It was easy to find famous last words on the Internet.
Some were unaware how close death was . . . No, you certainly can’t. (John F. Kennedy’s reply to Nellie Connally, Governor John Connally’s wife. She’d said, “You certainly can’t say that the people of Dallas haven’t given you a nice welcome, Mr. President.”)
Some were funny, a tad hard to believe . . . Hey, fellas! How about this for a headline for tomorrow’s paper? ‘French Fries’! (James French, a convicted murderer, sentenced to the electric chair in 1966. He shouted these words to members of the press who were to witness his execution.)
Some were enigmatic and evocative . . . The fog is rising. (From Emily Dickinson)
Some were simple . . . Beautiful. (From Elizabeth Barrett Browning, when asked by her husband how she felt.)
What will your lights-out phrase be? I fear mine will be a banal, vile four-letter word. I’ve tumbled down mountains on backpacks. I’ve crashed onto asphalt while pedaling my bike. Those missteps—and more—were potentially fatal and caused me to shout an ancient Proto-German word beginning with “S.” To be honest, I wouldn’t mind a final yelp and curse if that meant I’d died quickly while enjoying a favorite activity.
With additional honesty, I am jealous of my younger sister. When our mother was dying, my younger sister and her family hurried from Oklahoma to California. During their time together, Mom would easily chat with visitors. Before my sister had to leave, she talked with Mom. I don’t know what was said . . . and I don’t want to know the words or prayers or silences they shared. It was, and rightly so, between the two of them. But I won’t deny my jealousy. Of course, my lovely younger sister may also harbor jealous thoughts about me. After all, my older sister and I were the ones that remained by Mom’s bedside. The leaving and staying were decisions equally forged in love. Leaving and staying also equally hurt. There is rarely a perfect end for the ending. Life ain’t no Hollywood movie with a swell script and stirring soundtrack.
Nonetheless, for one of my family, there was a variation of last words. For me, I sat by Mom as cancer, and pain meds, eventually caused a deep, sometimes restless, sometimes noisy, slumber. Even though drugs dulled everything, we had a few exchanges . . . but in the final hours they were more incoherent bursts or muddled reactions to light or sound or a mystery known only to Mom.
Dad, who died eighteen months before Mom, had dementia. For him, for his loved ones, there were no closing statements or blessings. In the endless end, dementia robbed his mind and his voice. On melancholy days, when sifting through memories, I try to conjure my last “real” conversation with Dad. At some inexplicable moment, the dementia advanced to a point where he was no longer, well, him. But didn’t we have a final chat or banter or phone call when he was my Dad and I was his son? How I wish I could reclaim that precious (and likely uneventful) exchange.
This I console myself with: I frequently told my parents that I loved them. Whether in a phone call or weekend visit, I believe I said the “right” things. I am profoundly comforted by how honest and open I was with Dad and Mom.
In hospice, we seek to help families have the best possible moments with each other. We want there to be a “good death.” We want there to be forgiveness for the estranged parent or child. We want there to be a murmuring of love between spouses. We want to help create a place and space for tears and laughter, for sharing hope and giving thanks. It may happen, but there are no guarantees.
How important are “last words” with those near death?
Are they as important as today’s words with those still living?
(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)