I’ve been writing you every day for four years. You’ve brought me back to life, whether you know it or not.

The first thing I ever wanted to do was be on the radio. I decided this when I was seven. I went to see the Grand Ole Opry with my father. The lights. The steel guitars. The cowboy hats.

I didn’t want to sing on the radio. I wanted to introduce the bands, shake hands with folks in rhinestones. I wanted to hug Minnie Pearl’s neck.

My father said it was a good dream, especially the part about Minnie Pearl.

“Anything’s possible,” Daddy once told me.


By fifth grade, I’d expanded career interests, since ANYTHING was possible. I wanted to be a writer. Maybe even a journalist.

But fifth grade was when life fell apart. I flunked school, which did a number on my mind.

Kids who flunked were doomed to live in vans and visit KFC’s just to lick other people’s fingers.

In seventh grade, things got worse. My father died. I dropped out of school altogether. I never attended high school. It’s not something I’m

proud of.

I played a lot of music during that period. By fifteen, I was playing weddings, church socials, feed-store openings, and shoe-store clearances. I played a lot of funerals, too.

Once, I played a Pentecostal funeral. A woman spoke in tongues while I picked “Peace in the Valley.”

I’d never heard such.

The preacher told me to nod and shout “Thank you JEE-ZUSSSSS” when I heard the thus-saith-the-Lords.

In my twenties, I worked construction and played music in the evenings. I played in establishments my mother would have preferred I hadn’t.

I also played piano for a Baptist church on Sundays. That didn’t last long. But that’s a long story I don’t have room for. I will, however, simply say that some Baptists object to playing in beer joints.

Which is no surprise. The Baptists I grew up…

A man walked into the shoe store. The man was dressed in rags, he had a long beard. He smelled like a billy goat. His shoes were falling apart.

Birmingham, Alabama—A Friday. Chadley was in a good mood. He would be twenty-one in a few days. To celebrate, he would be leaving for Orange Beach with his friends after work.

His job was in a shoe store. It was the sort of place that sold everything. His daily tasks included: stocking, manning a register, and cramming shoes on the stinky feet of bratty kids.

He couldn’t wait to clock out.

Earlier that morning, his father had given him two hundred dollars as a birthday gift. It was going to be the weekend of a lifetime.

A man walked into the shoe store. The man was dressed in rags, he had a long beard. He smelled like a billy goat. His shoes were falling apart.

The fella had crumpled dollars his hand. “Some lady gave me this money,” the old timer said. “I’d like to buy me some shoes.”

It wasn’t enough to buy a pair of flip flops.

Young Chadley looked at the man’s feet. They were bloody.

He bought

the man two pairs of shoes—expensive ones. Then, he bought the man’s lunch. Chadley spent nearly all his birthday money. Then, he tucked his remaining six dollars into the man’s hand.

Our hero never made it to the beach that year.

Panama City, Florida—a man saw a woman in a Home Depot parking lot.

The lady was silver-haired and frail, loading fifty-pound bags of fertilizer into her trunk.

He offered to help. He placed them into her car and nearly ruptured L4, L5, and S1. Then, he followed her home to unload them.

Hers was a rundown single-wide in a mobile home park. She had an overgrown lawn and moldy siding. Her porch was full of flowers that needed planting.

“Who’s gonna plant all those?” he asked.

She shrugged. “Me, I guess. My husband used to help me…

“So I fought,” he said. “You know, you just tell your body, ‘Fight, man.’ Maybe you win, maybe you lose. But all you can do is fight.”

The band was all right. They played to a crowded joint of people who’d clocked out for the weekend. Folks who needed something greasy to eat and cold to drink.

Band members had gray hair, Western-style shirts, hats, boots. The whole nine yards.

“They’re here every Friday,” said the bartender. “Aren’t they awesome?”

The jury’s still out on “awesome.” But their hearts were in the right places.

“At least they play REAL country,” the bartender went on.

We can agree on that much. They played classics. And classic country is a dying art. You can’t look at a superstar who wears $1400 boots and eyeliner and call him country.

The men on this stage looked like they knew how to operate nail guns.

A kid was bussing tables. He was early twenties. He set his tub beside me and watched the band.

I introduced myself.

He said he likes old-fashioned country music. His brother is the one who taught him to like antique songs about cheating hearts, boys named Sue, and wooden Indians.

He tells me

he started listening to records a lot when he was diagnosed with cancer.

“That’s why I got this puffy face,” he explains. “All the pills I’ve taken make me like this.”

The chemo hasn’t helped either.

He was in the hospital for a month, once. He was fighting infection upon infection. His brother bought a portable record player. Together, they listened to classics.

Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, Merle Haggard. Music.

“I dunno,” he told me. “Those songs just make me feel good all over.”

In the hospital, he started taking guitar lessons from his brother. He liked guitar better than playing games on his phone, or watching daytime TV.

“Plus, I didn’t know if I was gonna die or not,” he added. “I was doing bucket-list stuff, I guess.”

I guess.

His parents…

I’m talking shindigs of Biblical proportions. Barns with long tables. Fried chicken, barbecued pork, potato salad, and biscuits rich enough to violate federal trade regulations.

I stopped to buy a lottery ticket at a joint on the Florida-Alabama line.

Yeah, I know the lottery is a fool’s game, but I have a longstanding tradition of doing foolish things.

The man at the counter was sipping from a red SOLO cup, chewing ice. On the radio, Loretta Lynn sang. I bought three Powerball tickets and a Coke.

The man said, “Powerball’s up to three forty-eight.”

That’s 348 million bucks. And even though I’m no mathematician, I’ve been thinking about what I’d do if the universe ever gave me that much money.

That’s what writers do, you see. We stare into space, thinking long and hard about things that will never happen just in case they do. If you do it right, people think you’re working.

First: I would buy a farm. A big one. Not for livestock. This would be sprawling countryside, live oaks, and ponds.

Then, I would build hundreds—no thousands of cabins. Little ones, with porch swings, and scenic views. I would call

this operation, “Ellie Mae Farms,” since it will need a name, and my coonhound, Ellie Mae, is sleeping on my feet while I write this.

Yes, here at Ellie Mae Farms, we believe in three things. Foster kids, foster dogs, and saturated fat. Every summer, we’ll welcome kids without parents, who don’t think anyone gives a cuss about them.

We give lots of cusses at Ellie Mae Farms.

We’ll have colossal breakfasts. Any dish you can think of. Bacon, eggs, Conecuh sausage, omelettes, ten-foot-tall glasses of orange juice.

They will send out the local news choppers just to cover our breakfasts.

Our staff will be school teachers. We’ll pay them triple—no ten-times what teachers get paid today. Not only will they teach, they’ll receive five months paid vacations, benefits, complimentary massages, and monthly beer allowances.

And don’t forget our…

On the day we got Daddy from the funeral home, he came packaged in a cardboard box. He didn’t believe in urns. He was a tight-wad, even for his own funeral.

It was nice weather. I was on a boat with a friend, hoping to catch a few bream. The fish, of course, knew this and conspired to avoid me.

My friend was sipping beer. Willie Nelson serenaded us from a battery-powered pocket radio. We saw a bass boat in the distance.

It was a nice boat. The kind that costs an arm and a liver.

Four people were onboard. Two men, one boy, and a woman. They were dressed in Sunday clothes. The woman held what looked like a vase. She emptied it overboard. Dust fell into the water.

The boy’s face was in his hands. I’ll never forget him.

My friend bowed his head. I turned off the pocket radio. We were quiet. And I was decades backward in a memory.

In this particular memory, I’m thirteen. I’m in the mountains. The air is thin. My mouth is dry. I am cold.

I’m not my normal happy boyish self. But then, I hadn’t been happy since my father


Dead. He was dead, I kept telling myself. I couldn’t believe it.

On the day we got Daddy from the funeral home, he came packaged in a cardboard box. He didn’t believe in urns. He was a tight-wad, even for his own funeral.

His brown box sat on a counter. The funeral director had my mother sign a dotted line. And that was that.

A man’s entire life, stuffed into a box. Once, he was a tall, slender man who taught me how to gut fish.

Now he was UPS parcel.

We kept his ashes in the shed since nobody wanted his remains indoors. My mother said his spirit needed to escape. I sat with him a lot.

One year later, we found ourselves on the mountain I told you about. We overlooked the whole world. My uncle sliced…

“But I was tired of feeling beneath everyone else,” she said. “I had no confidence, and I had no idea how to make things better.”

She’s older. Her skin is weathered, but her eyes are still sharp. She says that for most of her life she thought she was trash.

“Growing up, I never thought much of myself,” she said. “Guess when your daddy says you ain’t nothing, you believe it.”


Her parents were poor. Her father was bad to drink. Her mother was bitter. Life was no cakewalk.

She had her first boyfriend as a sophomore. He was a real winner. He degraded her, called her names. She got pregnant as a junior. He disappeared. She dropped out.

By nineteen, she was pregnant again by another man who treated her even worse—who also left her.

But her life didn’t stay as sad as it sounds. No sir. In fact, that’s why I’m writing this.

During her mid-twenties, fate smiled on her. She got married to a good man who thought she hung the moon. He had two kids; she had two kids. They shoved their families together and manufactured happiness

by the bucketful.

He laid concrete. She worked in a restaurant.

They were barely making enough to survive, but money’s not everything. Some things are more important. Like happiness, family, and whether you like your own reflection.

“But I was tired of feeling beneath everyone else,” she said. “I had no confidence, and I had no idea how to make things better.”

One day after work, she got her answer. She was picking up her children from the Methodist church’s after-school program.

In the parking lot, she met a woman who was like her. Same callused hands. Same smoking habit. They hit it off. They talked about things, about their kids, their husbands, about everything.

The woman said she was graduating college that same week.

“It’s taken me ten years to graduate,” the woman admitted. “Had to take classes little by little.…

DEAR SEAN: I will babysit your dog (Ellie Mae) if you ever need. I would do it for free. I’m ten and mature.


I’ve worked in a hotel, cleaning rooms off and on since the eighties. I’m approaching sixty-four. I’ve been working all my life for my kids…

My kids are grown and finished with college, but I didn’t know what to do with myself when they left, so I still work even though I don’t have to.

I keep working so I can encourage young people that they can make it through the same crap I went through.


My son died six years ago… In the middle of my grief I started volunteering at a place that delivers groceries to local families who are low-income.

I don’t know why I’m writing you, but I want parents to know that there’s life after your child dies.


I work in a grocery store. A woman came through my line and told me about your website. I wrote your name on receipt paper. When I emptied my pockets that evening, I saw the receipt, and figured it couldn't hurt to check out your website.

I got inspired to write a poem about my late big brother. He

passed on Christmas of 2017.

“...My brother.
You are gone, but you are not far away.
At the end of each day,
You are my last thought.
You are on the other side of my fear,
I have nothing to fear...”


I will babysit your dog (Ellie Mae) if you ever need. I would do it for free. I’m ten and mature.


I’m getting my GED this year. Dude, I’m almost forty, it’s harder than I thought.

Someday I really want to go to college, but I look at all the work ahead of me and don’t know if I have what it takes.

I’m not a kid anymore, I hope this isn’t a dumb…

You have no reason to hear a word I say. Believe me, I understand that. After all, you’re making sunrises and spinning solar systems; I live in a trailer.

Dear God:

It’s been awhile since we last talked. And I know you’re busy. But I have something I’d like to ask, if you have a second.

Please—and I really mean this—let the kid I saw in Walmart play baseball this year. You know the kid I’m talking about. He was wearing a surgical mask. He is small and bony.

He’s not well.

I heard him ask his mother about playing baseball.

His mother answered, “The doctor says you gotta wait until you’re better, sweetie.”

“Please, Mom,” he said.

Listen, I know there are droughts, famines, wars, and one billion people suffering from pop country music. But that boy wants to play ball, God. He was almost begging.

Please. Just do some magic. Make his body work again. If you could just surprise him. That’s all I ask.

Also, bless every person who feels unloved. Bless each soul who feels alone. Bless the ones who feel overlooked. And make the Atlanta Braves not suck this year.

Baseball, God. That’s what I’m getting

at. You know how much it meant to me over the years. After my father died, it’s one of the things that kept me going.

A few more things: help Miss Bonnie. Her husband of forty-nine years was everything to her before he died. She’s a wreck. Look in on her if you get a chance.

Help Skittles, the dog, find an owner. She was found behind Piggly-Wiggly. But then, of course, you know the story already.

Thank you for cheese. What a great idea that was. And for my friends—even the ones I haven’t met yet.

Thanks for Daddy. I only knew him twelve years before he ended his own life, but I feel lucky to have known him at all. Some kids never know their fathers.

And for my mother, who raised us on a shoestring…

You wake in a hospital room. The white lights hurt your eyes. Your father is beside your bed, so is your sister. They’ve been crying so hard their eyes are puffy.

You are spitting blood. That’s all you know. At this exact moment, you are trapped in a wrecked vehicle, and there is blood in your mouth.

You’re a college girl, on your way home for the weekend. It was raining. You lost control. Then a crash. Tumbling. Falling. Downward.

Now you can’t move your legs. You’re pinned by a steering wheel. Your pulse is weak. The thumping in your head is like a marching band.

You’re drifting in and out of consciousness.

Your memories are replaying. It’s funny what you remember when you’re dying. Not the things you’d expect. You remember things long forgotten.

Your little sister’s Christmas musical. A hand-painted Easter egg. Macaroni and cheese your mother used to cook.

The way you felt after your mother died.

You remember raising your sister. You remember changing her diapers. Cooking for your father.

And in your final moments, you think about your mother.

You didn’t know her past the fourth grade. You don’t remember much about her at this age.

Only what you saw in photos.

You used to dress in her clothes when you were a little girl because you missed her. You’ve missed her for a whole lifetime.

But your father and your sister needed you to be strong. So you pretended. Still, you were only faking.

Now you are upside-down in your own vehicle. An airbag in your face. Red everywhere. You’re dying.

You’re scared. You use your voice.

“Mama,” you say.

You’re not sure who you’re saying it to. It’s coming from your gut somewhere. You say it again.

And you see her. She is a woman you know. She is familiar.

She’s here to save you. She works the door open. This is a strong person, you’re thinking. She cuts your seatbelt with a pocketknife. She frees you.

The walls are lined with baskets of T-shirts, racks of button-downs, sneakers, little-girl dresses, little-boy jeans, winter coats, hats, and toys.

Auburn, Alabama—a nice day. A busy town. College kids wander the sidewalks. A rusted truck with hay bales sits beside me at a stoplight.

Pictures of eagles and tigers in every shop window. Orange and blue all over.

At the intersection of College and Magnolia is Toomer’s Drugs. A throwback to the old world. Their lemonade is a spiritual experience.

A few minutes away is the East Alabama Pediatric Dentistry clinic, on North Dean. It’s a nice-looking building with even nicer people.

The waiting room is full. A Hispanic family with six kids. A mother and her two-year-old. A father and his rowdy sons. Children swinging feet. This room is anything but quiet.

“We get’em from all over,” says Doctor Keri. “Because we’re one of the only offices who take Medicaid.”

Patients visit from as far away as Dothan. Needy patients. Hundreds of stories walk through these doors, each one is a heartbreaker.

We’re talking true poverty. Grade-schoolers with missing teeth. Eight-year-olds with handfuls of cavities. Disabilities. Mental illness. Childhood cancer.

You name it.

But there’s also something special in this place. You can feel it in the waiting room.

The door to the back swings open. A small boy runs into the waiting room, toward his mother.

The Hispanic woman holds his chin and inspects his smile. She says, “Esa sonrisa.”

Which roughly translates into: “I love you so much it hurts.”

There is a sign on the wall in the waiting room. It reads: “Free coats, hats, scarves, and gloves.”

I ask about the sign.

“Oh that,” the receptionist says. “That’s our clothing closet. It’s all Mo’s doing.”

Meet Mo Malphrus.

She works here . She’s a certified sweetheart. Her voice is pure Cajun, her eyes are sharp, her lipstick is neon pink. Hugging her is like hugging your Aunt Bunny.

Mo leads me to a…