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.…

I walked into the house unannounced. The door was unlocked. Nobody answered the doorbell so I let myself in.

I was young, six-two, awkward, freckles, shaggy hair, telephone-pole legs, and size-13 clown shoes. In a word, I was “gawky.”

In this world you had your handsome guys who were going places; guys who came from generations of good breeding, with investment portfolios. And then you had guys like me. Our family heirloom salad bowls all said “Cool Whip” on the sides.

I announced myself to the empty house. “Hello? Anybody home?”

I was here to Meet the Parents, and I was nervous. I had been dating this girl for a little while. We were at the phase where family introductions were a necessity. I felt like I was going to puke.

An older woman came from around the corner to greet me. Dark brown hair. Chocolate eyes. Early 60s.

“Are you Sean?” she said.

I swallowed. “Yes, ma’am.”

“I’m Mary. Jamie’s mother.”

“Pleased to meet you, Miss Mary.”

I could tell by the look on the woman’s face that I was under inspection.

Which is a brutalizing process for a young man. I stood naked before these two exacting eyes.

I shoved my hands into my pockets while she evaluated the boy who was dating her daughter. I half expected her to inspect my teeth.

“Sean,” she said, tapping her chin. “Such an interesting name.”

“Yes, ma’am.”


“No, ma’am. Baptist. But I drink a little.”

“Well, we’ve heard a lot about you.”

Uh-oh. God knows what they had heard. Because I had nothing going for me. A high-school dropout. A string of failed jobs. I’d done everything from construction to scooping ice cream. What pittance I had in savings was wadded in an Altoid tin beneath my mattress. I would later spend it all on an engagement ring. I was—I hate to keep pointing this out—not a prize catch.


I’m scared with the pandemic because I just thought the virus was about to be getting over and now I don’t know if it is. My mom said I can write to you.

Thank you for your time,


For me to effectively reply to your letter, we must first travel into the future. You and me. So let’s step into my time machine, shall we? Don’t worry, I’ll make sure you’re back in time for Mom’s meatloaf tonight.

Man, I love meatloaf.

Watch your step. Hands inside the vehicle. No flash photography. Seatbelts, please—click it or ticket, sister.

I am going to set my time-travel dial for, oh, let’s say 65 years into the future. An era when cars fly and everyone wears ridiculous hairstyles. Such as, for example, the mullet. Which is making a comeback. Yesterday, I saw a kid sporting a mullet-cut like I haven’t seen since Night Ranger was still on tour.

Ready? Here we go.

T minus ten, nine, eight…



Okay. I apologize. Those were lame time-travel special effects, nothing like the

movies. Sadly, this column doesn’t have the budget for special effects because this column still has a mortgage to pay.

Anyway, here we are in the future. Let’s take a look around. Pretty wild isn’t it? This future world? Look at all the odd fashions and bizarre packaged foods. Hey, is that Mick Jagger?

Never mind. Because listen up, I want to ask you an important question: what is the first thing you notice about the future?

Yep. That’s right. There is one.

Also, Fort Worth, Texas, is still here. Your hometown did not explode, the solar system still works, and the human race is still alive and battling high cholesterol.

Good. Now what else do you notice?

Correct again. Starbucks now charges $2,183.99 for a small coffee. Nothing new there.

Okay, now let’s…

Last night the family had a shrimp boil. It was the perfect night for such a soirée. The air was warm. The sun was a red billiard ball on the horizon. The sky was fingerpainted with gold.

Cousin Bentley was our tireless hostess. She shucked corn, washed potatoes, quartered onions, buttered the French bread, squeezed the lemons, stocked the ice chests, arranged the picnic tables, prepared the dessert platter, carried the heavy coolers, and refilled everyone’s drinks.

Then, her husband dropped the shrimp into the pot and got all the credit.

The evening came alive with voices of the past. There were cousins from the Carolinas, Alabama, and Florida, all gathered around a battered Coleman cooler, rehashing ancient history.

And as usual, I forgot to take pictures. My wife says I always forget to take photos during special occasions. I guess this is because I’m usually too busy running my mouth.

Which is what I was doing during the conversation with one elderly aunt. This particular aunt was sipping from a tall insulated aluminum cup.

She is also a Deepwater Baptist who knows all four verses to “Almost Persuaded.”

I asked what was in her cup, she said it was water. But I looked closely and could see that it was indeed red wine.

“That’s not water,” I pointed out. “You’re drinking wine.”

“Well, hallelujah,” she exclaimed. “He’s done it again.”

Of course everyone has aged since the last time we’ve seen each other. This means people are always telling you how good you look. The irony here is that these people never told you how good you looked back when you actually looked good.

When it was time to eat, we dumped seafood from the stockpot with a grand flourish. The heap of fare steamed with the unforgettable aroma of eau du Old Bay seasoning. A smell that is the essence of childhood on the Gulf Coast.

A prayer…

A busy lunch joint. Seated beside me is a man reading a newspaper. I glance at a sobering headline that reads: “Pandemic Rages On—Again.” The man with the paper sighs, and folds it closed.

Meanwhile, the television above the bar rolls shocking footage of a shooting. This is followed by reporters talking about more bad stuff. Then come pharmaceutical commercials by the dozen. Followed by legal commercials on how to sue the pants off pharmaceutical companies.

The waitress looks at the TV and says, “Lordy mighty, they never tell you anything good anymore, do they?”

She flips the channel. The TV shows a riot. She flips again. A televangelist in a silk suit is weeping. Flip, flip, flip. On the screen are two newsmen shouting at each other with spittle flying. She flips again. The news announcer says: “And now for more COVID updates…”

Mercifully, she turns the television off.

A man at the bar says, “Thank you.”

Another man raises a coffee mug. “Amen.”

The mood improves considerably. Pretty soon the waitress is playing music overhead. It’s George

Strait, singing about Amarillo. And color is being restored to the world. Thank you, George.

The waitress warms up my coffee and I’m feeling a lot better now.

It’s been a hard few weeks for my family. And certainly, I know the universe is full of cruddy current events—as seen on TV. But isn’t there anything good happening out there?

The answer is yes. And as it happens, I have one such item of good news to share. A few months ago, I met a man who told me about angels.

“Angels?” I asked skeptically.

“Yes, angels,” he said.

The man was white-haired. He looked like your favorite granddaddy. He spoke with a thick Georgia accent and wore enough plaid to cover a Plymouth.

“I was driving home late,” he began. “Crashed into a log truck.”

His wife held one of…