Margie answered her phone. “Hello?”

“Hello?” said a girl’s voice. “Someone told me your husband worked on old cars?”

“My husband? Where’d you hear that? Who is this?”

Margie’s elderly husband did in fact work on cars. It was a lifelong hobby, and he was pretty good at it. He found cars, bought them for a steal, then resold them. Viva la retirement.

Whenever Margie asked him why he worked on cars, he would always answer, “Why the heck not?” Only he didn’t say “heck.”

“He’s not a professional,” Margie said into the phone. “He doesn’t fix cars for a living, but, well… I don’t know if he’d be interested in helping.”

“Oh, okay, I’m sorry for bothering you, ma’am.”

“What was it you needed, sweetie? Maybe I can at least ask him when he gets home.”

Long silence.

Two strangers. Stuck on the phone.

“Well, ma’am, my car, they say it needs a new transmission. I can’t afford to pay what the mechanic charges. And I really need a car for work.”

“Let me take your number.”

“Ain’t got no number, I’m calling from a payphone.”

“A payphone?”

“It’s a long story.”

“Oh, dear.”

Margie looked at her

side table to see photographs of a girl she once knew. A blond child, much like the girl on the phone. A daughter who overdosed.

“It’s none of my business,” said Margie. “But are you in trouble?”

“I’m okay. It’s just, well…” Long pause. “My parents kicked me out.”

“Honey, I don't mean to pry—and you can tell me to get lost—but may I ask why your parents kicked you out?”

Now there were sniffles on the line. “Well, I’ve been going through a lot of stuff. It’s been...” More sniffs. “Hard, ma’am.”

“Call me Margie.”

“I’m pregnant.”

Margie didn’t want to be nosy, but then, “I want to meet you, sweetheart.”

“This payphone’s about to disconnect, ma’am, it’s telling me…

Tea cakes. Oh, that takes me back.

Yeah, I remember tea cakes. My mother used to hold church get-togethers at our house, with her friends in the Women’s Fundamentalist Brigade.

Each week, they met in our living room to talk about mortal sin, human depravity, the horrors of hell, and dancing.

These upright women were supposed to be reading their Bibles and praying and talking about how bad missionaries have it. But instead, they spoke in hushed whispers about which woman in town had gone into childlabor six months after her own wedding.

Even so, the church meetings at our house were a great event. All the women arrived, wearing fancy clothes. Lots of polyester. Tall hair, laden with enough hairspray to qualify as a fire hazard. Coral lipstick—the official shade of nice women.

Most of the women wore pearls. “But,” my mother was quick to point out on one occasion, “hardly any of us wears REAL pearls.”

“But,” I asked, “if they’re not real, what are they?”

“Whatever was on sale at Belk.”

The living room would smell like

Estée Lauder, Opium, and Chanel No. 5. If you were a little boy, and you were to walk through this room without a gas mask, you would die.

But it’s the tea cakes I remember most. Because tea cakes are essentially big cookies, and I love cookies.

However—and I can’t stress this enough—don’t ever call teacakes “cookies.” Especially in the presence of the woman who baked them, otherwise she will castrate you with quilting shears.

They are “tea cakes.”

The difference between a tea cake and a cookie is subtle but important. A cookie is a large, dense, floury wafer made with sugar, butter, flour, eggs, and milk.

A tea cake, however, is a large, dense floury wafer made with sugar, butter, flour, eggs, and milk.

Is everyone clear on that?

These women would bring tea cakes of all varieties…

I want to tell you a story. In February of 1979, a 7-year-old named Chris Grecius, of Scottsdale, Arizona, found out he had leukemia.

It was the end of the world. No, it was worse than that. It felt like the end of a family. Chris’s mother was devastated.

In the late 1970s, there weren’t many kids coming back from the L-word. Chris was informed that he was dying. It was a living nightmare.

One fateful day, Chris casually remarked to his mother that he wished he could have grown up to become a policeman. For a parent, the news was a knife to the gut.

Chris’s wish was common knowledge, of course. Anyone who knew little Chris, knew that he liked to dress up as a cop and run around the backyard, chasing bad guys, occasionally shouting, “FREEZE!” to neighborhood dogs and various woodland creatures.

But something about this was different. Chris was making an official request.

News of Chris’s interest in the police department spread. In those days, Scottsdale was, essentially, a

big small town, so word got around pretty quickly.

When Chris was hospitalized, a family friend spoke with Arizona Department of Public Safety Officer Ron Cox, and the department launched a plan to make Chris’s wish come true.

Lt. Col. Dick Schaefer of the DPS got involved. He gave Chris a campaign hat, like state troopers wear. He polished one of his old badges and pinned it to Chris’s chest. Then, he officially swore Chris in as Arizona's first and only honorary 7-year-old peace officer.

The police department didn’t stop there. Someone gave Chris a helicopter tour of Phoenix. Chris got to drive a police car. The officers let him talk on the radio.

But the icing on the proverbial cake was when the officers commissioned an official police uniform for Chris. They delivered this uniform to Chris at the hospital that spring, and they made…

The little girl sits in a hospital room.

She lives here. In this bed. In this university hospital. She lives in this gown. She usually plays on her iPad. All by herself. This is her life.

She’s been sad lately.

“A lot of people don’t think about the mental health of a dying child,” says the girl’s mother. “But when you’re a kid, and a doctor tells you that you’re dying, it screws you up.”

The child is 10 years old. Her beautiful head is smooth and bald. The cancer has stolen one of her eyes. The surgeon removed her eyeball recently in an operation called enucleation.

If you want to have your heart ripped out, talk to a kid who has undergone enucleation.

She is brave, yes. She is a fighter, absolutely. But even heroes get blue sometimes. She is, after all, human.

Cancer treatment sucks. Treatment has ruined her social life. Treatment has destroyed her childhood. Some days, the girl barely has the energy to breathe.

But she still wants to be a kid. Her little

brain still says: “Hey! You’re 10 years old! Go be a kid! Run around and play!” But her body says no.

And all this makes her sad. She is a living science project. She lives from medication to medication. Her face is puffy from endless treatments. Her energy levels are often non-existent.

Enter the nurses.

“We wanted to do something that would make her smile,” said one nurse, who shall also remain nameless—although if, perchance, we were to give this RN an actual name, we might call this nurse Angela.

Angela brings her Bluetooth speaker into the child’s room. Angela and four other nurses have dance parties for the child. These nurses perform serious dance routines with complicated parts and intricate steps.

“We don’t dance easy routines,” says Angela. “I actually have to watch videos and practice at home, and my husband’s…

You’re going to make it.

I know you don’t feel great right now. I know you’re having a crappy day. A crappy month. A crappy decade. I know this isn’t your best life.

I know your whole world is falling apart. I know your father is dying of pancreatic cancer. I know your daughter just passed away from a drug overdose. I get it.

Your grandchild has life threatening bone cancer. Your car was repossessed last night. Your dog died. You’re ill.

Your husband cheated on you with a younger woman. Your dad has a neurological disease. Your mother passed away. Your dad died by suicide. You are going blind.

You have breast cancer. You’ve lost everything. You’re a young man who was convicted by a jury of your peers, and now you’re probably going to jail. You are an alcoholic, and you don’t know what to do about it.

You’re scared. You don’t sleep. You don’t eat. The doctor is suggesting chemo.

At night, sometimes, you lie there wondering what the point is. Why keep living? Why live a life that’s nothing but pain? You’re starting to

lose steam. You’re starting to get tired.

I don’t blame you. But—and I want you to listen to me closely here—you are going to make it.

I actually believe this. Wholeheartedly. In fact, I would bet a million dollars on it.

Sadly, I don’t have a million bucks because I am an English major. So—let just me empty my wallet here—I will happily bet $11 cash that you are going to be okay.

Now, I know what you’re thinking:

“This schmuck doesn’t even know me. How the heck can he know whether I’ll be okay? He’s just writing a bunch of hyper-emotional B.S. He doesn’t know my life.”

And you know what? You’re absolutely right, to be perfectly frank. For starters, I DON’T know anything, so how can I know whether you’ll…

Ash Wednesday. The first day of Lent. I saw him in a Birmingham supermarket. He was young. Latino. Maybe 11 or 12. He was wandering through the aisles, helping random people.

I have been writing this column for a decade now. Some days it’s a struggle. Some days you can’t find things to write about. Some days you come up dry and resolve to give up and get a job at Old Navy.

Other days, a column falls into your lap. This kid was a gift from the column gods.

I was visiting the supermarket to buy beer and necessities. The kid was in my aisle, helping an elderly woman reach something from the top shelf. I eavesdropped on their conversation.

“You don’t have help me,” said the old lady. “I’m perfectly capable of reaching this on my own.”

“Please, let me,” said the kid in a pronounced Latino accent. “It would be my pleasure to help you.”

I saw the kid again. This time in the Cheez-It aisle. I was buying Bold Cheddar Cheez-It

Grooves. You have not lived until you’ve eaten Bold Cheddar Cheez-It Grooves. The kid was helping someone else. A middle-aged woman. He was lugging the woman’s heavy basket. I was touched.

When the kid passed me, I noticed the ash mark on his forehead. And that’s when I realized today was Ash Wednesday.

I don’t keep up with the traditional church calendar because I did not grow up celebrating many traditionally observed holy days.

Ash Wednesday is a day when millions of Christians around the globe participate in fasting, abstinence and prayer for 40 days until Easter.

Sadly, my family was Southern Baptist. In my religious tradition, we practiced 40 years of uptightness until you got constipated and your preacher ran off to Miami with his secretary.

I followed the boy around the store, taking mental notes.

I saw him in a checkout lane. He…

There was something about the way he walked. I could tell he was a stray. Sometimes you can just tell.

I squatted and called him. “Here boy.” Then I clicked my tongue like Roy Rogers calling Trigger. “C’mon boy.”

He had pitbull in him. That was evident. I could tell by the broad face and the knife-like eyes.

Most U.S. strays are pitbulls. My friend, John, works at animal shelters. He said people buy pitbulls thinking they’ll be cool dogs to have. But they aren’t prepared for stubbornness and tenacity. A pitbull makes a mule look reasonable.

So the dog usually gets canned. Some take the dog to animal shelters. Many don’t. Many exemplary citizens just drop their dogs off on busy highways. To some people, dogs aren’t God’s creatures. To some people, dogs are just lifeless pieces of walking, defecating meat.

I have a pitbull-mix named Otis. He was found walking the streets of Defuniak Springs, Florida. He hadn’t eaten in days.

“Come here, boy.”

The old boy came trotting toward me. He was beautiful. Muscular torso.

Amber eyes. His coat was smoky gray. He was sweeter than a Chilton County peach.

There was blood all over him. Someone had tried to crop his ears, but had butchered him. It looked like they’d cut him with box cutters. His ears were almost completely removed, open wounds, his ear holes were exposed. Blood was caked on his face. He was frightened.

It took a whole hour to gain his trust. When I was sure he trusted me—really trusted me—I lifted him into my truck.

He rode in my passenger seat the whole way to the shelter. I lifted him out of my truck because he was limping badly. Plus, I didn’t want him to run.

I removed my own belt, and used it as a leash. I walked into the animal shelter holding my pants up with half of my…

Father Dave was a good guy. You would have liked him. He had white hair. A warm smile. Good sense of humor. He was Irish to the core.

He was one of those clergymen who just got it. They say he could look at you and you just knew, this guy understands me.

Which is a rarity in the priesthood. A lot of times, a Catholic priest grows numb to the world around him. After all, he’s seen everything. Heard everything. It’s easy to get desensitized.

But not David.

David Gerard O’Connell was born on August 16, 1953, in Cork, Ireland. A sweet baby with a constant smile.

He was born into hard times. Ireland was no cakewalk in the ‘50s. Ireland was pure poverty. Ireland was neither a safe nor a happy place. Nearly 80,000 were unemployed. Half the country was hungry. People died of starvation.

And, bonus, the Catholic church wasn’t making things any easier. Hundreds of thousands of young women who got pregnant outside marriage were forced to give

up their infants, or were sent to mental institutions. It was the Great Depression on steroids.

And that’s the era David was born into. He grew up during a miserable period of world history. He grew up the son of a farmer. He had nothing.

But he was a good kid. Cheerful. Kind. He went to college in Dublin, and when forced with a choice of academic major, he chose to study God.

David could have studied anything he wanted with his bright mind. He could have pursued business. He could have chased after his fortune. But he chose the ministry.

He became an ordained priest at 26 years old. He was baby faced and wholesome. Beautifully naive. He had no earthly idea what he was getting into. Thank God.

The Church sent him to Los Angeles, of all places. A humble boy from Cork, Ireland, sent to…

Just before midnight. Somewhere on the Texas prairie. A 20-year-old named Mark was driving on a two-lane highway on his way home.

You have to be careful when driving on an empty prairie. It’s easy to develop “prairie foot.” On a flat landscape, without landmarks, your foot tends to get heavy on the gas pedal. It’s not hard to travel upwards of 200 miles per hour by accident.

Mark saw flashing hazards ahead. A broken down truck with a horse trailer attached. He pumped his brakes and pulled over. And in the rural tradition of all who wear roper boots, he was ready to help.

“Need a hand?”

A young woman slid from beneath the truck chassis. She had grease smudges on her face. She was holding a scissor jack. And she was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen.

Mark felt his breath get stuck in his throat.

She smiled. “Sorry. No speak’a the Inglés too good.”

Her truck had a flat tire. In her passenger seat was a silent elderly woman. The girl had been under

the vehicle looking for the jackpoint on the old Silverado, which can be dangerous business for the uninitiated.

“Allow me,” Mark said, already on the pavement.

It turned out to be a bigger problem than he’d expected. Her spare tire was shot, worn to the canvas. There was no way she was getting home on that thing.

Mark attached the horse trailer to his own truck and told her he’d take them home. But where did she live? Her jumbled English made it impossible to understand her directions.

So the girl drew him a map. And since there was no paper in Mark’s truck to write upon, she used a Sharpie to draw the route on Mark’s hand.

He presented her his hand, which was trembling when she wrote upon it.

It was 2 A.M. when he reached her aunt’s house. He…

Things my grandfather used to say:

Be nice; because if you’re not being nice, what are you being?

Don’t cut in line. Don’t interrupt. Don’t pout. Never, ever take the last biscuit.

Smile, it increases your face value.

The wise man knoweth how to dumb it down.

You can’t think your way into the right action, but you can act your way into the right thinking.

Try your hardest, do your absolute best, and when all else fails, cuss.

Always obey your mother when she is around.

Everyone should pee in his own backyard at least once.

Listen to the elderly, they’re smarter than you. Unless they are men.

Treat other people the way you want to be treated. If the Golden Rule were actually practiced today, there would be no karaoke bars.

You never know what a consummate ass you can be until you give someone else advice.

Never judge a Denny’s menu by the photographs.

Let him who is without sin throw the first boomerang.

Whenever something stinks, check your own diaper first.

Don’t point fingers unless you're standing in front of a mirror.

Always, always, always trust your gut.

Tomorrow is

a day with no mistakes in it, but you’ll change all that.

Be nice to kids, one day they’ll be running your nursing home.

Feed strays.

When in doubt, do it the way your wife told you.

Never pass up an opportunity to hold a baby.

A good wife always forgives her husband when she is wrong.

‘Fess up when you mess up. Admit when you’re wrong. Don’t gloat when you’re right. And above all, don’t act like you know everything. Know-it-alls make life so incredibly difficult for those of us who actually do.

Change your oil before you think it needs to be changed.

Quit watching the news for 72 hours and just see how you feel.

Doctors don’t know everything. Neither do preachers. Neither…