules for the commode.

I cried when my mother walked me to the door.

“Please don’t make me go,” said I.

“You’re gonna be fine,” she said. “And when you look back on this day, you’ll feel silly.”

She was right. I feel silly.

School was big fun. Our teacher played piano and sang. She read stories. She taught us to use the john on command. I made my first paper Valentine. I tasted my first swig of Elmer’s.

Try not to worry because you'll have a lot of scary firsts in life, just like me.

For example: many years later,

Mama drove me to my first date—sort of. I was twelve.

Her name was Anne. She had naturally curly hair, and I liked her more than hand-cut onion rings.

I rode in Mother’s car, nervous. I wore my Sunday best, and I’d used so much Alberto V05 I resembled a Cupie doll whose hair had been dipped in mayhaw jelly and lit on fire.

I was trembling when we arrived at Anne's birthday party.

“You’re gonna be okay,” my mother said. “One day, you’ll look back and feel silly about this.”

Mama.

Then, I hit adulthood. I lived on my own. My mother got sick. Very sick. Doctors gave her some bleak…

On my birthday last year, I sat on my porch and watched the sky. I sipped beer, took deep breaths, and counted stars.

DEAR SEAN: 

I've got a son off at college, for two years. He never calls and hardly texts. Holidays and birthdays have gone by without even a text.

We drove to his college twice and he was too busy to see us. I thought we had a great relationship. Always gave him love and support.

Recently, we found out he was visiting town with his girlfriend and he didn't even let us know or come by.

Any advice?
HURTING DAD

DEAR HURTING: 

I have a letter for your son:

On my birthday last year, I sat on my porch and watched the sky. I sipped beer, took deep breaths, and counted stars.

I was thinking about a dead man. But I wasn’t sad—sadness wore off many years ago. I was lonely. And loneliness never fully goes away.

A little about me:

I learned how to drive stick-shift on my own. I learned how to tie a necktie by reading a book. I never learned to shave.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the biggest parts of my life happened

without my father.

For instance, when I was younger, I bought a truck. I presented a boxful of cash to the lady selling it. It was a big day.

When she handed me the title, I was king of the Wiregrass. I wanted to tell Daddy about it. I wanted someone to be proud of me.

No dice.

And my wedding, of course. I was alone that day, too. I stood in the groom’s dressing room. I looked at my reflection and talked to myself.

“You’re a good boy, Sean,” I said aloud. I pretended it was Daddy saying those words.

And when I finished writing my first book. My wife threw a small party. There were illegal amounts of biscuits, tomato gravy, Conecuh Quickfreeze sausage, and Hank Williams music. Family. Friends. Layer cake.

But…

I took classes when I could afford them. I attended night school after work. I ate suppers in my truck, going over homework under a dome-light. I wish I could tell you I was a fantastic student. I wasn’t.

DEAR SEAN:

Your writing sucks. What makes you think you’re so freaking special? LOL.

Regards,
I DON’T LIKE SEAN OF THE SOUTH

DEAR I DON’T LIKE:

It was evening. The ceremony was in the gymnasium. The room was filling up. My wife squeezed my hand. “Are you nervous?” she asked.

I wasn't. I was more ready than nervous.

My father killed himself when I was twelve. My mother wasn’t the same after it happened. She spent her days grieving in a bedroom. I did not attend high school.

My first construction job was as a teenager. I hung drywall. Drywall is the Devil's work.

I don’t know how it happened. But over time, I came to believe I was unintelligent. After all, smart folks drive nice cars, go to college, and tell Charles to saddle their horse.

Educational failures like me sanded drywall seams.

Embarrassment was my roommate. I did a lot of reading during those years. I read so much I developed headaches.

I did

this because I missed out on things like prom, football, and other various benchmarks. Books helped me feel less stupid.

The librarians knew me by name. I read Westerns, adventure novels, “The Unabridged Encyclopaedia on Cheesemaking,” “Innocents Abroad,” and the autobiography of Andy Griffith.

I admire writers. Always have. Especially those who write.

Anyway, getting into a community college was no small feat for someone like me. The truth is, I barely made it.

I took classes when I could afford them. I attended night school after work. I ate suppers in my truck, going over homework under a dome-light.

I wish I could tell you I was a fantastic student. I wasn’t. It took me nearly a decade…

You know love because you are a product of it. It's in your blood. You breathe it. You touch it when you pet dogs. You see it on Andy Griffith reruns.

DEAR SEAN: 

Recently, I started talking to a guy who has been my friend for a while, and actually, I’ve fallen in love with him.

This will be our sixth month together. He’s AMAZING, goes to church every Sunday when he’s home because he works offshore. He’s respectful, loyal, and treats me like no other person.

I genuinely love him and, God willing, I see a future for us.

But the thing that hangs some people up, is that he’s black.

Most of my family loves him, but the other half sees our relationship as “morally wrong.”

I just need a little advice from someone who can tell me to keep going.

Sincerely,
GIRL NEEDING REASSURANCE

DEAR REASSURANCE:

I met a preacher who lived to one hundred and one. They tell me he spent days sitting by the window in a wheelchair, talking under his breath.

He told people he was chatting with his best friend.

Once, I saw him point to a tree outside the window.

“THAT'S love,” he said. “Right there.

See it?”

“That’s a tree,” a nurse pointed out.

He laughed. “What do you think MADE that oak tree?”

She shrugged. “The Good Lord?”

“Close,” he said. “Love made it! Look it up!”

While he cackled, she wheeled him into his room where she changed his diaper.

Well, technically, if we’re following the old man’s way of thinking, “love” changed his diaper.

Anyway, I’ve thought about him for many years. And if that man was right, love does more than sprout trees and change diapers.

It floats through the universe, making everything work. It’s the green stuff inside leaves. It makes flowers grow.