I just lost my mom, and now I have some hard decisions to make. I feel so lost and broken, I have been trying my best, but I feel like I failed. I was wondering if you had any advice on dealing with the loss of my mom.



The imaginary scenario I’m about to describe is going to sound far-fetched and weird. So just humor me.

But first, I want you to breathe. Seriously. Before you read another word.

In. Out. Big. Soft. Long. Deep. Breaths. Relax your jaw. Loosen your shoulders. Turn into a big blob of Jello pudding.

Seeeeeee the pudding. Beeeee the pudding.


What I want you to do is visualize a large white world. Not white like cotton sheets or snow. But white like sunlight. Like staring at the noon sun with eyes wide open.

White light is everywhere within this new world. In fact, you aren’t even sure how big this new space is because it’s too bright to see anything. It could be the

size of a closet, or it could be bigger than Asia. No way to know.

At first the light hurts your eyes. It gives you a headache. And it doesn’t let up. It just gets stronger until it singes your hair and burns your skin.

Eventually, the brightness works its way into you. Past your adipose tissue, vascular system, kidneys, and spleen. It bores into muscle and bone and finally gets down into the Real You.

The Real You is an interesting thing. I don’t want to get all hooky spooky here, but think about it. A person’s soul is literally inside their body, but no surgeon can find it. No one can point to your ribcage and say, “Ah, yes, your soul’s right there. Just to the left of your colon.”

So for the purposes of this imaginary scene, right now,…

Today is National Columnists’ Day. Someone just told me. It’s a holiday for honoring those depraved, half-crazed individuals who crank out 500 to 800 words each day beneath rigorous deadlines and still manage to remain, technically, married.

I remember when I unofficially became a columnist. Sort of.

I was a boy. I was in my room, pouting.

My room looked like any little boy’s room. It was messy. It smelled funky. There were underpants scattered on my floor. There were Hardy Boys books, aquariums featuring dead goldfish, and half-eaten peanut butter sandwiches that predated the Carter administration.

I was having a particularly bad day. Namely, because my friends were playing outside and they had not invited me to join them. I could see my pals from by bedroom window. They were having fun, but they didn’t want me around.

When a kid’s father dies in the shameful way mine did, that child is not exactly the hippest kid in the county. I was forgotten. And it hurt.

There was a knock on my door.

It was my mother.

“What’re you doing in here all alone?” she said.


She glanced out the window. “You’re pouting.”

“No I’m not.”

“Then go outside and play with your friends.”

“They’re not my friends anymore.”

My mother was carrying something behind her. She placed a gift-wrapped box onto my bed. It was the size of a small suitcase, and heavier than a sack of Quickrete, wrapped in Christmas paper, although it was July.

“What’s this?” I said.

“Open it,” she said.

“I don’t feel like presents.”

Her face tightened. “Well, maybe when you’re done wallowing in self pity, you will.”

Then she left.

Mama always had a way of putting things.

I tore open the packaging. Inside was a vinyl case containing a manual typewriter. Sea-foam green. The spacebar was a little crooked, the S and D keys were faded, the ribbon was new.

Easter Sunday. An Episcopal church in Birmingham. Vaulted ceilings. Ornate masonry. A pipe organ. A choir dressed in lacework cottas. Individual stained-glass windows that cost more than tactical government helicopters. The whole works.

My wife and I arrived late. The place was loaded with parishioners in pastel colors. There were no available seats in the back.

“We have room on the front row,” said the usher.

“The front row?” I said. “Isn’t there anywhere else? Somewhere less… Frontal?”

He shook his head. “Full house today, sir.”

I am not a front pew guy. I come from mild, soft-spoken fundamentalist people who hug each other sideways; we prefer to fill up the sanctuary from the back to the front.

He guided us to the front pew so that we were practically sitting in the priest’s lap. The whole church was looking at us.

Service began. The organ bellowed. People stood.

Before we sang the first song, a kid in the pew behind me started making flatulent sounds with his mouth. I could not concentrate.

As a former little

boy, I am qualified to tell you that these were not just your run-of-the-mill mouth-based sound effects. These were long, juicy, squirty sounds that, if I hadn’t known better, sounded like minor digestive issues.

And he never quit. During the communal singing, the kid made this noise. During the call to worship: The Noise. During the Lord’s Prayer: nuclear blasts.

Spittle was flying onto the back of my neck as the boy’s sustained raspberry sounds reverberated off the stone walls. I was certain someone would tell the boy to knock it off, but it never happened.

So I turned around to give the child a stern look.

He might have been 3 years old. The kid was blond, plump, dressed festively in a seersucker jumpsuit adorned with lace.

His mother smiled. I grinned back, hoping she’d get my drift and put an end…

First off, I want to wish a happy Easter to the Wong family. Especially to Father Pete, the Episcopalian priest who taught me, a non-Episcopalian, to say “And also with you,” at the appropriate time during a ‘Piskie service. These words are code for, “I love you.”

He was the same clergyman who once told me, as it says in Scripture, that whenever two or three Episcopalians are gathered, there is a fifth.

Happy Easter to Tessa, who is in the ICU with a serious infection right now. Tessa (age 23) will be celebrating this holiday by binge watching “Monk” episodes with her dad. Her father, a Lutheran minister, will be skipping his first Easter Sunday service in 22 years to sit beside his sick child.

“Pray for my daughter,” says Tessa’s dad. “Please.”

And to Don, who was stuck in traffic when he sent me an email from his phone this morning. Don is trying to make it to Georgia to see his newborn boy, Joshua, born

last night at 11:43 p.m.

Don was on a business trip in Indiana and missed the agonizing childbirth. Thankfully, Don’s sister-in-law videoed the entire messy experience in great detail, then sent it to Don. Don watched the video and remarked: “Just imagine passing a kidney stone the size of a second-grader.”

Happy Easter to Aaron and April, my distant cousins, who are having Easter dinner with their daughters Rachel and Kendall, and all their friends. And especially to Aaron, who helped me move a heavy couch today and walked with a limp thereafter no matter how much medicinal beer we administered. The least I can do is mention his name here.

To Veronica, the Guatemalan woman who has been waiting on her U.S. citizenship to be approved for two years. She was approved yesterday. “I am an American now,” said Veronica. “I am weeping as I write this because I am so…

The old man answered the phone.

“Is this Herschel?” I asked him.

I heard a loud TV playing in the background. A dog was barking.

“This is Herschel. Who’s this?”

I recited my name, rank, and credentials, each of which are so unimpressive they qualify as a punchline. But when I told the old man I was a writer working on a story for Jackie Robinson Day, which is today, it was enough to get him talking.

And talk he did.

“Jackie Robinson Day?” he began with a laugh. “Shoot, man. Didn’t know there was such a thing. Sure, I’ll tell you about Jackie Robinson.”

Herschel was just a kid when he first saw Jack Roosevelt Robinson play. He was living in Chicago. One afternoon, Herschel’s parents took him to Wrigley Field to see the Cubs square off against the Brooklyn Dodgers in a matchup that drew 47,000 people in attendance.

His whole family was excited to see the famed Number 42. And by “excited,” I mean Herschel’s father bought everyone new dressy outfits for the occasion.

I asked whether

Herschel’s father was a big Jackie Robinson fan. The old man’s answer was an emphatic, “Shoot, man.”

Which apparently means “yes.”

“Everyone in my whole neighborhood was a Jackie fan,” the old timer went on. “Our preacher even announced the game on Sunday. Whole church showed up to the park just to cheer him on.”

Herschel’s family walked several miles to the ballpark to save the price of a streetcar fare. When they arrived, Herschel’s six-foot-five father was drenched in perspiration, sweating through his hatband, there were blisters on his feet, and he looked like he’d just discovered teeth.

“My dad felt the same way about baseball as Abe Lincoln felt about education.”

The throng waiting at Wrigley’s entrance was downright biblical. They stood in line for hours and paid a small fortune to get past the baffle gate. Herschel’s…

Fried bacon pieces set. Hand drawn watercolor illustration isolated on white background

The Cracker Barrel is slammed. And loud. Inside, there isn’t much in the way of elbow room. There are heaps of people eating dangerous amounts of biscuits. And I am trying to master the wooden Triangle Peg game.

The object of this game, of course, is simple. Leave the fewest pegs remaining on the triangle as possible.

Let’s say, for instance, you finish a game and only one peg is left. This means you are a NASA-level genius. Two pegs; you are moderately clever. Four pegs; your parents are first cousins.

I love it at Cracker Barrel. But then, I have a long history with this institution. I’ve eaten at Cracker Barrels from Beaverton, Oregon, to Prattville, Alabama. I’ve eaten here on Thanksgiving, the day I graduated college, the morning after my wedding, and the day after my father died. The food suits me.

The overhead music always has steel guitar in it. The people in the giftshop always ask how you’re doing. And if you’re bored, you can always embarrass your wife by

buying a Davy Crockett hat and wearing it into the dining room.

Today, an elderly couple is sitting next to me as I fiddle with the peg game. The old man is skinny. She is frail. They are shoulder to shoulder. The man is wearing a hospital bracelet. His entire lower leg is in a medical brace. His face is bruised purple. There is dried blood on his forearms. He is resting his head onto the old woman’s shoulder because it looks like he’s been through hell itself.

She is helping him drink his Coke with a straw.

“I love you, Judy,” he says between sips.

She just pats his head.

On the other side of the dining room is a table of paramedics. They are young, wearing buzz cuts, clad in cargo pants, with radios mounted on their shoulders. Their eyes are drooping, and the…

I’m 5 years old. On Mama’s stove is a steaming stock pot, filling the world with the essence of chicken and dumplings.

I’m watching her use her fists to mercilessly beat a lump of flour that will become dumplings. She punches the dough, making loud grunts, striking terror into the heart of childhood.

“What’re you making?” I ask her.

“Hush now,” she says.

For many years I sincerely believed that chicken and dumplings were called Hush Now. We ate a lot of Hush Now in my house.

Mama then tells me to “Go outside and play.”

Such was the fate of little boys. Any time you opened your mouth to ask a question, you were sent outside to “go play.” God help the child who told Mama he was bored.

“BORED!?” she’d shout. “I’ll show you bored!”

Then Mama’s eyes would fill with holy fire and she would wave her rolling pin around, sermonizing about idle hands. Frankly, you’d be safer telling my mother you were a communist.

So I walk outside to ride my bike.

Back then we all had bikes.

Every last one of us. Bikes were everything. A kid in the saddle was limitless.

Sometimes we would be gone for hours on our Schwinns. Nobody worried about us because there wasn’t much to worry about. Our parents weren’t like today’s parents. We didn’t carpool to soccer practice in hybrid vehicles while buckled in FDA-approved car seats, staring at the opiate glow of our iPads.

Our parents drove big-bodied vehicles with names like Lincoln Continentals, Custom Cruisers, and Ford Country Squires. We had no seatbelts except Mama’s right arm. Moreover, we didn’t know what soccer was.

So there I am, riding bikes with my pals. We pull over at a friend’s house. We dismount, midair, while traveling upwards of 89 mph.

We sprint to our friend’s doorstep to ring the doorbell. We are breathless and rosy-faced from exertion.

The cable guy came by today. He was installing equipment. He waltzed inside to test our cable box. He wore boots and a tool belt and had prodigious tattoos on his forearms.

He removed my new remote from the plastic package. The television flickered to life.

The first thing we saw was a news channel. The text on the screen read: MASS SHOOTING.

The TV showed a subway platform filled with weeping New Yorkers. Some were limping. Some were crying. Others were bleeding. Police officers were everywhere.

Flashing blue lights. Sirens. Ambulances. Screaming. Badges. Stretchers. Crime-scene barricades. News cameras.

The news anchor appeared on the screen and spoke in an adrenal primetime voice:

“...In Brooklyn, a gunman in a gas mask and construction vest set off a smoke canister on a rush-hour subway train and then opened fire, shooting at least 10 people, at least 29 are believed to be injured or wounded… ”

The cable guy and I watched the madness within America’s most famous borough, happening 965.4 miles away from us.

The cable

guy said, “My sister lives in Brooklyn, man.”

His mood changed completely. He quickly removed his phone and fired off a few texts. He told me he was texting his sister to see if she was okay. I told him I understood.

He waited for her text-responses, but none came.

He was anxious. The kid was supposed to be demonstrating the capabilities of my new cable box, but clearly his head wasn’t in it. And frankly, neither was mine.

“Are you from New York?” I asked.

“New Jersey,” he said. “But I have family and friends in Brooklyn.”

He kept scrolling channels. He landed on another news station. The correspondent was reporting from Ukraine. She was wearing a bullet proof vest.

“...Many, many bodies have been exhumed from the rubble on the outskirts of Kyiv, among the bodies was a Ukrainian soldier. Many others of…

I thought I saw you today. I was walking through a crowded place. A Trader Joe’s, if you can imagine. You bumped into my shoulder. Then you walked past me.

It was you. I was momentarily stunned. I thought to myself, “Hey, that looked like my…”

But no. It couldn’t be. There’s no way.

So I followed you through the store. I pushed my buggy around, skulking behind aisles, pretending to read labels on ridiculous products that no sane person would ever buy. Such as, a package of gluten free barbecue-flavored seaweed.

I stole glimpses of you. I peeked around corners. I stalked. And well, you turned out to be—big surprise—someone else.

As it happened, you were just some random shopper filling their cart with cheap wine and obscene quantities of cheese.

When you walked past me again, I felt like a Grade-A fool when I said, “Hi.”

The person who looked like you sort of glared at me like I was Kathy Bates from the 1990 movie “Misery.”

Writing this now, I know I was foolish to follow some poor

sap around a supermarket like an Amway representative. But sometimes you can’t help yourself. Sometimes the memory of the dead is so precious that you’ll do anything to keep it alive.

You’ve been dead for a long time. You’re Up There. I’m down here. And I still grieve you, although you’ve probably forgotten all about me.

I wouldn’t blame you for forgetting me. Life on earth isn’t nearly as memorable as what you’re doing. You’re probably happily taking in the sights, playing bingo at Heaven’s Community Center, drinking fruity drinks festooned with ginormous chunks of pineapple, umbrellas and live parrots.

You’re attending huge potlucks beside the River of Life, making new friends, eating potato salad alongside Henry Ford, Don Knotts, Abraham Lincoln, Bud Abbot, Lou Costello, Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle.

But I still think of you. And whenever…

When I got my first writing gig for a tiny local newspaper with a circulation of 2.3 people, one of the veteran writers on staff told me, “Just remember, haters are gon’ hate.”

Then he added, “So whatever you do, don’t read the negative mail.”

It was sound wisdom. The only problem with this advice is that negative mail looks just like positive mail before you open it. How do you tell the two apart? At first glance, there is no way to differentiate between a friend and a hater by looking at an envelope or an email.

After all, nobody writes in bold letters on the outside of their envelope: THIS IS HATE MAIL. Neither do people fill out the subject line of an email with the words: WARNING, THIS MESSAGE IS GOING TO RUIN YOUR DAY.

So you never know whether a message is going to be positive or negative until you actually open the thing and read a few sentences:

“Dear Sean, I just wanted to take a minute

to tell you, from the bottom of my heart, that you are a greasy, disgusting, faux-deep-thinking, chauvinistic pig…”

Thus, my philosophy has always been to ignore negative messages. And mostly, I’ve kept pretty true to this idea. Although I do occasionally respond to unusually ugly correspondence.

Such as the time a guy recently told me to “go to hell.” I wrote to him, saying in all honesty, that I had already visited Hell, Michigan, and frankly, I’d rather spend everlasting eternity in Detroit.

And a few months ago, I received a critical letter from a literature professor from an extremely well-known university with a world-famously bad football team. He told me I was partially responsible for the “dumbing down” of the American literary mind by “writing for likes.”

That hurt.

Still, on the infrequent occasion that I respond to nasty messages publicly, I usually try to keep things…