I’ll call the Waffle House waitress Thelma for the purposes of this column. Thelma is mid-thirties, pretty, wearing a camouflage ball cap, and the no-nonsense attitude all hall-of-fame waitresses wear. And she calls everyone sweetie. I love it when they do that.

I sat in a booth in an average Florida Panhandle Waffle House on a weekend. The joint was empty. The globe lights hung over the faux-wood-grain tables the same way they did during my boyhood, back when long lines of customers would stretch out the door on Saturday mornings.

Tonight, however, the place was empty.

Thelma handed me a menu. I was struck by the reduced selections on the new menu. Waffle House used to have a lengthy menu that read like the abridged version of “War and Peace.” But now the lineup is vastly limited.

I asked Thelma why.

“Well,” she explained. “We’re having food supply issues. These are hard times, sweetie.”

And I could tell this was true because half the restaurant was roped off. Some of the barstools had plastic bags over the backs to either

encourage social distancing or to make things easier on the store’s two-person skeleton crew.

There were only three cars in the parking lot, counting mine.

“Why is it so dead?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Probably because we ain’t got many employees no more.”

“Why not?”

Shrug. “Hard times.”

Even so, amidst hard times this Waffle House hasn’t lost its charm. The place is still Americana on a stick. Ice cold AC, jukebox in the corner playing Tammy and George, chocolate milk thick enough to pass for Georgia mud.

Thelma brought my coffee.

“Things have been rough,” she went on. “Used to, we had plenty’a staff, but now, well… Now it’s mostly just me and Ben working.”

She nodded toward Ben. Ben was tall with mahogany skin and shoulders like a defensive lineman.

I asked how long he’s been working…

A nice car stalls in traffic. Horns honk. People shout. Traffic backs up for miles. In the front seat is an old woman.

Four Mexican men leap out of a nearby dilapidated minivan. They push the woman’s broken down vehicle from a busy intersection.

In the front seat is Jocelyn. A 73-year-old lady with cotton hair. When she is out of harm’s way, one of the men says something in broken English:

“Chew need a ride, ma’am? We can take you wherever chew wanna go.”

They drive her home, across town. She offers to pay for their gas. They decline. So she offers to feed them. They accept. They become lifelong friends. They visit often. They help repair her house. They mow her lawn. Compléteme gratis. She always reimburses them with food.

Years later, Jocelyn dies. At her funeral, Jocelyn’s daughter sees a group of unfamiliar Mexican men standing in the visitation line. She’s never met them. They tell her the story I just told you.

Next, meet Chase. He is middle-aged and clumsy. He has the

idea to repair his own roof one day. Bad idea. He climbs on the house while his wife is away. He loses his footing. He trips. The shrubs break his fall—and his leg.

A neighbor’s 14-year-old son sees the accident. The boy calls 911, then performs first-aid. The kid even rides to the hospital inside the ambulance with him. When Chase awakens, there is a boy sitting at his bedside, mumbling a prayer. Chase is confused.

“Who are you?”

“I called your wife,” says the tearful kid. “I found her number in your phone.”

That might not sound like a classic tale of heroism to you. But that boy is an adult now and he is an EMT. And also, he is one of Chase’s best friends.

There’s a girl. I’ll call her Karen. As a child, she was abused by her father.…

My wife and I are sitting outside and looking at the bay water outside my late mother-in-law’s house. And we’re crying.

The world just hasn’t felt right lately. It feels off-kilter. It feels dimmer somehow. Ever since my mother-in-law, Mother Mary, passed away, everything has gone out of whack.

My wife is all over the map emotionally. One moment she’s laughing at a funny memory, the next moment, it’s full-on waterworks. And I’m usually crying right beside her.

I guess it’s hitting us now. I suppose we haven’t had time to let the grief fully settle on our shoulders. There wasn’t any time for grief until now.

When someone dies you are immediately distracted by decisions that need to be made. The decisions come at you from all angles like gnats. You talk about funerals, wakes, dinners, preachers, you look at photo books, plan outfits, you buy new dress shoes because yours look ratty.

You’re on autopilot. The mud and sediment in the proverbial glass of water haven’t settled yet.

Well, this week, the mud is

settling, and I’m remembering too much at once. Such as when I first got married.

The most joyous period of my youth was spent on this pier, looking at this pretty bay with my newlywed wife and her mother. In some ways, my life was just beginning.

My wife and I spent the first week of our marriage in the upstairs bedroom of this house, overlooking this bay. And years later, when my mother-in-law became ill, we moved into that same bedroom to care for her. That’s when our world became all about Mary. And it was like that for a long time.

It was my wife who ran the caregiver show. She wrote the schedules, did the hiring and firing, cut the checks, and covered the weekend shifts. We took Mary to doctor appointments. We tucked her into bed. For cripes sake, I…

Currently, as I write this, a dog is sleeping on my feet. His name is Otis Campbell. He is black and white, 90 pounds, a Capricorn, and likes long walks on the beach.

Ever since my wife’s mother passed away last week, Otis has refused to leave my side.

Yes, I know he’s just an animal, and I know his brain is only about the size of a tangerine, but I’m telling you, this dog knows stuff.

I wish you could see him right now. He is half awake, half asleep, sort of standing watch over me. I’ve always wondered how dogs can remain deathly still without falling asleep.

It reminds me of a guy my father once knew. The man could sit on the front porch without moving a muscle for days. The only way you knew he was alive was by his toothpick—it moved occasionally.

I can tell that Otis senses a deep sadness in our house ever since the funeral. He might not know what’s going on exactly, but like I said,

dogs just know.

Otis has witnessed every random emotional breakdown in our kitchen. He’s seen my wife weep until she has a headache. Otis can sense whenever my wife is about to completely lose it.

Before the sobbing even happens, he runs toward her and careens into her body like a 90-pound cannonball of hair and spit, willing her not to cry.

It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly three years since Otis came to us from an adoption center. We found him when a local pet shelter had a meet-and-greet wherein they crammed dozens of crazed dogs into a giant cellblock, then threw a party.

The place was a circus. You couldn’t hear what any of the volunteers were saying because the collective noise was loud enough to make a grown man cry. The smell was even more impressive.

The different kennels had fanciful…

If I were walking on a beach and I found a shiny magic lamp with a genie inside, do you know what I’d wish for?

I would wish for (1) unlimited wishes, and (2) an Atlanta Braves bedspread. But my third and most important wish would be for you.

I would wish for the words within this small, insignificant column, drifting out into Internet Land, to help you feel unafraid.

I know you’re afraid right now. I can almost see you sitting there, staring at this paragraph on your phone screen, subconsciously worrying deeply about something. Something important.

You’ve been anxious for days, months, years now. I don’t know what you’re afraid of exactly, or which variety of fear keeps you up at night. But it hardly matters because fear is fear. And I happen to know fear.

I am a third-degree blackbelt in being anxious. I have my PhD in freaking out. I also know firsthand that fear does serious damage no matter where it comes from.

Fear keeps you from sleeping. Fear

prevents you from living. Fear screws up your digestion and alters your brain waves. Fear will make it impossible to watch professional sports.

So even though I’m just some random guy you’ve never met, a guy with an imaginary genie, I know stuff. And I know that although these are just simple words on a screen, words can be more than mere words sometimes.

So for the sake of this column, let’s pretend that the sentences you’re reading are made of fairy dust. Imagine that, by some miracle, my third-grade-level syntax contains real magic.

If this were the case, do you know what I’d do with these quasi magical sentences? I would transform them into a giant word-quilt, and wrap them around you. Then I would give you the biggest, warmest, longest, hardest embrace, and hold you for a long time. I would squeeze you so…

She drops her daughter off at the dormitory this afternoon. This is it. This is the big moment. Mom promised her daughter she wouldn’t completely lose it. That was the deal.

Mom and Daughter have spent the last week packing, unpacking, lifting, moving, climbing endless stairs, and decorating a dorm room with cheap junk from the clearance aisle of TJ Maxx. And now it has come down to this.

“Goodbye, Lindsey,” says Mom.

“Bye, Mom,” says Lindsey, throwing open the door to the SUV and leaping out.

Leaping. As though the girl can’t wait to be gone.

Mom throws the car into Park and reminds herself again not to cry. No crying today.

The middle-aged woman steps out of the vehicle and her heart is throbbing. Her baby is leaving, and the aforementioned baby has no idea what kind of dangerous world this really is. All the kid thinks about is fun.

College freshmen are children. Make no mistake. We give them responsibility. We give them driver’s licenses. We give them bank accounts and perfect autonomy. But the reality is they haven’t even finished puberty.

“Do you have your phone charger?” says Mom.

“I got it.”

“Because your last one broke.”

“I have a new one.”

“Lindsey. You can’t have a dead phone.”


“I mean it. Keep your phone charged.”


Who will remind this child to do her laundry regularly? My God, has this girl ever done a load of laundry? At home the child leaves her dirty clothes on the floor for the Laundry Fairy. Now she’ll be in charge of her own hamper.

“Do you have enough quarters for the washing machine?”

“Yes. You gave me, like, a hundred, Mom.”

“How about your gas card?”

Eye roll. “Quit worrying.”

Who is going to make sure this child has enough gas in her Nissan? Who is going to remind this infant never to let her tank fall…

We left Brewton, Alabama, on a steamy Sunday afternoon. The streets were somewhat empty. A lone cat roamed local backyards. A redheaded kid who looked suspiciously like Ron Howard kicked a rock on the sidewalk.

My wife squeezed my hand as we drove away from her hometown.

“I love you,” she said with a watery smile.

I said it back.

We’ve been saying those words a lot this past week, ever since we came here to lay my wife’s mother in the ground.

Something about funerals brings out the need to be loved. And perhaps this is why my wife squeezed my hand so tightly as we left behind the city of antique homes, potted ferns and immaculate landscaping. Perhaps this was why my wife squeezed tighter still as we loped beneath the long-armed oaks and a summer sky that was blue enough to break your heart.

Because it was all over now.

The weeping and laughing. The eating funeral cake and drinking lukewarm milk. The sobbing on the back porch until three in

the morning. The unexpected moment when your wife wakes up in the middle of the night, crying, because she now realizes she’s a middle-aged orphan.

The build-up to a funeral is nothing short of theatrical. A funeral is basically a huge party wherein everyone you know attends and has a terrible time. Coordinating such an elaborate event is like dreaming up the biggest party of your lifetime and only having five days to plan it.

For a solid week, my wife’s mind had been stuck in “homegoing mode.” She had been concentrating on details like accommodations for guests, wardrobe malfunctions, pallbearers, and making sure everyone had enough calories.

But today, as we wheeled toward our Florida home doing fifty-five, we left these memories in our rear view mirror.

She tightened her grip on my hand as we left the Yellowhammer State, bound for our little house…