My phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number, so I answered. I expected to be greeted with an automated voice, delivering exciting information about my auto warranty. Instead, it was a young man. I’ll call him Fred, although that’s not his name. I’d forgotten I was expecting his call.

“Where do you want me to start?” said Fred.

“Start wherever you want.”

He was calling from the third-floor of the oncology unit. Thirteen years old. When he told me that he was dying, I lost the air in my lungs.

“Are you still there?” he said.

“Yeah,” I answered.

At first, I was tempted to ask if this was all some kind of elaborate prank. Cynical, I know. But it’s not every day you meet a kid like Fred.

He went on. “I just wanted to tell you what I’ve learned on my personal journey. I thought maybe you could write about it.”

Big words from a young man. I couldn’t even answer.

“Are you still there, Mister Sean?”

“I’m here.” I fumbled for a pencil. “Go ahead, Fred. I’m listening.”

I could hear his mother in the background urging him to speak. And I got the sense that I was involved in a deeply personal family moment. I felt like an intruder.

“I’ve learned that people are great,” he began. “People are nice to you when you need them. But not the people you think will be nice. People I didn’t even think were my friends are now friends and they would probably do anything for me.

“Like, my friend Rachel has come to the hospital pretty much every day this year. Sometimes she sleeps here and we play games and stuff like that. We weren’t even friends before I got sick, she was just in my class. There are, literally, a bunch of people like that in my life right now.”

I wrote it all down, but said nothing.

“I’ve learned that nobody is invisible, even when you think you are invisible and, like, when you think nobody cares about you. God watches you, and I’ve actually seen him.”

I stopped him. “You’ve seen who?”

“God.”

“Are you being literal?”

“Yep,” he said. “Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I just know he’s standing here, I’ve seen something big in the corner, something bright, like, actually in my room, giving me strength, and making me feel that it’s going to be okay.”

My eyes were beginning to drip all over my paper.

“You mean you saw an angel?” I said.

“Maybe,” he said. “Or maybe it was God.”

I took a moment to blow my nose. I was surprised that I was feeling a little angry inside. Angry that—let’s just call it what it is—God would let a kid like this die. Angry that this world is so unfair.

“But how can you say all these nice things about God?” I asked. “How can you have so much faith when you’re…”

“Dying?”

His little voice sounded a hundred years older than mine.

“Even though God doesn’t answer my prayers,” he said, “it doesn’t mean he doesn’t care. I mean, I prayed and prayed to be healed, and a lot of people are praying for me. But it didn’t work out and that doesn’t make him a bad God.”

I wiped my eyes with my sleeve.

“How do you feel, Fred?” I asked. “About all this bad stuff happening?”

“Honestly, I don’t feel anything. I’m not mad or sad or anything because I don’t have energy to be mad. I’m tired a lot. And I’m not scared. Everyone has a purpose and I’m really lucky I found mine.”

“May I ask what that purpose is, Fred?” I asked.

I heard him sigh. “Just to be with the people I love. To love my mom and dad and my brother, and to just… To make them happy, to laugh and stuff, to go and do whatever with them, to just have fun. Just playing and hanging out with my friends. Just being with my dad and watching a movie together. That’s really all.”

I could not answer. And even writing this, I have had to wipe my keyboard a few times. Because I don’t understand. I am incapable.

We talked for about an hour before his nurse came in, whereupon his mother took the phone. In the background, I could hear Fred laughing with his nurse. I could hear his cheerful voice, telling her that he felt okay today, even though his mother told me this was entirely untrue.

A small crowd attended Fred’s funeral. Family and close friends only. I wish I had a clever closing line for this column, but I don’t. So I will leave you with a song that was Fred’s favorite. A song his mother says her son had been singing since he was a baby, when sitting in front of the television screen.

“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,
“A beautiful day for a neighbor,
“Would you be mine, could you be mine?”

“So let’s make the most of this beautiful day,
“Since we’re all here, we might as well say,
“Would you be mine? Could you be mine?
“Won’t you be my neighbor?”

74 comments

  1. Debbie - March 31, 2022 6:49 am

    I am your neighbor, Sean, and you are a blessed neighbor to so many. God bless you.
    PS
    You are capable.

    Reply
    • Nelda Bracksieck - April 5, 2022 12:21 am

      The most beautifully written words I’ve read in awhile except in God’s word. This child is well now. Safe in heaven where there is no suffering or pain.

      Reply
  2. Debbie - March 31, 2022 6:50 am

    ❤️

    Reply
  3. Janice Gallagher - March 31, 2022 6:58 am

    So beautiful and moving. Thank you. Someone once told us when our son was dying that there are different types of healing – one is the ultimate healing.

    Reply
  4. Connie - March 31, 2022 7:13 am

    God bless his family and friends. I will never understand how God lets children die. Why parents have to go through that pain. Willie Nelson has a song called “It’s not for me to Understand “ and I know that’s true, but I’m still sad for all the families. You’re a good human, Sean, for listening to people

    Reply
  5. 🇿🇦🇿🇦🇿🇦Norma Den - March 31, 2022 7:44 am

    I’m dripping on my keyboard too. Life can be so hard to understand but the wisdom & acceptance of this young boy blow my mind. I don’t personally believe God let’s children suffer & die, but he is there with them through it all & welcomes them with open arms. We wondered when our niece went through an easy pregnancy 5 years ago, lovely baby girl called Grace, as she was unexpected. Hours after her birth the Dr said she was Down’s syndrome, but for a month she was a joy to all who loved her, smiled early & seemed healthy, then suddenly a month after her birth one Sunday morning she left us. Another wee Angel in heaven, another star ⭐️ in the sky. It’s been hard for her family but they have the faith & celebrate the joy they had.

    Reply
  6. Kim - March 31, 2022 10:22 am

    Tears! What words of wisdom from a child!

    Reply
  7. Marilyn Vance - March 31, 2022 10:35 am

    I’ll bet Mr. Rogers (the other Fred) met him at Heaven’s Gates and thanked him for loving his song and for being a great neighbor! Thanks, Sean!

    Reply
  8. Connie - March 31, 2022 10:40 am

    Just…WOW.

    Reply
  9. Nancy Crees - March 31, 2022 10:50 am

    I have a friend at the grocery store. He is paralyzed on the left side. He wears braces on his left arm and hand and his left leg. All these things are from a brain bleed several years ago. He works a full schedule. He was in the parking lot collecting shopping carts Monday when I got out of my car. I yelled “hey, neighbor!” to him. And he came back with, “it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…..” and I joined in as I walked into the store. Nate is 26 and I am 73. A blessing in each other’s lives

    Reply
  10. PWS - March 31, 2022 11:02 am

    Amen

    Reply
  11. Ricky - March 31, 2022 11:36 am

    Thanks for the upbeat story we need them! life is good if we can just follow Gods plan for us like Fred is!

    Reply
  12. Lisa K Riley - March 31, 2022 11:36 am

    Lucky Fred, he has the best neighbor of all! Thank you for telling Fred’s story. I believe children are our strongest warriors.

    Reply
  13. Naomi Smith - March 31, 2022 11:45 am

    Such dignity, peace and grace for one so young. It can only come from God. I believe him when he said that God came to visit him. May God continue to strengthen and hold his family close.

    Reply
    • Jo Johnson - April 1, 2022 2:01 am

      AMEN!!

      Reply
  14. Michael Lauer - March 31, 2022 11:50 am

    I lost my brother to suicide and now I’m OK I with it He has made it to Heaven by now .😀😀

    Reply
  15. Joretta Parker - March 31, 2022 11:53 am

    I’m sitting here crying and amazed at his confidence in God. What a wonderful world this would be if every one had his faith. RIP young man.

    Reply
  16. Gladtobealive - March 31, 2022 11:59 am

    Dang it! Just, dang it.

    Reply
  17. Pam Williams - March 31, 2022 12:04 pm

    ❤️

    Reply
  18. Heidi - March 31, 2022 12:07 pm

    Maybe Fred was so special that God wanted to give him a beautiful beyond words life, early. For a young boy, he touched and blessed so many people.

    Reply
  19. pegdye - March 31, 2022 12:14 pm

    Thank you Sean for sharing this powerful and truthful post. Having lost a 6 yr old daughter to leukemia many years ago, I iexperience much of the same sentiments that ‘Fred’ shared with you. God gives these little angels incredible courage and wisdom. During their time here their spirits touch many people for good. They inspire and connect in miraculous ways. I’m a Christian, but I admittedly had to let God know how angry I was that He did not spare my little girl, but I assure you, His reasons are unsearchable. My faith is stronger for going through this loss and now I truly do have an Angel in Heaven. Mr Rogers was on the top of her favorite people list right next to Johnny Cash.

    Reply
  20. Leigh Amiot - March 31, 2022 12:17 pm

    “Fred” understood his purpose in life. Should we all seek ours and get about whatever it is we are to do to redeem the time.
    You certainly are doing that, Sean, repeatedly putting yourself through an emotional wringer in order that the rest of us will “get it”.

    Reply
    • Debbie g - April 1, 2022 2:40 am

      So true Leigh Thank you Sean. Love to all my brothers. And who is my brother?💧❤️

      Reply
  21. Te - March 31, 2022 12:22 pm

    I’ve been lucky — or missed out. I’m not sure. My parents were in nursing homes when they died. I don’t know anyone who died in all the infernal conflicts we’ve fought, but I don’t think I can stand before the Vietnam wall and not bawl. I’ve had friends I had lost track of, colleagues, friends of friends that I lament their absence. I was always afraid I’d forget them, so I did something totally apropos for our generation. I kept their email or phone number in my system. Now and again I run across their numbers, and even if im in a hurry, my subconscious acknowledges their memory.

    Reply
  22. Sam Lanham - March 31, 2022 12:25 pm

    I’m so glad Fred took in Fred Rogers’ message. I’ve often said that Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was the most important show on television. Fred’s story is why.

    Reply
  23. Linda Lewis - March 31, 2022 12:29 pm

    Oh, this story is so beautiful. It pulled at my heart strings. It is so well written, and with lots of feeling. My eyes are tearing up. Young “Fred” is an inspiration. We need more people like him.

    Reply
  24. violetstmichael - March 31, 2022 12:33 pm

    A wiser than me person, once answered me when I angrily asked why God didn’t heal someone I loved, “He did. Just not how you wanted Him to”. It took me a long time to realize she was right, we prayed, everyone prayed, we had faith, all of the things that should have “worked” but didn’t, at least not here but my loved one was healed, perfectly and I can live with that.

    Reply
  25. Barbara Culwell - March 31, 2022 12:36 pm

    My oh my. Such wisdom from such a young guy. Thank you for telling us about him. Yes, I’d like to be his neighbor! And what a neighbor he was to all he knew!

    Reply
  26. Charlotte Virginia McCraw - March 31, 2022 12:43 pm

    Thank you, Sean, for reminding me of just how grateful I should be to still be alive at 80 years. My heart and my eyes cried buckets upon reading the column about Fred. What a beautiful young boy he was, leaving sad but lovely memories. Yes, it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

    Reply
  27. Sindy - March 31, 2022 1:00 pm

    What a blessing for you that he was in your life.

    Reply
  28. Anne Arthur - March 31, 2022 1:14 pm

    Reading this while my young niece is in hospital with terminal cancer…

    Reply
  29. Debbie - March 31, 2022 1:22 pm

    Such a beautiful story … Fred is a very special human ❤️

    Reply
  30. Shelton A. - March 31, 2022 1:27 pm

    Fred’s story may have been the most impactful thing you have written since I started reading you every day. Fred is with God and the angels now and I am thankful. God bless his family and friends and heal their sorrows because of Fred’s passing. Thank you for sharing this with us. God bless you and Jamie plus Otis and Thelma Lou.

    Reply
  31. Jan - March 31, 2022 1:41 pm

    What a beautiful story about a young man who was so wise for his years. I can’t imagine the pain his family is feeling. The beauty and wisdom of his story is something that should be shared with the world. My heart and prayers go out to all who had the blessing of knowing Fred and especially to his family. Thank you for sharing!

    Reply
  32. Sharon Tinkler - March 31, 2022 1:43 pm

    This just reoriented my day. I hope this feeling stays with me always.

    Reply
  33. alisonbaird765 - March 31, 2022 1:44 pm

    My mom died of cancer when I was ten years old.I was so angry at God.I still am sometimes.God is not a bad God when he doesn’t answer our prayers…what wisdom! This 58 year old woman really needed this 13 year olds words today! Thank you for sharing. You are a very good neighbor!

    Reply
  34. Tammy - March 31, 2022 2:04 pm

    Beautiful. Touching. Heart wrenching that sweet little boys like Fred are suffering. 🙏

    Reply
  35. Peggy Coffee - March 31, 2022 2:05 pm

    Sean, what helped me when I lost my grandson was Isaiah 57:1”the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil”. Thank you so much for all you share. You are a blessing to us all! May God bless You!!

    Reply
  36. Peggy - March 31, 2022 2:12 pm

    Sean, what helped me in the loss of my grandson was this: Isaiah 57;1. “The righteous perish and no one understands ….The righteous are taken away to be spared from .”

    Reply
    • Ruth Mitchell - March 31, 2022 3:13 pm

      Thank you, Peggy, for sharing that verse. It’s so comforting to read those words.

      Reply
  37. Pingback: Sean of the South: Neighbor | The Trussville Tribune

  38. Sonny - March 31, 2022 2:23 pm

    Amen brothet

    Reply
  39. Sandy Burnett - March 31, 2022 2:28 pm

    Thank you for passing on Fred’s story and how he found his purpose here on earth, especially how he understand just who his neighbors are. Glad he found the girl from class, the nurses, the many who prayed for him and you.
    May we all feel God’s love and love others the way Fred did, the way God does. May we all be sitting here with tears in our eyes the way you were as you were writing this as you listened to Fred’s story.

    Reply
  40. Carole Couch Moormann - March 31, 2022 2:41 pm

    God bless you Sean for all these heart wrenching stories.

    Reply
  41. Tom Tankersley - March 31, 2022 2:59 pm

    What do you say when words fail? The people I come from would tip their hats and say simply, “What he said…” I can only hope to meet my own end of days with as much dignity and grace. Thanks for this.

    Reply
  42. Ruth Mitchell - March 31, 2022 3:15 pm

    What wisdom Fred has imparted. I think his purpose has gone beyond his family and friends. Thank you for being his messenger.

    Reply
  43. KiKi - March 31, 2022 3:22 pm

    This touched me when I needed it so much. I am fighting a cancer that only 1%survive. I was feeling sad this morning. This young man has turned me around today. I too have felt a presence in my room. I have peace yet like many am sad to leave this earth.

    Reply
    • Diane Kirby - April 1, 2022 12:00 pm

      I’m so sorry KiKi….may you always feel God’s light around you.

      Reply
  44. Lynn Creek - March 31, 2022 3:25 pm

    ❤️

    Reply
  45. Rebecca - March 31, 2022 3:27 pm

    The passing of a child is so very difficult as far too many of us know. When my children were little I prayed that they would be healthy, happy and have a close relationship with God. When one of them was killed in an automobile accident at 16, there were many very dark days. The greatest blessing and comfort, however, was knowing that my prayers were answered albeit prematurely.

    Reply
  46. Nancy Carnahan - March 31, 2022 3:36 pm

    God always answers prayers, but sometimes the answer is ‘no.’

    Reply
  47. Carol Garrison - March 31, 2022 3:54 pm

    God answers all prayers. It’s just that sometimes the answer is no, sometimes it’s wait, sometimes it’s yes, but he does answer. My heart aches for this dear family. Thank you for your writings.

    Reply
  48. Susie Flick - March 31, 2022 4:00 pm

    “Fred” is someone I would have loved to have known, wise beyond his years, Prayers, hugs and peace to his family, friends, and all that knew him.

    Reply
  49. Sharron - March 31, 2022 4:20 pm

    And now my face is leaking and my heart is sad for those that are left missing Fred. Fred received the ultimate cure and sometimes it is a very hard medicine for those left behind. Fred has taught us all that God is Love and to feel loved like Fred did is a gift for him alone.

    Reply
  50. Lorene E Cox - March 31, 2022 4:30 pm

    Oh the blessing you are being to others in sharing such real life stories! I am very thankful you followed your dream. What an inspiration cyou are to so many!

    Reply
  51. Patricia Gibson - March 31, 2022 5:05 pm

    Tears in my eyes😢 That we could all be blessed with such faith and courage. God be with his family and friends. God’s angel for sure🙏

    Reply
  52. Patricia Schmaltz - March 31, 2022 6:05 pm

    Breaks my heart. Give love freely whenever and wherever you can. You never know who REALLY needs it.

    Reply
  53. Gayle Wilson - March 31, 2022 6:08 pm

    Thank you for sharing Sean. What a beautiful friend you were to Fred. To let him tell his story. And what a beautiful friend you are to us for sharing his story and your gift of writing.

    Reply
  54. Jane - March 31, 2022 6:09 pm

    My son died last February. For the past year I have been carried by three incredible women in our neighborhood. They allowed me to cry until there were no tears left, which took quite a while. They sat with me in comfortable silence to assure me that I was not alone. And, as time passed, they led me back to the world of the living. Mr. Roger’s would be proud.

    Reply
  55. Steve McCaleb - March 31, 2022 6:47 pm

    From the mouths of babes. I think he was right…I think people see God everyday. Our task is to learn how to see him and to figure out WHY we’re seeing HIM. Nobody said this was going to be easy…..and oh yes, there will be a test later.

    Reply
  56. ceh - March 31, 2022 7:23 pm

    Fred’s story is incredibly touching; he touched you and now you have touched all of your readers.

    Reply
  57. Linda Moon - March 31, 2022 7:36 pm

    He told you, and I just lost some air. Yes, the world is very unfair, but good people want it to be fair and never want a child to have cancer. And I say, very sincerely, that Fred’s purpose IS all that really matters, and I believe you are capable of understanding that, Sean Dietrich. Thank you for telling Fred’s story and closing with Mister Rogers’ song.

    Reply
  58. billie Bandstra - March 31, 2022 7:59 pm

    What a beautiful testimony of how God gives His children dying grace and in turn gives others a reason to investigate a grace like that for themselves.

    Reply
  59. Gordon - March 31, 2022 8:24 pm

    Fred’s story touched you. Fred’s story touched me and others who read your words, Sean. Thank you for sharing this amazing story.

    Reply
  60. MAM - March 31, 2022 9:28 pm

    Simply thank you, Sean, for sharing a story to remind us of what is important. God and faith in God IS what’s important!

    Reply
  61. CHARALEEN WRIGHT - March 31, 2022 9:30 pm

    Reply
  62. Mary Ann B - April 1, 2022 12:51 am

    I just know that Fred understood. When our thirteen-month old grandson died in in a freak accident, I didn’t think I could live to bear it. But as I looked back, I understood that my Father never let go of my hand through it all. Fred, look for Adam, and hug him for me . I’ll be there soon to hug you both.

    Reply
  63. Ann - April 1, 2022 1:13 am

    Another beautiful reminder…..how fragile life is

    Reply
  64. elizabethroosje - April 1, 2022 3:04 am

    ❤❤❤❤❤

    Reply
  65. Slimpicker - April 1, 2022 3:07 am

    “Angels in the Room” by the Rupees sisters.

    Reply
  66. Nan - April 1, 2022 4:27 am

    I so wish I was as prolific wirh my words as some of your commentators, but I am not, so I will only offer this emoji ❤️.

    Reply
  67. Cheryl McWilliams - April 1, 2022 4:13 pm

    No words. None. I can’t hardly see to type this and am thankful that I had Mrs. Harris for a typing teacher so I don’t have to look at the keys. No words.

    Reply
  68. Rhonda - April 1, 2022 6:10 pm

    Amen

    Reply
  69. Kathy Cross - May 9, 2022 9:21 pm

    Children battling cancer are the most remarkable little people you could ever meet . I do Animal Assisted Therapy in AL and the children and their families we’ve worked with at the UAB Cancer Center are the most amazingly strong and inspiring people you could ever have the privilege to know. God Bless them everyone

    Reply

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