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.

Look, most people are going to tell you to pick something safe. And I’m not qualified to contradict them. I have no letters behind my name. I am a writer myself, and I drive a sixteen-year-old Ford with a rusted tailgate.

DEAR SEAN:

In August I will be a senior in high school. I'm trying to choose colleges, and what to major in. I want to become a writer, but every time I tell people that, they always say choose something different, or they tell me how bad a journalism career is.

I'm on my school’s newspaper and I fell in love with writing. I'm stuck. Do I follow my passion and become a writer or do I pick something safe?

Sincerely,
THE LOST GIRL

DEAR LOST:

I almost wrote something else today, but your letter really struck a chord with me.

Look, most people are going to tell you to pick something safe. And I’m not qualified to contradict them. I have no letters behind my name. I am a writer myself, and I drive a sixteen-year-old Ford with a rusted tailgate.

Others may tell you that to be a deeply satisfied human being you must (1) be a professional success, and (2) have decent retirement options.

And maybe they’re right.

But this isn't how people like Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Davy

Crockett, Buffalo Bill, Mark Twain, Betty Crocker, Andy Griffith, Mother Teresa, or Willie Nelson changed the world.

I’m no expert, but I think the problem might be: you have loudmouth for a heart.

Well, join the club, sister.

Your heart feels things. It knows things. And if your heart is anything like mine, it’s probably searching for something. Fulfillment might be a fitting word—but that makes me sound too much like a yoga instructor.

So I'll call it happiness, plain and simple.

Hearts aren’t stupid. They’re interested in this happiness deal. Also: love. Kindness. Loyalty. Giving money to homeless people. Good friends. Biscuits and gravy with hickory smoked Conecuh Quick Freeze sausage.

Your brain, however, thinks about things like: money, safety, and the dangers of saturated fat.

I won't lie to you, following your heart could ruin…

He was an upright bassist. An ex-professor of music at Auburn University. A fanatic for Ray Charles, Beethoven, Nat King Cole, Strauss, and Hank Williams.

DEAR SEAN:

I was wondering if you have any bad habits or vices. I have a couple, drinking and smoking, mostly, and I feel like they're holding me back. Any advice?

Best,
DRINKING TOO MUCH

DEAR DRINKING:

Sure, I have bad habits. I wait too long to file income taxes. I haven’t made my bed since nineteen hundred and twenty. I avoid confrontation. And according to my doc: I eat too much barbecued pork.

I also apologize too much—which is an embarrassing habit. I don’t know why I do it.

I’m sorry.

My friend, Davey, was king of bad habits. Davey was an alcoholic for most of his life. And when I say “alcoholic,” I mean: face-down-in-his-own-vomit-for-six-hours alcoholic.

We painted houses together. At night, we played music at various bars and beer-joints.

He was an upright bassist. An ex-professor of music at Auburn University. A fanatic for Ray Charles, Beethoven, Nat King Cole, Strauss, and Hank Williams.

He was in his seventies, but years of hard living made him

look two hundred years old. He had white hair, pale skin, stubbly face.

His one-bedroom apartment was on Campbell Street. His walls were lined with books—floor to ceiling. A feral cat lived on his porch. Dirty dishes sat in his sink.

Davey puffed Winstons all day. His emphysema was so bad he barely had the diaphragm-strength to smoke.

One night, we played in a Pensacola joint. He sat on a barstool during the break. The bartender asked what he wanted.

Davey buried his head and said, “Whatever you do, DON’T give me what I ask for.”

She looked at him and blinked. He ordered a stiff drink. She told him to get lost.

“Thank you, ma’am,”…

...Even though you walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, you shouldn't fear any evil because you aren't alone. Thy rod and thy staff, and thy Louisville Slugger will comfort you.

DEAR SEAN:

My mom and dad are getting divorced and my dad is leaving us, it makes me so sad, and my brother is going away for college, too, so I won’t have him anymore starting soon.

Then my doctor told me I have a problem with my heart valve and I’m doing all sorts of tests for it. They say not to worry because it's only a small thing, but I am so scared about everything.

Help me,
SCARED IN NORTH CAROLINA

DEAR SCARED:

After my father’s suicide, I was scared. Very scared. My mother, my sister, and I were all terrified. I can't even tell you why, exactly.

And it was worse at night. We slept in the same bedroom for many years. I slept on the floor, at the foot of Mama’s bed.

Before bedtime, I’d push a dresser in front of her bedroom doorknob.

Irrational, I know.

But that’s fear. It makes you do strange things. And after someone dies—or when parents divorce, or when you get sick,

or when someone hurts you—you get bucketfuls of fear.

One night, my mother heard a crash downstairs. I grabbed a baseball bat—the same slugger I won regional championships with.

I walked the dark house barefoot. I trembled so that I could hardly hold the bat. My heart beat hard.

I saw glowing eyes in the kitchen. Our outdoor cat had gotten trapped indoors. She jumped onto the refrigerator and knocked something over.

I almost vomited. I dropped the bat. I collapsed on the floor and cried until my ears rang.

So, I’m the wrong fella to ask about how to not be afraid. I can’t tell you how because I don’t know.

But I can…

...When I started writing this column—if that’s what you'd call it—I wanted to meet new people like you. Writing is decidedly more fun than, say, taking knitting classes, or playing rummy with the Junior League.

DEAR SEAN:

You’re an idiot and I’m sick of your storytime bull $@%+, you don’t know half as much about life as you think you do… And it pisses me off when you go off giving advice to people.

You’re too young, why don’t you just shut up until you’ve lived a little?

I AM UNFRIENDING YOU

DEAR UNFRIENDING:

Thank you for your words. I sincerely mean that. Even though they weren't exactly the prettiest sentences I’ve ever read, I’m grateful for them. Sort of.

Because when I started writing this column—if that’s what you'd call it—I wanted to meet new people like you. Writing is decidedly more fun than, say, taking knitting classes, or playing rummy with the Junior League.

Anyway, I’d like to go back to seventh grade for a moment. The year my father swallowed the barrel of a hunting rifle. I lost a lot of good things that year.

I grew up rural. I did not attend high school. I worked.

My first job was at age fourteen, hanging drywall.

My peers attended proms and picked out colleges; I smiled and congratulated them from the sidelines.

The word “outsider” comes to mind.

I visited the library a lot. Once per week, Miss Terri, a short white-haired lady, hand-picked stacks of books for me.

She chose subjects like: chemistry, botany, ornithology, American history, agriculture, wood joinery, classic literature, and Western novels.

I read until my eyes went blurry.

When I hit my mid-twenties, I met an older man on a construction jobsite who had his masters degree. He was swinging a hammer just like me.

I clocked off work early and rode to the local community college. I walked inside and told the…

I remember nearly every bad word used on me. In sixth grade Doreen Severs called me “chunky.” I was a round-faced, chubby kid. Her remark made me cry for forty days and forty nights.

DEAR SEAN:

What should I do when a boy calls me fat? I’m not super skinny or anything, but I’ve always thought I was regular.

I want guys to like me, but this guy called me fat and got me thinking I'm ugly and fat, and now I'm wondering what I should say back.

My mom told me to message you.

Thank you,
FIFTEEN IN ALABAMA

DEAR FIFTEEN:

First off: I’m going to tell you what my granny would’ve told me. Though you might not want to hear it—God knows I never did.

Compliment that hateful boy. Tell him how nice he looks. Make a remark about his shoes. Tell him he’s got lovely eyes. Anything sweet.

You don’t even have to mean it.

Of course, this is the last thing you want to do. But it’s an old rural trick which folks like Granny called: drowning outhouse flies in honey.

Something you don't see many people do these days.

Listen, I wish I could tell you how to forget the insults, but that's silly. You can’t forget them any more than you

can forget being kicked in the teeth.

I remember nearly every bad word used on me. In sixth grade Doreen Severs called me “chunky.” I was a round-faced, chubby kid. Her remark made me cry for forty days and forty nights.

My mother forced me to approach Doreen the next day and tell her she had marvelous brown eyes.

I almost gagged on my words. But you should've seen Doreen’s face. You could’ve knocked her over with a residential lawn mower.

She never gave another lick of trouble.

The truth is, I don’t know much, but I can tell you the problem isn't you. Neither is the problem the boy.

It's much bigger than him.

In fact, it’s so big that it's almost invisible. And it can be found in magazines, swimsuit ads, underwear commercials,…