“Look at that water,” says Mary in a raspy, weakened voice. “Oh, have mercy, it’s so pretty.”
The dying woman in her bed glances out the window at the pristine bay. And in a rare moment of mental clarity she actually sees it.
“The water,” she says, stretching out a hand that is mangled with arthritis. “Beautiful.”
My mother-in-law’s outdated brick home sits on the edge of the great Choctawhatchee Bay. The bay of my youth. The same bay where I have wasted thousands of dollars in fishing lures. The same bay where I have watched many of my outboard motors go to be with Jesus.
A man can find joy within these brackish waters if he looks hard enough. It’s out there.
In Mary’s backyard is a little wooden pier. We’ve logged many hours on that pier. Each sunrise I have viewed from that dock has been a van Gogh. Each sunset a Monet.
People have visited from as far away as France to behold these sunsets and have often found themselves uttering, “Wow.” Although it came out more like, “Weaux.”
Long ago, I remember my mother-in-law, my wife, and I used to sit on this rickety pier at dusk. We did this almost every evening. The mullet would jump. The herons would fish. A distant trawler would flip on its running lights.
And we would simply watch.
Watching is a bygone American pastime, you know. It is such a simple act, and yet so few will do it anymore. Our ancestors were great watchers. They spent idle hours on front porches engaged in the sacred craft of counting cars, waving at neighbors, or watching kids play catch.
But the art of watching ended when, somewhere along the way, architects moved the front porch to the rear of the American home. People quit waving to neighbors. Nobody counts cars anymore.
But on this bay you watch. And you listen. You hear things here. You’ll hear septillions of frogs and crickets, screaming loud enough to drown out all rational thought.
And you can sense life swimming in the water. Big life. After all, we aren’t talking about some little puddle. You’re looking at a watershed that covers 3,339,632 acres of Alabama and Florida; an area roughly the size of Connecticut.
Sometimes you’ll hear an expulsion of air from the blowhole of a porpoise nearby, and this noise will thrill you. Dolphins love this bay.
A dolphin can empty and refill its lungs with 18 liters of oxygen in one fifth of a second, achieving air speeds upwards of 100 miles per hour. Believe me, when you hear a dolphin “chuff,” you will turn into a 4-year-old. You will feel the urge to shout, “Lookit the fishy, Mommy!”
And then there’s the stars. Once upon a time, you could see all known and unknown stars from this bay, because there was so little skyglow.
Skyglow is ambient urban light pollution that hides the stars. I have a friend in LA, for instance, who went through the Northridge Earthquake in ‘94. When the quake knocked out power, everyone was in blackness. Minutes later, thousands of LA residents were calling emergency hotlines to report an unknown haze in the sky.
It was the Milky Way.
I’m proud to report that on a clear night you can still see the Milky Way on the Choctawhatchee Bay. And it will move you to tears.
Mother Mary and I used to stargaze a lot. We stared at the sky for hours until one of us cried uncle. On one such night, I remember she was in a somber mood, looking upward.
The old woman spoke. “Such a pretty night, isn’t it?”
“Mmm,” I said. “Beautiful.”
“I don’t think I could love anything as much as I love this bay.”
Crickets and frogs interlude.
“You know,” she said, “I’ve always known I wanted to grow old here, and I’ve known I would die here, too. Near this water. In this house. This is where it will happen.”
I studied my feet.
“When my mother died,” she went on, “it was in her house in the middle of town. I don’t want that for me. I wanna be here, where I can see all this… This pretty water.”
When our conversation fizzled, I rolled her chair inside. That night, like every night, my wife dressed her mother in her little cotton nightgown with the pink ribbons, then brushed her blueish hair, and tucked the old woman into her mechanical bed. Then we all said goodnight.
That night seems like it happened centuries ago, but it was probably more like a few years.
As I write this, I sit in Mary’s bedroom, holding vigil. She is lying in what will soon become her deathbed. Her window faces a pristine bay. A bay that used to make me feel young, only now it doesn’t.
She is dying on her own terms. In her own way. In her own time. Exactly where she wanted it all to happen. And we are beside her. Gathered at the water.
The beautiful, beautiful water.