Anyway, we talked with her. She told us her husband had died. She missed him. Then, she asked if we’d be interested in helping her with odd jobs.

She looked like someone's sweet granny. She stood on her porch watching me paint the house next door. Her hair was flawless white. She wore pearls, lipstick, and a holiday sweater with sequins.

And since God gave me the natural gift of running my mouth, I found a way to break the ice.

“Chilly weather we're having,” I said, using laser sharp observational skills.

But she didn't answer, she just went back inside.

“Geez,” said my pal. “You must'a scared her.”

“I was just being friendly.”

“Yeah well, friendly or not, you look like an escaped convict with all that hair.”

But as it happened, I hadn't frightened her. A few minutes later, she returned holding a thermos of hot cocoa.

It took exactly two seconds for the ex-convicts to slide down their ladders. She poured two Styrofoam mugs. The hot cups felt good in our cold hands.

The first sip was god-awful.

Her instant cocoa tasted like chalk-water and baked pickles. The packets must've been sitting in her pantry since mid 40's.

Anyway, we talked with her. She told us

her husband had died. She missed him. Then, she asked if we'd be interested in helping her with odd jobs.

“No ma'am,” my partner said. “Our boss wouldn't let us do that. We only do renovations.”

She went on, "All I want are some limbs cut and some Christmas lights hung.”

My partner drained his cup. “Sorry.”

We thank-you-ma'amed her, and got to work.

When the sun lowered, I cleaned paintbrushes at the faucet and looked through the the woman's lit up window.

She was clipping coupons at her kitchen table.

That night, my wife asked how my day went. So I told her about the woman, the instant cocoa dating back to the Second World War, and how lonely she looked.

“And you didn't offer to HELP her?” my wife said.

The ex-convict shrugged his dumb, hairy shoulders.

Sara came out of the womb with an umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. It wrecked the development of her heart and brain. Doctors said she might not make it. She did.

Nobody told Sara what she could and couldn't do. Because she'd prove them wrong when they did. She'd been doing that since birth.

Sara came out of the womb with an umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. It wrecked the development of her heart and brain. Doctors said she might not make it. She did.

From the beginning, Sara's parents were honest with her.

"We didn't want her unprepared for complications that might be coming," says her mother. "We were honest with her. Sara deserved to know how lucky we were to have her."

Sara's young friends would say things like, “What do you want for Christmas?”

“I want to keep living,” she'd say cheerfully.

Kids.

By the time Sara was five, teachers noted how slow she was compared to her classmates. She was no less intelligent, mind you, but things took her twice as long.

“We tried to deemphasize school,” her mother says. “I mean, we didn't see the point stressing when nobody knew how long she had.”

But Sara felt differently.

By age twelve, Sara

was rock-solid determination, wrapped in pigtails. Once, at a youth camp, kids participated in a tight-rope walking game. The camp counselors requested Sara sit it out.

Sara requested everyone back off.

Counselors tried to force her to wear a helmet. But since none of the other kids wore such things, Sara wouldn't either. It took her twenty minutes, two falls, and a busted lip. But she made it across, by God.

“I've never seen such a fighter,” her mother says. “I don't know where she got it. It wasn't from me.”

Age eighteen—Sara applied to several major universities like her friends had. One by one, each rejected her. It was a blow. But not enough to make her surrender. She applied to a small local college. She got in.

“You would've thought she'd been accepted into Harvard,” her mother says.

Sara graduated. Though…

"I learned a long time ago, you only get one shot at making a kid feel important, so you'd better go big."

His first Christmas was in the neonatal intensive care unit. His mother was an alcoholic. She brought him into this world premature, then abandoned him.

He spent his first months in a Plexiglass box.

They say he was a strong kid, cheerful. Much smaller than others his age. He was a cracker-jack at school, smart, respectful toward foster parents—he's had several.

Early on, they discovered he liked animals. Dogs and cats, especially. When he turned fifteen, his foster parents, Michael and Debbie Gaynor, let him volunteer at an animal shelter.

“Basically,” said Michael. “We just wanted him to do what he loved, no matter what that was.”

A shelter volunteer remarks, “We gave him all the not-so-fun chores, because he made them fun. He'd talk to animals like they were people, he really cared.”

He cared, all right. One day, somebody dropped off a stray. The dog was uncontrollable, with a bloody gash, bearing its teeth at anyone who came close.

Except him.

In only a few minutes the kid managed to calm the dog

and guide it into a kennel. He sat with the dog a few hours, soft-talking.

That was when the shelter manager contacted her friend, a veterinarian. She told her about the exceptional teenager. She arranged a meeting.

The next morning, the doctor stopped in. They hit it off. She offered the kid a job at her clinic. It was a paying gig.

He spent two years helping vaccinate rowdy cats, rubbing the tummies of sick puppies.

Christmas was around the corner. So was college. His foster parents conspired to make the holiday a good one.

In secret, they signed him up for federal tuition scholarships. They called the veterinary clinic where he worked. The doc pulled a few strings at a local university and managed to get him accepted into an animal science program for freshmen.

For icing on the proverbial cake: Michael put money…

...this world's a lot damned bigger than a TV screen.

Atlanta, Georgia—once, I took my friend to the ER after he broke his ankle running a 5K. The young man in the hospital room beside us was suffering from a gunshot.

His mother sat with him. She was small, gray-headed. She did not cry, nor raise her voice. She whispered while nurses and police officers hurried around him.

He kept mumbling, "I'm sorry, Mama."

She gave one long, "Ssssssshhhhhh," then said, "You're my baby boy."

When they wheeled him to surgery, she lost it. Nurses could barely hold her up. I've never seen a woman scream like that.

Not ever.

Panama City, Florida—I saw a truck crash into a neighborhood telephone pole. It happened during broad daylight.

A police officer lived a few houses away from the accident. He heard the loud sound. There were sparks. Buzzing. The power went out.

The deputy tore out the front door, jogging barefoot. He pulled the dazed kid from the truck and held him. A crowd of neighbors gathered.

The deputy cradled the boy, saying, “It's alright, son.”

Mobile, Alabama—I watched a toddler have

a meltdown in the supermarket. He sat on the floor wailing. His mother tried to console him.

An elderly woman calmed the boy. She used a Snicker's as her weapon of choice.

The mother said, “We adopted him a week ago. He's our first, and I don't think he likes us.” She started sobbing.

The older lady wrote her number on the back of a card and said, “I've raised two boys. You're gonna be fine. Call me.”

I hope she did.

Pensacola, Florida—Boy Scouts held a car wash on the side of the road. My wife and I pulled over. She let them give our vehicle the once-over for fifteen bucks.

I asked why they were raising money.

"Because," one boy said. "My mom has breast cancer. She's not doing good."

When they finished, my wife paid them…

“My parents were in love,” my friend says. “I used to think everyone's parents were like that. But I know that's not how it goes .

They were married a long time. Sixty-seven years to be exact.

My friend's daddy had a voice like a tuba, and a drawl as thick as sorghum syrup. The man was as tall as a pine, and about as skinny, too.

When he met her, she was an eighteen-year-old, non-English-speaking Mexican. His daddy: just out of the Army—without any idea of what he wanted in life.

Fate happened on the day my friend's father saw some hoodlums harassing a Mexican girl and her two young sisters, outside a cafe in Atlanta. The men made horrible gestures toward the girls. My friend's father intervened and got his hindparts whooped. The fight broke his ribs, but he claimed the girl's brown eyes were worth it.

Theirs was an ill-conceived relationship. Not only did both families oppose the marriage. But neither of the lovebirds spoke the other's language. They were as different as it got.

So, they eloped.

Eventually, they learned how to speak to one another. It took years of practice. Whenever they'd visit her

family, his daddy tried his best to speak a fragmented Spanish.

According to my friend, his childhood home was a loving one—with good chicharrones.

In his mother's elderly years, she came down with headaches. Bad ones. My friend said the torment would linger for days. He said his daddy would lay beside her on the bed in a dark room. And, since small noises pained her, his father would just listen to her breathe, his ear against her chest.

“My parents were in love,” my friend says. “I used to think everyone's parents were like that. But I know that's not how it goes .

"When my mama got sick,it was like someone was killing Daddy from the inside out. That's when his Parkinson's got real bad.”

My friend's mother suffered so long that when she passed it was a blessing. But his father wasn't the same…

If there's a tougher girl out there, I've never seen one.

Little Sidney Woznicki has spent her life in and out of UAB. She's a solid kid with a will of steel, and a smiling face. She has a bad liver.

When she was a baby, she turned yellow, they knew something was wrong. Doctors did operations. Her mother quit her job—just to manage Sidney's medication list.

Life's been hard. While most eleven-year-olds sit in class, slaving on schoolwork, Sidney prepares for her second liver transplant.

During Sidney's last invasive procedure, her anesthesia didn't work. They say folks heard her screaming from the waiting room.

If there's a tougher little girl out there, I've never seen one.

But you won't find this family complaining, even though their money is disappearing, along with their energy. In fact, according to the Woznickis, “We are so thankful...”

Thankful.

Josh Clem is a Marine. Also tough. He could crawl through acres of mud with a rifle between his teeth. A few months ago, he married Brianna, and since then, they've been glued at the hip.

Last week, on their way home,

Josh had to stop the car. His head hurt. They rushed him to the ER. Doctors discovered blood vessels in his brain were rupturing.

Yesterday, surgeons finished a risky brain surgery. Josh is laying in bed right now—Brianna by his side. This has been a long few weeks. Not much sleep, lots of worry.

The couple says they're grateful.

Jasper, Alabama—Mitch Murray is like any crimson-blooded Alabama man. He likes big trucks, football, fishing, and thinks Bear Bryant is a member of the Holy Trinity.

But he's different now.

After a car accident and a brain injury, Mitch can't walk, eat, or talk. To make matters worse, his insurance company dropped him. His wife, Tracy, is perhaps the most hopeful, cotton-picking woman you'll ever meet.

"All things're possible," she says. “I let him know how much I love him, and will always be here…

Lula Bell is above these thoughts. She has a food bowl, that's enough for her.

Lula Bell is in my lap right now. She's asleep, because it's still early. This cat loves a sunrise, it's the strangest thing you ever saw. She looks straight at it.

When we first got Lula, she had a broken leg and didn't trust humans. If you made any sudden moves, she'd be halfway to Chattanooga in a few seconds.

Before us, she lived in a dumpster behind Winn Dixie. And I have it on good authority her best friend was a long-bearded, soft-spoken man who kept her well fed—which must be true. She's got the plumpest belly in the county.

Store employees said Lula wouldn't let anyone touch

her but this man.

"He had a way with her," one employee said. "He'd just hold her and whisper."

The same employee recalls once seeing the man waiting outside the back door during store hours. He asked if the bakery would be getting rid of any pastries that day.

The employee said he didn't know, then asked why.

"It's my anniversary," said the man. "My wife died a long time ago, but I still celebrate however I can."

“I didn't know if it was true or not," the employee went on.…

Anyway, I once heard a radio preacher claim that people are all one and the same. That we're all drops of water belonging to one ocean. Sinners and saints.

It's early. Pitch black. I'm staring into the dark woods outside my house. If it wasn't so pretty, it'd be eerie.

Only a few nights ago, we were outside Atlanta. At a big gas station, there was a boy pumping gas. He was happy, black, maybe nineteen. Beside him: a beat-up compact car full of boys. They spoke with strange accents.

They were from Mali. They said they were driving to Florida. They heard there are lots of new-construction jobs there.

The kid said, “We're new American citizens, last week. We take test and everything."

When he said it, his friends looked at each other like they'd just discovered teeth.

I congratulated him,

then apologized for our politicians.

Before he left, he said, "God bless America."

And he meant it.

The week before, a Decatur, Alabama barbecue joint—I saw a woman with her wheelchair-bound mother.

The elderly woman shouted, “I gotta pee!”

The girl rolled her to the restroom. And for all I know, she helped her mother tend to business, too. When they came back, her mother kissed her on the forehead. She held her face and said, "My sweet Marilyn."

Marilyn said, "Love you, Mom."

Then she hand-fed…

At sunset, the sky lights up pink. By then, you'll be thinking about important stuff—frog-noise helps with that sort of thing.

Shame on her. She brought her kid into a bar. Well, it's more of a burger joint. Dusty floors. Loud people. Lousy beer. Televisions blaring. Great burgers.

She's wearing a Walmart shirt and name-tag. Her little boy is eating the same thing I am. A cheeseburger.

The television is rolling footage of recent floods, bodybags, crime scenes, explosions, outbreaks. I can see the look on the boy's face watching the screen. He's troubled.

One headline reads: "The end of the world?"

That does it. He pushes his burger away. "Mama, I'm scared."

To tell you the truth, I don't blame Junior for feeling disturbed. Because I'm disturbed too. Everything

on television is god-awful. And I'm sorry to say, it only gets worse.

I'm talking about screaming congressmen, overpaid athletes, and celebrities who, for personal reasons, conscienciously object to underpants.

Then there's child murder, animal abuse, cyber terrorism, killer mosquitoes, killer fungi, undercooked chicken, ozone holes, reality TV, Korea, Isis, and suicidal McDonald's employees. And if that's not enough to scare the shucks out of you, watch a little politics.

I won't lie to you, Junior. It's bad. We have everything from soft-porn in supermarkets, to beheadings in the headlines. You…

Even so, I don't believe evil is winning. I'm sorry if you disagree—even more sorry if you watch much TV. Because no matter how bad the idiot-box makes it look, I know good people.

Jeni Stephens got married. She's a pretty girl with blonde hair and lean features. It was a happy day, as weddings go. But truth told, she misses her daddy, who was shot and killed in 2006.

Now meet Tom, a seventy-two-year-old who's had a bad heart all his life. One decade ago, he inherited Jeni's daddy's heart.

Last week, Tom showed up to the chapel in a three-piece suit, presented his arm to Jeni, and walked her down the well-known aisle. At the altar, he turned and said, “Here, feel my pulse.”

Jeni touched his chest. “I felt my father,” she said.

As it happens, Tom did too.

LaGrange, Georgia—Dylick, Dennis, Deion, and Jalen are the targets of inner-city gang-recruiters. One such gang, the Insane Gangster Disciples, will not leave them alone. But, these boys aren't giving in. They want more from life than drugs, sex, and drive-bys.

They want to be farmers.

So, they called Miss Zsa Zsa, who operates a farm. “I thought they's looking for handouts," she said.

Turns out they wanted

to learn to grow summer squash. They're the best farm hands she's ever had.

New Orleans, Louisiana—Single father, Reynold, lost his job just before his boys started school. He stood in line at a supermarket with a cart of school-supplies and groceries. He swiped his card.

Denied.

Reynold left his buggy and cried in the parking lot until his face got puffy. When he looked up, he saw a man coming out of the store pushing two carts, headed straight for him.

“He didn't just buy MY cart,” said Reynold. “He gave me HIS cart, too.”

Right now, I can see the television in the other room. The anchor is reading headlines about bombs, murders, and rapes, while wearing a half-smile. A woman convicted of murdering her kids wears the same odd face. So do politicians, celebrities, pop-stars, and whatever the hell the Kardashians are.