Unknown Number

I was on my way home. I was taking the scenic route from Alabama to Florida because I love backroads. I can’t stand interstates. Interstates scare me.

I’ve been in an interstate accident exactly once. My truck looked like a smashed Weltmeister accordion when it was over. I never felt the same ease on major highways after that.

Besides, there’s something lyrical about old faded roads that lead you home. People write songs about these ancient roads.

I doubt whether anyone writes songs about Interstate 65.

It was on one such rundown highway a few days ago that my phone rang. It was the voice of a kid.

“Hello?” said the voice. “Is this Sean?”

I was taken off guard. I get a lot of solicitor calls, but never from kids. “Yes, this is him.”

“Your wife gave me your number, is this a bad time?”

“Uh—no. Wait, my WIFE gave you this number?” She hadn’t told me anything about this.

“Yessir, Mister Dietrich.”

“Oh, no. Please don’t call me Mister Dietrich. Mister Dietrich died about 30 years ago. Call me Sean.”

Our conversation went from there. It wasn’t awkward. In fact, it was nice. He was a boy who had read one of my columns and wanted to call and meet me.

At first I was confused, but then I kind of got into the spirit of our conversation. We became fast buddies, and covered all topics.

“What’s your favorite movie?” the kid asked.

“Toss up between ‘Lonesome Dove,’ ‘Music Man,’ or anything with Abbott and Costello.”

“I like Dumbo.”

“Dumbo is a good movie.”

“I like how he can fly.”

“Well said.”

And this is pretty much how the discussion went. There was no objective to it. No real point. Truthfully, I had no idea what was going on, neither could I understand why my wife would give my number to strangers.

Even so, I like kids. Always have. I have no children, so interactions like this mean more to me. After all, there will be no kids jumping into my arms when I get home. I attend no piano recitals, no PTA meetings, no basketball games where a little boy or girl keeps looking into the bleachers and shouting “Hi Dad!”

“When you were little,” said the young man. “Did you like to write?”

“Yeah, I did. I wrote all the time. What about you?”

“Yes. I like to write stories because I can pretend my life is happy. Did you ever wish your life was different?”

I had to think about this. How much should you share with a kid? There’s got to be a rule about too much honesty somewhere. When I was growing up, it was the adult policy to candy coat everything. Adults never told the truth if it was too grizzly.

“Yes,” I said. “I wished my life was different. But you can’t put too much stock in my answer.”

“What’s stock?”

I laughed. “What I mean is, my circumstances were probably different. I had a rough childhood.”



I said, “What about you, why do you wish life was different?”

“Well. I miss my dad. He’s gone.”

And there it was. I had a feeling this was coming. I asked no questions because it’s not polite to ask a kid what happened to his old man. He will tell you if he wants to. And if he doesn’t, he won’t. I know this from experience.

The kid decides not to tell.

“Do you like to read?” I ask. “Books I mean.”

“Yeah, a little. You?”

“Yep. One of my favorite books is ‘Chili Dawgs Always Bark at Night.’ Although, that might be a little old for you. How old are you again?”

“My dad committed suicide.”

More silence.

It was all making sense now. This kid and I were members of the same club.

I wiped my right eye. “How long ago did your father—uh. Pass away.”

“Hey, know what? I did read YOUR book,” the kid said. “And the part about your dad, when he died, and you were my age, and you felt like me, that was the part I liked.”

I had to pull over.

In my mediocre career as a writer, I’ve talked to a lot of kids about the suicide of a parent. I once gave a talk in a gymnasium in North Alabama where a little girl came to me afterward and hugged me for about five minutes, crying into my shirt. Her teachers merely stood back and let her get it all out. Her father had only been in the ground a week.

And a few years ago, when I gave a talk in a high school in West Virginia, a kid came to me afterward to shake my hand. He wore camouflage and boots. He told me his mother had gone out the same way my father had.

When he said it, his face started to crack open. He was trying so hard to be strong, because boys are like that.

So I took a chance and pulled him into myself and we hugged guy-style, slapping backs like we were trying to dislodge bronchial tissue. That’s when the young man cried until he was embarrassed. I told him not to be, then I blew my nose loudly to demonstrate my point.

My life’s purpose, if I have any purpose at all on this earth, is to tell kids that they are not alone. To tell my friends that it gets better. Because it really does. If you can just hold on.

When our phone conversation ended, I remained parked in a gas station for a few minutes, pulling myself together. I was thinking about my new buddy, and how he’ll probably read these words. And when he does, I hope he knows how brave I think he is.

Then, I blew my nose loudly, and resumed driving along the quiet, gentle, often unpredictable backroads of Alabama. Because as I said, they are much better than interstates.


  1. Annie Franklin - February 12, 2021 6:26 am


  2. Charaleen Wright - February 12, 2021 6:42 am


  3. jeanhogan1248 - February 12, 2021 7:13 am

    I have to believe that because you are who you are, and you are so willing to share where you’ve been that you will one day have many stars in your crown.

  4. Lori Klein - February 12, 2021 7:39 am

    Thank you. You give a lot of people a voice, you know. I’m still angry at my granddaddy. I’m mad about what he did to my mom and grandmother. But he was such a good granddaddy. I loved him so, and I still miss him too. This club sucks. The only good part is the sweet people in it.

  5. Carole - February 12, 2021 8:04 am


  6. Mark D MACINTYRE - February 12, 2021 8:16 am

    There is nothing mediocre about you Sean. God gave you a heart like no other. Wear it proudly Sir!

    • Amy - February 12, 2021 2:51 pm

      Thank you Sean for being a blessing to others. ❤️

  7. Mart Martin - February 12, 2021 10:23 am

    It’s a club nobody wants to be in but more people than I ever imagined are. It does get better. But it does take a long time. Especially if you spend most of your life not talking about it, like I did.

  8. stephenpe - February 12, 2021 10:28 am

    I spent 40 years working with young children. 39 in elementary schools. So many children come to school hurting for for one reason or another. Home was not home to them. It was a place to survive and wonder why mom, dad or both were not like the ones they saw come to school for other kids. My point is children need adults. They need an adult that will love them and assure them they are safe. Make them feel safe and wanted. I could almost always see it in their eyes when it was bad where they came from. I did the best I could with them. I get messages often affirm it.

    • Betty - February 12, 2021 2:22 pm

      You make such an important point about children. So often they live in a house with relatives but when they get to school, they are at home among family. I’ve seen little ones get themselves up and onto the bus every morning because their parents were sleeping off a drugged or alcohol induced state. If they didn’t get to school, they wouldn’t get fed and they wouldn’t be warm. Teachers and counselors don’t just impart information. They love and nurture kids…and they bring people like Sean to speak with their students so the children can understand they’re not alone and give the hope for a better day.

  9. Heidi - February 12, 2021 11:06 am

    You have heard and helped so many. More than you will ever know. ❤️

  10. Leesa - February 12, 2021 11:11 am

    It is a lonely club we belong to but I agree with you Lori (above) you meet some sweet people that belong to it. Several decades have passed since I joined this club and the grief is still there but there is less pain now. Sean, I feel we are brought together to help each other through this process. I am glad you were there to help this young boy. You have such a gift for bringing folks together. Thank you.

  11. Jan Dye - February 12, 2021 11:48 am

    I have just recently started reading your blogs. A friend recommended them. And I’m so glad she did. You bring a smile, you bring a tear. This one brought both. Beautifully written – as always Thank you for sharing your gift with words to us.

  12. Al Cato - February 12, 2021 11:54 am

    Moments in life come unexpectedly when you can be a port in someone’s storm. You were the port for this day for this young man. Your wife knew you would be. Good man Sean!!

  13. joan moore - February 12, 2021 11:58 am

    I must have something in my eye… thank you for being there for all of these young people who have been put in your life so you can be there for them and us as well!

  14. marisafranca - February 12, 2021 12:17 pm

    All I can say is WOW. I’ve been a bit self-absorbed lately, no a lot. This really puts what I’m going through in perspective — it’s a piffle!!!! Thank you – and I’m sending lots of love a huge hugs to that little boy – and you too.

  15. Michael Bishop - February 12, 2021 12:27 pm

    Sean, Jeri and I, as you know, read your daily posts religiously, a word that works in a number of senses when we approach your columns, and today’s meant a great deal to her. She was an elementary school counselor before her retirement in 2013, and during that time and for many years afterward, until the advent of this coronavirus pandemic, she acted as a counselor at an annual summer grief camp outside LaGrange, Georgia, called Camp Dogwood, to which children from grade school on up through middle and high school were invited, if they had lost family members, close friends, or other loved ones, no matter the circumstances of those loved ones’ deaths. On one occasion, she took a young child and a “middle-aged” teen (15 or 16) apart from all the others and had the older child speak to the younger, and the message that the older imparted, through their long conversation, was repeatedly, “It’s not your fault,” which in and of itself had a a huge consoling effect, as did the mere fact that the younger child realized that others had suffered the same kind of loss and that the younger child was not in any sense alone, although it had certainly felt that way . . . for a long time. Bless you for the work you do, and even if it is simply speaking to other people as if they matter. Because, of course, they do.

  16. Kate - February 12, 2021 12:30 pm

    Thank you for letting others know they are not the only ones suffering. You touch so many of us in so many different ways. Thank you for writing.

  17. Jean - February 12, 2021 12:32 pm

    I am with you on interstate travel. I am glad you answered the boy’s phone call. He needed your help and to know that he is not the only one with this very sad circumstance. Bless you Sean!

  18. Jay Penton - February 12, 2021 12:34 pm

    Thanks Sean! And from an old Alabama Trooper, I like the Alabama backroads better than the interstates too. God bless you!

  19. Leigh Amiot - February 12, 2021 12:53 pm

    My lip started quivering at the part where the little girl in North Alabama came up to you in a gymnasium, and I was relieved the young man in high school was able to let it out. Now, more than ever, your ministry and purpose is needed, Sean. It does seem to be true that our purpose is often birthed from our deepest wounds.

  20. Trisha Jones - February 12, 2021 1:19 pm

    At the age of 56, I recently became a member of this club. It is hard enough navigating this season as an adult. I can’t imagine trying to do so as a child. Thankful that you have shared your story to comfort others. Your blog touches my heart more than you will ever know….keep it up!

  21. Jan - February 12, 2021 1:40 pm

    Your ministry is sorely needed. You are using your gifts well. You help the one who is blessed to interact with you directly and then you help those of us who are blessed to read your words and thoughts. You are a blessing to so many. I do pray that God blesses you in return. Thank you.

  22. eliz - February 12, 2021 1:45 pm

    Thank you

  23. Jo Ann - February 12, 2021 1:45 pm

    We are where we’re meant to be, I’ve always believed this. I can’t say anything better than what’s already been posted. A powerful piece today. Thank you for being you & for all you do.

  24. Trilby - February 12, 2021 1:49 pm


  25. Suzanne Moore - February 12, 2021 1:59 pm

    What a meaningful post, Sean. What a wonderful service you perform every time you talk to kids about your loss of your dad. As a retired school counselor, I know what a large and needy “club” there is out there who need to hear your words and feel your visual or virtual hug. My brother committed suicide, leaving two young children to grow up with a huge, Scott-shaped hole in their lives. You never cease to amaze me when I read these epistles from your heart. The impact you are making on our lives is deep and lasting. I hope that you can feel that every single day of your life.

  26. Mark fendley - February 12, 2021 2:10 pm

    God gave you an opportunity to use your life as a calling. So glad to know you are being faithful in that calling. God bless you, Sean.

  27. Linda - February 12, 2021 2:12 pm


  28. Helen De Prima - February 12, 2021 2:38 pm

    My mother died the day I was born, so I never got to know her. Maybe that’s one of the reasons your writing speaks to me so on such a personal level. I’d like to think she died on the happiest day of her life, just breathed in the anesthetic believing she’d wake up holding her new baby.

  29. Tom Ellis - February 12, 2021 2:53 pm

    An old friend forwarded me ‘Providence’ yesterday. I enjoyed it and subscribed, after reading this one I’m glad I did. Having traveled many miles in Alabama, and 46 of the lower 48 states and a province or two in Canada, I have no love for interstates. And as as back roads go, Alabama has the best. Please keep answering your phone, driving back roads, and writing.

  30. Robert Smyth - February 12, 2021 3:15 pm

    Lovely, just LOVELY

  31. Becky - February 12, 2021 3:17 pm

    Wow … unfortunately I also became a member of the club over 50 years ago at the age of 17. Counseling at that time was rather “tabu” so along with the struggles of being a teenager, I had my dad’s death to deal with. I remember sometimes telling people he had a heart attack – I was too embarrassed to tell the truth. And now I’m embarrassed for lying. During many milestones in my life I’ve wondered what he would think. I often wish he could meet my sons, he’d be very proud of them. I wish I had gotten to know my dad. Looking back, I realize he was fighting many demons, and I’ll never fully understand why this happened. Thanks, Sean – you have a way of seeing into our souls.

  32. Dean - February 12, 2021 4:19 pm

    Sad to say it is a big club. Thanks so much for the words today I know it touched a lot of lives

  33. elizabethroosje - February 12, 2021 4:25 pm

    Man, you’ve done it again. Thank you. Sean, I just read your book too (Will the Circle Be Unbroken) and it’s a really well written book. I’ve read LOTS of books (Even studied lit in my college years) and yours is not only staying in our home but I already know I want to read it again. And recommend it to others! Thanks for writing and for caring. You and Jamie are beautiful blessed people and meeting you both online, seeing your lives, reading your words, well they bless me and others. Praying for you both and Mother Mary still.

  34. Lisa Marie - February 12, 2021 5:36 pm

    I too think this young man is brave and so smart for reaching out. There are alot of us in this club of father’s who have passed on, mine wasn’t from suicide but I was very young. The mark it’s left on my life is great and I wish I had the guts to reach out when I was young and speak to other folks like me.

  35. Denise - February 12, 2021 5:40 pm

    I have got to stop reading your letters while I’m at work! It’s messing up my tough girl facade!

  36. KATY @ 1:10 P.M. - February 12, 2021 6:10 pm

    💟Sean, for such a time as this, you are needed! 💛When every one of us knows that at least one person understands our suffering, another heart begins to heal ! 💜Much love and thanksgiving to you and Jamie 💞

  37. Sarah - February 12, 2021 6:15 pm

    Thank you. You are helping so many who share experiences with you. And for the rest, you give a needed perspective.

  38. Linda Moon - February 12, 2021 6:19 pm

    My Guy and I love backroads, too…those .roads less travelled. Our kicks on Route 66 were among the best of them. Your favorite movies and Dumbo are my shared favorites with you and the kid. The kid needed to tell you about his dad and how your book helped him. It helped me. I had to “pull over” as I continued to read this post just now. What a good buddy you are, Writer, to many of us. Two of my buddies have held on and will continue moving forward….one on some Alabama backroads with My Guy and me!

  39. thouse1001 - February 12, 2021 6:27 pm

    That is your calling… That. Right there. <3 <3

  40. Adrienne Johnson - February 12, 2021 7:42 pm

    Good thing I have plenty of tissues. How wonderful you are helping kids deal with emotions. I lost my dad to mental illness when I was about 8. He didn’t die, but couldn’t function in the world. I know I must have missed him yet there are no memories. My mom moved to her mother’s house and we were happy. Although I suppose anything I felt was buried in my mind. No one talked about things like that back in the 1950s. It was as if he just disappeared.
    I love your writing. It’s full of feelings.

  41. christina - February 12, 2021 7:50 pm

    This is the beautiful connection of human souls that makes living worthwhile. Thanks Sean for showing up, through your writing, music and all that you share with us. Sending love to all your little buddies too!

  42. David Aday - February 12, 2021 8:19 pm

    Great thoughts! Yes, there is a song about I-65. When It Rains It Pours, by Luke Combs. “So I went for a drive to clear my mind – Ended up at a Shell on I-65.” Semper Fi, Sean

  43. Jane - February 12, 2021 8:21 pm

    Dear Sean, I needed someone like you when I was 12. Death of a parent is hard on kids. Especially when they seem to expect you to “get over it”. Well….I never did.

  44. Gabrielle Clark - February 12, 2021 8:26 pm

    Your career as a writer is only a side gig. Your real job is providing comfort to people who need to hear it from someone who has been there and back. Thank you for being awesome.

  45. Susan - February 12, 2021 10:00 pm

    Sometimes bad things that happen to us helps others when we share. Thank you so much for helping us in many ways with your words. Please keep it up!👍🏻

  46. catladymac - February 12, 2021 10:21 pm

    Yeh – Jean said it for me too. (He really did have a heart attack, But he was just as gone.)

  47. Virginia - February 12, 2021 10:32 pm

    If youngsters receive two necessary things from us, they won’t end up spoiled. Thanks for showing us that they need our time and our attention, here and in “Stars of Alabama.”

  48. Bernadette Wyckoff - February 12, 2021 11:57 pm

    Sean you have heard and followed your calling in life. Not just in your writing but also in your love for the young who have known the same pain of losing a parent to suicide as you have known. God bless you as listen and encourage them with understanding and loving hugs. By the way I love you all and am sending hugs too.

  49. Berryman Mary M - February 13, 2021 4:01 am

    This is your life’s mission, Sean.

  50. Joanne Viola - February 13, 2021 11:54 am

    And I just blew my nose loudly! This is the heart of true ministering to others. May you keep driving those backroads and keep on loving those unknown numbers. Blessings to you!

  51. Lisa Weir - February 13, 2021 2:22 pm

    My heart goes out to all of you club members. Childhood is difficult enough. Please accept a hug from me today. You deserve it. 🤗

  52. CLint - February 13, 2021 4:57 pm

    Wow. Powerful message. Thank You.

  53. johnallenberry - February 13, 2021 5:02 pm

    You’re a good man, Brother Sean. That doesn’t nearly tell it, but it’s a start. I like Alabama back roads too. My Paw Paw taught me how to drive a stick shift on them. You’d’ve liked him. He was the kind of man that dogs follow.


  54. Julie from the South Side - February 14, 2021 2:29 pm

    I totally agree that interstates are (potentially) scary. And I love to take a scenic route whenever possible. But if you’re ever near Chicago, please don’t be intimidated by Lake Shore Drive.
    It may look like an Interstate, with its 6 – 8 lanes, but it’s really just a lakefront section of U.S. Highway 41. It is one of the most exhilarating rides I’ve ever been on, so if you get the chance, give it a try.
    And the “icing on the cake” would be listening to the song “Lakeshore Drive” (Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah) as you roll along…windows open, or top down…your choice.
    Oh, and BTW…if you need to pull over, and take a call from someone in need, you can safely do so. I want to thank you on behalf of your “new buddy”…you have a heart of pure gold💛


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