Sean of the South: Heroes

Words by Sean Dietrich

Illustration by Eliza Bishop

I wish I had the right words, but I don’t. I wish I could tell you how I feel about you, but we don’t know each other. You’d think I was weird.

Grocery Aisle.png

So I’m writing to you.

Two weeks ago I saw you in a grocery store in Texas. You were in the produce aisle. You had a son. Your son was bald, wearing a surgical mask.

He was riding on your shoulders, right in the middle of a store. You were giving him an airplane ride.

We talked. You probably don’t even remember me.

You told me, “I don’t take any moments for granted anymore. My family has really started living. We don’t wanna miss out on a single second.”

Before I left, your son high-fived me. He said, “Cancer sucks!”

He said it with a laugh and a smile. At least I think he was smiling—it was hard to tell beneath his mask.

Anyway, you’re why I’m writing this. You, and people just like you. You are the reason.

You—the woman in Cracker Barrel. I’m writing to you because I saw you. You were feeding your mother who sat in a wheelchair.

Your mother couldn’t move anything but her jaw. You helped her, spoonful by spoonful. She had fiery red hair. So did you.

You were there before I arrived. And you were probably there long after we left. You never touched your plate of food. You were too busy helping Mama.

I’m writing to the man I met yesterday at a brewery. He was serving a crowd of young people at the bar. The man had a tattoo on his arm, and I asked about it.

“This tattoo’s for my wife,” he said. “These are angel wings. She loved angels. We really miss her.”

She took her own life. She had a three-year-old son at the time.

“But that seems like ancient history now,” he tells me. His son just turned eleven. He talks to his son about his wife every day. He forces himself to remember stories—good stories, bad ones, happy, or sad.

“I record all my memories about her on my phone,” he said. “Just so I don’t forget. If I don’t put them down somewhere, I’ll forget ’em, and I don’t want that to happen. Stories are all we have left of her.”

And I’m writing to the thirty-something man who just met his biological father this week.

All his life, he’d seen a name written in the back of his Bible. A name and a number: Dane, 25.

“I never knew what it meant,” the man told me. “But I just had this feeling it meant something about my biological dad.”

After 30 years, he finally tracked down his father—named Dane. The number? Dane’s age when he became a father.

The man made a four-hour drive to meet Dane. He found his father in a Florida nursing home, paralyzed from a stroke. Dane's sister takes perfect care of him. I understand it was an emotional reunion.

“I don’t know what to feel,” the young man told me. “I feel lots of stuff—too many emotions to pick one.”Yeah. That’s why I’m writing this. I’m writing because I don’t understand life either. I don’t understand why good things happen to the undeserving. I don’t understand why heroes get hurt. I don’t understand a thing.Even so, I believe something. And you don’t have to understand life to believe in it.

I believe this world is upside down. I believe the heroes of this planet are not the same ones everybody points at. I don’t believe heroes are award winners or celebrities. I don’t believe in famous people, and I believe even less in press.If you ask me, the greatest our human race has to offer is right here, right now. You.

You, in a Cracker Barrel. You, tending bar, or walking in a shopping mall, or teaching second grade, or in a wheelchair, or mopping floors at Wendy’s.

Or in the aisles of a grocery store. The produce section, maybe. You’re riding on your father’s shoulders, showing the world what the greatest human looks like.

You’re unbelievable, and you make me want to be a better man.

Cancer sucks.