She was a single mother. She sacrificed. She did without. A saint. The old woman breathed slower. Slower. And slower. One big breath, everyone heard it. And she was no more.

Their mother died.

The two daughters gathered around her bed when it happened. In soft voices, they told their elderly mother that it was okay to leave. They pet her white hair, touched her cheeks.

They shared memories in her last moments.

They remembered how they all used to sing along with the radio—especially when Patsy Cline was singing. And how their mother sewed tags into homemade clothes to make them like store-bought.

She was a single mother. She sacrificed. She did without. A saint.

The old woman breathed slower. Slower. One big breath, everyone heard it. And she was no more.

They didn’t know anything about their father. Their mother told them he’d left while they were babies. They agreed that they needed to tell the man—wherever he was.

They hired someone to find him. It took a few days. They learned that he'd moved to New Mexico because of a military career. Long ago, he'd gotten remarried. He had two kids.

That hurt.

The sisters drove to New Mexico in a minivan. They listened to Patsy Cline and mourned. They slept

in cheap motor inns, they told stories to one another. Stories about her.

New Mexico—it was a mobile home on flat land. They knocked on his door, introduced themselves. The man took the news hard. He bawled.

They sat in his den. And, when he’d gathered himself, he stared at them with serious eyes.

“Oh my God,” he remarked. “You actually think I’m your father.”

The girls held confused faces. You could’ve heard a gnat blink.

“Hate to tell you this,” he began. “But I'm not your father, and your mama wasn’t your biological mother.”

The air went cold and the girls became sick to their stomachs.

He told it like it was. It was complicated, but here are the basics:

Their mother had once been engaged to another—her high-school sweetheart. She had grown up with him.…

Truth be told, he was ashamed to be moving back—which is why he hadn’t told anyone. Not even his saintly mother. But there are no secrets in small towns.

I’m sitting on porch steps with my cousin. We are people-watching in a town about the size of an area rug.

A man is blowing leaves off his driveway. The leaf-blower is filling the neighborhood with noise. They say he’s addicted to yardwork. Poor man.

Miss Elvira is walking her Labrador, Webster, on the sidewalk. The dog is stronger than he looks. The leash looks like it’s about to snap in two. He’s pulling Elvira like Twenty-Mule-Team Borax.

She waves at us. I haven’t seen Miss Elvira since I was nine. My cousin and I picked pinecones in her yard long ago while singing an anthem by the Oak Ridge Boys about her.

Hi-ho, Silver, away.

Peter Stepnowski is poking in his garage. Peter has white hair, thick glasses, and wears tube socks with sandals.

Please Lord, no matter how old I get, don’t let me wear tube socks and sandals.

A delivery truck. A FedEx man jogs the sidewalk, up the steps to the Delanie’s porch. He’s carrying an odd-shaped box that makes every elderly busybody within a six-mile radius become curious.

Take

my aunt, for instance, she is curious.

Four girls walk the sidewalk wearing soccer uniforms. School is out. They have backpacks on shoulders. They’re deep in conversation. Faces serious. They’re solving world problems.

One of the girls is Karin. I remember when her parents announced in Sunday school they were expecting a third baby.

Karin waves. She calls me “Mister Sean.” Those words sound ancient.

Life is moving slow today. That’s how it works in little places.

I was in the big city last week. I rode through Atlanta’s five-o’clock traffic, gripping my steering wheel so hard my knuckles popped—I’m lucky I survived.
I watched a transfer truck amputate a Nissan’s side-mirror. I saw two near-accidents, fifteen cop cars, and a whole bucket of middle fingers.

Big places aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

I believe in the old woman I once knew, who said: “If you REALLY wanna love someone, give’em something good to eat.”

DEAR SEAN:

What things do you believe in?

ELEVEN-YEARS-OLD-IN-CHAPEL-HILL

DEAR ELEVEN:

I believe in fried chicken. The kind made by every granny you’ve ever known. The kind fried in black iron skillets.

I believe it is powerful stuff. Which is probably why you see it at funeral receptions, baby showers, and churches.

I also believe in hand-rolled biscuits made from flour, fat, salt, baking powder, and buttermilk. To add additional ingredients to this mix would be like drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

I believe in teaching young men to clean fish. I believe in kids who ask too many questions. And I believe in girls who are gutsy enough to be themselves.

I believe girls have it harder than boys. And I’m sorry for that.

I believe in giving money to the homeless—not once or twice, but every time I see someone down on their luck. Every single time. I believe in giving more than I should.

I believe in old-time country dances. Long ago, before TV’s, smartphones, and twenty-four-hour news channels, I believe people threw more parties.

I believe in bowing heads to say grace. I believe in crickets, loud frogs, and places where you cannot hear busy highways.

I believe in magic tricks. And in teenagers who haven’t found themselves yet. I believe in all golden retrievers, Labs, bloodhounds, some Jack Russels. And marriage.

I believe in Marie, Lorena, and Nadia—living at a battered women’s shelter in South Georgia. I believe in high-school dropouts, and kids who miss their daddies. I believe in nurses.

I believe in music made by hand, fiddles, upright pianos, and the poetry of Hank Williams. I believe in Willie Nelson.

I believe in the memory of grandparents, and keeping them alive with stories. I believe in making lowly people famous, and famous people lowly.

And I believe this world is better than most give it credit. I believe that if folks…

The boy was in shock. He quit speaking altogether. He quit caring. His foster parents didn’t know how to reach him, so they sent him to another facility.

His older brother sang to him. Every night before bed. That might sound strange to you. But it was what they did before bed. Singing.

They lived in a foster home. His brother was more than a brother. He was mother, father, friend, guardian, bunk mate.

Everything.

His brother helped him dress for school, tied his shoes, and taught him to stand up for himself on a playground.

And it was his brother who kept the memories of their mother alive. He talked about the way she used to read stories, make sugar cookies, eat too much ketchup on fries.

His brother was hit by a car while walking home from school. The funeral was small. Only a few social workers, and friends.

The boy was in shock. He quit speaking altogether. He quit caring. His foster parents didn’t know how to reach him, so they sent him to another facility.

He was the youngest in the new place, and found it hard to fit in with the others. He spent time alone. He looked out his

window, remembering the sound of his brother’s singing voice.

One day, a maintenance man arrived to fix a damaged, leaky ceiling in the boy’s bedroom. He was an older man. The kind of man who couldn’t be quiet even if his life depended on it. A happy fella who talked too much and laughed at his own jokes.

The boy liked him. They made fast friends.

For a full day, the man stood on a ladder replacing sections of damaged drywall. Chatting up a blue streak.

The boy started talking, too. And once the child started, he didn’t stop. He talked about football heroes, favorite movies, monsters, dinosaurs, fast cars, fire trucks.

About his late brother.

The old man just listened. He listened so intently that his one-day ceiling repair job took three days.

He let the boy help him work. The kid…

She works hard. Too hard. And when she's not cooking in the kitchen of the medical rehab, delivering trays to patients, she’s a full-time single mother.

The transmission of her car has given out. Every day, she hitches a ride to work because she is broke.

She works hard. Too hard. And when she's not cooking in the kitchen of the medical rehab, delivering trays to patients, she’s a full-time single mother.

Sometimes, her kids visit her at work. They get thirty minutes for supper. Her breaks are never long enough.

The strain of day-to-day living is wearing her thin. She is overworked, underpaid, vehicle-less.

One day, she meets a patient. An old man.

In the three months he’s been in rehab, nobody has seen him move or speak. Most days, he faces the window with his jaw slung open. Empty eyes.

She's delivering food to his room. Her emotions get the best of her. She collapses on a chair and has a meltdown.

She bawls because life is unfair. Because a busted car sits in her driveway and she can’t afford to have a mechanic look at it.

The old man stirs in his wheelchair.

His facial muscles move. And in a few moments, he looks like a

man who's never suffered a traumatic brain injury.

He stares straight at her. His eyes sparkle.

And in a voice as clear as a bell he says, “God sees you.”

Then.

His face goes slack. His eyes become hollow. His mouth falls open, he begins to drool again.

All day, she thinks about him and his words. In fact, she thinks about it so much she can't sleep.

The next day, she's delivering food again. She speaks to him.

He doesn’t answer. He is completely unalert. So, she tells a few knock-knock jokes.

His face cracks a slight grin.

It moves her so much that she hugs him until she is crying into his chest. She tells more jokes.

She eventually gets a strained laugh out of him.

Then, he surprises her. He hugs her with rigid…

m at Valiant Cross Academy—an all-male private school in the heart of the city. I’m outside, watching ninety African American boys in uniforms shout the Lord’s Prayer in unison.

Montgomery—the old Dexter Avenue Methodist church is catching early sun. The red bricks look orange, the Alabama state flag is golden-colored.

There is big history here on Dexter. Across the street is where Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. preached Sunday services. The capitol building is up the road a piece.

It’s a busy morning downtown. Taxis. Public busses. Range Rovers. Old pickups with muddy tires. Homeless men sleep on benches. Welcome to Alabama.

I’m at Valiant Cross Academy—an all-male private school in the heart of the city. I’m outside, watching ninety African American boys in uniforms shout the Lord’s Prayer in unison.

These boys have a string of rally cries they chant to start their day.

They shout things like:

“GOD LOVES YOU! AND SO DO I!”

“WHO’S GOT YO BACK?”

“I GOT YO BACK, I GOT YO BACK! OOOOOH, I GOT YO BACK!”

“GREAT DAY! GREAT DAY!”

“LET’S FINISH STRONG!”

“JEEEEEE-ZUSS!”

“OUR FATHER, WHICH ART IN HEAVEN…”

Then, ninety boys from varied backgrounds—most from rough neighborhoods—face the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

If that doesn't bring tears to your eyes you're not living

right.

These children come from a world with bars on their living-room windows, daddies in county prison, and drug deals on public playgrounds. They are at the academy to make better futures.

Some enrollees tell staff members they don’t expect to live past age eighteen.

“We call them scholars instead of students,” says school founder, Anthony Brock. “Because we’re training scholars, decent men, and fathers. Not students.”

Anthony and his brother founded Valiant Cross three years ago. They started the school because they've seen enough kids slip through the cracks of a crumbling Montgomery County public-school system.

They decided to do something about it.

So, armed with little more than a few dimes and a prayer, Anthony started transforming forgotten Alabama kids into kings.

“Our morning shoutin’ helps take the boys’ minds…

One day, Mister Dan refused to suffer from loneliness any longer. He started taking walks. He forced himself to make friends with neighbors.

This breakfast place is packed. I’m supposed to be meeting a friend. He's nowhere in sight.

I wait ten minutes and my friend calls to say he’s canceling. If I had a nickel for every time he canceled, I could buy a Lincoln-Ford dealership.

The waitress says, “If you don’t mind eating with a stranger, I can seat you at a two-top now. Or you can wait forty more minutes.”

“I like strangers,” I say.

Right this way.

He’s an older man with hair like cotton. He wears two hearing aids, thick glasses, and tucked-in shirt.

He squints at me when I sit.

“Mister Dan?” yells my waitress. “Can this gentleman eat with you?”

He smiles. He didn’t hear a word she said. He adjusts his hearing aids and shouts, “HOW'S THAT?”

And so it goes.

He is half-deaf, but he tells me he enjoys his elderly hearing deficit.

“I can turn my hearing aids ALL the way down,” Mister Dan shouts, demonstrating. “And suddenly, I have peace and quiet.”

How about that.

His wife died two years ago. She was the quintessential woman. She took

care of him.

She cooked big breakfasts from scratch while he piddled. Then he'd piddle through lunchtime. And every night after supper, he piddled some more.

Then they'd play Gin Rummy.

“Started playing when our kids were in high school,” he says. “They’d stay out late, neither of us could sleep until they were home safe.”

The couple kept a scorecard going for thirty-some years. When she passed, Mister Dan was ahead fifty-nine points.

“If I’d known she was sick,” he said. “I woulda been letting her win. She probably woulda murdered me if I EVER intentionally lost.”

Her death nearly killed him. His house became a tomb. His kids live out of state.

What good is piddling when there’s nobody to piddle for?

One day, Mister Dan refused to suffer from loneliness any…

You are a soul, and souls can be all sorts of things. They can be thoughtful, hardworking, ambitious, easygoing, understanding, or Southern Baptist. Souls have the power to be kind, or to be hateful. 

DEAR SEAN:

I don’t like your writing because you are a dumbass.

Thanks,
I DON’T CARE IF YOU USE MY NAME

DEAR I’M NOT GONNA USE YOUR NAME COME HELL OR HIGH WATER:

Let’s go back in time.

Your mother and father just met. The circumstances which brought them together don’t matter. Your parents feel something for each other.

This feeling is something I want to talk about. A feeling that gets stronger with each heartbeat. A warm, happy, thick, dripping, hot feeling.

Scientists might call it “energy.” We common folk call it “love.”

Whatever you call it, it is an intelligent thing, programmed into the body. A force greater than even your parents.

So one day, inside the dark and hushed womb of your mother, a fertilized embryo floats the white-water rapids of her insides. That loveable little egg manages to attach itself to a uterine wall.

Then, the Little Egg That Could, starts producing NEW CELLS. Each cell the SAME SIZE as its original zygote. And this eventually becomes you.

I know. This is almost too boring to stand.

So let’s use simple language here: one small act of love made YOUR cells appear out of NOWHERE.

In other-other words: you’re a miracle. And it was love-energy that made you.

You are a walking-talking collection of organs, a central nervous system, a conscience, and a receding hairline. Because of love.

You are a soul, and souls can be all sorts of things. They can be thoughtful, hardworking, ambitious, easygoing, understanding, or Southern Baptist. Souls have the power to be kind, or to be hateful.

But as we just discovered, hatefulness goes against your very anatomy. Every cell in your human corpus is made with love.

Every last drop of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, calcium, phosphorus, and interstitial fluid. Love. Love. And more love. You sir, are a steaming pile of love.

The love that made you is in…

He never ages. That’s one of the perks of being a ghost. He looks the same as when he died. Skinny. Lanky legs. He is loose built, and all freckles.

I watched game six of the World Series with a ghost tonight. I do this every year. He visits during important games.

He doesn’t drink beer or eat peanuts anymore—since he’s only a memory. Still, I put out a bowl of parched peanuts just the same.

He used to eat the hell out of peanuts. He’d crack them open and make a string of jokes that weren’t even funny.

The ghost is notorious for ridiculous jokes.

But he’s not shelling peanuts tonight. And no jokes. He is sitting on the sofa beside me. Legs crossed. Hands folded behind his head.

He never ages. That’s one of the perks of being a ghost. He looks the same as when he died. Skinny. Lanky legs. He is loose built, and all freckles.

He places his size-thirteen barefeet on my coffee table.

“Get your feet off that, Daddy,” I say.

“Why?” he says. “I’m a ghost, remember?”

That’s not the point, it’s the principle.

I’m eating peanuts, we’re watching TV halfheartedly. We’ve got too much to talk about. It’s been a year since I saw him.

This is

a good Series. The ghost and I are pulling for the Astros. I'd rather lick a billy goat between the eyes than root for a Dodger.

The ghost wears an Astros hat. He once owned a million ball caps, but had never paid for a single one.

He was a steelworker who dangled from iron rafters, welding. Sometimes, he worked on roller coasters.

Once, he took me to an amusement park during business hours. He unlocked a chainlink fence to a secure area beneath a roller coaster. When the roller-cars rode the upside-down loops, it rained ball caps. Fifteen or twenty hats fell, every ride.

After a few weeks, he’d collected caps from almost every American team.

That is, except the Dodgers. We didn’t keep those hats. We dipped them in blue cheese and lit…

The air in the restaurant went stale, like in old Westerns, just before John Wayne pumps some desperate bandito into the everlasting abyss.

She is a waitress here. She has white hair, and a habit of winking when she smiles. Her name is Mary. I know this because it’s on her nametag.

I don’t know Mary—today’s the first time we’ve met—but I want to be her forever-grandson.

I just watched Mary get dog-cussed.

It happened when she swiped a young man’s credit card at the register. It was denied. She was quiet and discreet with him.

He shouted at her, “Run it again, lady!”

This made everyone’s ears perk up. It’s not every day you see some punk yelling at Barbara Bush.

She swiped the card. Denied.

“Do you have another card?” she asked in a soft voice.

The man shouted, “Another card? Don’t treat me like I’m @#$ing stupid, lady!”

Her mouth fell open. So did everyone’s.

The young man didn’t stop. He went on to say things which I can’t repeat—my mother reads these things.

The air in the restaurant went stale, like in old Westerns, just before John Wayne pumps some desperate bandito into the everlasting abyss.

The customers in the restaurant looked around at each other. The man in

the booth beside me stood. So did I. We walked toward the register.

But another man beat us to it.

He was tall, white-haired. He wore a tattered cap. He was older, mid-seventies, with shoulders broader than an intercostal barge.

The old man said, “What seems to be the problem over here?”

The angry kid spat, “My card won’t work.”

The old man let his eyes do his talking. Hard eyes. The same eyes I’ve seen in a hundred Westerns, just before the hero draws a greased Colt Single Action Peacemaker and opens the gates of Armageddon.

The old man was calm. He reached for his wallet. He said to Mary, in a syrupy voice, “I’d like to pay for this gentleman’s meal, ma’am.”

Then, he placed a large hand…