Today, I saw kids practicing baseball in a driveway. I was driving to Birmingham. It reminded me of you, pitching fastballs through an old tire.

Hey. It's me again. I'm sure you're busy, I just wanted to say hello. How are things? How's the fishing up there?

I thought about you today. I remembered how you used to point your truck in one direction, and drive dirt roads that led nowhere, your skinny bare arm, hanging out the window.

Today, I saw kids practicing baseball in a driveway. I was driving to Birmingham. It reminded me of you, pitching fastballs through an old tire.

God, that was a long time ago. Sometimes I wonder if you remember me, or if your memories died with you.

Things were bad after you left. Having a father who dies by his own will doesn’t exactly make a boy popular among the sixth grade.

Mama had it hardest, of course. You left her in a real mess. She should hate you for what you did. She has every right to, but she doesn’t. That woman couldn't hate a waterbug.

You and I both know you didn’t deserve her. And she didn’t deserve what you did.

Anyway, I don’t want to talk about

that.

Sarah is all grown up. You wouldn’t recognize her. She’s got a daughter, and that means you would’ve been a granddaddy.

I wonder what you’d look like as a granddaddy. I’ll bet your red hair would be white, and I’ll bet you’d still be working from whistle to whistle, dangling from iron beams, welding lap splices.

Because if there was one thing you despised, it was laziness.

You and I are very different in that regard. I believe laziness can be a virtue.

You’d like my wife. I wish you could’ve met her. Everyone likes her. That’s because she’s speaks with a strong voice and has an I-can-do-anything-by-myself attitude.

She brought me back to life. When I met her, I was tired. She helped me find my spirit.

You missed a lot. In fact, you missed…

Miss Martha is every woman who’s ever punched a clock. She is every woman who lived on coffee and bad habits, who still found time to make Deviled eggs for the grieving.

Pensacola, Florida—Hurricane Irma made landfall. Most people are watching raw footage on the corner TV in this breakfast joint.

But not her. She sits at the counter alone. She has sugar-white hair, sharp blue eyes. She’s holding her coffee mug, people-watching.

“Can I sit here?” I ask.

“It’s a free country,” she says.

I shake her hand. Her name is Martha, she’s almost ninety. Her face is angelic. Her laugh is sweet enough to initiate world peace.

“Hope this Hurricane ain’t as bad as they say,” she says. “My grandson’s in Tampa.”

We are instant friends. This is a strong woman, I’m thinking, who knows how to fry chicken using nothing but peanut oil and the King James Bible.

On her breakfast plate: bacon, sausage, eggs, hashbrowns, and enough grease to lubricate the axle of a ‘69 Buick Roadster.

“Bacon’s what keeps me young,” she explains. “Doctors been telling me to quit eating it. What do they know?”

Miss Martha been single for a long time. She lost her husband forty years ago. After he died, she raised three children on her own.

“When

he died, all I knew was being a housewife. Had to get me a job’s what I done.” she said. “It was a hard time.”

She says her life began a second time. She found a job, and paid her own way. Hers is a story you’ve heard a thousand times:

Hardworking woman faces adversity, muscles her family through life without getting slaughtered.

Woman ages. She slows down. Her kids talk about her like she’s a saint.

She is a saint, of course. She’s the closest thing to holy you’ll ever see—just like anyone who taught children to fly.

Miss Martha is every woman who’s ever punched a clock. She is every woman who lived on coffee and bad habits, who still found time to make Deviled eggs for the grieving.

She is sacred. And she…

I’m in a Holiday-Inn lobby. This place is overrun with people. The desk clerk tells me that most guests are evacuees from south and central Florida.

September 9th, 9:18 A.M.—Hurricane Irma is making landfall in less than 24 hours. Anxiety fumes are in the air—you could light a match and the room go up in flames.

I’m in a Holiday-Inn lobby. This place is overrun with people. The desk clerk tells me that most guests are evacuees from south and central Florida.

In the main area: televisions are playing—volume cranked high. A few families gather around screens with worried faces.

I meet a Miami man.

“I’m pretty stressed right now,” he says. “We’re crammed in two rooms. My mother’s eighty-three, man. She don’t travel well.”

If the hurricane hits where forecasts predict, he’ll lose his home and his business.

He goes on, “I worked eight years finding new clients. All those twelve-hour workdays, my livelihood is gonna disappear.”

He snaps his fingers.

“This is my wakeup call, dude,” he adds. “I’ve spent too much time with my business, not enough time with my son.”

I meet a woman. Late sixties, wiry, with white cropped hair.

“Lost my husband two months ago to cancer,” she says. “And this hurricane might

destroy our house, where we raised our kids.”

A few weeks ago, she started riding a bike to help fight depression. She brought the bike with her to help release nervous energy.

“I told God this morning,” she says. “Go ahead, take my house. It's all just stuff anyway. I'm just grateful to have my kids with me this weekend.”

I meet a man with a long beard. He is six-four, and roughly the size of a General Electric refrigerator. His family lives in Central Florida.

“I'm with my wife and son,” he says. “But my mama and baby sister are evacuating now, they're still stuck traffic.”

He shows me a cellphone photo of a traffic jam.

“My sister’s freaking out,” he says. “She’s twelve. I try to tell her funny stories to make her laugh.”

His…

I’ve seen her stand in a funeral line, shaking fifteen hundred hands. I’ve watched her work pitiful jobs, just to raise dimes for her children. I’ve heard her cry in the bathroom with the door shut.

DEAR SEAN:

I'm getting married on September 9th.

My old boyfriend of twenty years took his own life, I lost everything. I still have pain. But I really want to move forward with my new husband.

Can you give me some advice? I want to be the wife he deserves.

I understand if you don’t have time to answer,

HURTING BUT MOVING FORWARD

DEAR MOVING FORWARD:

I am in a hotel room. Hurricane Irma is swimming toward Florida and we are heading the opposite direction. I have waited until today—your wedding day—to answer your letter.

Listen, I don’t do advice, but I can tell you about someone I know.

She was like you. Young. Smart. Pretty. Her husband swallowed the barrel of his hunting rifle and left her entire world black and blue.

I won’t tell her story because you’ve lived it.

You already know what happened to her. She wasn't the same. She didn’t eat the same, sleep the same, think or talk the same—her posture even changed.

Once upon a time, she stood straight and confident. Afterward, she slumped.

Tragedy will do that to you.

But this

woman has stamina. She’s seven kinds of strong, by God, and sweet. She is made from one-hundred-percent heart-muscle, unsalted butter, and powdered sugar.

I’ve seen her stand in a funeral line, shaking fifteen hundred hands. I’ve watched her work pitiful jobs, just to raise dimes for her children. I’ve heard her cry in the bathroom with the door shut.

She met someone recently. A good someone.

They started doing fun things together. They walked the beach, they went to hear live music. They danced.

This woman hasn’t shaken her tail feathers since the Nixon administration.

Death has a way of making you quit dancing. It makes you hate good and bad things alike. It cheats you. It tries to step on your chest and take your breath. It makes you afraid…

The regular fry-cook is gone. He has evacuated town. She’s here alone until the replacement cook shows.

SEPTEMBER 7th, 9:29 A.M.—Hurricane Irma is close enough to smell. Most of Florida lives within the geographical area meteorologists are labeling the “Run-Like-Holy-Hell Zone.”

I’m eating a late breakfast at Waffle House. I am the only customer here. George Strait sings in the background.

The woman behind the counter is in her late sixties. She is lean, rough features. Her voice is like a pack of Camels.

The regular fry-cook is gone. He has evacuated town. She’s here alone until the replacement cook shows.

She takes my order, then cooks my breakfast herself. She is a go-getter, this woman, she knows how to cook an egg.

I ask if she’s worried about Irma.

“Ain’t worried about nothing,” she says. “Been through too many hurricanes to worry about this little old storm.”

Irma isn’t a “little old” anything.  Irma is wider than the SEC, stronger than forty-mule-team Borax, and heading straight up the pant-leg of Florida.

The woman delivers my plate, refills my coffee. We talk.

Her husband was killed when they were newlyweds, long ago. She raised two children on her own. It

was no cakewalk.

Every summer, she managed to take them to Disney World as kids. She saved her pennies and dimes to do it.

“Family vacations was important to me. Used to stay in an RV park, only we was the ONLY tent, between all them big rigs.”

After raising her kids, she should’ve been cruising Easy Street. But that’s not how it happened. Her daughter got pregnant and returned home with two grandbabies.

She raised them while her daughter attended college.

Today, her daughter is a registered nurse in Birmingham. Her grandkids are in college. Her son lives in Albuquerque. They are successes, and they make her so proud her teeth are showing.

“That’s my daughter,” she says pointing to a cellphone photo. “She's pretty, ain't she?”

I hear melancholy in her voice. I’m not the…

Mom turns to him. She gives him a warm look. It’s the same sweet look mothers have been giving children since the invention of the diaper. 

September 6th, 11:13 A.M.—Hurricane Irma is moving closer. And it looks like the storm is getting angrier every few hours.

Here in the Panhandle you can see people gathered around TV’s and cellphone weather videos everywhere you go.

Walmart is a nuthouse. They are out of bottled water, milk, bleach, toilet paper, bread, and according to one official, they’re running dangerously low on ketchup.

People wander through the store with tight faces. There is a man wearing a homemade T-shirt that reads: “Irma Sucks.”

In the peanut-butter aisle, I see a child who follows his mother’s cart. The woman is stocking her buggy with essentials.

The kid holds a cellphone, volume turned up. I hear the tinny voice of a weather report.

The little boy says, “Mom, are we gonna be okay?”

Mom turns to him. She gives him a warm look. It’s the same sweet look mothers have been giving children since the invention of the diaper.

It’s a look that says: “Everything—no matter how afraid you are—is going to be alright.”

It's the same look my mama gave me when a swarm of red ants crawled up my legs and bit the Holy Spirit out of me. I had an allergic reaction, trouble breathing.

“Mama,” I said. “Will I pull through?”

She gave me that look, and here I am.

I also see an old woman. She is frail, she walks bent over. She’s searching for bottled water on barren shelves.

A female employee notices her. She asks what the woman needs.

“Where am I gonna find water?” the old woman asks. “What am I gonna do?”

The employee gives the elderly woman that look—the same one I was just telling you about.

“Let’s…

The world has gone crazy. It’s mass hysteria. Hurricane Irma is coming, and some people are losing their cotton-picking minds. 

Pensacola, Florida—a long line of vehicles at a gas station. I am waiting behind a woman and her daughter. She holds a baby in her arm.

The gas pump is not accepting her card. She keeps trying. No luck.

There’s a man in a car behind her. A very nice, German car that costs more than a new liver.

He shouts at her. He honks. “C’mon!”

The world has gone crazy. It’s mass hysteria. Hurricane Irma is coming, and some people are losing their cotton-picking minds.

The woman hands her baby to her daughter—who looks like a fifth-grader.

The woman walks inside to see the cashier. She is gone a few moments before returning with her face in her hands. She looks like she’s about to cry.

“My wallet!” she shouts to her daughter. “I don't have it!”

Without skipping a beat, the young girl reaches into her jean pocket, and hands her mother a handful of dollars.

The lady’s dam breaks. If tears were nickels, she'd be a millionaire.

The girl gives the money to her mother with a brave face. And I can’t see

how much she gives, but it’s a wad.

More honking from Mercedes-Man. He slams his hands on his wheel.

The woman fills her car with gas. The daughter rocks the baby in her arms.

When the woman finishes, they crawl into a dilapidated Ford and drive away. Their car makes a grinding noise, like it needs a new axle. And I’m fairly certain she’s leaking oil.

Mercedes pulls in behind. He whips forward and jams his brakes. He leaps out, slams his door, and tries the pump. But something’s wrong.

He cusses, then marches inside.

He returns, accompanied by the attendant. The clerk places a yellow baggy over his gas-pump handle.

Out of service.

Cars are honking at Mister Mercedes. The man pulls into the next pump, behind a van. He waits.

When it’s…

We live in the Wiregrass. This is not my first big hurricane. In fact, we’ve seen so many storms that nearly every year we see Weather-Channel vans come to town.

SEPTEMBER 5th, 8:03 A.M.—Hurricane Irma approaches. It’s morning. The first thing I hear is the blaring Weather Channel.

My mother-in-law likes her television at volumes robust enough to rattle her artificial hip. Especially when the world is ending, like today.

On the screen: a lady-meteorologist is having a nervous breakdown. She points to a red-colored cyclone that’s roughly the size of Greenland, and says, “THIS IS A HURRICANE!”

She traces the map with a digital pointer, making colorful and scientific designs. She says, “ONE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY-FIVE MILE AN HOUR WINDS, FOLKS!”

My mother-in-law turns the volume up.

The weather-woman looks like a sophomore in high school, and she’s about to faint. She adds, “It’s ESSENTIAL to make sure you have bottled water, triple-A batteries, and a BIKE HELMET…”

The first thing I’d like to mention, is that the weather forecasting business has changed. For most of my life, weather-people wore polyester suits and looked like your father’s dentist. They pointed to maps, and told forecasts in easy voices.

This weather-woman is shouting, and her mascara is running.

“Do we have

bike helmets?” my mother-in-law asks.

I go to the garage to check for helmets. All I find are four AAA batteries, and my old catcher’s mask.

“We need bottled water,” my mother-in-law goes on. “Is my car gassed up? Get more batteries. I’m out of bread-and-butter pickles.”

I drive into town to fill her tank. The gas station has a ten-mile line of cars. So, I go into Walmart instead. There are families jogging through aisles with panicked faces, pushing carts. One woman has eighteen bottled-water crates in her cart. Her child is riding on top, like George Washington crossing the Delaware.

Of course, we live in the Wiregrass area. This is not our first big hurricane. In fact, we’ve seen so many storms, nearly every year the Weather-Channel vans come to town.

Half of my immediate family has been…

...I got into the habit of visiting nursing homes for stories. I’ve visited multitudes of them. I’ve met some stone-tough people there. I remember one in particular. I’ll call him Tom.

DEAR SEAN:

I’m crying while writing this in my car. My doctor just told me I have a health issue that could kill me, he actually said those words. ...I have kids and a wife, and I'm scared as hell. Tell me a story, man, I need cheering up.

Thanks,
A WORRIED MAN

DEAR WORRIED:

When I finished school, I decided to try my hand at writing professionally. I got laughed out of a newsroom.

An editor told me to “Go find some kick-ass stories, then maybe we’ll talk.”

Of course, I'm not a “kick-ass” type of guy. My expertise is more in the half-assed arena.

Anyway, I got into the habit of visiting nursing homes for stories. I’ve visited multitudes of them. I’ve met some stone-tough people there.

I remember one in particular. I’ll call him Tom.

In his young days, he was a high-school coach in a one-horse town that had a water tower and a party line.

He'd never had a winning football team. In

fact, some seasons he had to shut down the football program—there weren’t enough players.

One summer, doctors diagnosed him with cancer. He got so depressed that he stayed indoors and gave up living. He resigned before school started.

One day, he laid in bed, feeling sorry for himself. He heard heavy footsteps on his porch. All day, the footsteps. One pair after another.

He kept his curtains drawn.

When the footsteps finally quit, he peeked through his window. There were so many bouquets and thank-you cards on his porch that people started leaving flowers on the sidewalk.

On the first day of school, a friend called to tell Tom that thirty-some boys signed up for the football team—more applicants…

“They made the quilt for me,” one woman says. “When my husband was dying, and everyone took turns staying with me in the hospital.”

Somewhere in Alabama—a white clapboard building. The place is a trip backward in time. The steeple was added during the Great War. The cemetery is even older.

It’s a weeknight. Small-town kids play tag on the church lawn.

A mother barks: “Be nice to your sister!”

I meet an old woman who has been the church organist since Davy Crockett sailed the ocean blue.

A black-and-white image of her hangs in the fellowship hall. Think: big hair, petite frame, and one metric ton of eye makeup.

“Wasn’t I pretty?” she asks.

She still is.

Anyway, I have never seen a covered-dish party this size for a church so small. There are more casseroles than there are forks.

One old woman says, “Some of our ladies usually bring two, maybe three dishes. Willie Sue brought the tea.”

Willie Sue.

There are plenty of elderly people here. Several younger ones in their late forties and fifties, too.

One man says, “I came back last year. Used to

work in the big city, for a company that built smartphones. I was miserable. Doctor said my blood pressure was through the roof.”

He quit his job, and he left the tech field. He moved home and started attending potlucks again. They elected him janitor.

Today, he carries the church key ring and takes out the trash.

I meet another man who is missing his right arm below the elbow—a hunting accident. He cooks hamburgers on the grill, using a prosthetic hook.

“When I lost my arm,” he says. “The whole church chipped in and delivered suppers for a year, they never skipped.”

Three hundred and sixty-five foil-covered plates.

The children in the congregation are few. There is only…