The man startled me at first, because I was standing in the middle of a cemetery and I didn’t see or hear a car. But the dead never bother me when I come to this particular hill for sunset pictures — and Alan didn’t bother me, either.
He stood silently just a little above me on the hill as I shot pictures of the sunset. I rarely see people there this late in the day, although it’s happened before. Most people seem to leave long before the sun starts sinking toward the horizon. Most don’t seem fond of cemeteries at night.
But Alan stood there watching quietly, seemingly absorbed in his own thoughts.
After I took a few more pictures, I looked over my shoulder and greeted him. It seemed uncomfortable to be so close in such an unusual place without at least acknowledging the presence of a living person.
We introduced ourselves and remarked idly about the beautiful sunset we were watching. Then he mentioned having been in the same spot this morning at sunrise — and I couldn’t help but ask more.
Alan’s wife died about a month ago. Her body is buried just down the hill from where we stood.
“I still come visit her every day,” he said. “I’m here at least once a day, sometimes twice. I know she’s not here. I believe she’s with the Lord. But the only piece of her I have left on earth is in that dirt. So I come talk to her. I hope she can hear me and know I’m telling her how much I love her.”
Alan and his wife, Mary, were together for 50 years — since they were barely out of their teens.
“We had a good long life together,” Alan said, “but I wasn’t ready to give her up.”
For most of the first decade that Alan and Mary were married, Alan worked in sales for a big company and traveled. He liked the work and started getting promotions, but after seven years, he realized he was slowly losing his family even as he made more and more money.
“We had three little girls by then,” he said. “When I would come home, I would try to give them everything they missed while I was on the road, but I couldn’t do that like they needed. Mary didn’t complain or pester me, but I knew she needed more of me. So I quit.”
Alan said the family lifestyle was cut seriously when he quit the high-paying job. The family moved from an expensive house to a more modest one. But he said once he understood what was important to him, his family always came first — never money.
“I think I would have been a rich man by the time I retired,” he said. “But I was home with Mary and the children — we had a son after the three girls, too — and I think I was richer because of them than the money could have ever made me.”
His four children are grown and Alan says they’re happy and have good families. He’s proud of them, but most of all, he just misses the woman he chose over chasing big money.
“I’ll love her as I take my last breath,” he said. “They’ll bury me here next to her one day and we will be together again — bodies in the dirt and spirits dancing in heaven. She’s meant more than anything in the world to me.”
Earlier Sunday, I had already been thinking again about how we reveal our values through our priorities and how we spend our time, not through words and well-meaning promises. At the end of your life, it won’t matter how much money or property you’ve accumulated.
When you die, it will matter only what your relationships have been, how you’ve spent your time and how well you’ve loved.
Alan had a choice as a young man. He could have pursued what the world believes is success, but he chose his family. He loved well.
He is a true success.
Alan still loves Mary. He still talks to her. He still tells her she’s beautiful. He still tells her she’s the best woman in the world.
He hopes she can hear what his heart is feeling and his words are saying.
So the sunset that Alan and I shared tonight is for Mary — and her memory stands for the values that recognize that loving, healthy relationships are more important than worldly success. It really is a choice. You won’t have both.
I know which one will matter in the end.