The point is, I’m a guy, and my mother babied me. She’d place a television beside my bed so I could watch Fantasy Island, Andy Griffith, Family Feud, and commercials of Mean Joe Greene.

I am a man. And despite my many masculine traits, this means I am not a good sick person. I have learned this about myself.

At the first sign of a sniffle, I become bedridden and my voice gets high-pitched.

Right now, for instance, I’m in bed. A vaporizer sits on my nightstand. I’m browsing the internet for a unique, but traditional headstone made of Peruvian granite.

“Here lies Sean,” it will read. “He told his wife he was sick, and she laughed.”

My wife, Jamie, is a card-carrying woman.

Right now, she has the same fatal illness I have. And even though she’s hacking up multi-colored phlegm, running a mild fever, she is unstoppable.

Today, for example, I barely scraped together enough stamina to take a shower. She mopped, dusted, and tarred the shed roof.

I also feel obliged to tell you that it’s not my fault that I’m a wimp. I am like most men. My intolerance for stuffy noses originates with my mother.

As a boy,

my mother took illness seriously. She wouldn’t let her little “Poopie Bear” out of bed if his nose was even remotely red.

Thus, at the first sign of symptoms, I did what most boys in my position would do. I rolled onto my side and hollered, “Mama!” using the same voice I’d use if I were being eaten alive by mountain lions.

Mama would come running up the stairs—two steps at a time. She’d find me in bed, looking like I’d been shot with a giraffe tranquilizer.

She’d touch my forehead. I would moan. Maybe work up a few tears. You know, put some heart into it.

“I feel sick,” I’d say.

She’d take my pulse and declare, "You’re staying home.”

And I knew I was on Easy Street. The bed became my home. Spider-Man underpants became my wardrobe.

“My dreams have always been just sounds,” he says. “But not this one. I saw a color or something. It was big. And I think it was blue.”

The television in the doctor’s office is blaring news headlines. It plays disturbing footage, followed by politicians who explain that the world itself is crumbling.

The people in this waiting room watch the TV. Most are sick. If you close your eyes, you’ll hear hacking and coughing.

Welcome to the Fifth Circle of Waiting-Room Hell.

The woman beside me is dog sick. On my other side is a boy with a snotty upper lip. His cough sounds like a ‘67 Buick Roadmaster on a cold morning.

I move to the other side of the room, away from people who look like they’re about to write their own obituaries. I sit next to a man whose eyes are closed.

He hears me.

“Hello,” he says, without opening his eyes.

His name is Dan. He’s blind.

Dan wears a smile on his unshaven face. He shoves his hand in my general direction and we shake. We start talking.

The television overhead is loud enough to drown

us out, but we manage.

“I play guitar,” Dan says. “I’m not very good, but I play. Thinking of learning piano, too. My wife bought me a keyboard for my birthday.”

His wife is beside him, reading. Silver hair. Lines around her eyes. “He can do anything,” she says. “He even drew a portrait of me.”

Dan tells me that he printed a photo of her. She pricked holes into the paper with a needle, outlining the facial features. Then he traced.

His wife shows me the portrait on her cellphone. The word impressive comes to mind.

Dan also tells me he had a dream a few nights ago.

“It wasn’t just any dream,” he says.

It was a visual dream. The first time he’s seen anything since age two. At least he thinks he saw something. Truth told, Dan doesn’t even…

She gave him to his aunt—who had even more addiction problems than his mother. It was a bad idea. He was five when his aunt gave him to the foster system.

He was two when his mother gave him up. He has one faint memory of her.

In the memory, she’s sitting in the backseat, holding him. He remembers radio music. Sunlight. That’s all.

It’s a short recollection, but it’s all he has.

She gave him to his aunt—who had even more addiction problems than his mother. It was a bad idea. He was five when his aunt gave him to the foster system.

Group homes are not places you want to find yourself. Three square meals and a bed. It’s no day at the Ramada.

When he was thirteen he came down with pneumonia. It landed him in the hospital for a week. He didn’t care if he survived.

At night, he’d stare out his hospital window and wonder if anyone even cared that he was sick.

Someone cared. A woman with gray hair and kind eyes. She was a night-shift nurse.

“What’cha staring at?” she asked him once.

“I dunno,” he said. “Stars, I guess.”

She talked. He listened. She

told stories. All kinds. A good story can do a lot for a lonely kid.

She told a story about her grandmother, who was raised in orphanages during the Great Depression.

The boy was all ears.

She told him how her granny wore plain clothes and ate institutional food. How love ran thin. And how one day, she got married.

The kid’s face perked up.

“My granny wasn’t lonely forever,” the nurse said. “When she met my grandfather, she inherited a big family. She was so happy.”

When Granny passed, she'd become the happiest orphan in ten states. She had a big family. Fourteen grandkids.

“That’s a lot of grandkids,” the boy said.

“One day,” the nurse said. “You’ll have a big family.”

The thought made him smile.

But life isn’t a…

That was a long time ago. You were young then. That was before your life took off. You got your life together. You got married and moved away. You made three kids, and worked a decent job.

Memphis, 1984—your name is Billy. You’ve got two bucks left to your name.

A few months ago, your landlord kicked you out. Strike one. You got fired from your job. Strike two. Then, your dog was hit by a car. Strike three.

Thanks for playing, Billy.

The last few months, you’ve been sleeping in your storage unit. But not for long. You only have a few days left before the unit lease is up.

Then, you’ll be living in your car.

And you know, of course, this was all your own fault. How could you not know? You’re no angel.

Right now, it’s late night, and you’re walking into a supermarket because you’re hungry. You’ve already searched dumpsters behind restaurants.

And hunger doesn’t just go away.

So you shove apples and bananas into your jacket pockets. A loaf of bread. An old woman sees you do it. You notice her. Now she’s following you through the store.

Great. Just what you need.

“Young man,” she says. “Don’t do it.”

There’s no use ignoring her. Besides, you’re a terrible liar. You hang your head and say, “I don’t know

what else to do, ma’am. I’m starving.”

She’s sweet. Eyes like dewdrops. Face like your Great Aunt. She tells you to walk with her.

You put the food back. She holds your arm; you push her cart. She shops. You reach items on top shelves, lift heavy things, you help her check out.

She asks you to follow her home. So you do. You drive behind her—your tank is on “E.” So is your belly. It’s dark.

“This is ridiculous,” you say to yourself.

Hers is a small house. You remove your jacket and hang it on her kitchen chair. You unload her groceries. She makes you a pot of canned chili.

When you finish, she hands you a few bucks. It’s not much. But it’s her kindness that touches you. You…

Life isn’t forever. I know that. Sometimes I think about this, and I’m too scared to imagine the day one of us wakes up in an empty bed.

Do you remember when we met? I do.

It was a Barnes and Noble bookstore. I was reading; you were with friends. You waltzed through the door with that determined walk you have. That I-can-take-care-of-myself walk.

There are some things a man never forgets.

You wore a baby-blue sweater. Your hair was chin-length. We must’ve talked for an hour. Two strangers. A chance meeting.

No. I take that back. I don’t believe in chances.

How about the long drives we took just for fun? We’d ride two-lane highways through the night for an excuse to talk. We’ve always been able to carry our weight in words.

I asked you to marry me. You said yes. I gave you a jeweler's box containing the world’s tiniest diamond. It cost me every dollar I had. You wore red that night. Red.

We got married in a small chapel. We honeymooned in Charleston. We had no money for that trip, but we went anyway.

We were dumber back then.

I miss being dumb.

How about our ugly apartment. Remember that place? I drove by it yesterday, for old time’s sake. The grounds were overgrown. Mold on the siding. What a dump.

Our old neighbors were still there. The same ones who had fleas that infested the whole building.

God, I loved that place.

Then there was the time I wrecked the truck. The man behind us fell asleep at the wheel. You were listening to the radio when it happened.

“Shameless,” was the song playing. I thought we were dead. It was a miracle we survived.

But then, our whole lives have been one big miracle, you know? You got me through college. You tutored me through math class. Those are miracles in themselves.

We used to argue hard sometimes. When our spats ended, we didn’t get lovey dovey like adolescents.…

Then, she hands me a Post-It note covered in pencil writing. She has the kind of penmanship I can only dream about.

She didn’t expect her life to turn out the way it did. She expected something else. Something mundane.

Let’s back up. She was past middle age, rounding the corner into old age when she met him.

She was a retired hairdresser. A faithful Methodist. Two daughters, a small home, and a Shih Tzu named Bill.

She met him in the doctor’s office. He was with his granddaughter. The little girl was the first to start the conversational momentum.

“Are you a grandmama?” the girl asked.

“Yes, I am,” she said.

That was the beginning of it all. Sometimes, it only takes a few words.

The three of them went to lunch that same day. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. The most fun she’d had in years.

He called and asked her to dinner the next night. She turned him down. It was more out of instinct than anything.

She’d always considered herself a married woman before.

She let a week pass before she called him. Her

opening line was: "I changed my mind...”

So they went. She wore a pink suit. Her friend, Maria, teased her hair to perfection.

They ate at a nice place. They ordered wine—which went straight to her head. She told him about her life, her daughters, her grandchildren. And even though she didn’t mean to, she started talking about her late husband.

She caught herself. “I feel so embarrassed,” she said.

He told her not to be. Then, he talked about his late wife. About the stroke, about caring for her.

They stayed out until two in the morning.

And it was easy sailing from there. She took him to church. He brought her to his granddaughter’s musical. She cooked for him. He ate.

They announced they’d be having a ceremony in her backyard after four months of dating.

Anyway, I wish I had something magnificent to finish this with, but I’m not a magnificent kind of guy. I’m John Q. Average who is obviously coming down with a super-cold.

It’s raining cats and buffalo. I’m standing in line in the hardware store, waiting to check out. I've had a nagging cough since this morning. And, I am in a lethargic mood—somewhere between “unenthused” and “living dead.”

I hope I'm not getting sick.

There’s a girl who joins the back of the long hardware store line. She's Hispanic, holding a baby. She's buying one item.

A man lets her cut ahead of him. So does another woman. And another. And ten others in line.

Soon, the girl is at the head of the line, paying the cashier.

“Tank yoo,” she says to everyone.

Everyone waves and says something like, “No problem.”

I leave the store. I jog toward my truck through the rain. My wife calls. She wants me to pick up milk, eggs, and a bottle of vitamins.

"Not the cheap kind,” she explains.

She wants the kind that require a reverse mortgage.

The supermarket—I see a man in a wheelchair. He is in the self-checkout lane.

The man is missing both legs and one arm.

He stuffs his groceries into a gym bag. A woman is with him. He refuses to let her help him.

When it is time to pay, he reaches into a pocket and removes a credit card. He swipes, then places the card between his teeth and taps a digital screen.

The cashier inspects the man’s receipt, then says “Have a nice day, sir.”

“Oh, I definitely will,” the man answers.

And he seems to mean it.

After the hardware store, I drive across town to get a haircut. The lady who usually cuts my hair is named Julia. Julia is an artist. The only one who can tame this unruly red mop.

Julia is out with the flu.

The woman who trims my hair is new, from North Alabama. Her…

Who knows where it comes from. And who cares. Some things hail from heavenly places unseen. Some things are gifts from the heart of a child. There’s not much difference between the two.

She’s a cool kid. Ten years old. You should hear the way she talks. She sounds like she could be a quarterback.

She’s a firecracker. She likes knock-knock jokes, Disney princesses, and spontaneous high-fives.

She can slap your hand hard enough to make it sting.

“She’s a neat kid,” her mother says. “We always say she’ll probably end up being president one day.”

Maybe. But for now, her occupation is a different one.

“I like to give cool gifts,” the girl tells me.

The cool gifts started two years ago. A boy at school lost his mother to overdose. It was around that time the girl begged her parents for an Xbox.

Eventually, like most good parents, they gave in. They bought the video-game console and surprised her. It came wrapped in ribbons and paper. But the girl never opened it.

Instead, she took it to school. She handed it to the boy after class.

A teacher overheard the girl tell him, “Play with this whenever you get sad,

it’ll take your mind off sad things.”

Then, there was the man in her neighborhood. He lived several houses down the street. He had a car accident—a bad one. Head injury, broken leg, he was confined to his bed for awhile.

One day, the girl and her mother arrived on his porch unannounced. The girl had crocheted a hat from bright green yarn.

“Green’s the color of healing,” the girl told the man. “When you wear this hat, I’m gonna be wearing one made with the same yarn. And it’ll be like having a friend with you.”

I told you she was a cool kid.

The girl’s mother helped her make the hats. It took a whole week. The gifts were well-received.

The man wore his hat to every physical therapy appointment. He relearned to walk in that hat.…

His legs are crossed, he’s flipping pages. I sit beside him. He’s easy to converse with. Men who like dime-novel Westerns usually are.

There’s a long line waiting to get into the breakfast joint. And I see him, sitting on a bench outside. He’s old, and I have a soft spot for old men.

He’s wearing a windbreaker with holes in it and ratty tennis shoes. He’s reading a book—an illustration of a cowboy on the cover.

Many upstanding men have passed the hours with the venerable Louis L’Amour.

His legs are crossed, he’s flipping pages. I sit beside him. He’s easy to converse with. Men who like dime-novel Westerns usually are.

He speaks nice and slow.

He’s in town visiting his son. Only, no visiting has happened yet.

“My son’s got a lot on his plate,” the man says. “He’s not able to break away, he’s just so busy with work.”

Busy. I don’t like that word. Especially when it comes out of my own mouth.

The man’s wife passed two years ago. It was sudden. And even though he doesn’t say, I’ll bet he’s not used to the absence yet. Just eating right can

be a daily battle for the man whose wife spoiled him.

“I am what you call a L-O-M,” he goes on. “A lonely old man.”

“Was” is more like it.

Because this year, he’s making some changes. He’s been taking road trips. Mostly, to visit childhood friends and high-school pals. He’s had a famous time doing it. He’s been all over the Southeast.

In the last months, the old man has visited North Carolina, South Carolina, South Florida, Mississippi, Missouri, and Arkansas. He’s been burning the roads, eating truckstop food, staying in hotels. He’s not wallowing in loneliness.

She wouldn’t have wanted him to wallow.

He nods toward his horse in the parking lot. Every man’s dream truck. A ‘89 Ford 7.3 liter, diesel. Red. Cherry condition.

One day, if I play my cards…

I felt sort of strong. And sometimes, feeling strong can make fear easier. Even when you’re driving in the dark. Being strong. That counts for a lot.

Nighttime. I’m driving a two-lane highway. I like two-lanes. I like old fence posts. Old barns. I like all sorts of things.

I like driving. It puts me at ease.

You have no reason to care about this, but I used to worry a lot. After my father passed, I was afraid of everything.

As a boy, sometimes I’d lie in bed and feel so scared I couldn’t catch my breath. I don’t know what I was afraid of. Nobody tells you grief feels just like fear.

I was afraid. Plain and simple. Afraid my family would die. Car accidents were another particular fear. I was afraid of vacant houses, doctors, hurricanes, tsunamis, realtors.

Of course, it wasn’t like this before my daddy pulled his own plug. Once, I played baseball, ate ice cream, and fished in creeks.

But fear has a way of taking over. At night, I’d wonder if death was going to swallow me whole. Irrational, I know. But young boys aren’t rational.

When I was fourteen, my

friend and I snuck out of Saturday night prayer meeting. We were there with his grandmother. She was a sweet, white-haired woman who memorized Bible verses and smoked like a tugboat.

My pal leaned against his grandmother’s car and jingled her keys which he’d taken from her purse.

“Wanna go for a drive?” he said.

“Right now?” I said. “During prayer meeting?”

His smile was a wild one.

I didn’t want to. I was—you can probably guess—too afraid. I was afraid we’d wreck. Afraid we’d wake up in county lock-up with orange jumpsuits and a roommate named Bad Bart McThroatslicer.

But my friend wasn’t like me. He wasn’t afraid. He begged me to get in the car.

It was terrifying, but I did it.

We rode his grandmother’s vehicle down gravel roads at slow speeds.…