Forty-One

He would rub salve on my sunburns every summer—I spent three quarters of my life sunburned. Redheads are like that, of course. Fair-skinned people like me can’t mention the sun without blistering. 

There was a ghost in the car with me. It surprised me that he showed up, it’s been a long, long time. But I am glad to see him.

I ask what the occasion is.

“Oh,” he says. “I just came to say ‘hello.’”

The ghost looks just like me. Or rather, I look like him. We are close in age—he was only forty-one when he died.

I still miss him.

Anyway, he and I drive past prairies and cotton fields. The sky has never been so blue. The music on the radio has never been better. Willie Nelson’s Greatest Hits.

Salve to the ears.

My father used that word a lot. “Salve.” There was no such thing as “ointment,” “balm,” “Mentholatum,” or “Vaseline.” To him, everything was salve.

He would rub salve on my sunburns every summer—I spent three quarters of my life sunburned. Redheads are like that, of course. Fair-skinned people like me can’t mention the sun without blistering.

A lot of redheads are also allergic to poison ivy. In fact, I can’t bear to talk about this subject. I’m sorry I even brought it up.

My father would rub salve on all my rashes. He was every bit as redheaded as I was. Every bit as fair.

I’m passing Kinston, Opp, Elba, and Brantley.

I pull over at a gas station. I buy black licorice, Coca-Cola, and hot dogs. He loved black licorice. He loved hotdogs.

Funny, I forget most of the things he hated, but I remember what he loved.

On the road again. There’s not a cloud for miles. His arm is dangling out the window. Mine is too. Willie is still singing. I’ve already finished my Coke and dog. He hasn’t touched his.

Luverne, Rutledge, Highland Home.

He’s not telling stories today. So, I’m remembering some of my own.

I remember the time I fell off the tire swing and knocked the wind out of myself. He came running. He lifted me by my belt and shook me—I’ve never understood how that helps.

The time rural hoodlums played Homerun Derby with our mailbox. My father, the stick welder, spent three days welding an iron mailbox. He sunk the mailbox post six feet deep. He painted it to look like wood.

One morning, we found a bat lying near the mailbox. I can only imagine how it got there.

And I’m suddenly tired of driving. I pull my truck into the parking lot of my hotel. There’s a hayfield behind this place. I see bales, big oaks, and clouds.

I shut the engine off.

The ghost is slumped in his seat. He’s staring through my windshield the same way he used to stare when he’d get depressed.

Long ago, he’d park in our field after work and stare. I’d see his truck in the distance and come running.

His eyes would be red from crying. I never knew what he was crying about. So, I tried to entertain him. For years, in fact, I believed that my sole purpose in life was to entertain him. Or to make him laugh, even. I did make him laugh.

That must count for something.

I wasn’t the a kid who could pull off double plays, run fast, or bring home straight A’s. But I could make a depressed man grin.

We’ve had a good day driving. But I’m tired. I ask him, “Can’t you stay a little longer?”

I don’t want him to go. I’ve still got things left to tell him. Decades of things. About his daughter’s daughter. About his widow’s boyfriend.

I want him to know about me. When he took his own life, I was a kid. Today, I’m a man.

But he didn’t come for that. He didn’t come to eat hot dogs or learn things. He only came to say “hello.”

He’s any ghost of a deceased loved one, he knows that no matter how old we get, no matter how much time goes by, we never stop wondering why they left us. We never stop missing them.

So, he came to rub balm on my heart.

No. Not balm. Salve.

33 comments

  1. Leslie in NC - July 3, 2018 6:09 am

    Sean, keep the sweetest of those memories always at the forefront and maybe, just maybe your heart won’t need quite as much salve. You are loved.

    Reply
  2. Ashley - July 3, 2018 6:38 am

    Rutledge is my hometown. I lost my daddy too. Thank you.

    Reply
  3. Pamela McEachern - July 3, 2018 7:38 am

    I understand and I have those same cherished memories of my loved ones, I think that” Salve” is good for your soul too…
    Peace and Love from Birmingham

    Reply
  4. Chris Longcrier - July 3, 2018 7:41 am

    I’m a lot older than you Sean. I need a lot of of salve still. Guess I always will, until the man in the ’49 Nash comes pulling in again and I can run to meet him.
    Chris L.

    Reply
  5. Jean - July 3, 2018 10:32 am

    I liked this——we feel sometime its just yourself and a memory and the memory is so real you can talk to it and it hears. We do get visits at times. Some people don’t understand and some like you do. Keep up the good work. I enjoy and look so forward to reading each day. (I had a lot of salve rubbed on me when young and understand it was all salve).

    Reply
  6. Camille - July 3, 2018 11:14 am

    I never tire of hearing stories of your dad, I just wish I could have known the man who raised such a terrific son~

    Reply
  7. LaVera S. - July 3, 2018 11:53 am

    Well said! Bless you!

    Reply
  8. Jan - July 3, 2018 12:01 pm

    Thank you, Sean. Thank you for sharing your Dad and your self with us all. You are a good man who feels things deeply, just as I believe your Dad did. You choose to express those feelings through words and you do it beautifully!

    Reply
  9. Lisa Holcomb-Yelverton - July 3, 2018 1:13 pm

    Thank you for all of your colorful words and how wonderfully you paint a picture when telling us stories!!! I recognize all the little towns you mention because I am from Newbia, a little community between Elba and Brantley off of Hwy 189.

    My husband told me about your blog so I subscribed a few weeks ago. I find myself telling my coworkers and total strangers about you and how you can touch our souls with your words.

    I’m not telling you this next part to feel sorry for me but to let you know that your words do help others and our pain. I grew up with 3 sisters & in 2013 we lost our oldest sister, only 47, to congestive heart failure on Father’s Day. Then the end of the next summer 2014 her son, our nephew, wrecked on the Brantley Hwy in the middle of the night. He had been getting his life straight & doing so well helping us with our sick Mother and little did we know at the time our Daddy would be sick soon too. Heart sick for his favorite grandson and missing his daughter who was named after him. In June 2015 our Daddy was diagnosed with the same kind of lung cancer our Momma had been fighting since 2008.
    It was like a bad dream just kept getting worse!!!
    He went through his chemo and radiation therapy. Did pretty well except he kept having really painful compression fractures in his back. Actually 4 from May when he went to the ER & they sent him on his way to see an oncologist because of what they had seen on the Cat Scan. He had surgery, kyphoplasty to fix his back each time. Then passed away the Sunday after Thanksgiving from a small bowel obstruction and dehydration.
    I’m the mean time Momma has been on Hospice since 2014. We took her to Daddy’s funeral but she never remembered it. She would lie in her hospital bed in the living room asking where he was. At first you try to explain and then you learned to change to subject. She passed away March 12th of 2017 from the long term effects of lung cancer, brain metastasis (which she survived in 2011) & finally succumbed to mini-strokes and pneumonia.

    Thank you for helping me remember that they are still with us and we can talk to them any time we want!!! I still go to the house they lived in & can feel the love they had for all of us! Kinda like the Miranda Lambert song… “The House That Built Me”.

    Some people will never understand this but it’s ok!
    Thank you very much Mr. Dietrich!!!

    Reply
  10. Penn Wells - July 3, 2018 1:13 pm

    As long as we are remembered, we remain alive. 👍

    Reply
  11. Dan Wise - July 3, 2018 1:25 pm

    My brother and I were born with red hair…only ones generationally with this trait. In our youthful years, when anyone inquired to our Dad about the source of this trait, his stock response was ‘in those early years, we did have a rural mail carrier with red hair’!

    Reply
  12. Gary - July 3, 2018 1:27 pm

    So sad. I can’t even begin to imagine…

    Reply
  13. Jack Darnell - July 3, 2018 1:28 pm

    Good ‘un! My list of Ghosts grows and grows. I am the last of 9, my last sister just slipped off a couple weeks ago. Now I hear stories of how she paid folks bills at the check out counter when she thought they might need it and how she became her dream in her 70’s of being a ‘singer in the band’. I am sure her ghost will show up. Thanks for the kick, one to make me remember ghosts from my past.

    Reply
  14. Carol - July 3, 2018 1:40 pm

    No Sean, we never do stop wondering!
    We get thru it , we just never get over it!!
    Thank you!
    Love ya❤️

    Reply
  15. Sandra Smith - July 3, 2018 2:01 pm

    Daddy comes to say Hello to my son and I, now & then. They were, pete & repeat !
    (Still are)
    Freaked the snot out of Warren (my son) the first time it happened. He was driving Daddy’s truck, and, said, all of a sudden he smelled cigar smoke, and KNEW Daddy was right there with him.
    I told him, “just say Hello, and tell him what’s on your mind”.
    Relish those moments !!!
    19 years, and I miss him more everyday.
    💔😢❤

    Reply
  16. Jennifer Turner - July 3, 2018 2:03 pm

    thwre is a.balm in Gilead. No, a salve. :0)

    Reply
  17. Edna B. - July 3, 2018 2:33 pm

    Some of us are lucky and have these visits with some of our loved ones. Sean, your Daddy didn’t leave you, he just couldn’t handle his pain any longer. He’s always loved you. Enjoy your visits with him. They are precious. As for the redheads, I have lots of red headed grandchildren and great grandchildren. I think it is just beautiful. You have a wonderful day my friend, hugs, Edna B.

    Reply
  18. Janet Mary Lee - July 3, 2018 3:03 pm

    Often times we forget that many that leave us too soon are incredibly beautiful and sensitive souls. They feel things more deeply than many folks. Probably why you are the insightful writer and kind person that you are. It is a blessing to look back and understand. He is so proud of you. So proud of you all!

    Reply
  19. Shelton Armour - July 3, 2018 4:11 pm

    Makes me think of finding my own dad…natural causes, but still gone before I could tell him, ” Love you, Dad”.

    Reply
  20. wandajb - July 3, 2018 4:32 pm

    We lost three loved ones in four months. It happened so fast, I was numb. Now there’s a lingering ache, but I believe I’ll see them again. Life is good, bad, beautiful, and ugly. But God… But faith…

    Reply
  21. Carolynn Bettis - July 3, 2018 5:48 pm

    Exemplary – touching, loving and so captivating! Thanks.

    Reply
  22. cheryl - July 3, 2018 10:02 pm

    Brought tears, but good ones. Don’t forget how almighty salve was pronounced by our loved ones; s-a-v

    Reply
  23. Erin - July 3, 2018 11:10 pm

    Each day your words touch my heart. The way you turn a phrase that can pull emotions up from the depths is a true gift. Thank you for sharing your stories, the personal ones as well as the ones that show us the beauty of humanity as you witness it. This story in particular shows your gift for words. You use “salve” to mean a healing ointment, but the Latin word “salve” (sal-vay) means “hello,” the very word your father has for you that helps to heal your heart. I wonder if you did this intentionally or if it an example of the divine inspiration of your writing. Either way, thank you!

    Reply
  24. Jack Quanstrum - July 3, 2018 11:58 pm

    I hear ya!

    Reply
  25. joyce luker - July 4, 2018 12:37 am

    Wow, so touching….

    Reply
  26. Mary Ellen Hall - July 5, 2018 11:41 pm

    I LOVE THIS, SEAN!!! ❤
    I think I MUST MISS my Mama, as MUCH as u MISS YOUR DADDY!! It’s SO VERY TOUGH @ times!!!
    I NEVER DREAMED I could MISS SOMEONE, as MUCH as I MISS HER!!!❤
    THANKS SEAN!!!🐶

    Reply
  27. ponder304 - July 6, 2018 11:29 am

    I understand….This was all real to me…rubbed a little salve on my heart.

    Reply
  28. Bre - August 29, 2018 2:05 pm

    I get visits too, not from yours of course, but from mine. He didn’t take his own life but I think he wished it away; he left at 61. My sister did take hers; December 23 will be two years ago. I wish she’d visit.

    Reply
  29. Miss Charlie - August 29, 2018 2:41 pm

    This morning I saw an old picture and it brought back a memory and I smiled. I needed the “salve” your story brought. Both of my parents are gone and sometimes, I just need to play Hank Williams, roll down the windows and drive.

    Reply
  30. Bham Momma - August 30, 2018 12:17 am

    You have a gift, Sean. Don’t ever stop writing! I can step inside your stories as if I’m there. Keep writing the stories about your father…he is there with you and is proud of the person you have become.

    Reply
  31. Amy - August 30, 2018 12:22 am

    I’ve made that drive, just on north Alabama highways. I miss my Daddy, too. God bless you.

    Reply
  32. C - August 30, 2018 6:02 am

    It’s a lifetime of journeys which makes a wiseman wise. This story is an example of reflection for simply what is today, as well as representing past and future all in one. Thank you for sharing this treasure.

    Reply
  33. Sheila Roper - August 30, 2018 12:19 pm

    Wonderful. Understood. Empathize. Keep on.

    Reply

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