Most of us wonder from time to time about the day we will die. What time of year will the end come and where will we be? Since it’s going to happen to all of us eventually, let’s at least hope it’s not behind the wheel watching a big truck coming at us left of center. Even worse would be in a hospital room tethered to a life support system hearing vague voices talking medical jargon. Don’t know of anyone who looks forward to that.
What intrigues me is who will be the last person we hear or who hears us. Will it be a loved one or a paramedic sitting in the back of the ambulance with us? Will we find ourselves in some sort of makeshift foxhole mumbling a quick conversion as an army of Taliban warriors appears on the horizon screaming for our blood? Is it possible that the beautiful young woman who would normally never even see us be the one to lift our head off the concrete and say something comforting when we’ve just got a moment or two left after a stroke has felled us at her approach? Some golfing buddies have confided that what they would like to hear are the other three guys in the foursome hooting and hollering about the long birdie putt that’s just found the hole. An elderly lady I have always loved told me once she just wants to hear a disembodied voice say something appreciative over the radiant Foxgloves she’s been nursing in her flower garden from year to year. And then to become part of their glory.
One of my first memories of death came as a boy when the distinguished gentleman known as “the judge” was laid out in the living room of his Victorian home up the street from where I lived. For some reason I was in the receiving line along with my folks as we went to pay our respects. We were told the old fellow had been alone the previous night, fixed his own supper, and then gone to bed, never to wake. No one could remember exactly when they had seen him last. It was a bit like the cat that comes and goes and then doesn’t come and you wonder when the mysterious feline had last rubbed up against you. Just gone with no words of farewell.
I don’t think I know anyone who dislikes people so much that they would prefer to pass from this world all alone. Of course, we don’t always have a say in the matter. I read recently of a young girl fresh out of high school driving alone and never arriving as scheduled at a friend’s house. With the radio still blaring when the police found her car, she probably was singing along to the lyrics of a song that had been bringing a smile to her face when it all stopped abruptly and forever.
We’ve read of some of the phone calls the lost souls in the Twin Towers had with loved ones moments before they perished. One can only imagine what words were exchanged. Or, how do you prepare for death and what do you say when gripping onto a stranger next to you as a plane goes into its final convulsions. What do those in the back seat scream out as the driver takes his eyes off the road for a fatal second. Violent death in the midst of others is a thought that more than frightens me beyond most other possibilities.
Some of us picture the old movie set where we’re in our final bed scene with family gathered about as we bid farewell. Seldom happens that way, I would guess. I know some who never let on that they’re sick and don’t want anyone around or talking with them when their time comes. An old friend told his wife not to call me during the holidays when she read him our Christmas card. I found out about his passing a few days later and wished I could have heard his voice and he mine one last time. But I kind of understood. What could I have said, anyway.
I have a habit of selecting “save” when I have a phone message from my wife, even if it’s just to say she’s on her way home. It’s perhaps just a part of my idea of the intimations of mortality that wake me at times. I suspect I’m just one of those afflicted at birth with some presentiment of loss. When Joan Didion wrote in The Year of Magical Thinking that her husband John Gregory Dunne had gone in the other room to look up a word and never responded when she called him to say that dinner was ready, I felt as though I were there with her in that second when nothing will ever be the same again. Worst of all she closed his big dictionary before realizing she was losing the last word he was ever going to see. As she later wrote, “Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.”
What are those last sentiments so many of us yearn to hear or speak? Are they words of profundity or just a simple “I love you”? Will any farewell message sound anything but trite and mundane considering our imminent obliteration, our total and irreversible dislocation of body and mind? Should we hope for a well conceived and melodious farewell, something beautifully crafted with words of soothing comfort? Or perhaps, for some, a simple but significant “Goodbye, my dear” will do.
Will those last words bring back memories of the first time we touched, when we were all alike in those magical ways that convinced us that we were meant to be together? Will they remind us of the cold rain you had had to walk through to get to me and how I helped dry your hair with a big fluffy towel as we laughed and your eye liner ran down your cheek? As my last impression of this life, I would be happy just to hear you say “Hi!” as you tumble into the room. Rekindling that mirage is how I want to close my eyes.
So when that special person in your life gives you a smooch before flying out the door to go to work or to run an errand, be sure to pause and tell them they still make your heart flutter. Whisper something sweet into the ear of your son or daughter, no matter how awkward it might make them feel, as they shove off down the road to some destination beyond your ken. Don’t let that old pal and his wife get away after a weekend visit without telling them they’re special, the cheese to your macaroni. Since the old joker is going to get us all in the end, why not put a little insurance down by sharing some sweet thoughts with those you love.
You never know when you start the engine how your day will end. Let’s all hope the last words we hear are “Love ya” and not “Your money or your life” or “Die, you infidel!”
Of course, it would be kind of fun in a twisted sort of way to know what comeuppance is in store for that legion of sad sacks in and out of politics who are consumed with hatred for the laws and regulations that govern our daily lives. Nothing like a final gasp from them as they answer the door and come face to face with the little man in the bow tie who greets them: “Hi, I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.”