“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My mother-in-law’s outdated brick home sits on the edge of the great Choctawhatchee Bay.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.
Joellynn Heaton - August 7, 2021 7:04 am
Another good one, Sir.
Debbie g - August 7, 2021 7:21 am
“He leads me beside still waters “you and psalms 23 beautiful thank you
Christina - August 7, 2021 7:40 am
This here is another reason you are nowhere near mediocre, but wonderful and beautiful in your writing. All the love to Mother Mary, Jamie and you.
Ann Robbins Phillips - August 7, 2021 7:47 am
I read this as lay down from a vigil to watch the Perseids meteor shower in the wee hours of morning on a trip near Maine’s coast. The vastness of the sky, the vastness of the ocean, often takes our breath away! To come to the end and be granted the desire to leave this life in the place that makes you the happiest is a precious gift you have given Mother Mary. Bless you!
Marilyn Ward Vance - August 7, 2021 9:42 am
May her homegoing be peaceful and yours and Jamie’s home-staying be peaceful, as well, knowing that she is without aches and pains. What a sweet legacy she leaves. Thank you for sharing her last days with us.
Jerry McCloud - August 7, 2021 10:03 am
Leigh Amiot - August 7, 2021 10:14 am
How I wish everyone could have a beautiful view while having a peaceful death at home.
Margaret E Odell - August 7, 2021 10:41 am
God bless you all — and that living water. Glad that Mary is where she wanted to be at the end of her journey!
Beryl - August 7, 2021 10:47 am
The journey to the end our days can be “beautiful”. May peace be with you all.
Joan Moore - August 7, 2021 10:50 am
Sending love and hugs and prayers.
Robert - August 7, 2021 11:15 am
You make it heartbreaking and at the same time wonderful following your mother in-laws final journey. God speed Mary.
Kay - August 7, 2021 11:23 am
Your gift of words brings calm even in the most trying times. Wish I had you to write my eulogy and offer encouraging words to family when the time comes. What a gift God gave you with keystrokes. May God bless your family in these days.
Dot Wells - August 7, 2021 11:25 am
Sean hold her tight, love the Spirit within her, she can see the light and the water. Peace to you my friends!
Star Fincannon - August 7, 2021 11:29 am
Finally someone has described how I feel about the water and way I want to live beside it! Mother Mary is a blessed woman! Thank you for sharing her with us!!
Becky Moon - August 7, 2021 11:30 am
Each day I wait to learn if Mother Mary is still with us or has she gone on to whatever it is that we go to when we leave here. Also, reading your words brings back the time before my mother’s death and those times, those hours are precious memories. I will miss both my mother and your mother in law but know that you will keep her memory alive long after she is gone with your words, your thoughts and your love. God is blessing each of the three of you.
Karen - August 7, 2021 11:32 am
What touching memories. I miss that front porch life. I am glad Mother Mary is where she wants to be, by her lovely waters.
sandra mattucci - August 7, 2021 11:43 am
GOOD Morning Sean,
Your posts are an invitation to what E. K. Ross wrote on the stages of Grief! Thank you for your daily sharing about Mother, Mary…Holding you and your beautiful wife in our daily thoughts and prayers… Write On Sean! YOU are a ‘bright light’ in this world!!! A sea of LOVE surrounds YOU!!!
GARY - August 7, 2021 12:15 pm
Teri Easterling - August 7, 2021 12:27 pm
Beautiful. Mother Mary is blessed to have you and Jamie as you are blessed to have her. Peace and strength and love in abundance to you all in these days.
Elizabeth - August 7, 2021 12:42 pm
oh man. that made me tear right up. Continued prayers for you 3 and much love.
Suellen - August 7, 2021 12:43 pm
It sounds like paradise. I can understand the desire to choose the place you want to die now that I’m getting older. When I was 44 years old my husband decided he wanted to go to the Seminary. We were uprooted and had our phase of what I always think of as wandering in the wilderness. I kept telling him that I wanted to be buried at home meaning where I grew up. I grieved for the place. It’s nowhere as romantic as the Choctawhatchee Bay but a year ago my daughter and her husband built us a house in the town where I grew up. It’s 1/8th of a mile from the house I lived in with my parents. I can see the backs of the houses from here. We’re nestled in a little town between the rolling hills of the Floyds Knobs and the mighty Ohio River. I missed it every day of the 22 years I was away. My view isn’t as exciting either as we look out on the drive thru of the local ice cream place on one side (hey but everyone in town comes through here) and on the other side the graveyard where all my people are buried. This is the place of my roots and where I want to live out my last days.
Vicki Tuch - August 7, 2021 12:46 pm
Bless you for your beautiful chronicles of “Mother Mary’s” life. You have paid such wonderful, heartfelt tribute to a
very special woman! Your readers have come to know her through you and travel this special journey with you….perhaps helping them cope with their own losses along the way. Thank you! I am holding all of you in prayer.
Nancy shields - August 7, 2021 12:48 pm
Dying is hard work. I watched both of my parents do it and i realized it is hard for the body to shut down. Your hand holding and sitting in silence is the most perfect way to be with her. All three of you are blessings to each other.
Joy Slegers - August 7, 2021 12:55 pm
Beautiful, Sean! Prayers for you and your family. May God be with you all.
BJ - August 7, 2021 1:00 pm
Shall we gather at the river
Where bright angel feet have trod;
With its crystal tide forever
Flowing by the throne of God?
Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river,
Gather with the saints at the river,
That flows by the throne of God.
By God’s grace, I plan to be there!
Lucinda - August 7, 2021 1:12 pm
Tommy Artmann - August 7, 2021 1:17 pm
What a beautiful, loving, life-giving story!
Trilby - August 7, 2021 1:26 pm
joyful reader - August 7, 2021 1:32 pm
septillions….of memories, septillions of longing to return home to Alabama from this NE spot. It IS beautiful here but, it’s not home and I’m older. Write on Sean with my appreciation
John e hunter - August 7, 2021 1:33 pm
You are a good Man for taking such good care of your Mother in Law. May God Bless You 🙏
Nancy Crews - August 7, 2021 1:37 pm
❤your writing and love steadfast tributes to your family and the land and water and all it represents.
Dee Frances Wichman - August 7, 2021 1:41 pm
Just to let you know, Sean, that some of us still sit on porches and wave at those going by. Whether I am here at my home in Ocean Springs, MS or at home in Damascus, I have porches to sit on because that is one of my requirements. I explained to someone the other day that porches were necessary because you didn’t always have room in your home to visit. Homes used to not be so large and they had many family members often that took up all of the space inside. I enjoy seeing the night sky when there isn’t a lot of urban lights to mar the view. Enjoy Mary and enjoy the bay while you have them. Nothing lasts forever!
Susie Pearson - August 7, 2021 1:57 pm
My mother died in November of 2019. She died just like Mary in the house she grew up in on her own terms. It was beautiful. She was surrounded by her two daughters their husbands her four grown grandchildren and one great granddaughter who carries on her name Katharine. We were all holding hands along with the two hospice workers praying. My hope is you will experience the same gift. Your tribute to your mother in law is extraordinary. You are a good man and your wife is an angel.
Jan - August 7, 2021 1:59 pm
Thank you again and again and again! Peace to you, Mother Mary.
Jackie - August 7, 2021 2:00 pm
What a blessing that she is where she loves to be. Prayers for you all. I am a northwest Florida girl and grew up around Choctawhatchee Bay.
Maggie Priestaf - August 7, 2021 2:34 pm
Loving care for you all…
Marilyn - August 7, 2021 2:40 pm
I have mixed emotions with this story. Part of me is sad, but then another part is joyful because MM is getting exactly what she wants – to be in her home, by the water, as she transitions to her next life. May God continue to hold her, you Sean, and Jamie, in his loving hands.
CHARALEEN WRIGHT - August 7, 2021 2:41 pm
Bob E - August 7, 2021 2:49 pm
Reading your stories most often jogs my memory, actually distracting me from your words. No complaint here as I enjoy the reminiscences and soon return to your wonderful enjoyable stories.
Thank you and keep jogging the memories.
Bob E - August 7, 2021 2:50 pm
Seems I missed the ‘A’ key Sean…
Pam Phelan - August 7, 2021 3:48 pm
Your columns are the highlight of my day. I’m crying a little over this last column, over a woman I only know through you. Thank you for sharing her, and for every story you’ve written and every person I now know through you.
Big hug! Pam
Nell Thomas - August 7, 2021 3:57 pm
As a nurse and a caregiver to a number of loved ones that have passed on- I can say: “I have seen birth and I have seen death and they both can be just as beautiful.”
Sharon - August 7, 2021 4:07 pm
As a retired nurse, 6 years hospice, paraphrasing a favorite writing given to me on dying by Henry Van Dyke.. We are like a ship sailing across the water until becoming a speck at the point where sea and sky come to mingle. Just at the moment someone by my side says, “there, she is gone”, there are others who take up the cheer, “Here she comes!”
nebraskannie - August 7, 2021 4:14 pm
I’m so glad she got to see the water. Each day I sit in my wheelchair and look out my window. I watch the birds, plants, animals, weather and I know I’m in paradise, no matter the drama that goes on elsewhere in life. I’m glad you haven’t lost that ability and appreciation.
Lonna Pierce - August 7, 2021 4:22 pm
Debbie g - August 7, 2021 4:39 pm
“He leads me beside the still waters”
Psalms 23 and you Sean just beautiful
Love to all
Sue Hales - August 7, 2021 4:46 pm
Beautiful memories and you are correct, no one just watches any more. When I was a child my mother’s favorite pass time was going down town after the stores closed and watching the people pass.
BeBlue - August 7, 2021 4:54 pm
Beautiful. My prayers for peace for you all.
Linda McGehee - August 7, 2021 4:54 pm
I cherish every one of your beautiful words and read you every morning, the way most people read their devotionals . it does my soul good.
Kathleen Jun Magyar - August 7, 2021 4:55 pm
Your writing today is a gentle, unforgettable melody
Linda Moon - August 7, 2021 5:17 pm
Have Mercy. I’ve heard that from Mary’s daughter and now I “hear” it from her dying mother. I’m so glad that Mary grew old at her bay and that she still sees it while gathered there with Jamie and you. The next time I’m watching neighbors and kids and cars from my front porch I’ll be thinking of Mary and Jamie and you, Writer. MARY…she’s the most beautiful of all now.
Mitzi Curtis - August 7, 2021 5:23 pm
How lovely, such a beautiful picture you paint. Thank you for sharing. Much love & blessings to you and yours.
Marilu - August 7, 2021 5:30 pm
Loved this. A wonderful record of Mother Mary all will cherish now and in the future.
Connie - August 7, 2021 6:40 pm
There’s no place on earth more beautiful than being by the water. While my heart aches for you and Jamie and the rest of the family, how joyous that Mother Mary gets her wish and is where she wants to be, surrounded by so much love. Prayers and love and hugs for you all.
Fonda Wilson - August 7, 2021 7:05 pm
Sean, I have no idea what your visual acuity is, but from reading your blogs, I know you enjoy acute eyesight and perception about people and things around you. Prayers that a gentle breeze fill the billowing sails of your mother-in-law’s boat on her last ride across the calm bay and to her new and happy life beyond – just as I prayed this morning for a dear friend.
May your family be enfolded in God’s abundant love, comfort and peace.
Gayle - August 7, 2021 7:50 pm
Thank you for sharing Sean. I thought of the old hymn, “Shall We Gather At the River” as I was reading your post.
Jamie and you have honored her wish and she is blessed to not only live, but also be able to take her last breath on this earth in a beautiful place that gives peace. Also blessed to have you and Jamie with her. Prayers for each of you.
Suzi - August 7, 2021 8:09 pm
I love the pictures of Mother Mary sitting’ on the of bay”, whether it’s watching Thelma Lou and Otis, sipping’ bourbon or listening to the water.
Thanks for the “rest of the story.”
Jenny Young - August 7, 2021 8:42 pm
I’m so happy for Mary to be able to end life at home. It’s a gift many wish for.
And don’t think watching has totally died out. I just read this past week that front porches are on the top of the list for Millennials buying their first home.
catladymac - August 7, 2021 8:43 pm
” Shall we gather at the river…”
Joann Thompson - August 7, 2021 9:25 pm
We are all holding vigil with you. God bless you.
Heidi - August 7, 2021 11:41 pm
It’s beautiful that Mother Mary will leave this earth by the Bay she so loved and her loved ones by her side.
Shirley C. - August 8, 2021 12:07 am
Sean, you don’t ever have to be on the cover of Time or make headline news in the book world. You are beloved and and treasured by thousands of your faithful readers. We are grateful and blessed each and every morning ….along with God’s holy Word. We are kinder people and oh my isn’t that the best thing!!
Linda B - August 8, 2021 2:30 am
One of the best things I’ve ever read. Thank you so much, and bless you all.❤
Sarah - August 8, 2021 12:31 pm
You honor us by including us in your vigil. Know you do not stand watch alone.
Nancy Swider - August 8, 2021 1:39 pm
Once again — pure bliss. Prayers for Mother Mary…
Paul Moore - August 8, 2021 4:23 pm
She is lucky to have this option. A happy sad thing. Thanks
Patricia Gibson - August 8, 2021 4:25 pm
Kathy - August 8, 2021 9:19 pm
I was with my dad when he died peacefully. I had to take him away from his bayside home to live his last year with me. I regret that; he missed the water.
Kathy Coxwell - August 9, 2021 3:27 am
I hope you gather at the river before much longer.
When I was a child, we had a maid (as they were then known), who came early every morning to cook my breakfast before I walked across the street to school.
Every morning that he was sober enough to stand, my father greeted her with the same words: “Headed for the river!”
And she would reply,”Ready ta go!!”
Bill Harris - August 9, 2021 8:16 pm
Thank you Sean for sharing this beautiful story.
jnearen2013 - August 9, 2021 10:35 pm
Sorry for your pain Sean. Life. It is a challenge.
Debra D Hudson - August 10, 2021 4:07 am
For the past two years I lived the life you and your wife are living. I lost both my parents just 7 1/2 months apart. And I had the privilege of being their caregiver and spending hours preparing and talking. I can’t say I have “enjoyed” these columns, but I can say I understand and feel them. Cherish every minute. You will never regret even one of them. Prayers for you all.
Gene Downing - August 13, 2021 2:37 am
I grew up on that Bay and know exactly what you are all talking about. Every time I go home, i sit on the dock of my youth at my dad’s house and miss the peace of it all. I reminisce about the family time there, the laughter, the love, and the mourning of loss. My wife had a painting commissioned of one of my favorite photos of that dock on the Bay. It’s where my ashes will one day be spread. A life well spent and no prettier place to finally be home.