Danny Heitman's 'At Random': Sunset reminds us of priorities

by danny heitman

I never know what to get my wife for her birthday, so I’m always relieved when she tells me what she wants. Last month, as her special day approached, she asked for an evening dinner with a good view of the sunset.

Her birthday brought other things, too: a crockpot, some gift certificates to the dress shop, a new purse with a dozen pockets to hold the hundred secret items that no woman, apparently, can do without.

But obliging my wife’s request, I reserved a window seat at a restaurant six floors above the Mississippi River — as good a spot as any to see the city at dusk.

All of this made me think of a day more than two decades ago when my wife and I were new to each other, not yet tied to home and children, and touring the Southwest. We arranged to see the Grand Canyon at sunset because the guide books said it shouldn’t be missed.

They were right about that, of course. When the sun descends into the canyon, it creates a huge bowl of brilliance. The rays dapple the rocks into a thousand shades of orange, and it seems as if you’re peering over the lid of the largest jack-o’-lantern in the world.

We arrived at our viewing station with a picnic blanket and basket of supper. As the sun began to lower into the canyon rim, we joined our fellow tourists in hushed contemplation of the natural light show.

But then we heard two ladies a few feet from us, cross-legged on their own blanket as they chattered away the last moments of daylight, oblivious to the spectacle of the dying sun. They were occupied instead with a review of the day’s doings, then planning an itinerary for the next morning.

I rolled my eyes in resignation, wondering how someone could be so caught up in the past and future that they forget the present miracle in front of them.

But with the passage of years, I’ve become less smug about other people’s blindness to priorities — and more aware, I hope, of my own cluelessness about what really matters.

Maybe you won’t be surprised to learn that in 20 years of marriage, my wife and I haven’t spent much time thinking about sunsets. Dusk usually finds us clearing the kitchen, shoveling shirts and sheets into the laundry cycle, or ticking off one more errand from the to-do list before another day slips from the calendar. The fading sunlight often fills me with anxiety rather than awe. I wish for more hours to do what needs to be done.

But the day before my wife’s birthday, we learned that two friends were facing serious illness. The news reminded us that in any life, the supply of sunsets isn’t infinite, that it’s our privilege — and our obligation — to witness wonder while we can. So we gathered as a family by a restaurant window, watching the finish of the day with the finish of dessert. That was our gift to my wife, and her gift to us.

Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.