Today we sang hymns while gathered around my mother-in-law’s sickbed. Even the hospice nurse joined in. Everyone loves the hymns. Everyone.

As a boy my favorite songs were the ones found within the white-covered hymnals kept on the backs of the wooden pews. These weathered books were full of rich melodies. Half my childhood took place in those books.

I come from people who never called it “worship music,” neither did we have Power Point lyrics projected on screens, or on-staff graphics designers handling all 18 of our social media accounts.

No. When it came to music, in those days we just called it “song singing.” Plain and simple. You stood; you sang reverently with fellow Baptists. No stage lights. No fog machines. If some unfortunate soul mistakenly clapped during an uptempo number, he or she was dragged behind the church and beheaded.

Everyone has their favorite hymns, of course. My granny’s favorite was “Old Rugged Cross.” Another golden standard is “In the Garden.” And you can’t beat “Amazing Grace,” “Blessed

Assurance,” “How Great Thou Art,” or “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”

And then you have the deepwater Baptist specific hymns of my childhood. We sang these songs at the end of service when we begged sinners to repent so we could all go to lunch.

We sang songs like “Almost Persuaded,” and “Eternity, Eternity, Where Will You Spend Eternity?” and “Lord, I Don’t Want to Burn In Hell.”

But no hymn—and I mean no hymn—does it for me like “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” It is one of my all-time favorites.

I began singing in church when I was 8 years old. I started playing piano at age 9. I can’t read a lick of music, and I’m not a great musician. But in a tiny congregation with a median age of 75, you don’t have to be. If you show one nanoscopic shred of musical talent in a small…

In my memory it was sunny. I was driving my mother-in-law's Hyundai through morning traffic. Mary, my mother-in-law, was in the passenger seat.

I flipped on my left blinker and switched lanes.

“You’re changing lanes?” said Mary. “My God. Are you trying to get us killed?”

Mother Mary, one of the nation's leading backseat drivers.

“Slow down! Crime in Italy, are you trying to wreck?”

We had left early that morning. I was carrying Mother Mary to her medical appointment in Pensacola. She had infusion therapy regularly, which took place in a sterile room with cushy recliners and patients with tubes in their arms. These were not joyous rooms. These were rooms that would break your heart.

Our long-standing tradition after these dreary appointments was to go out for barbecue.

When we arrived at the medical complex, I helped Mary out of the car and we shuffled across the parking lot, arm in arm. Me, a guy with clown-curly hair and lanky legs. Her, white-haired and arthritic, gripping me for support.

“Don’t walk so fast,” she said,

squeezing my arm tighter. “Are you trying to drag me on the pavement?”

We passed through the automatic doors, and when we approached the receptionist Mary dinged the desk bell. We signed in and within moments Mary was seated in that big recliner with the depressing tube snaking from her arm.

Soon, she was reading one of her paperback romance novels with the bodice-ripping covers. She was playing it cool, but I think it was one of the first times I realized how truly frail this woman was becoming.

The nurses told me to get lost for a few hours.

“Don’t forget our barbecue date,” Mary called out before I left.

“I won’t.”

When I returned, I found Mary waiting in a wheelchair at the hospital’s double doors. Mary was depleted, eyes heavy, but she was putting on a great show for her…

There once was a little girl who lived in a tiny town, in the far off land of south Alabama. A beautiful little girl. A girl with braided brunette pigtails, chocolate eyes, skinned-up knees, and a cherub smile.

Hers was an era when men wore fedoras and women wore summer dresses. An era when bulbous, chrome-covered Fords and Chevys traveled 12 mph on the main drag. When distant radios sat in window sills, playing Bing Crosby, Eddie Fisher, and of course, Les Baxter.

From her earliest years, the girl’s favorite activity in the world was dirt. Oh, how she loved playing in dirt. She loved to put her hands in dirt. She loved squeezing dirt. She loved smelling dirt. Other girls played with porcelain dolls, others liked coloring books. She preferred straight mud.

Her daddy owned the hardware store. Her mama was a math teacher. They were your typical small-towners. Her father spent his days sitting behind a shop counter with a floor fan aimed at his sweaty face, selling roofing

nails, fishing rods, and toilet lids. Her mother sat at a blackboard, teaching kids the cosine.

Meantime, if the little girl wasn’t playing in dirt, she was usually eating. She has always been a great lover of food. Namely, cake. Cakes of all kinds. But also candy bars. You never saw anyone love candy bars more.

Her favorite candy bars were as follows: Pay Days, Baby Ruths, Snickers, Almond Joys, Butterfingers, Heath bars, Milky Ways, Hershey’s bars, Mounds, Crunch bars, Kit Kats, Mars bars, Three Musketeers, Twix, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and pretty much anything else that comes in a wrapper and isn’t good for your teeth.

And don’t even get the little girl started on ice cream.

One of the girl’s inherent gifts was the ability to make flowers grow. She was good at it. Some people just are. This is why throughout the girl’s lifetime her fingernails…

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.”


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,


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…