The Grand Canyon at sunrise is God’s private playground. The colors are unnameable. The light is bewitching. The vistas will break your heart.

My wife and I have visited the Big Ditch several times over the years and it never gets old. We visited after her father’s funeral. We visited on her 40th birthday. We visited after I got fired because my previous boss had short man’s syndrome.

Yes, I realize that Grand Canyon National Park has been commercialized to the point of being gaudy. Yes, this park is visited by 5.9 million annual tourists, all of whom are currently in the gift shop with screaming toddlers.

No, the restaurants aren’t anything special. In fact, the food sucks. And yes, sometimes you encounter annoying tourists, such as loud-talking guys from Arkansas who flick cigarette butts into the gorge and threaten to jump off the edge to impress their girlfriends. Which, let’s be honest, at this stage would be fine with the girlfriends.

Even so. The place has a strange spell over me.

When I was

in fifth grade, my old man took me to the Canyon on a camping trip. One sunset he stood at the precipice and was so overawed by the unending beauty that he removed his hat and threw it like a Frisbee into the vast gully.

We watched the hat sail downward.

“Why’d you do that?” I asked.

He shook his head, but his face was bone solemn. “No reason.”

Beauty will do that to a man.

He died nearly a year later. I think about that hat every time we visit.

Our last vacation to the Canyon was a few years ago, my wife and I needed a getaway. We stayed in a rundown cabin, and ate cheap tourist food until our digestive tracts turned to stone. We went for many walks and watched lots of sunsets.

It had been a hard year. My wife…

DEAR SEAN:

Your mother-in-law must be a great person, and I’m so sorry about what your family is going through while losing her, but can we please hear about other stuff? Can you please write about something else?

I mean no disrespect,
HIGH-SCHOOL-COACH-IN-ILLINOIS

DEAR COACH:

My family and I appreciate your extremely thoughtful and heartfelt email during this time. Frankly, I’m surprised you haven’t been approached to start writing for Hallmark cards.

Nevertheless, I freely concede. Yes. Over the last week I’ve been pretty obsessed with my mother-in-law (boy, there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write).

This is, of course, because my mother-in-law is dying. I don’t know if you’ve ever lost anyone close to you, but when people you love are passing, you make lots of promises to them.

When the hospice nurse first told us Mary didn't have long, I stood beside her sickbed and promised her that I would dedicate many, many columns to her.

These mediocre stories I’ve been writing for the last nine years—which probably take ninety seconds out of your entire day to

read—were often the highpoint of Mary’s entire month. Especially the stories I wrote about her.

Mary spent the latter portion of her life as a shut-in. She would sit in her wheelchair, holding an iPad, chuckling at things I’d written. This brought me a lot of joy.

So when I told a dying Mary Martin last week that I’d dedicate a bunch of columns to her, her face broke into a wide grin. She took my hand, stared at me, and tried to speak, but couldn’t. We shared a profound moment, although no words passed between us.

Also, what you probably don’t know is that Mary was one of the few people in my life who actually liked being written about. When I started this blog/column/naval shipwreck, I was surprised to learn how many people don’t want you writing…

Hurricane Ivan was trying to suck the Gulf Coast off the map. Our family was holed up in a little house in the woods. The power was out. It was night. My mother-in-law, Mary, and I were drinking coffee in the dark kitchen, listening to destruction happen outside.

“Do you hear that noise?” I said. “It sounds like a freight train.”

Mary took a sip of coffee. “Probably just tornadoes.”

“You think?”

“Yep. That's what everyone on the Weather Channel always says after a tornado, they say it sounds like a train.”

Now I was freaking out. “You really think a tornado is out there?”

Mary shook her head. “No. I said tornadoes. With an S.”

The rain was horsewhipping the house. You could hear windows groan beneath the weird air pressure. The roadways were flooded.

I checked my hands. I was trembling like Barney Fife at a bank stickup.

“Are you scared?” she asked.

“Yes.”

She smiled. “Don’t be.”

“What about you? Aren’t you worried?”

“Me?” She shrugged, then raised her coffee mug in full salute. “My cup runneth over.”

The house

shook with thunder. Pictures fell from walls. The lightning flashes outside were now set to “disco strobe” mode.

“Try to calm down,” said my mother-in-law, the woman who had, perhaps, the most soothing Alabamian voice I ever heard. She began to tell a story:

“When I was a girl,” she said, “I once had this little duck. Daddy gave her to me. He let me keep her outside in the shed with his minnow tanks. I named her Gertrude.

“Oh, I loved her. She was such a cute thing, so sweet. White feathers, yellow bill. She’d waddle around and eat bugs, sometimes she ate frogs, she made me so happy.”

Lightning. A heavy crash outside. My heart was pounding in my neck.

“Anyway, I’d sell Gertrude’s eggs. Duck eggs went for a lotta money ‘cause they’re so…

This morning a bird is trapped in our screened porch. The poor thing flitters back and forth like a caged maniac, banging into walls and windows.

My wife rushes to open the screen door, saying, “Go on, little bird! Shoo!”

My wife, the animal rescuer, dog adopter, and feral feline vigilante. She is a woman who will halt five lanes of traffic to help a single turtle cross the highway. A woman who once tried to adopt two stray cats on our honeymoon.

She is also the same woman who has been spending each morning, afternoon, and evening with her dying mother. Occasionally I find my wife lying in her mother’s sickbed, curled beside her in the half fetal position.

Nobody ever tells you that dying can be beautiful. Over the past week, we have experienced a lot of beauty. Too much beauty, in fact.

Believe me, there are times when my wife doesn’t think she can stand any more beauty. She just wants the suffering to end.

But it’s beauty nonetheless. And I wish you

could be in that little bedroom with us, amidst the humming medical appliances and the infantries of orange prescription bottles. The room feels like a place where time doesn’t exist. There is almost a feeling of weightlessness. I cannot explain it.

In that dark bedroom there is no calendar. No outside world. No societal demands. No anxieties. All the things in life that everyone thinks are so important—mortgages, careers, schedules, obligations—they aren’t real in this room.

Last night we sat around and sang to my mother-in-law while the patient smiled at us through dried and cracked lips.

We sang songs by Nat King Cole, Elvis Presley, Issac Watts, Fanny Crosby, Sam Cooke, and the Beach Boys. We belted out melodies until finally we asked the patient how she liked our singing.

She opened her eyes and mumbled, “You’re making me nauseous.”

We laughed until…

Today we sang hymns while gathered around my mother-in-law’s sickbed. Even the hospice nurse joined in. Everyone loves the hymns. Everyone.

As a boy my favorite songs were the ones found within the white-covered hymnals kept on the backs of the wooden pews. These weathered books were full of rich melodies. Half my childhood took place in those books.

I come from people who never called it “worship music,” neither did we have Power Point lyrics projected on screens, or on-staff graphics designers handling all 18 of our social media accounts.

No. When it came to music, in those days we just called it “song singing.” Plain and simple. You stood; you sang reverently with fellow Baptists. No stage lights. No fog machines. If some unfortunate soul mistakenly clapped during an uptempo number, he or she was dragged behind the church and beheaded.

Everyone has their favorite hymns, of course. My granny’s favorite was “Old Rugged Cross.” Another golden standard is “In the Garden.” And you can’t beat “Amazing Grace,” “Blessed

Assurance,” “How Great Thou Art,” or “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”

And then you have the deepwater Baptist specific hymns of my childhood. We sang these songs at the end of service when we begged sinners to repent so we could all go to lunch.

We sang songs like “Almost Persuaded,” and “Eternity, Eternity, Where Will You Spend Eternity?” and “Lord, I Don’t Want to Burn In Hell.”

But no hymn—and I mean no hymn—does it for me like “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” It is one of my all-time favorites.

I began singing in church when I was 8 years old. I started playing piano at age 9. I can’t read a lick of music, and I’m not a great musician. But in a tiny congregation with a median age of 75, you don’t have to be. If you show one nanoscopic shred of musical talent in a small…

In my memory it was sunny. I was driving my mother-in-law's Hyundai through morning traffic. Mary, my mother-in-law, was in the passenger seat.

I flipped on my left blinker and switched lanes.

“You’re changing lanes?” said Mary. “My God. Are you trying to get us killed?”

Mother Mary, one of the nation's leading backseat drivers.

“Slow down! Crime in Italy, are you trying to wreck?”

We had left early that morning. I was carrying Mother Mary to her medical appointment in Pensacola. She had infusion therapy regularly, which took place in a sterile room with cushy recliners and patients with tubes in their arms. These were not joyous rooms. These were rooms that would break your heart.

Our long-standing tradition after these dreary appointments was to go out for barbecue.

When we arrived at the medical complex, I helped Mary out of the car and we shuffled across the parking lot, arm in arm. Me, a guy with clown-curly hair and lanky legs. Her, white-haired and arthritic, gripping me for support.

“Don’t walk so fast,” she said,

squeezing my arm tighter. “Are you trying to drag me on the pavement?”

We passed through the automatic doors, and when we approached the receptionist Mary dinged the desk bell. We signed in and within moments Mary was seated in that big recliner with the depressing tube snaking from her arm.

Soon, she was reading one of her paperback romance novels with the bodice-ripping covers. She was playing it cool, but I think it was one of the first times I realized how truly frail this woman was becoming.

The nurses told me to get lost for a few hours.

“Don’t forget our barbecue date,” Mary called out before I left.

“I won’t.”

When I returned, I found Mary waiting in a wheelchair at the hospital’s double doors. Mary was depleted, eyes heavy, but she was putting on a great show for her…

There once was a little girl who lived in a tiny town, in the far off land of south Alabama. A beautiful little girl. A girl with braided brunette pigtails, chocolate eyes, skinned-up knees, and a cherub smile.

Hers was an era when men wore fedoras and women wore summer dresses. An era when bulbous, chrome-covered Fords and Chevys traveled 12 mph on the main drag. When distant radios sat in window sills, playing Bing Crosby, Eddie Fisher, and of course, Les Baxter.

From her earliest years, the girl’s favorite activity in the world was dirt. Oh, how she loved playing in dirt. She loved to put her hands in dirt. She loved squeezing dirt. She loved smelling dirt. Other girls played with porcelain dolls, others liked coloring books. She preferred straight mud.

Her daddy owned the hardware store. Her mama was a math teacher. They were your typical small-towners. Her father spent his days sitting behind a shop counter with a floor fan aimed at his sweaty face, selling roofing

nails, fishing rods, and toilet lids. Her mother sat at a blackboard, teaching kids the cosine.

Meantime, if the little girl wasn’t playing in dirt, she was usually eating. She has always been a great lover of food. Namely, cake. Cakes of all kinds. But also candy bars. You never saw anyone love candy bars more.

Her favorite candy bars were as follows: Pay Days, Baby Ruths, Snickers, Almond Joys, Butterfingers, Heath bars, Milky Ways, Hershey’s bars, Mounds, Crunch bars, Kit Kats, Mars bars, Three Musketeers, Twix, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and pretty much anything else that comes in a wrapper and isn’t good for your teeth.

And don’t even get the little girl started on ice cream.

One of the girl’s inherent gifts was the ability to make flowers grow. She was good at it. Some people just are. This is why throughout the girl’s lifetime her fingernails…

The house is quiet. The hospice nurse is here to check on Mary, my mother-in-law. The rattling in Mary’s chest is bad. She is talking gibberish in her sleep, too, which the nurse says is common among those who are dying.

Earlier this morning one of the aunts stopped by. But Mary was sleeping.

“Can I sneak in and look at her?” asked the aunt as tears dripped from her cheekbones.

The aunt peeked into the bedroom and was confronted with the modern machinery of medical care. An oxygen machine that sounded like a small lawnmower, with long tubes going to Mary’s nasal cannula.

The aunt covered her mouth and cried. “Oh, bless her.”

But the strange thing is, nobody wore the kinds of faces you’d associate with grief—those faces will come later. Right now everyone wears a warm face. Ours are the faces of people tangled up in nostalgia.

“Who’s she talking to?” said the aunt, dabbing her eyes.

“Don’t know,” said my wife. “She’s been talking in her sleep all day. She’s talking to someone.”

“Maybe it's God.”

We

all wept.

When the aunt left the house, everything went quiet again. And this is the oddest part of dying. The quiet. I’m not used to this house being so unearthly silent.

Long ago, this house used to be the loudest place on the block. When my father-in-law was alive, these walls vibrated with 24-hour cable news. After he died, my mother-in-law blared non-stop HGTV. She bled Chip-and-Joanna blue. But now.

Now it’s radio silence.

The caregivers sit nearby, clad in scrubs, killing time on phones. My wife is reading a hospice pamphlet. I hear a clock ticking. The refrigerator hums. It’s like a library in here.

More relatives pay a visit. They enter with smiling and tearful faces. And I’m noticing a trend here. Those faces again. Nobody wears the forlorn expressions of pity, they wear looks I…

Dearest Jamie,

You have taught me so much. I know we husbands don’t often admit that our wives teach us things, but they do. You are a fine teacher. I never knew how beautiful caregiving could be until you showed me.

For years I have watched you care for your frail mother. I have seen you lift her spindly body in your strong arms—wrecking your lower back one lumbar disc at a time.

I have been outside your mother’s lavatory door, listening to your easy voice guide her through her private moments.

I have helped cut your mother’s steak into itty-bitty pieces for you to feed her while she watches the “Sex in the City” marathon on TV.

And that smile your mother gives. I’ve seen that, too. It’s radiant. It is not so much like the smile of a parent, but more like the guileless face of a child.

I have been present at the grandiose birthday parties you’ve thrown for this white-haired matriarch in the wheelchair. Huge parties.

Most people would bring a cake and a

pointy hat and call it a day. But you adorned the house with thousands of balloons, rainbows of flowers, and metric tons of cheap, mail-ordered Hawaiian luau paraphernalia that I am still paying off.

But yesterday, when the hospice nurse held your hand and said “Your mom doesn’t have much time left,” it hit me like a knee to the ribs.

That one wasn’t in the caregiver manual.

And do you know what the weirdest part is? I feel lost after hearing those words. Like I am surrounded by people speaking Hungarian, Japanese, and Norwegian. I don’t understand anything that’s going on. I feel disoriented. Nobody ever tells you that dying is confusing.

For the first time in my own house I don’t know what I should be doing, where I should be sitting, or standing, or what I should do with…

A retired professor sent me a letter. He told me that some of my stories were "too plain," and "needed more work." Then he went on to tell me many more unsavory things about myself. I was afraid he was going to grade my work and give me a C minus.

I’ve admitted this before, but I have a noted history of getting C’s. I once set a longstanding academic record for earning the most consecutive C's in my weight division. The record was later broken, but my picture still hangs in the community college trophy case.

Although not all the messages I receive are bad. For example: This morning I got a message from a man in Tallapoosa County, Alabama. He started with the words, “I sincerely love you.”

It was Niagara Falls after that. I can’t think of a better way to start a day.

Then, the man went on to tell me about something that happened to him once.

Years ago, he was standing in a supermarket line. He was

trying to pay for his groceries, but his card was declined. His bank account was in the red. A woman in line paid for his items. She was a complete stranger. He’s never told anyone about this.

“That woman probably didn’t know it,” he wrote, “but I was a single dad, at the time I was broke and we were going hungry. She put food in my kids’ mouths.”

Oh, and there’s the letter I got from the woman in Chattanooga.

She got pregnant when she was seventeen. Her family kicked her out of the house. She almost gave the child up for adoption because seventeen-year-olds can't afford babies. She wanted her child to have a good life, even if this meant letting it go.

But then a neighbor woman stepped in. She invited the girl to live with her for as long as the girl needed.…