The first time I met Miss Joanne was in Panama City, Florida. I can’t remember how long ago it was. But I had younger skin back then, I remember that much.
She was dancing, I also remember that.
She was an old woman. Big grin on her face. Her dance was a cross between the Mashed Potato and a U.S. Army infantry march. It was precious.
About me: I have been playing music for money since I was a teenager. I wasn’t particularly good. But I was a local, and those were all the qualifications a boy needed. I played restaurants, pool halls, beer joints, churches, and on one occasion, a car dealership.
In my daytime hours, I would work labor jobs—laying tile, hanging sheetrock, installing bathrooms. But during evenings, I would travel wherever music called.
And one night, somewhere in my twenties, I was playing in Panama City. It was late. Elderly Miss Joanne was there. She approached the stage. She handed me a cocktail napkin with handwriting on it:
It read: “Will you play ‘You Are My Sunshine?’”
The band played. She swayed to the music and sang aloud. Eyes closed. It made me smile to see a woman her age so in love with music.
On our break, she hugged my neck. She bought me a beer and sat beside me. We talked. Then, she asked me if I wanted to dance.
“Me?” I said.
“Yes, you,” she said. “I may be old, but I can dance like a teenager.”
We never danced, because I don’t dance. But I wish I would have now.
Throughout the years, I saw her a lot. She wore a sparkling clothes she’d decorated herself—adorned in sequins. She had a shock of white hair and wrinkled skin. And she always carried one cigarette in a miniature sleeve, hanging by a string around her neck. Just one.
I asked about this lonesome cigarette.
“I smoke this when the mood hits me,” she said.
And when she smoked it, she talked. She was brilliant. A poet, writer, philosopher, and she had memorized thirty thousand funny limericks. I didn’t know her well, but she was beautiful.
Year after year, I kept playing in new dives, and she kept coming to hug my neck. I would play “You Are My Sunshine.” And she would sing until she couldn’t.
I visited the hospital, last week when I heard about her stroke.
When I pulled into the medical center parking lot, I had a feeling sweep over me. It was an overwhelming one. And I know this going to sound painfully cliche, but it’s true.
I looked in my rear view mirror at my reflection, and I realized I am not that same young man anymore. I am a new me. Whoever he is.
I don’t hang sheetrock to pay bills, or play music for tips. I am older. And stiffer. With more expensive health insurance. I don’t walk to the mailbox as fast as I used to. And I don’t like to eat dinner past 5 P.M.
I rode the hospital elevator. I walked the white hallways to Miss Joanne’s room. I rapped on an open door and walked inside.
I could’ve kicked myself for not bringing flowers.
There she was. Miss Joanne was lying on her side, motionless. Her eyes were just as piercing. Her mouth was open, her face flat. She was trying to talk, but couldn’t.
Her family was gathered nearby. It’s the same scene you’ve seen in every hospital. Adult children, sleep-deprived and exhausted.
A nurse was checking Miss Joanne’s machines.
I held her hand. It was warm. I remembered the bumbling young fool I was once, playing music for donations. A pathetic, lost young man. This merciful woman, who always hugged my neck, must’ve seen right through me all those years ago.
I spoke to her.
She answered with moans.
“Remember me?” I asked.
She grunted a response.
Someone near Joanne’s bedside said, “Would you sing for her? Joanne always liked to hear you sing.”
I didn’t know what to say. It felt wrong. The idea of singing in a room with beeping monitors, hospital beds, weary family members, and IV bags. I felt ridiculous, but I cleared my throat. And I sang.
“You are my sunshine,
“My only sunshine,
“You make me happy…”
Joanne’s eyes were fixed on the ceiling. Awake, alert, but trapped inside her own head.
When I finished, she squeezed my hand. She moaned something. It was something she seemed to want me to hear.
I leaned close and said, “I didn’t catch that, Miss Joanne.”
She struggled to say it again. She really struggled. The muscles of her mouth strained.
“I love you,” she said.
And it was the last time I ever hugged her neck.
I hope you are dancing right now, Miss Joanne.
Cathi - September 25, 2018 5:42 am
She is, Sean, she definitely is.
Barbara Schweck - September 25, 2018 5:44 am
Oh, dear Sean!! You should ALWAYS dance!!! It doesn’t matter how you dance as long as you dance. You should get up right now, put on a song, and dance. As they say, Dance like no one is watching! It is so freeing and fun. I dance with my grandchildren all the time-silly old grandma- and those times are so precious to me and them!! The other grandmother sits and watches and I feel bad that she cannot understand the joy of letting loose!
Judy Kate - September 25, 2018 5:50 am
Miss Joanne is dancing – and singing – as she smiles down on you. You’re a good man, Sean Dietrich. Thank you for bringing sunshine into Miss Joanne’s life. And, into mine. ❤️
Jeanne Butler - September 25, 2018 7:10 am
Well that got me crying. For Miss Joanne and old people who have strokes. I’m old and praying I don’t die like that. But also because I always sing You Are My Sunshine to my granddaughter when she was little. She’s 18 now. And she took my sunshine away. Now I am annoying to her. I pray every night that before I die she “grows up” and brings it back. Because she is my sunshine. Love you Sean
Shelton Armour - September 25, 2018 7:40 am
I was really touched by this story.
Nancy Thomaston Rogers - September 25, 2018 9:22 am
She is Sean, she is dancing with the angels. Bless you for singing to her one more time.
Jean - September 25, 2018 10:24 am
God bless you and yes,Miss Joanne is dancing!
Steve Scott - September 25, 2018 11:29 am
I wish I could write like you. I love that you capture humanity and that you capture the South.
Mike Guilday - September 25, 2018 11:32 am
Thank you Sean.
Terri C Boykin - September 25, 2018 11:50 am
I seriously hope that Ms. Joanne is dancing on streets of gold right now, God bless her soul. I love you too Sean, even though I’m crying, and I already have my mascara on.
Sandra Smith - September 25, 2018 12:33 pm
I believe she is, Sean ! ❤
Randy Sherrill - September 25, 2018 12:35 pm
Sean, you have a deep, compassionate heart. I love YOU. From a Methodist preacher to one who preaches more powerfully than almost anyone I know. AH-MEN.
Jan - September 25, 2018 12:36 pm
Oh what a beautiful story! You have such a special talent, Sean. Not just writing (which is excellent) but the ability and the willingness to look at people and really see them. So many of us, for whatever reason, do not see beyond the ends of our own noses. You help us to see people for the lovely, complex, awe-inspiring beings that they are! Thank you for all that you do and for sharing it so beautifully!
Janie's Jottings - September 25, 2018 1:04 pm
Precious, heartbreaking and beautiful.
Peggy Savage - September 25, 2018 1:07 pm
Just beautiful. ….
Kathy Smith - September 25, 2018 1:08 pm
Oh my goodness, that made me burst into tears. I love this story. Note to self to tell everyone around me I love them and dance whenever anybody asks.
Carol - September 25, 2018 1:22 pm
She is !! You know Sean , The greatest thing about you and your greasers gift is ? You DON’T JUDGE PEOPLE!
YOU JUST LOVE THEM FOR WHO THEY ARE AND THE GIFTS THEY GIVE TO THIS WORLD AND YOU PASS THEM ON TO US!!
I know I was shouting, but I want everyone to know what a BIG HEART YOU HAVE!!
Keloth Anne Thompson - September 25, 2018 1:23 pm
What a sweet sweet story!! You are a good soul?♥️❤️
Amy Crews - September 25, 2018 1:43 pm
Well that one got me. Sniff sniff. You are so dear to have done that. My moms favorite choir members came and sang hymns by her bedside while I held her hand. She couldn’t respond but we know she loved it! It’s a memory I’ll cherish always.
Craig J - September 25, 2018 1:58 pm
My daughter is a Board Certified Music Therapist who works in Hospice. That little bit of sunshine you brought may have been last ray of sunlight Ms. Joanne felt, but she felt the warmth of the sun in her heart from yours.
As the song says:
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance
I hope you dance
Jo Brooks - September 25, 2018 2:48 pm
I love that song! I have always thought it was the perfect advice for a graduating senior. Or anyone.
that's jack - September 25, 2018 2:27 pm
Imma liking this one. Thanks us old folk need to hear this………. You are my sunshine!.
Jo Brooks - September 25, 2018 2:47 pm
Thank you for giving Ms Joanne the opportunity to sing and dance, especially there near the end. Music is the sunshine of the soul.
Ann - September 25, 2018 3:16 pm
I was thinking of my Mother who passed last year this morning. I cried and said “Mama, I don’t need a sign from you ’cause I know you are in heaven looking down on me and helping me out.” And now I read your story and see the song “you are my sunshine”. She would sing that for me whenever I was down. Thanks for the sign, Mama. And thank you Sean for your lovely stories.
Pamela McEachern - September 25, 2018 3:46 pm
You are my sunshine…to me and so many others Thank You Sean.
Peace and Love from Birmingham
MermaidGrammy - September 25, 2018 3:50 pm
I have a niece so loved by our family that I think we burdened her with it. When she was three, another sister gave us another little girlchild who again was adored. But the older child didn’t feel left out. When baby would cry, #1 niece would sing to her, “you are my sunshine” and sometimes, that was the only thing that worked! Thanks, one more time, dear Sean, for the memories. What a lucky lady was Ms Joanne
Debbie - September 25, 2018 3:54 pm
Oh my you got me crying again! I love you too Sean!
dromine78 - September 25, 2018 3:56 pm
I wept while reading this. A precious story!
Nix LaVerdi - September 25, 2018 4:06 pm
Waterworks on a Tuesday morning.
Sean, how do you do that?
I love your stories.
Ellen - September 25, 2018 5:21 pm
Ok Sean, you did it again!!! ?❤️?I know how you feel….it is so hard to lose those we love !!!
Jo Bamberg Cooper - September 25, 2018 5:32 pm
How wonderful you had something special to sing to her heart. I am 75. I want my daughter to sing that for me…and she will. Thank you for this priceless reminder that age does not make a difference in a friendship.
Ellen Shelley - September 25, 2018 6:02 pm
When we were saying our good byes to my Mom several years ago, we all crowded in her room constantly and talked, laughed, told stories and sang, yes sang. She was mostly very alert and although sleepy joined in on all the hymns as we played guitar and sang. We could see her lips moving, knowing every word. Such great memories. Music speaks to us in so many ways and, yes, Sean, she loved you for that song and for all the times you played her requested song. Such a small favor with such amazing results. Great post, as usual!
Suze - September 25, 2018 6:06 pm
Thank you for writing about ALL of God’s people and creatures!
James Haskins - September 25, 2018 6:29 pm
In the early years of my United Methodist Pastoral career, I felt hospital visits was my way of blessing those whom I visited with and prayed for. After all, it was part of the job description and what I got paid to do. Sometimes it was hard to make those visits because it seemed like a job. Later, I realized it was more than a job. It was God’s way of visiting me through the patients to remind me that God is still on the premises and that God knew I needed the blessing more than anyone. As I read this column, I thanked God for blessing you, Sean as you ministered to Miss Joanne. Thanks.
Frank - September 25, 2018 6:44 pm
I am reminded of a comment by the wife of the late singer/songwriter Steve Goodman (he wrote City of New Orleans) about how he “found meaning in the mundane.”
You sir, are a master at that.
I wish I could write half as well.
Edna B. - September 25, 2018 7:54 pm
God Bless you and Miss Joanne. What a beautiful story. You really are a ray of sunshine to so many of us. Wishing you a wonderful day, hugs, Edna B.
Vera - September 25, 2018 9:02 pm
Got me on this one. This was last song I sang to my mom a few minutes before she passed. Love?❤️
Jody - September 25, 2018 9:10 pm
Never miss an opportunity to dance. The music and movement are life’s joy
Myra - September 26, 2018 3:38 pm
OK. this does it. More than 68 years now, I’ve refused to dance for fear of people looking at me … judging me. Next time I’ve an opportunity, I’m gonna take it … for Miss Joanne.
Beckie - November 21, 2018 8:20 am
Another beautiful story. Thank you
Carolyn K - November 21, 2018 11:25 am
Gloria Rumph - November 21, 2018 5:06 pm
Oh Sean I hope Miss Joanne is dancing and never gets tired! Crying as usual!? love your writings!
Steve Winfield - November 21, 2018 6:14 pm
You’re a great guy Sean. I so wish there were a lot more like you. Never met you but you hug me me a lot when I really need to be hugged. Thanks.