“My grandkids are coming to town this week,” she says. “Wanna make sure they have enough food.”

The woman in the checkout aisle is small, white-haired. Her cart is full, mounding with Gatorade, Cheetos, and ice cream sandwiches.

I love ice cream sandwiches.

She is bent at the waist, her joints are as thin as number-two pencils. She is struggling to push her cart.

I offer to unload her buggy. She thanks me and says, “Aren’t you a sweet little Boy Scout?”

A comedian, this lady.

If I am lucky enough to see old age, I will be a comedian.

She’s out of breath, leaning on her basket. If I didn't know any better, I'd guess her back is killing her.

“My grandkids are coming to town this week,” she says. “Wanna make sure they have enough food.”

This explains the Mountain Dew, the Goldfish, and the ice cream sandwiches.

We talk. She is friendly. No. She is perfect. Dressed to the nines, hair fixed. It is nine in the morning, she is bearing pearls and ruby lipstick.

She is the American granny. Nineteen hundred and fifty-nine, frozen in time. The kind of woman whose lifelong occupation

is to keep stomachs full while wearing matching blouse and shoes.

When the cashier finishes scanning, the old woman thanks me. I offer to take her groceries to the car. She tries to pay me.

No ma'am. I’d rather sell my soul to Doctor Phil for thirty pieces of silver than take your money.

I roll her cart toward the parking lot. She holds the side. I suggest she grab my arm. She does, and for a moment, I am ten-foot tall and Kevlar.

She has an economy Ford. The trunk is tiny. I have an idea: I ask her to let me follow her home and unload her groceries.

It’s too much. Too personal, too fast. This embarrasses her.

“No thanks,” she says. “I’ll have my grandkids unload when they get here tomorrow. My grandkids, they’re visiting me tomorrow.”

In the backseat: Ellie chews on an empty plastic peanut butter jar. It’s the only thing she’ll chew inearnest. She doesn’t like bones.

It’s early. We’ve left town before sunrise. We’ve got a long way to go. My wife is driving. My coonhound, Ellie Mae, rides in the backseat.

On long trips, my wife always drives. She’s a natural leader—she could make room-temperature honey walk in a single-file line. And I'm a natural sleeper.

In the backseat: Ellie chews on an empty plastic peanut butter jar. It’s the only thing she’ll chew inearnest. She doesn’t like bones.

I don’t often use the word “beautiful”—it’s overdone. But if I did, I’d use it on Ellie.

We drive past Paxton. Florala. Lockhart. Towns about the size of walk-in closets. I’ve watched a baseball game in Paxton.

I fall asleep. No dreams worth recalling. I wake up. We’re passing the JCPenney in Andalusia. I bought a necktie there once.

It was an engagement party. I arrived with nothing but a golf shirt and jeans. No jacket, no tie. My wife went ballistic.

That day, we stopped at JCPenney. She picked out a crimson tie. I looked like a bloated Baptist usher.

Miles ahead: a sign advertising the Hank Williams Museum in Georgiana. I’ve

visited that museum. Miss Margaret—the white-haired tour guide—made Domino sugar seem unsweet.

Interstate 65: the views have changed considerably. Small communities get replaced with fast-rolling pavement. Everyone’s in a hurry. This world moves too fast.

Ellie Mae has destroyed her JIF jar. She paints my upholstery with peanut butter.

We pull over in Camelia City—commonly known as Greenville. Think: sprawling antebellum mansions and the historic Confederate Park. I could live in Greenville.

Here, I buy upholstery-cleaner to scrub peanut butter from my upholstery.

Back on the road.

We approach Priester’s Pecans. I tell Jamie to stop. I go inside, use the little cowboy’s room. I buy a bag of Pecan Fiddlesticks. If you don’t know what those are, don’t start.

More driving. My wife turns on the radio. She sings along. She knows…

It’s high-school culinary teachers who give a damn. It's neighborhood barbecues. It’s animal shelters. Old folks. It's volunteer uncles who live in spare bedrooms.

Colton, Texas—they moved Holly’s mother to a nursing home. It was time.

Her mother couldn't recognize her friends or family. She'd forgotten names. Dates. Hygiene.

They placed her in a place they could afford—which wasn't much.

Holly asked her daughter’s boyfriend to visit the center with his guitar.

“I'd heard music could stimulate brain stuff,” she said.

It didn't work. What happened was a group of patients in wheelchairs gathered around the boy's singing. They made requests.

He played for several hours.

“He really got into it,” she said. “It meant so much to me.”

And when he played “You Are My Sunshine,” Holly’s mother wandered into the seating area.

The old woman sat in a chair. She sang along with the others, word for word.

When the music ended, she looked at her daughter and said, “Oh, there you are, Holly.”

“Hey Mama.”

Jacksonville, Florida—an at-risk school. He wasn’t a good high-school student. In fact, he was failing. But he liked food and cooking. His English teacher discovered this.

She bribed him.

“I told him, ‘If you study your butt off, I’ll teach you how to cook.’”


She started an after-school culinary program in a local church. She got a restaurant chef to volunteer some of his time. Six local kids signed up for class.

“It was great,” she said. “Everyone had so much fun. It kinda gave us something to look forward to.”

It gave them more than that. Today, four of those students are working in commercial kitchens.

Arthurtown, South Carolina—Jason was single. Young. A CPA. He drove a quick car, he stayed out late. But standing at his brother-in-law’s graveside changed everything.

His sister’s husband died, leaving his sister with four kids. She was a mess.

“I had a job to do,” Jason said. “I just knew it. Those kids needed somebody. My sister needed me.”

He quit his job. He moved across the country…

The night of Daddy’s first performance, he was a nervous wreck. His hands shook while he drove to church.

I'm at a small church. It's evening. The glowing sign by the highway reads: “Passion Play. Free to Public.”

The parking lot is full.

I have a thing for Easter plays. As a kid, my steelworking, hay-baling father took the role of Jesus in the church pageant.

“You want me to play WHO?” Daddy said into the telephone receiver one night. Then, he laughed until he was hoarse.

Of course, it was ridiculous. Sure, Daddy attended church. But he also had a scar on his hindparts from a glass flask, shattering in his back pocket.

He was no Bible character.

So I walk into the small church. I find a pew near the back. I sit beside a large family. The sanctuary is chock-full.

Beside me: a little girl wearing an Auburn T-shirt. Her name is Catherine. We shake hands.

Pleased to meet you, Catherine.

Anyway, when Daddy first agreed to play the part, he swore off beer and cussing. He bought a tape recorder. He sat in the barn, reading the red words into the microphone.

“What’re you doing?” I asked.

“Practicing,” he said.

“Is that Seven-Up?”

“Club soda.”


Catherine shushes her little brother. The lights dim in the chapel. Piano music.

Actors take the stage, dressed in bedsheets. These are salt-of-the-earth folks with Alabamian accents and Birkenstocks.

The night of Daddy’s first performance, he was a nervous wreck. His hands shook while he drove to church.

I asked if he was scared. He didn’t answer—he was busy practicing the Sermon on the Mount.

When they crucified him, they painted him with strawberry syrup. And during the final scene, Mister Rick fired a shotgun blank while the foam stone rolled away from the tomb.

The choir sang. People applauded. It was maybe the highest moment of Daddy’s life.

Months later, his funeral was held in the same chapel. Minus the choir.

That was ten lifetimes ago.


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.


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?



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.


“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.



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...”


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.


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.


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…