I arrived in Millbrook at 10:48 a.m. for the Mardi Gras parade. I parked at the Presbyterian church.

The first person to greet me was wearing a Carnevale mask and cape. They immediately informed me they were Episcopalians, then asked if I wanted a beer.

“But,” I replied, “it’s not even 11 o’clock in the morning.”

“The Lord doesn’t live by Earth Time,” came the response.

A cold aluminum can was placed into my hand. I was ushered into a parade vehicle by a Millbrook policeman. My chariot was a snazzy Pontiac convertible, driven by the preacher’s wife, Miss Judy.

I rode atop the vehicle, waving to the crowd like a dork. I could see the looks on people’s faces as I passed by. Most were thinking, “Who is this idiot?”

My driver was cheerfully shifting gears. Happy as a clam.

“Are you an Episcopalian, too?” I asked Miss Judy.

“I am today,” she said, gunning the engine. “Hold on tight.”

Millbrook, Alabama, has been throwing a Mardi Gras parade for 18 years. This celebration is no

small affair. This is the largest Mardi Gras celebration north of the coast. “Southern Living” wrote about this parade once and said, quote, “These people are nuts.”

Which might not be a direct quote. But I, for one, can assure you that the people who throw this party are, indeed, bat-dookie crazy.

The Revelers Mardi Gras krewe is made up of approximately 120 folks who are deeply committed to fun. Most of them are in costume. Many have flammable breath.

“We maintain several floats, and we throw, literally, thousands of Moonpies and beads,” said one woman. “You throw so many Moonpies your arms are sore the next day.”

So I was excited. Mainly, because this is only the second parade I’ve ever been in.

My first parade happened when I was 13. I was a member of—this is true—the pitchfork drill team. Our…

“Dear Sean, are you a Christian? Sometimes I can’t tell. There is only one way to heaven, and your ‘tolerance for all,’ and ‘just be a good person’ philosophy sounds fine, but it leads to hell.

“...Hell is real, Sean. I read about your affinity for alcohol, and how you condone flagrant sinners. …As a Christian, I find your feel-good writing to be misleading and disgusting to Believers. There is only one way to heaven… and I believe you know this. I am not saying any of this in judgment, I am only saying this as your brother. Repent, friend. The time is at hand.”

Dear Friend. Gosh. First of all, your concern for my soul humbles me. I am honored. You sound like someone I could be friends with.

Thank you for taking time to write such a stirring and unsolicited email.

It’s funny, I used to know an elderly retired preacher who said that someone’s eternal soul was like their groin region. To just walk up and start talking about someone’s

groinal region is rude and downright uncalled for. But congratulations to you. You just jumped right in there.

The writer in me needs to tell you that your letter was extremely well written. Not one grammatical error. I am verry empressed. I actually counted your total words. There were 912. It takes me hours to write 900 error-free words.

Ergo, you spent at least an hour out of your day writing to me. How unselfish.

I’ll bet you spend the same amount of time worrying about children who are born to crack-addicted parents. I’ll bet, each day, you visit those drug-addicted babies in their lowly states.

I’ll bet you are also a frequent volunteer in the NICU, holding motherless and fatherless babies, so they don’t die of neglect. Kudos to you, sir. I wish I could be like you.

You probably also visit the homeless shelters and…

Homewood. Supercuts hair salon. The young woman cutting my hair goes by the name Shelby. She is as country as a collard, with an accent like Ribbon cane syrup.

She is 21. She is constantly laughing. She smiles a lot. All the customers here do the same whenever Shelby is around. This girl is Pollyanna.

I ask where Shelby’s originally from.

“Woodstock,” she says. “Not the one in New York. The one in Alabama.”

I would have never guessed.

I ask how she got started styling hair.

“Started cutting hair when I was 10 years old. My mama was a hairstylist, but she didn’t cut men’s hair, so Daddy would hand me the scissors and say, ‘You cut my hair, Shelbylane.’ That’s my real name, Shelbylane. My daddy wanted me to have a double first name like a Southern belle. Do you want me to trim the clumps of hair shooting straight out of your ears?”

“Please.”

While Shelbylane works steadily, I’m trying to imagine a world wherein a grown man would give a 10-year-old child surgically sharpened scissors

and allow the child to take a whack at his head.

“Your father trusted you a lot, to let you cut his hair when you were so little.”

She laughs. “Oh, Daddy believed in me so much. His confidence in me made me what I am. When I was a kid, I felt like I could do anything because of his faith in me. Do you want me to trim your unibrow, sir?”

“Please. Does your father live in Woodstock?”

“No, he passed away.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. He died when I was 14. I’ve had time to deal with it. But I miss him real bad.”

I know all about daddies dying at young ages. I know all about missing daddies real bad.

“But I have a theory,” says Shelbylane, firing up her electric clippers. “If you lose your parent…

She has long red hair. Fair complexion. A high-school senior. Quiet. Mild mannered. When she speaks, her voice sounds like Locust Fork, Alabama.

Her name is Morgan. Seated beside her is Clarabelle, a black Labrador wearing a Service Dog Alabama vest.

Morgan has paralysis on the left side of her body; her left hand doesn’t work. She has frequent seizures, she is sensitive to light. She has diabetes. She has low vision, and is nearly blind in one eye. Her intestines are paralyzed, too, so digestion is an issue. A day in the life of Morgan is no walk on the beach.

Her health issues stem from a previous bout with encephalitis (brain swelling). The encephalitis complications should have killed her. But they didn’t.

“Took me six months to learn to walk again,” she said. “But I knew I could do it. I believed I could.”

She’s a tough cookie. Morgan practically grew up in Children’s hospital, in Birmingham. Her youth was nothing like the average American childhood. While most kids were busy playing in their

backyard sprinklers, eating Flinstone Push Ups, Morgan was in a hospital room, relearning how to walk.

Her mother remained at her bedside. When Morgan was too paralyzed to feed herself or hold her head upright, nurses did these things for her.

“My happiest childhood memories are at Children’s hospital. Those people love me.”

In her teenage years, things have gotten even tougher. What she misses most is her independence. When you deal with the medical trials Morgan deals with, you’re always under supervision. This gets old, fast.

“I couldn’t do anything on my own. Couldn’t even walk the school hallway without nurses hovering around me, waiting for me to have a seizure.”

Morgan wouldn’t sleep by herself, for fear a nighttime seizure would kill her. She wouldn’t eat by herself, for fear that she would choke. She couldn’t drink a bottle of water without…

It was a big day in Heaven. Maybe one the biggest. You didn’t know this. Neither did I.

After all, you and I were merely going about our day, here on earth. We were doing our thing. Walking around the planet. Driving our vehicles. Buying stuff we need. Visiting Publix. Taking kids to school. Cooking supper. Making important phone calls. Paying bills. Buying hemorrhoid cream. Whatever.

Meanwhile, something huge was happening On High. Something astronomical.

You see, our lives here on Earth are so small. Sure, I know it seems like you and I are the center of the Solar System, but we aren’t. Our lives, our schedules, our concerns, our problems, they are all so paltry in comparison to the Hereafter.

It all began this morning. Heaven’s big party was scheduled for 7 a.m. There were posters all over. Even posters plastered on the Mother-of-Pearl Gates.

Everyone was coming to this party. And I mean everyone. This was going to be a party with a capital P.

All week, the angels have been fluttering around,

getting everything just so. Saint Peter even booked a band. The band included the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Glenn Miller, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Strauss, Debussy, and Hank Senior was on vocals.

There was an all-you-can eat buffet that was about the size of six U.S. states. One of the administrative angels ordered an ice sculpture that was about the size of Des Moines.

There were trillions—no—centillions of people who gathered. More people than you can imagine. So many people that, when you looked into the distance, the entire horizon was made of heads.

There was an electricity in the air you could feel. The clock was showing 6:58 a.m., Earth time. Everyone was ready.

Then, suddenly, the back of the crowd started going nuts. The roar was deafening. Not figuratively, but worse, metaphorically.

Because God was coming to the party.

God wasn’t…

“Hello. Thank you for calling customer service, website support,” says the woman’s voice, with a pronounced foreign accent. “How may I help you today?”

“Yeah, hi, I have an issue with my website. It’s not working.”

The sound of a keyboard tapping. “What seems to be the issue, sir?”

“My website. Like I said. It’s not working.”

“I see. And are you having a problem with your website, sir?”

“Yes, I just told you.”

“Describe this problem to me, please, in great detail?”

“Okay. None of my blog subscribers are receiving my blog post via email when I send the post out. Ergo, my website isn’t working.”

“Ergo?”

“That’s right. I think it’s a Latin word.”

“I don’t know this word, ‘ergo,’ sir. How do you spell it?”

“Does it really matter?”

“Will you hold please?”

“No, I will not hold. I was just on hold, waiting for forty-one minutes to talk to you, I don’t want to hold agai—”

Hold music.

Ten minutes pass.

“Hello,” says the foreign voice, “and thank you for your patience, sir, we are experiencing an unusually high call volume, but your call is important to us. What seems

to be the problem today?”

“I already told you what the problem was, remember? My blog post? It’s not going out via email?”

“I do not remember you, sir.”

“I was the one who used the Latin word.”

“Ah, yes. How can I help you?”

“I just told you, my blog isn’t working. None of my subscribers are receiving my blog post?”

Keyboard tapping. “Let me see what I can find out on my end, sir. Thank you for your patience.” More keyboard tapping. “Are you having a nice day?”

“Don’t make small talk with me. Please.”

“I’m sorry, sir? ‘Small talk?’”

“That’s right. I know you couldn’t care less how my day is going, so don’t pretend by making small talk.”

“What is this ‘small…

I arrive at the Shelby County Arts Council center. It’s early afternoon. I am here for the annual Helen Keller Art Show.

The parking lot is full of children. The kids are all dressed in their Sunday best. They are walking toward the building, accompanied by parents.

Several children hold white canes. Other kids use wheelchairs. Some are carried by their parents.

I see one blind young man run headfirst into a brick wall. He begins to cry. His mother holds him and begins crying alongside him. She is weepingly apologizing to her son for taking her attention off him.

“Hello,” says a tiny voice behind me.

“Hello.”

“My name’s Henrietta,” says the little girl. “What’s yours?”

Henrietta is using a pink wheelchair. A seatbelt is buckled around her tiny waist. Her face is cherubic. She wears a black and white dress with a jean jacket. Her eyes are looking past me.

“My name is Sean,” I say.

“Hello, Sean.”

“Is your art in the art show?”

“Oh, yes,” she says. “I won a Helen Keller award. I’m a winner.”

“Congratulations.”

“Thank you.”

Henrietta has

low vision. She can’t see well. Her eyes are just one of the many organs of her body with problems. Her physical issues stem from a mitochondrial disease.

The mitochondria are what turn sugar and oxygen into energy, so when your mitochondria don’t work, this affects different systems of your body: your brain, kidneys, muscles, heart, eyes, ears. Take your pick. A mitochondrial disease is not for wimps.

“I spend a lot of time in hospitals,” says Henrietta. “Sometimes, all I do is live in a hospital.”

The disease affects Henrietta’s immune system. Whenever Henrietta gets a common cold, it’s a big deal. When she gets the flu, it’s a national emergency; get her to the ICU.

“You must be a pretty fearless person,” I say.

“No way, I’m not fearless,” she says. “To be…

A middle-aged woman peeks into his kennel. She smiles. He wags his tail. Maybe she will adopt him, he’s thinking.

Then she walks away.

Par for the course. Everyone who peeks into his kennel usually walks away. Nobody wants an old dog. At this shelter, everyone adopts young dogs who can’t control their bladders. Humans want puppies. Not geriatrics.

If only humans could understand canine language, he would’ve told the lady all about himself and what a good boy he is. It’s a shame that humans don’t speak Dog.

He’s not sure how he ended up in this place. Once he had a family. But they didn’t want him. So they left him here. He waited for them to come back, staring out his kennel door. But his owners were done with him.

That was a lifetime ago. Since then, he’s been stuck in this loud room of kennels with dogs who cry all day long.

He’s overheard the humans’ remarks about him. “How old is that dog?” they ask, pointing at him. “He looks kind of gray.”

“Mommy, I don’t want an old dog.” “Poor old guy, nobody’s gonna want an elderly dog.”

Elderly. Who would want an elderly dog? The worst part is, it’s been so long since he’s been touched. When you’re a puppy everyone showers you with affection. They’re always touching you. But when you’re an old dog, they just ignore you.

He wishes he could tell the humans what a good dog he is, tell them about all his skills. Being old has its advantages. For starters, he can hold his bladder, he knows how to watch TV, he knows how to cuddle, how to be patient, he knows how to fend off dangerous UPS men.

But it doesn’t matter. This kennel is life now. He knows that one day he will be led to the back room with the doctor, like all the other…

He is older. I see him standing outside the supermarket. Scruffy beard. Pitiful shoes. He smells like a substance plentiful to barnyards and sheep pens. His clothes are threadbare.

He is asking for food. Not money. Not handouts. Just something to eat. He holds no cardboard signs. He’s not bothering anyone. His name is Sam.

“Can you spare some change?” he asks me.

A cigarette is cupped between his fingers. A heavy backpack sits beside his feet. He’s been asking passersby if they can spare change for a Snickers all day, or maybe a sandwich from the deli. A bottle of water even. No takers.

“Anything at all,” he says. “I’m hungry.”

Most don’t acknowledge him. Most treat him as a non-entity.

“Manager told me not to stand out here,” said the man. “Said I was detracting from business, said she’d call the cops. I would leave, but I’m hungry, man. You do weird things when you’re hungry.”

He’s a veteran. Vietnam. Former Marine. “I was 17 when I went over. I was an athlete. Used to play basketball. I

wasn’t always this way, man. I had a wife once.”

I ask what happened to the wife.

“One day she realized she’d married a drunk.”

On cue, a woman walks past the sliding doors of the grocery store, exiting into the parking lot. The woman is dressed in business casual. Fancy pocketbook. She doesn’t even glance at my new friend.

“You stand out here and you’re basically invisible. People won’t even make eye contact. To them, you’re a piece of [bad word]. Maybe I am [same word]. Folks treat stray dogs better than stray people.”

An employee exits the store next. A young woman in her mid-20s. She is unfriendly. Her name tag says manager. She tells the man he needs to keep moving. She says the police have already been called. She is firm with the man. A real…

I stand behind them in the checkout aisle. It is a youth group, or maybe it’s a class trip. Either way, I know that they are excited to be on vacation because one boy actually shouts, “I’M SO EXCITED TO BE HERE!”

The boy who hollers is using crutches, the kind that clasp to his arms. He is using a cheerful voice and from what I gather, he is excited to be on vacation.

The adult chaperone who accompanies the kids looks stressed out. There is a look adults often wear when they are responsible for large groups of kids. It’s a look I can spot from a mile away because I have been a youth-group chaperone before.

Going anywhere with a large clot of young people is a test of your humanity. You can not walk into a grocery store without kids running the aisles like rabid cats.

And when you finally find the miniature heathens, usually they’re doing something like playing a game of Butt Swat in the produce section. The rules of Butt

Swat are unclear to me, but apparently the game involves stalks of celery being used as weapons.

But these kids aren’t like that. They are happy kids, and well-behaved. They wear matching yellow T-shirts, and they smile a lot.

I talk to Peter, who is head chaperone.

“We’re from Atlanta,” he says. “We’re here at the beach for a vacation, these kids deserve a little fun.”

Peter explains that they are a homeschool group of kids who all have something in common.

“Most of our kids are differently abled,” says Peter. “We don’t like the term ‘disabled.’ We teach our kids not to use it.”

A few in the group have cerebral palsy, another has a congenital heart defect, others face mental health issues, and some children have mild autism.

“We’re a wild and crazy group is what we are,” adds Peter. “Any day…