The house is quiet. The hospice nurse is here to check on Mary, my mother-in-law. The rattling in Mary’s chest is bad. She is talking gibberish in her sleep, too, which the nurse says is common among those who are dying.

Earlier this morning one of the aunts stopped by. But Mary was sleeping.

“Can I sneak in and look at her?” asked the aunt as tears dripped from her cheekbones.

The aunt peeked into the bedroom and was confronted with the modern machinery of medical care. An oxygen machine that sounded like a small lawnmower, with long tubes going to Mary’s nasal cannula.

The aunt covered her mouth and cried. “Oh, bless her.”

But the strange thing is, nobody wore the kinds of faces you’d associate with grief—those faces will come later. Right now everyone wears a warm face. Ours are the faces of people tangled up in nostalgia.

“Who’s she talking to?” said the aunt, dabbing her eyes.

“Don’t know,” said my wife. “She’s been talking in her sleep all day. She’s talking to someone.”

“Maybe it's God.”

We

all wept.

When the aunt left the house, everything went quiet again. And this is the oddest part of dying. The quiet. I’m not used to this house being so unearthly silent.

Long ago, this house used to be the loudest place on the block. When my father-in-law was alive, these walls vibrated with 24-hour cable news. After he died, my mother-in-law blared non-stop HGTV. She bled Chip-and-Joanna blue. But now.

Now it’s radio silence.

The caregivers sit nearby, clad in scrubs, killing time on phones. My wife is reading a hospice pamphlet. I hear a clock ticking. The refrigerator hums. It’s like a library in here.

More relatives pay a visit. They enter with smiling and tearful faces. And I’m noticing a trend here. Those faces again. Nobody wears the forlorn expressions of pity, they wear looks I…

Dearest Jamie,

You have taught me so much. I know we husbands don’t often admit that our wives teach us things, but they do. You are a fine teacher. I never knew how beautiful caregiving could be until you showed me.

For years I have watched you care for your frail mother. I have seen you lift her spindly body in your strong arms—wrecking your lower back one lumbar disc at a time.

I have been outside your mother’s lavatory door, listening to your easy voice guide her through her private moments.

I have helped cut your mother’s steak into itty-bitty pieces for you to feed her while she watches the “Sex in the City” marathon on TV.

And that smile your mother gives. I’ve seen that, too. It’s radiant. It is not so much like the smile of a parent, but more like the guileless face of a child.

I have been present at the grandiose birthday parties you’ve thrown for this white-haired matriarch in the wheelchair. Huge parties.

Most people would bring a cake and a

pointy hat and call it a day. But you adorned the house with thousands of balloons, rainbows of flowers, and metric tons of cheap, mail-ordered Hawaiian luau paraphernalia that I am still paying off.

But yesterday, when the hospice nurse held your hand and said “Your mom doesn’t have much time left,” it hit me like a knee to the ribs.

That one wasn’t in the caregiver manual.

And do you know what the weirdest part is? I feel lost after hearing those words. Like I am surrounded by people speaking Hungarian, Japanese, and Norwegian. I don’t understand anything that’s going on. I feel disoriented. Nobody ever tells you that dying is confusing.

For the first time in my own house I don’t know what I should be doing, where I should be sitting, or standing, or what I should do with…

A retired professor sent me a letter. He told me that some of my stories were "too plain," and "needed more work." Then he went on to tell me many more unsavory things about myself. I was afraid he was going to grade my work and give me a C minus.

I’ve admitted this before, but I have a noted history of getting C’s. I once set a longstanding academic record for earning the most consecutive C's in my weight division. The record was later broken, but my picture still hangs in the community college trophy case.

Although not all the messages I receive are bad. For example: This morning I got a message from a man in Tallapoosa County, Alabama. He started with the words, “I sincerely love you.”

It was Niagara Falls after that. I can’t think of a better way to start a day.

Then, the man went on to tell me about something that happened to him once.

Years ago, he was standing in a supermarket line. He was

trying to pay for his groceries, but his card was declined. His bank account was in the red. A woman in line paid for his items. She was a complete stranger. He’s never told anyone about this.

“That woman probably didn’t know it,” he wrote, “but I was a single dad, at the time I was broke and we were going hungry. She put food in my kids’ mouths.”

Oh, and there’s the letter I got from the woman in Chattanooga.

She got pregnant when she was seventeen. Her family kicked her out of the house. She almost gave the child up for adoption because seventeen-year-olds can't afford babies. She wanted her child to have a good life, even if this meant letting it go.

But then a neighbor woman stepped in. She invited the girl to live with her for as long as the girl needed.…

This morning I started thinking about you. Mainly, I was thinking about what you’re going through right now. Whoever you are.

I don’t know you. I don’t know anything about you. But in a way we know each other because you and I aren’t that different.

True, you probably have better health insurance than I do. And I can almost guarantee that you’re smarter than I am—you’re looking at a 2.0 GPA right here.

Still, sometimes we fools know stuff. No, we might not be good at trigonometry, but even a broken clock tells the correct time twice per day. So here’s what I know:

You will get through this.

Yes, you’re going through a rough patch right now. Yes, you’re wondering what’s around the next curve of the highway, and it’s freaking you out. Yes, everything is uncertain. But you’re going to make it.

You have a serious health issue. A doctor just gave you bad news. Your dad is in the ICU. Your mom is dying. Someone you love is secretly hurting you. You’re depressed.

Or maybe it’s simpler

than that. Maybe you’re late on your mortgage, and you feel like you're drowning in bank notes. Perhaps your kids are making complete disasters of their lives. Maybe you’re lonely.

Either way, what you usually wonder to yourself is why. Why does bad stuff keep happening to you? Why is it that lately your life could be summed up with a Morton Salt slogan?

I can’t answer that. But you don’t need answers right now. Answers wouldn’t help you anyway. None of the answers would even make sense. That’s how life works.

When I was a boy, I remember my mother’s sewing basket. It sat beside her sofa, filled with knitting and embroidery work. One time, I removed a folded-up piece of cloth from this basket and unfurled it. What I found was a tangled mess of knots and…

The middle of the night. I cannot sleep. I am lying awake, staring at my ceiling. Something is keeping me awake. But I won’t tell you what it is.

My wife is not snoring. It’s important that you understand this because women do not like to be told that they snore. It makes them very angry, and they will inflict physical pain upon those who accuse them of this vulgar thing. Which I am not doing. Nor would I ever.

As a boy, whenever I couldn’t sleep I would think about food. Some kids counted sheep, some added prime numbers, or recited their ABCs. I counted casseroles.

Before drifting off, I would visualize a grassy meadow filled with little church ladies, all carrying casserole dishes, taking turns leaping over livestock fences while the sheep watched them at a distance. And I would count.

“One chicken casserole, two chicken casserole…” And so on.

If that didn’t work, I would move on to counting pound cakes. When pound cakes didn’t work, I would count field peas.

Which is

the point I am at now.

I should probably stop here for anyone who doesn’t know about field peas. I meet a lot of people who hear “field peas” and think of English peas. Which are green pellets often served in sketchy buffet-style restaurants with glass sneeze-guards that do not protect the vats of bacteria laden food from small children who are literally at nostril-level with the mashed potatoes.

No, field peas are different. There are billions of varieties of field peas. I’ll name a few:

Crowder peas, purple hulls, Big Red Rippers, whippoorwills, Stick Ups, turkey craws, Mama Slappers, Old Timers, cow peas, Mississippi Silvers, shanty peas, Iron Clays, Wash Days, Triple Es, Sermonizers, Butt Kickers, Polecats, pinkeyes, and zipper peas.

You haven't lived until you’ve tried zipper peas with ham hocks and bacon grease.

Years ago, I visited a no-name cafe outside…

Somewhere outside Tallahassee. An out-of-the-way restaurant. The burgers are small, the beer will freeze your molars. My server is a guy who looks mid-twenties. He wears an Atlanta Braves ball cap, therefore you know he’s good people. When he delivers my burger he tells me he’s getting married.

Married? I reply.

“Yep. Just asked my girlfriend to marry me this morning. She said yes. Man, I still can’t believe it. Hey. You wanna see a picture of her?”

She’s beautiful.

“You can keep scrolling through them, my whole phone is nothing but pictures of her and her two daughters. They’re my life.”

What about this one? Where was this picture taken?

“Lake Talquin. We were fishing. That was my girlfriend’s daughter’s fifth birthday party. Caught her first fish.”

Cute kid.

“And she knows it, too. This one's from her last baseball game. Well, actually, tee-ball.”

What about this picture?

“Oh, that? That was after my accident, few years ago.”

Looks like a bad one.

“It was. Flipped my truck, almost died. Was in the hospital for a long time. Man, I got all sorts of

pins in my body now. Check out this scar. And this scar here is covered by my haircut.”

Holy cow.

“Yeah. I’m lucky to still be here. My girlfriend was beside me throughout my whole recovery, she lived in that hospital, man. Wouldn’t leave me unless the nurses physically removed her. Whenever I opened my eyes, there she was, asleep in the chair. She spent the holidays with me. Lost her job because she wouldn’t leave my bedside.

“She never let go of my hand. One time, she must’ve held my hand for eight hours straight. My hand had this huge dent in it from her holding it so long.”

She sounds like quite a woman.

“She is.”

So how did you pop the question?

“Well, I just did the down-on-one-knee thing before she left…

Tallahassee. I’m about to make a speech to a group of ladies at a luncheon. But before I do, I’m stopping at a barbecue joint for necessary fuel because this isn’t my first women’s lunch gig. I know from experience that finger sandwiches don’t fill me up.

I like visiting Tallahassee. Always have. The colossal oaks, the Spanish moss, the old homes, it’s perfect.

When you arrive here you immediately sense the energy of a college town. And, of course, since Tallahassee is also the state capital, the downtown has the uptight vibe of a city that suffers from severe gastrointestinal distress.

But it is this combination of youth, academia, and state politics that gives this place a uniquely diverse feel.

Take this barbecue joint. At the table behind me is a frat boy with shaggy hair and flip flops. He sits directly beside a guy who looks like a wealthy congressman. The frat boy smiles at the congressman and, without a shred of awkwardness, elbows the guy and says, “Yo. Pass the barbecue sauce,

bro.”

That’s Tallahassee.

The strange thing is, I’ve always had bad luck in this town. I don’t know why. Don’t get me wrong, I love this city, but I have history here.

It all started when I applied to Florida State University several years ago. At the time, I was an adult student with little more than a GED and a smile. I freely admit, as a high-school dropout I wasn’t exactly Mister Academic. But, hey, I was trying to make something of myself.

My dream was to earn a degree from a State-U. So I rented a nearby apartment and enrolled in an arts program. I met with the professors and basically begged them to let me into school. I vowed to work hard, and I promised to bring the teachers lots of apples.

But the professors never let me finish my interview. I…

I paid five bucks to attend the fundraiser potluck dinner. I drove into the woods of West Florida until I found a tiny chapel with mildewed aluminum siding, a recently mowed lawn, and a smattering of modest, earth-tone-colored vehicles parked out front.

I entered the itty-bitty fellowship hall. I deposited my suggested five-dollar donation into the basket. I was hugged by a woman named Margie who smelled of Chanel No. 5 and fried poultry. I was handed a paper plate.

“We’re glad you could make it, Mister Writer You,” said Margie. Then she winked. Although I’m not sure why.

The buffet was the size of a landing strip, the table’s surface was weighted with enough casseroles to compromise the foundation. You’ve never seen such a spread. And it was all organized according to category.

You had your chicken dishes—lemon chicken casserole, chicken divan, fried chicken, chicken à la King of Kings.

There were the cold salads—butter bean salad, corn salad, potato salad, pasta salad, and a host of other concoctions from your granny’s recipe-card box.

The dessert table was ridiculous. The church ladies were just showing off. Many of the desserts I'd never even heard of, and I thought I’d seen it all.

There were various exotic delights with names like cappuccino cream cake, Georgia Pawnee pecan pie, tiramisu brownies, and lemon icebox pie, otherwise known as “Baptist crack.”

There were pound cakes of every persuasion— blueberry, strawberry, chocolate, banana-mango. And, oh yeah, strawberry pretzel salad. Enough said.

There were, of course, the occasional Tupperware containers filled with store bought fare, rumored to be purchased from the Piggly Wiggly. Nobody touched this stuff. Bringing store-bought food to a covered-dish gathering is a grievous sin, and grounds for horsewhipping, punishable by mandatory nursery duty.

One poor woman brought a seven-layer Publix cake. I heard that she was later asked to resign from the Monday night women’s Bible study.

Nobody was more…

I have here a letter from Alan in Winston Salem, North Carolina, which reads:

“Hi Sean, my oldest daughter is getting married in a few weeks. It is, of course, customary for the father of the bride to give a toast at the reception. I can’t begin to say how thrilled I am... But I’ve never been comfortable speaking before crowds. Do you have any advice?”

Well, Alan, you came to the right guy. I have been public speaking for years. Before the pandemic I was giving three or four speeches per week at various high-society gigs, such as Rotary Club meetings at Shoney’s, or leading the opening prayer at Monster Truck-A-Palooza.

So I’ve been around.

Plus, I have mucho experience at weddings. In fact, before I fell into the public speaking bit, I was a bandleader in various musical groups. Pretty much all my band did each summer was play wedding receptions. So I have witnessed—literally—hundreds of wedding toasts, and given dozens myself.

I have come up with a few bullet points for public speaking:

1.

Check your fly.

You probably think I’m kidding. I’m not. Take my word for it, you do not want to learn this lesson the hard way.

2. Don’t sing. Now, I realize this sounds like common sense, and the idea to belt out a song probably never crossed your mind. But trust me, there are people who sing when they make wedding toasts. I have seen it happen.

You have never known true misery until you have watched someone’s 76-year-old grandmother sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” for a wedding toast even though she couldn’t carry a tune if it were tattooed on her palm.

3. Be funny. Don’t be afraid of humor. A lot of speakers are scared of levity because they equate humor with irreverence. Not so.

I have found that most audiences want to laugh—unless, of course, they are Free Will…

“Sean, every time I sit down to write, I can’t make the words come… Maybe it’s because I’m not any good. I got a C in my journalism class, and I feel like I’ll never be a true writer, but a big failure. What should I do?”

This question was posed to me by a twenty-one-year-old journalism major who I will call Merle. I call him this for two reasons. Firstly, Merle Haggard is one of my favorite country singers. Secondly, this man’s name is actually Merle.

The thing is, Merle, you already have more credentials than I do. I never took a journalism class. In fact, I’m not what you’d call a “true writer,” either. A true writer finds incredible stories, then polishes them into poetry. I don’t do that.

Case in point: Once, I wrote an entire column about eyebrow hair.

This proves that I am not an “author” per se, at least not in the traditional sense. Actually, what I am is a “talker.” Which means I can talk at great length about topics I know

absolutely nothing about. Kind of like I’m doing now.

I inherited this natural gabbiness from my mother. My mother could chat with anyone or anything. Once, when I was a boy my mother lost her prescription eyeglasses in a JCPenney and mistakenly struck up conversation with a life-sized cardboard cutout of Brooke Shields who was advertising tight-fitting jeans.

After Mama’s pleasant conversation, she remarked, “What a nice young lady, maybe you’ll meet a young lady like that one day.”

“I doubt it,” I said. “That was Brooke Shields.”

“Brooke who?”

“Shields.”

“Well, Brooke’s mother should’ve never let her leave the house in those britches.”

Not only do I sometimes feel like a non-writer, Merle, but I am a classic late bloomer.

Just last night, I was watching a baseball game. The announcer was a former big league right-fielder who is considered…