Life is only a few seconds long. The trip between birth and death is an amusement-park ride. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a few laughs. But you're going to go through your fair share of hell.

DEAR SEAN:

I am a guy in high school. There is a girl at school, and we have come to be best friends, but now I value her a little more than a friend.

She’s the only girl I’ve ever come to love. I want to tell her what I feel, but she already has a boyfriend.

They are hopelessly in love. I've met her boyfriend, and he's hopelessly awesome, so I can't hate him. I feel terrible. What should I do?

Sincerely,
HOPELESSLY HEARTBROKEN

DEAR HOPELESSLY:

What you’re about to read is a middle-aged man’s retelling of his own pathetic youth. I’m the wrong fella to ask for advice.

I’m an ordinary stiff with one back-surgery under his belt.

As a young man, I was a friend to a girl. Let’s call her, oh I don’t know, Princess Ijustwannabefriends.

She didn’t have a date on New Year’s Eve, so she asked if I’d entertain her.

I really liked her, so I agreed. I took her to a party and promised her parents I’d have her home at midnight.

We pulled into her driveway at 11:58 P.M.

When my watch struck 12:00, I expected a handshake and a, “You know, you’re like a Labrador to me.”

What I got was a kiss.

I had to be resuscitated with paddles.

After that, I had this erroneous idea that Princess IkisswhoeverIwant liked me. But I was very, very wrong.

A few weeks later, she began dating a much taller, much broader-shouldered, better-looking quarterback with perfect teeth, and the amiable personality of Jesus Christ.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. Who cares about my youth?

Well, I do. And I wish I could tell young, naive Sean a few things.

For starters: pretend, if you will, you’re dying. Bear with me, this is only a what-if.

Would this girl visit you in the hospital while you’re suffering from, say, kidney failure? Probably.

Would…

“We named him Will, after my father,” she says. “And, because it’d be God’s WILL if he lived.”

Some women are born to be mothers. Ami Jo is one of those women. She and her husband tried for a long time, but nothing happened. So, she took fertility treatment.

She got more than she bargained for. Triplets.

It was pure excitement. The baby showers. The tears. The back pain, the mood-swings. Eating for four.

At seventeen weeks, doctors found a heart defect in one of the triplets.

“I was devastated,” says Ami Jo. “They suggested we terminate the baby, so the others weren't at risk.”

It was a blow. But Ami Jo didn’t even have to think on it.

“I wasn’t about to,” she goes on. “My husband and I agreed to put our faith in something greater.”

Thus, one summer day, at Jacksonville Baptist Hospital, she birthed three babies. Two healthy infants, and one miraculous William Walter Gibson—who screamed loudest.

“We named him Will, after my father,” she says. “And, because it’d be God’s WILL if he lived.”

At three pounds eleven ounces, he was ‘God’s Will.’ But he wasn’t well. He had his first open-heart surgery at nine-weeks. Then another.

And

another.

Within five months of infancy, he endured four open-hearts. He practically lived at the hospital.

“Watching him go through this,” says Ami Jo. “Him nearly dying on several occasions, it's just been...”

Yeah.

Ten years went by. The family adapted to Will’s routine. An operation here, a heart cath there.

He got older, started school. Will grew into a normal boy—with the boyish odors and dirty fingernails to go with it. He learned to play a mean drum-kit. Likes swimming.

Then.

Last August, during an outpatient procedure, Will’s heart stopped. It was unexpected. Doctors compressed his chest for six minutes. His heart started again. Then quit. Oxygen debt. Seizures. Flailing. More CPR.

“Next time I saw my baby, he was on a ventilator, medically paralyzed, maybe even brain dead.”

ICU was hell—living on prayers…

Only days earlier, at a church in Grand Ridge, folks passed a cloth around the congregation. Locals gathered to take turns crying into the fabric, whispering prayers.

Sneads, Florida—a place that's more farmland than town. Here, men still hunt with dogs, and young women know how to make chicken and dumplings from scratch.

This is a spot where kids still grow up barefoot on dirt roads. Where the biggest dangers facing local children are snagging feet on fishing hooks.

Georgie became a woman here. She started dating Trey at age fourteen. He was fifteen.

Their romance was the kind you don’t often see. The sort of teenage-love that adults warn won’t last six minutes. Trey and Georgie dated for six years.

Then, on one pretty October day, they visited the courthouse and said vows. They got straight to work, building a family. They started with Blakely Glen.

Parenthood agreed with them. The sleepless nights, the changing of diapers every nine seconds. Georgie got pregnant again.

Brenna Grace.

“She's always wanted a big family,” says Georgie's sister. “Lots of kids, spaced close together. She was so excited.”

But there was a problem. Georgie’s mother rushed her to the hospital. It was an emergency C-section.

Brenna Grace came into

this world two months early, tipping the scale at four pounds. It wasn't good. Bleeding on the brain. One collapsed lung. Jaundice.

They took Brenna Grace to UAB. The family has slept in waiting-room chairs, skipped meals, and survived on hospital coffee. To say it's been hard would be an understatement.

That was seven days ago.

But this story isn’t about Brenna Grace. It's not even about Georgie or Trey. This is about ordinary people.

In only seven days, ordinary prayers have reached across city lines, and into rural parts. Prayers have spread outward through the Panhandle and upward through Alabama—one steeple at a time. One ordinary person to another.

Communities pulled together. Some have donated money. Others are organizing suppers. There have been enough prayers to suffocate low-flying birds.

Then.

It happened overnight. One morning, doctors discovered Brenna Grace’s…

I thought about her all week. All month. For a few months. I am a slow thinker. Back then, it took me at least forty minutes to decide which dirty shirt I would wear for a given day.

It was a bookstore. Late night. Many years ago. I sat in the corner, reading. I was enthralled in an important piece of classic American literature at the time.

A girl walked in. She made me nauseous. My ex-girlfriend. She’d done me wrong, and felt no remorse over her devilish behavior. None.

She sat beside me. “Hey, you," she said in a cheery voice. "What’re you reading?”

“‘The Far Side,’” said I. "Volume one."

She told me she was meeting someone. A Sunday-school teacher—she was substitute-teaching for a children's church-class that week.

Sunday school.

It's a wonder lightning didn't strike and fry off her eyebrows.

I stood to leave. But before I could, another girl walked through the door. She carried textbooks beneath her arm. Her hair was shoulder-length, and she walked with determination.

She was the Sunday-school teacher. She sat across from me and we made fast friends.

She wore a baby-blue sweater. She had hell-raiser eyes, and when she spoke, she sounded like Escambia County.

She was funny. She had a way of making me feel

like I’d met her before. Like, perhaps, we’d been friends in another life—if you believe in that sort of thing.

I thought about her all week. All month. For a few months. I am a slow thinker. Back then, it took me at least forty minutes to decide which dirty shirt I would wear for a given day.

Eventually, we had a first date. I took her for a drive. She was loud-talking, happy, honest to a fault. I saw her again. And again.

One night, we sat on her porch swing for eight hours. She fell asleep. Her head laid on my chest. When the sun started to rise, I told my dead daddy I’d figured out what my life was about. Her.

He didn't say much.

I asked her to marry me. She didn’t even think about it. We…

A young girl. Long black hair. She's from Mexico City. She’s stateside on a year-long collegiate program, it’s been an adjustment. Hard studying, lots of cellphone photos, sightseeing.

She works in a sandwich shop. She is Russian. Mid-sixties. She wears a hairnet. Her accent is so thick I can hardly understand her.

“My accent will never go away,” she says. “Thirty-one years I live here, I still have it.”

She raised a family in Columbus, Georgia. She worked small-pay jobs to make ends meet. Her girls graduated college with honors.

This year, her family visited Russia for the first time since she left. She showed them the town she grew up in.

It almost made her teary telling me about it. Almost.

“When I was my girls’ age,” she says. “We only eat lunch every other day. We had poverty, you know?”

No, ma’am. I’ve never known hunger.

A young girl. Long black hair. She's from Mexico City. She’s stateside on a year-long collegiate program, it’s been an adjustment. Hard studying, lots of cellphone photos, sightseeing.

She was supposed to leave for Mexico after this upcoming semester, but she fell in love. He’s an ER nurse. He took her out to a few movies. Now they’re getting married.

“It’s gonna be crazy,”

she says. “I never thought I’d be an American, my mother freaked out. She’s really happy for me.”

Viva love.

He is my waiter. He has granite-black skin. He speaks a sophisticated form of broken English—almost British.

“I am South African,” he says.

I ask why he smiles so much—he looks like he just got his teeth polished.

“My mother teach me to smile when I was a child. She was always smiling wherever she goes.”

His smiling mother was a missionary. She’d grown up wealthy, but exchanged a privileged life for feeding kids, teaching school in third-world villages.

She was killed by a local gang when he was a boy.

“America is my home,” he says. “When I first arrive here, I notice everyone is so nice to me. Even at gas stations, they tell…

He talked, and he was eighteen again. A rural boy who’d never set foot in a schoolhouse. His father used a wheelchair. His mother was dead.

I drove four hours to meet the editor of a big-city newspaper. I walked into a large office wearing my nicest necktie. I was young. Wide-eyed.

She told me I had five minutes. I handed her a resume so tiny it needed a magnifying glass.

“You’re not even a journalism major?” she remarked.

“No ma’am.”

“You’re wasting my time. I’ve got real journalists lining up around the block. Find me a good story, and maybe we’ll talk.”

A good story.

The next day, I stopped at a nursing home. I walked inside and asked if there were any storytellers.

The woman at the desk gave me a look. “They’re ALL storytellers, sweetie.”

She introduced me to a ninety-four-year-old man. We sat in the cafeteria. I asked to hear about his life. He said, "You with the IRS or something?"

He talked, and he was eighteen again. A rural boy who’d never set foot in a schoolhouse. His father used a wheelchair. His mother was dead.

Then, he met her. She’d moved to town to teach school. When he saw her at church, he

couldn’t take his eyes off her. He approached her with an idea.

“I played on her sympathy,” he said. “Was my only hope, she was too pretty to be seen with me.”

He asked her to teach him to read. She agreed. He made fast progress—which was no surprise. He would’ve rather died than disappoint a pretty girl.

They married. She taught, he farmed. During those years, he remembers how they sat together in the evenings, watching fireflies. Love can be simple.

She died before age forty.

It was crippling. He gave up living. His fields went to weed. He lost his farm. He lost himself. He checked into a room at the motor-inn.

“I had nothing left,” he said. “I sat on the bed with a thirty-eight caliber in my hand...”

There sat a leather-bound, bestselling…

I miss him, he was my only dog. I had him since I was three. Can you write some words about him for his funeral? His name was Tornado.

DEAR SEAN:

My dog died. We had to put him down last night because of cancer. We came home today and I actually expected to see him on my bed in my room, sleeping, and he wasn’t. I’ve never had any dog die before... I feel so sad I literally don’t even know what to do.

I miss him, he was my only dog. I had him since I was three. Can you write some words about him for his funeral? His name was Tornado.

FIFTEEN AND SAD

DEAR SAD:

Nothing I write is going to do Tornado justice. Because you didn’t lose a dog. You lost someone.

Once, I had a someone named Joe. He was a strange pup who slept in the bathtub. I’d hear his claws clink on the porcelain. Eleven years, he slept in that tub.

He was a good boy. He sat beside me when I ate, he sat beside me when I worked, he sat beside the shower when I bathed.

A greater dog I have never had.

His coat was thick. Pure black.

Ten inches deep. I groomed him in the summers with a pair of clippers and did a god-awful job. He’d have patches of skin showing, and a skinny tail that belonged on a rat.

“Poor Joe,” people would say when they saw him.

But Joe wasn’t worried about his appearance.

He camped with me. He fished with me. He loved tomatoes, hated corn chips. Chased squirrels; hid from sprinklers.

When I wrote my first novel, he laid on my feet. And when I would play Willie Nelson on the radio, he’d close his eyes and give me an open-mouthed smile.

He escaped from my backyard fence one day.

Someone found him on the side of the road. His legs were crushed. They did surgery. I went to see him. He wagged his tail when he saw me come into the…

“I'm an old lady,” she says. “I hope you don't mind if I wear these while we talk.”

We're at her condo. By the pool. She wears tropical-print and big sunglasses. I don’t know what it is about elderly women and oversized sunglasses, but they go together like ham and swiss.

“I'm an old lady,” she says. “I hope you don't mind if I wear these while we talk.”

Not at all, ma'am.

She talks about a boy. Black hair. Freckles. Long ago, he sat by himself at recess. Which for a third-grader, is as bad as it gets.

She’d ask, “You okay, sweetie?”
He was uneasy around her. Skittish. She was a teacher. He was a foster kid.

She arranged to meet his foster parents. They were folks with big-hearts and a house full of kids rolling through the American Foster Pinball Machine.

The boy’s biological parents were drug abusers who'd neglected him. He’d lived off whatever he found in a pantry. He was malnourished and underweight.

When she heard this, it cut her.

“I knew he was my responsibility,” she says. “I just thought: ‘The best thing I can do is give him love.’”

So, she

gave it by the metric ton. During class period, he sat beneath her desk. He told her small spaces made him feel safe.

“I had to get him outta that hole,” she says. “If I had one mission in life, that was it.”

For recess, she organized T-ball games. She made him shortstop. He didn’t want to play unless she played second base.

So, she bought two gloves.

When the year ended, the new one began, she visited him in his fourth-grade classroom—often.

“We were joined at the hip,” she says, laughing. “Got to the point where if I had to go tee-tee, he waited outside.”

Tee-tee.

They sent him to middle school. She quit her job as elementary teacher and applied for a job at the middle school.

By high school, he was on his own. He was…

“I’m going to give you some friendly advice,” says Dan, in a letter he sent me.

“I've been reading your work," he explains. "And I'm going to tell you the truth, precisely like I tell my students... Your writing comes across weak. One can never reside in the ranks of great columnists by writing only about happy subjects and biscuits.

“Complain, Sean! You must write persuasive copy about the things you dislike in this unfair world. Don't be afraid to rant. That's what I tell students. Trust me on this, I’ve been writing columns for twenty-one years.”

Dan—which is not his name—makes a point. And he knows more about writing than I do. Thus, I’ve decided to heed his counsel.

No more biscuits.

But before I start slinging complaints, I need to say a few important things.

Firstly: I love trees.

Bear with me, Dan. I know that was off-topic, but I CAN'T complain until I’ve at least mentioned how much I like trees.

You ought to see the live oaks in this part of the world. Then, you'd understand.

And: birds. I love bird-calls at six in the morning, when the world is waking.

And spittoons.

That might seem bizarre. I don't even chew, but I love spittoons almost as much as I love spitting. Daddy had an antique brass spittoon. It was just for show.

Also: I like runt puppies, ham hocks, tomatoes staked with twine, waking up to bacon, and Bernard P. Fife.

And skinks. Like the skink on the porch with me now. He's blue and black. Fast. I think I’ll call him Edwin.

Edwin, because that was the name of my server at the Mexican restaurant last night. He was rude. He botched my order and forgot my beer. Worst service I’ve had in years. I SHOULD'VE complained.

Instead, I left old Ed a fat tip. I’m not wealthy, Dan, but I believe in tipping…

She was chatty. She could strike up conversation with a brick. It was a gift. But grade-school teachers didn’t see it that way.

They tried to break her talkative habits. They moved her desk around the classroom. Disciplined her. It didn’t work.

She was the baby of four. Artistic. As a girl, she'd walk to town just to stare through Weaver’s store window. She studied what she saw.

Then, with a sewing machine and faded cotton fabric scraps, she sewed her own clothes.

In high school, she met a tall, skinny hick. He was a good-timer, but she loved him. They married in the public-park gazebo. It was a poorly attended wedding.

He was an iron-worker. She was five-foot-two. They were penniless, hard-working, and happy.

It didn't take long before she grew tired of peanut-pay and long hours. She enrolled in college.

She put herself through school, using her own nickels. She studied her hindparts off. She graduated with flying colors. She worked in hospitals, she tended to the dying. Patients liked her.

Then she got pregnant.

And it

was on a Wednesday, during the Liberty Bowl—Bear Bryant’s farewell football game—she gave birth to a seven-pound-eight-ounce frog.

“He was a lazy baby,” she remarked of her pale son. “He barely made any crying noise.”

The lazy redhead would call her Mama, and she would never go by another name in her own household.

They lived forty-five minutes from town. Her husband pulled overtime shifts. After full days welding column-splices, he’d work himself raw with chores.

She had another child. A girl. Life was going famously.

On her husband’s forty-first birthday, she cooked steak. A white-icing cake. She smiled. They laughed. There was singing. It was a good day.

Three days later, he placed the business-end of a twelve-gauge into his mouth.

Her life went to hell. She lost what she owned. The house. The land. Her job. She stayed…