We rolled into Brewton, Alabama, midafternoon, a few days before the funeral visitation. Brewton is wife’s hometown. We are burying her mother soon.

The sun was bitterly hot. It was 101 degrees outside, hot enough to remind you of all those Baptist brimstone sermons from your childhood.

We drove past the town sign with its Kiwanis, Rotary Club, and Lions Club badges. “Home of Alabama’s Blueberry Festival,” the sign says. We passed the downtown’s proud brick storefronts, the lamp posts with hanging begonias, and the old stone church covered in ivy.

Meantime, my wife was telling me a funny story about her mother. By the time we were pulling into the bed and breakfast she wrapped up the story by flicking tears from her eyes.

“Lord have mercy,” she said, as I held her in the silence of our car. “She’s really gone.”

Lord have mercy.

It’s been a sobering week since her mother died. Since then, my wife has been telling lots of stories.

Losing a family member is a full-time job. There are gazillions of

details that need sorting out after someone departs. There are no idle moments before a funeral.

The irony is, after a loved one’s death all you want to do is hide and lick your sores. But you can’t. You must spend your hours painstakingly deciding on things like floral sprays and who will make the deviled eggs for the wake.

And the whole time you keep getting overwhelmed with this unusual urge. An urge you’ve never had before. You are in “historic preservation” mode, you have the urge to tell stories.

We left for dinner that evening. The dinner was held at the old family house on Belleville Avenue, an antique columned home where my wife’s mother spent her childhood.

My wife took one look at the old house and another fifty stories bubbled to the surface.

We walked inside. The heart pine…

Youth Dew bath powder. That was her scent. It was her trademark.

Before she died we used to tease her about her fragrance powder because all little old ladies wear Youth Dew. She was one such little old lady.

You always knew when her shower had finished because the entire downstairs would smell like that unforgettable Estée Lauder classic. Eau du Granny.

And now that smell is gone forever.

When she died, she took the whole era with her. That’s how it works. When an elderly person passes, we lose a period in history.

We didn’t just lose an old woman. We lost all the American women who dusted themselves with smell-good powder. We lost women old enough to actually remember wearing white gloves to go to the IGA.

We lost all those motherly reminders to sit up straight, not to hunch, and to chew your food exactly thirty-two times before swallowing.

We lost a generation of homemakers who brought deviled eggs to Little League practice, made pretzel salad for Boy Scout meetings, watched Perry Mason

on Saturday nights, and kept an ashtrays on the nightstands beside their Bibles.

She was the best of her kind. She was a period in culture. And her bath powder shall be smelled no more.

After all, young women aren’t going to start wearing bath powder. No way. Most young people have never even heard of such antique finery. Not to mention, big perfume companies rarely include fragrance powder products in their lineups anymore. It’s just not hip.

Neither are pearls. She always wore pearls. Women like her wore strings of cultured pearls for attending PTA meetings, or for mopping the kitchen floors. It’s just what they did. So goodbye pearls.

And goodbye, Nat Cole records. Goodbye, era of songs with lyrics written by lyricists who had a basic grasp of the English language. Goodbye, music that wasn’t expressly about sex.

Goodbye, Frank and…

You’re a single mother. Your name is Deidra. Your wallet has three bucks in it. You have an old Visa gift card with a balance of twelve dollars left. That’s your story.

Something bad happened to you today. It wasn’t because of anything your did. It happened because you’re in your late-thirties and things like this happen to people in their late-thirties. It’s a fact of life. Teenagers work for cheaper pay than you do. So your employer hired a teenager and cut your hours down to one day per week. Management’s way of firing you.

You reacted. You let your manager have it. You called him an awful name. You wish you could take it back, but…

You don’t wish this very hard.

So now you’re crying in your car. You wipe your face. Then cry again. You go to pick up your kids. You are waiting for the most important things in your life to exit the free daycare. You’re trying to figure out how you’ll tell them you lost your job.

Meantime, you sort

mail while you wait. Power bill. Water bill. Cell phone bill. Cable. Insurance. It never ends.

Daycare lets out. Your kids run toward your car. There are kisses, hugs. You notice how tall your oldest is. Your nine-year-old colored a picture. They learned about elephants today. Elephants, Mom. Elephants.

They talk loud and happy. They have no idea that your life is on the rails. They have no idea that you struggle to feed them.

You’re thinking about what’s inside your refrigerator for supper. A few slices of bologna, half a liter of Coke, old carrots, two eggs. You look in your purse. The gift card. It’s not much, but hey, it’s dinner.

You drive to a pizza buffet. The cheap one where they leave the pizzas out all afternoon until the cheese becomes Club Med for bacteria. It’s only six bucks for…

Waffle House was slow. It was late when we pulled in. We needed hash browns. Stat.

My wife and I walked into the arctic air of the tiny restaurant and slid into the same side of a booth without speaking. Her face was tear-stained and raw. She had a dehydration headache from crying.

There was no music overhead. Which was odd. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a musicless Waffle House.

The waitress approached. She could tell something was wrong by the way my wife was dabbing her eyes.

“You okay, hon?” the waitress asked, handing us menus.

My wife nodded.

We ordered drinks, then my wife leaned onto my shoulder and tried to pull herself together, albeit unsuccessfully.

I held her and said, “Sssshhh” because this is what my mother used to say whenever I cried over a skinned knee or a busted lip. Mama wasn’t actually shushing me, I suppose it’s just what you say when a loved one sobs into your shirt.

We came to this Waffle House almost immediately after the undertaker

removed the body of my mother-in-law from her house.

It was surreal. Two men from the funeral home arrived with a stainless-steel gurney. They wore dark suits and did their jobs flawlessly. We removed my mother-in-law’s wedding ring. We fixed her night shirt. They transferred the decedent with dignity, then parked the gurney in the hallway for final farewells.

The placid remains of my wife’s mother were covered in an old quilt. It looked like one of those patchwork quilts your great-great-granny sewed back in eighteen-hundred-and-whenever. Weird what you notice during important moments.

Saying goodbye was tough. Worse than I expected. I don’t care how strong you are, watching a loved one leave home on a mortuary stretcher will break you. Until that moment, it hasn’t hit you yet. Until you see them go, it’s not real.

The men in suits rolled the…

Dearest loved one,

I know you think I have died, but I’m not gone. Death is just a four-letter word—although you might want to double check my math on that one.

Do you remember how in high-school science class your teacher talked about the first law of thermodynamics? Yeah, me neither.

So let me refresh your memory. Your teacher told you that energy could neither be created nor destroyed, but only transformed. Well, I get it now.

Nothing dies, not really. And that’s not religion, that’s science talking. In fact death doesn’t technically exist—at least not the way you think. Only change exists. Only transformation exists. Particles get disorganized, then reorganized, then re-re-reorganized.

But death? Nope.

Take flowers. They wither and become mulch, which then becomes topsoil, which then becomes minerals, which then becomes pH and soil salinity. Then, these elements reassemble themselves to become the building blocks for new flowers. On and on it goes.

Or how about water? Water forms clouds, clouds make rain, rain gathers in rivers and lakes only to be used

in swimming pools, iced tea, kitchen sinks, and vodka gimlets. Water then evaporates to become more clouds.

Now I ask you. Does that sound like dying?

Or maybe you can think about it like this. Long ago, when trains still ran through small towns, children would often run to the depots and watch the trains come and go. Do you remember those days? Children would marvel at the mighty engines with their clouds of steam and sounds of diesel and steel.

Then, it happened like this: Passengers would climb aboard. The train’s doors would close. The coach would disappear over the horizon. All those people vanished in a mere instant.

But were they gone? No way. They were just unseen. Death is like that.

I am no longer seen. You cannot touch me, but I am here beside you. I am still your dad,…

The time was 12:13 p.m. when Mary Finlay Martin quit breathing. I was holding her hand when it happened.

The silence that follows death is overpowering. It was the loudest silence I ever heard. Like a hurricane of quiet, swallowing the world.

At first we said nothing. We simply looked at her body. Then the crying started. My wife’s mouth fell open but no sound came out. And I was still holding that slackened hand.

I stared at that hand for a long time.

Mother Mary was my mother-in-law. She was my friend. She was my comrade in troublemaking. She was my drinking buddy. Most guys aren’t all that crazy about their mothers-in-law, but I was.

She was every elderly woman you’ve met before. You’ve known hundreds of Marys in your lifetime. Maybe thousands.

She had the Merle Norman face, the Estée Lauder scent, and the Talbots clearance-rack wardrobe. She was everything marvelous about the unique brand of female who inhabits the Southeastern United States.

Her hair was snow white with hues of violet. Her voice

was Vivien Leigh, her eyes were Natalie Wood, her personality was Shirley Temple.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you she was a saint, because that would be untrue. And anyway, saints aren’t fun loving people like she was. Saints sit far away like statues. Saints belong in flower gardens and in ornate basilicas. No, this woman was real. And she was something else.

She was equally at home in a Civic League meeting as she was sitting on a deer stand. She could dance in a juke joint; she could host a Methodist banquet that would’ve made Emily Post look like a hack. She was fun. She was quirky. And above all, she was ours.

But right now as I look around her house, I see nothing but orphaned objects.

I see a supper table without an owner. I see a…

We’ve been waiting. That’s pretty much all our family does now. It’s our full-time job. We wait.

My mother-in-law, Mary, lies on her deathbed, breathing labored breaths. She has been unresponsive for a long time. Hospice remains closeby, administering end-of-life care. She hasn’t eaten anything or swallowed any liquids in six days.

And yet her pulse continues.

“I’ve never seen a heart this strong,” said the nurse. “She’s an anomaly.”

The nurses have been telling us that Mary might pass any day now, and they’ve been saying this for three weeks.

For three arduous weeks the family has camped in this house and lived beside Mary’s bed. We have spent hours, days and sleepless nights amidst humming oxygen machines, plastic medical tubes, orphaned roller walkers and abandoned wheelchairs.

And Mary’s rugged heart keeps defying modern medicine.

There have been moments when we thought it was going to happen. When we all gathered around her because we were certain death was visiting this house.

Mary’s stats would plummet. Her pulse would become irregular, her oxygen levels would drop. And we would all brace for


Last night this happened. It looked like the end. So we assumed our battle stations. Her children held her hands, stroked her hair, kissed her forehead and told her it was okay to leave. I stood in the background with my arm around Miss Sandra, one of the caregivers. There were hot tears in my eyes.

Mary’s breathing became weak. The rattling in her chest grew louder. This was it, we were all thinking. “Goodbye,” we were all saying in our own ways. “Be free,” said her daughter. “We all love you,” said her son.

Two hours passed.

Then three.

I started getting a charley horse in my left calf muscle.

Four. Five. Six hours.

Still breathing.

Eventually, everyone started to laugh. At first, this laughter felt incredibly irreverent—this was, after all, a woman’s deathbed. But…

“We just got married,” said the young couple in the supermarket checkout lane.

The newlyweds were ahead of me in Checkout Lane Six, dressed in beach attire. Their faces could have doubled as stadium lights for a Fenway Park night game.

Just married. These words set off a chain reaction of responses among those of us in line. The news immediately traveled, single file, moving from person to person like that old game telephone.

Everyone heartily congratulated them. And I do mean heartily.

“Congratulations,” said the bearded guy, holding a toddler in his arms.

“Congratulations,” said the woman who was dressed in an EMT uniform.

“Congratulations,” said five or six others.

“Mazel tov,” said the supermarket bagger—who looked maybe 95 years old.

“We’ve been dating for a year,” said the newlywed woman. “But on Wednesday we just thought, ‘You know what? Let’s do it.’ We went to the courthouse and…”

She showed the ring.

“Then we drove here to Florida this morning, spur of the moment. We don’t even know where we’re staying tonight. But we’re married.”

Her husband slipped an

arm around her. “It’s pretty awesome,” he said.

The EMT lady was first to jump in the conversation: “I remember when I got married. My husband and I took a honeymoon cruise to Cozumél. Best week of my life—from what I can remember of it.”

The guy with the toddler said, “We went to San Francisco. Each morning I kept waking up and saying, ‘Holy cow, I’m married. We’re really married.’ You say that a lot in the beginning.”

Everyone agreed with his last statement. Again, heartily.

The elderly bagger chimed in. His voice had an old-world lilt to it.

“When I was growing up in New York, I met a girl when I was 12, she was 14, she lived in my neighborhood. She was the most beautiful girl I ever saw. I told her, ‘I’m gonna marry…

I was going to write something else, but I changed my mind. And I know this is corny—believe me, I know—but I just wanted to say I love you.

No, I really mean it. We probably don’t know each other, but I love you to death. I swear it. I just have a feeling that you need to hear that today. And with everything going on in the world right now, if you truly do need to hear those words, I’m your guy.

You know what else I love? The cashier in Winn-Dixie. Her name is Linda, she’s from North Alabama, and she talks like it. She and her husband moved to Florida for his job and she’s homesick. I can tell.

She showed me cellphone photos of her parents, brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, and grandbaby. She wears a strong face when she talks, but I know that look. It’s a mournful, heartsore look.

“My sister is coming to town,” she told me, a complete stranger. “For vacation, on Monday. I’m so excited.”

She was so thrilled it was

blasting through her green eyes.

I also love the kids selling magazine subscriptions at my front door. I didn’t want to buy magazines, but those children deserved a few bucks for being brave enough to knock on a stranger’s door. When you’re that age, there’s nothing harder than drumming up conversations with adults.

I asked why the kids were selling them. One told me, “Sir, I want to earn enough to buy a smartphone for my grandmother so we can keep in touch with her.”

Then his friend whispered, “I thought your grandma passed away.”

I love Margaret. You’d like her, too. She’s a stick of dynamite. Her husband has Alzheimer’s. She is his caregiver. She gives everything to him. It’s just who she is. She gives until she’s dry. Then she gives some more.

I love the white-haired man I…

Tonight as my mother-in-law lies in her hospice bed, still holding to life, my wife suggested that I share my mother-in-law’s all-time favorite column from several years ago in honor of her life. This one remained stuck to her refrigerator for years.

Without further ado:

Well, the hurricane is approaching. It’s morning, and the first thing I hear in my mother-in-law’s house 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. On the map, she points to a red-colored cyclone that’s roughly the size of Greenland, and says, “THIS IS A HURRICANE!”

This is the kind of insider information you get watching the Weather Channel.

She then 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 she’s about to faint from anxiety. She adds, “It’s ESSENTIAL to make sure you have bottled

water, triple-A batteries, and a BIKE HELMET…”

“Do we have any bike helmets?” says my mother-in-law.

“Helmets? You don’t even own a bike.”

“They said I need a helmet.”

“You? What about me?”

She shrugs.

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 radio-DJ voices. They never talked about bike helmets, and they never lost their cool on the air.

This weather-woman’s mascara is running.

So I go to the garage to check on the helmet situation. All I find is my old catcher’s mask.

“We need bottled water, too,” my mother-in-law calls out. “Is my car gassed up? Buy some batteries while you’re at it.…