My wife and I are sitting outside and looking at the bay water outside my late mother-in-law’s house. And we’re crying.

The world just hasn’t felt right lately. It feels off-kilter. It feels dimmer somehow. Ever since my mother-in-law, Mother Mary, passed away, everything has gone out of whack.

My wife is all over the map emotionally. One moment she’s laughing at a funny memory, the next moment, it’s full-on waterworks. And I’m usually crying right beside her.

I guess it’s hitting us now. I suppose we haven’t had time to let the grief fully settle on our shoulders. There wasn’t any time for grief until now.

When someone dies you are immediately distracted by decisions that need to be made. The decisions come at you from all angles like gnats. You talk about funerals, wakes, dinners, preachers, you look at photo books, plan outfits, you buy new dress shoes because yours look ratty.

You’re on autopilot. The mud and sediment in the proverbial glass of water haven’t settled yet.

Well, this week, the mud is

settling, and I’m remembering too much at once. Such as when I first got married.

The most joyous period of my youth was spent on this pier, looking at this pretty bay with my newlywed wife and her mother. In some ways, my life was just beginning.

My wife and I spent the first week of our marriage in the upstairs bedroom of this house, overlooking this bay. And years later, when my mother-in-law became ill, we moved into that same bedroom to care for her. That’s when our world became all about Mary. And it was like that for a long time.

It was my wife who ran the caregiver show. She wrote the schedules, did the hiring and firing, cut the checks, and covered the weekend shifts. We took Mary to doctor appointments. We tucked her into bed. For cripes sake, I…

Currently, as I write this, a dog is sleeping on my feet. His name is Otis Campbell. He is black and white, 90 pounds, a Capricorn, and likes long walks on the beach.

Ever since my wife’s mother passed away last week, Otis has refused to leave my side.

Yes, I know he’s just an animal, and I know his brain is only about the size of a tangerine, but I’m telling you, this dog knows stuff.

I wish you could see him right now. He is half awake, half asleep, sort of standing watch over me. I’ve always wondered how dogs can remain deathly still without falling asleep.

It reminds me of a guy my father once knew. The man could sit on the front porch without moving a muscle for days. The only way you knew he was alive was by his toothpick—it moved occasionally.

I can tell that Otis senses a deep sadness in our house ever since the funeral. He might not know what’s going on exactly, but like I said,

dogs just know.

Otis has witnessed every random emotional breakdown in our kitchen. He’s seen my wife weep until she has a headache. Otis can sense whenever my wife is about to completely lose it.

Before the sobbing even happens, he runs toward her and careens into her body like a 90-pound cannonball of hair and spit, willing her not to cry.

It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly three years since Otis came to us from an adoption center. We found him when a local pet shelter had a meet-and-greet wherein they crammed dozens of crazed dogs into a giant cellblock, then threw a party.

The place was a circus. You couldn’t hear what any of the volunteers were saying because the collective noise was loud enough to make a grown man cry. The smell was even more impressive.

The different kennels had fanciful…

If I were walking on a beach and I found a shiny magic lamp with a genie inside, do you know what I’d wish for?

I would wish for (1) unlimited wishes, and (2) an Atlanta Braves bedspread. But my third and most important wish would be for you.

I would wish for the words within this small, insignificant column, drifting out into Internet Land, to help you feel unafraid.

I know you’re afraid right now. I can almost see you sitting there, staring at this paragraph on your phone screen, subconsciously worrying deeply about something. Something important.

You’ve been anxious for days, months, years now. I don’t know what you’re afraid of exactly, or which variety of fear keeps you up at night. But it hardly matters because fear is fear. And I happen to know fear.

I am a third-degree blackbelt in being anxious. I have my PhD in freaking out. I also know firsthand that fear does serious damage no matter where it comes from.

Fear keeps you from sleeping. Fear

prevents you from living. Fear screws up your digestion and alters your brain waves. Fear will make it impossible to watch professional sports.

So even though I’m just some random guy you’ve never met, a guy with an imaginary genie, I know stuff. And I know that although these are just simple words on a screen, words can be more than mere words sometimes.

So for the sake of this column, let’s pretend that the sentences you’re reading are made of fairy dust. Imagine that, by some miracle, my third-grade-level syntax contains real magic.

If this were the case, do you know what I’d do with these quasi magical sentences? I would transform them into a giant word-quilt, and wrap them around you. Then I would give you the biggest, warmest, longest, hardest embrace, and hold you for a long time. I would squeeze you so…

She drops her daughter off at the dormitory this afternoon. This is it. This is the big moment. Mom promised her daughter she wouldn’t completely lose it. That was the deal.

Mom and Daughter have spent the last week packing, unpacking, lifting, moving, climbing endless stairs, and decorating a dorm room with cheap junk from the clearance aisle of TJ Maxx. And now it has come down to this.

“Goodbye, Lindsey,” says Mom.

“Bye, Mom,” says Lindsey, throwing open the door to the SUV and leaping out.

Leaping. As though the girl can’t wait to be gone.

Mom throws the car into Park and reminds herself again not to cry. No crying today.

The middle-aged woman steps out of the vehicle and her heart is throbbing. Her baby is leaving, and the aforementioned baby has no idea what kind of dangerous world this really is. All the kid thinks about is fun.

College freshmen are children. Make no mistake. We give them responsibility. We give them driver’s licenses. We give them bank accounts and perfect autonomy. But the reality is they haven’t even finished puberty.

“Do you have your phone charger?” says Mom.

“I got it.”

“Because your last one broke.”

“I have a new one.”

“Lindsey. You can’t have a dead phone.”


“I mean it. Keep your phone charged.”


Who will remind this child to do her laundry regularly? My God, has this girl ever done a load of laundry? At home the child leaves her dirty clothes on the floor for the Laundry Fairy. Now she’ll be in charge of her own hamper.

“Do you have enough quarters for the washing machine?”

“Yes. You gave me, like, a hundred, Mom.”

“How about your gas card?”

Eye roll. “Quit worrying.”

Who is going to make sure this child has enough gas in her Nissan? Who is going to remind this infant never to let her tank fall…

We left Brewton, Alabama, on a steamy Sunday afternoon. The streets were somewhat empty. A lone cat roamed local backyards. A redheaded kid who looked suspiciously like Ron Howard kicked a rock on the sidewalk.

My wife squeezed my hand as we drove away from her hometown.

“I love you,” she said with a watery smile.

I said it back.

We’ve been saying those words a lot this past week, ever since we came here to lay my wife’s mother in the ground.

Something about funerals brings out the need to be loved. And perhaps this is why my wife squeezed my hand so tightly as we left behind the city of antique homes, potted ferns and immaculate landscaping. Perhaps this was why my wife squeezed tighter still as we loped beneath the long-armed oaks and a summer sky that was blue enough to break your heart.

Because it was all over now.

The weeping and laughing. The eating funeral cake and drinking lukewarm milk. The sobbing on the back porch until three in

the morning. The unexpected moment when your wife wakes up in the middle of the night, crying, because she now realizes she’s a middle-aged orphan.

The build-up to a funeral is nothing short of theatrical. A funeral is basically a huge party wherein everyone you know attends and has a terrible time. Coordinating such an elaborate event is like dreaming up the biggest party of your lifetime and only having five days to plan it.

For a solid week, my wife’s mind had been stuck in “homegoing mode.” She had been concentrating on details like accommodations for guests, wardrobe malfunctions, pallbearers, and making sure everyone had enough calories.

But today, as we wheeled toward our Florida home doing fifty-five, we left these memories in our rear view mirror.

She tightened her grip on my hand as we left the Yellowhammer State, bound for our little house…

It was an overcast day at the graveside when we laid my wife’s mother down. The sky was the color of Quickrete. And it was hot. Grown men had sweat marks on the seats of their Sunday trousers. Ladies were fanning themselves.

Welcome to a funeral in South Alabama at high noon.

I led my wife beneath the tent while she clutched my arm tightly. I released her, kissed her forehead, and stood behind the casket, willing myself not to cry.

I had one official job today. To sing. I was supposed to sing three hymns. My friend, Aaron, drove all the way from Montgomery to accompany me on fiddle. And I was already choking up before things began.

Anyone who knows anything about singing knows that you can not sing if you are crying. Your throat closes up and you sound like a frog with laryngitis.

When I glanced at the mass of good people standing around the tent, things weren’t looking good for me. My chin began to wobble. My vision went


“Pull yourself together,” I was muttering quietly.

The preacher was in good voice. Brother Andy brought a Methodist message that made your heart feel good and sore at the same time. If there has ever been a funeral homily delivered with more humility and grace, it happened somewhere in Galilee.

Then it was my turn. The preacher gave me The Nod. The fiddle began playing. And it was time. The moment of truth.

I cleared my throat.

I opened my mouth and did my level best to sing “Amazing Grace” without messing up. And in this moment, I couldn’t help but remember the first time I ever sang at a funeral.

I was 10 years old. It was my grandfather’s funeral. My mother had wanted all six verses of “Amazing Grace.” Six long, arduous, hard-to-learn verses. She gave me one week to memorize them.


We rolled into Brewton, Alabama, midafternoon, a few days before the funeral visitation. Brewton is wife’s hometown. We are burying her mother soon.

The sun was bitterly hot. It was 101 degrees outside, hot enough to remind you of all those Baptist brimstone sermons from your childhood.

We drove past the town sign with its Kiwanis, Rotary Club, and Lions Club badges. “Home of Alabama’s Blueberry Festival,” the sign says. We passed the downtown’s proud brick storefronts, the lamp posts with hanging begonias, and the old stone church covered in ivy.

Meantime, my wife was telling me a funny story about her mother. By the time we were pulling into the bed and breakfast she wrapped up the story by flicking tears from her eyes.

“Lord have mercy,” she said, as I held her in the silence of our car. “She’s really gone.”

Lord have mercy.

It’s been a sobering week since her mother died. Since then, my wife has been telling lots of stories.

Losing a family member is a full-time job. There are gazillions of

details that need sorting out after someone departs. There are no idle moments before a funeral.

The irony is, after a loved one’s death all you want to do is hide and lick your sores. But you can’t. You must spend your hours painstakingly deciding on things like floral sprays and who will make the deviled eggs for the wake.

And the whole time you keep getting overwhelmed with this unusual urge. An urge you’ve never had before. You are in “historic preservation” mode, you have the urge to tell stories.

We left for dinner that evening. The dinner was held at the old family house on Belleville Avenue, an antique columned home where my wife’s mother spent her childhood.

My wife took one look at the old house and another fifty stories bubbled to the surface.

We walked inside. The heart pine…

Youth Dew bath powder. That was her scent. It was her trademark.

Before she died we used to tease her about her fragrance powder because all little old ladies wear Youth Dew. She was one such little old lady.

You always knew when her shower had finished because the entire downstairs would smell like that unforgettable Estée Lauder classic. Eau du Granny.

And now that smell is gone forever.

When she died, she took the whole era with her. That’s how it works. When an elderly person passes, we lose a period in history.

We didn’t just lose an old woman. We lost all the American women who dusted themselves with smell-good powder. We lost women old enough to actually remember wearing white gloves to go to the IGA.

We lost all those motherly reminders to sit up straight, not to hunch, and to chew your food exactly thirty-two times before swallowing.

We lost a generation of homemakers who brought deviled eggs to Little League practice, made pretzel salad for Boy Scout meetings, watched Perry Mason

on Saturday nights, and kept an ashtrays on the nightstands beside their Bibles.

She was the best of her kind. She was a period in culture. And her bath powder shall be smelled no more.

After all, young women aren’t going to start wearing bath powder. No way. Most young people have never even heard of such antique finery. Not to mention, big perfume companies rarely include fragrance powder products in their lineups anymore. It’s just not hip.

Neither are pearls. She always wore pearls. Women like her wore strings of cultured pearls for attending PTA meetings, or for mopping the kitchen floors. It’s just what they did. So goodbye pearls.

And goodbye, Nat Cole records. Goodbye, era of songs with lyrics written by lyricists who had a basic grasp of the English language. Goodbye, music that wasn’t expressly about sex.

Goodbye, Frank and…

You’re a single mother. Your name is Deidra. Your wallet has three bucks in it. You have an old Visa gift card with a balance of twelve dollars left. That’s your story.

Something bad happened to you today. It wasn’t because of anything your did. It happened because you’re in your late-thirties and things like this happen to people in their late-thirties. It’s a fact of life. Teenagers work for cheaper pay than you do. So your employer hired a teenager and cut your hours down to one day per week. Management’s way of firing you.

You reacted. You let your manager have it. You called him an awful name. You wish you could take it back, but…

You don’t wish this very hard.

So now you’re crying in your car. You wipe your face. Then cry again. You go to pick up your kids. You are waiting for the most important things in your life to exit the free daycare. You’re trying to figure out how you’ll tell them you lost your job.

Meantime, you sort

mail while you wait. Power bill. Water bill. Cell phone bill. Cable. Insurance. It never ends.

Daycare lets out. Your kids run toward your car. There are kisses, hugs. You notice how tall your oldest is. Your nine-year-old colored a picture. They learned about elephants today. Elephants, Mom. Elephants.

They talk loud and happy. They have no idea that your life is on the rails. They have no idea that you struggle to feed them.

You’re thinking about what’s inside your refrigerator for supper. A few slices of bologna, half a liter of Coke, old carrots, two eggs. You look in your purse. The gift card. It’s not much, but hey, it’s dinner.

You drive to a pizza buffet. The cheap one where they leave the pizzas out all afternoon until the cheese becomes Club Med for bacteria. It’s only six bucks for…

Waffle House was slow. It was late when we pulled in. We needed hash browns. Stat.

My wife and I walked into the arctic air of the tiny restaurant and slid into the same side of a booth without speaking. Her face was tear-stained and raw. She had a dehydration headache from crying.

There was no music overhead. Which was odd. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a musicless Waffle House.

The waitress approached. She could tell something was wrong by the way my wife was dabbing her eyes.

“You okay, hon?” the waitress asked, handing us menus.

My wife nodded.

We ordered drinks, then my wife leaned onto my shoulder and tried to pull herself together, albeit unsuccessfully.

I held her and said, “Sssshhh” because this is what my mother used to say whenever I cried over a skinned knee or a busted lip. Mama wasn’t actually shushing me, I suppose it’s just what you say when a loved one sobs into your shirt.

We came to this Waffle House almost immediately after the undertaker

removed the body of my mother-in-law from her house.

It was surreal. Two men from the funeral home arrived with a stainless-steel gurney. They wore dark suits and did their jobs flawlessly. We removed my mother-in-law’s wedding ring. We fixed her night shirt. They transferred the decedent with dignity, then parked the gurney in the hallway for final farewells.

The placid remains of my wife’s mother were covered in an old quilt. It looked like one of those patchwork quilts your great-great-granny sewed back in eighteen-hundred-and-whenever. Weird what you notice during important moments.

Saying goodbye was tough. Worse than I expected. I don’t care how strong you are, watching a loved one leave home on a mortuary stretcher will break you. Until that moment, it hasn’t hit you yet. Until you see them go, it’s not real.

The men in suits rolled the…