The last words she ever said.
I just wanted to know what they were. Call it a compulsion, a thought that nagged at me like a hot plate of my wife’s lasagna when I’d spent the day not eating.
My aunt had passed away. She was the last remnant of my father’s side of the family. My dad died of cancer at the age of 47 when I was eleven. My aunt had just died at the age of 86 (my dad would have been 85), and I really wanted to know the last thing she said.
Days and weeks later I still wanted to know, so, sitting on the top corner of the metal bleachers at my son’s little league baseball game, I called her son again.
My cousin Jack was five years younger than me, a stockbroker who lost all feeling in his left sense of humor upon completing his college education.
To work my way around the subject, I dodged the real reason for my call.
“How’s your dad?” I asked him.
“He’s okay,” he said. Everyone’s still shocked that she went first.”
“Yeah. She was always taking care of him.”
My uncle had just turned 91. Amazing. 91. I wondered if I’d ever last that long. My aunt once told me that she felt basically the same as she did when she was younger. She was glad to leave this earth, said she was okay with it, didn’t want to go through the pain of chemotherapy and ‘the poking around’ of treating the tumor she had in her spleen. Her husband and three kids were okay with her decision. She was 86. She was ready.
The irony is that the cancer wasn’t the thing that ended up killing her.
It was the hunger.
The tumor was so big that it pushed into her stomach enough that she lost all appetite. She starved to death, is what happened, consuming nothing the last three weeks of her life but a spot of ginger ale now and then.
She laughed about it. The woman who knew my father, my own creator, better than anyone, was gone. My dad wasn’t the introspective kind. He was more like my brother Terr and cousin Jack.
When I asked Jack to tell me the last thing she said, he found it annoying that I still wanted to know.
“Yes,” I asked. “What was the last thing she said?”
“You still haven’t told me why it’s so important,” he said.
“Maybe it’s not. I just want to know.”
“But why do you want to know?”
“I’m just curious, that’s all.” None of the answers I gave satisfied him at all, as if I were hiding something.
“I’m not telling you.”
“I’m just not telling you. It doesn’t matter at all, but you keep pushing it like it’s some big deal or something.”
“It’s not a big deal—”
“So, if it’s not a big deal, why do you care?”
“Maybe it means something.”“Means something?”
“Yes, Jack. There’s meaning to things.”
“People just want to understand, ya know? They want to look for the meaning in things. We always talk about someone’s first words, right?”
“Yeah, and it’s always Mama or Dadda. End of the mystery. How is the last thing someone says any different?”
“Because they’ve lived, Jack. And sometimes a person’s last words sum up their life in some way we hadn’t thought of before, or they give some kind of clue as to how we should continue the living of our own lives, or a glimpse into the eternities.”
Seconds after he didn’t respond, I added, “We’re human beings, Jack—Well, I am. You used to be. Don’t you remember?”
He hung up.
He always did that. Any time I would playfully mock him for being such a soul-less, concrete-thinking, logical idiot, he’d always walk away or hang up the phone. Yes, we were sort of friends—I don’t think he’d even talk to me if we’d met as adults and I hadn’t been his cousin, but we lived near each other when we were young, before my dad died, so I think he put up with me because we used to be close.
Before everything changed, before I turned eleven.
When he hung up I cursed under my breath, looked up, smiled and waved to my 9-year old boy when our eyes met. I couldn’t tell if his expression was happy or sad. He was playing in his last little league baseball game of the year. Their team had yet to win. Ever. They were 0-7.
I really wanted them to win that game, and there, in the bottom of the sixth inning, they were actually tied 1-1. There was hope.
I sighed, trying to shake the curiosity that still gripped me. Was it that crazy to want to know the last thing a relative said? I just wanted to know. Maybe it was a fool’s errand––this quest for the meaning of anything in this world of absurdity, but I didn’t care. It nagged at me. I just wanted to know. Perhaps I could glean some kind of comfort in the last uttered words of a life––this life, the last of my past.
There’s a moment in every person’s life when they realize that their words don’t matter at all. When you’re young, you think that everything you say, every thought you have is gold. Writers especially know better.
Words are like life itself, and that’s the great irony: They mean everything and also nothing, ultimately. In the grand, biological scheme of things, our lives mean nothing.
Paging Albert Camus.
Maybe therein lies the longing of it, the hunger, the painful truth about all we do and say. But perhaps, just perhaps, our words––whether in the middle or the end of our lives––may just matter: if not to the world, then to someone else.
As my eyes slipped into the reverie of the dreamy sunlight as it caught the dust above third base, I thought about that movie—the Robin Williams movie Dead Poets Society. In it, Williams’ character, Professor Keating, challenges his students to think deeply of their time on earth, that all the world is a stage, and what verse might they contribute to the world’s great play?
I wondered, and might those words be our last?
During the seventh inning stretch I decided to call my brother Terrwyn (means ‘Brave’ in Welsh—mom had a hard labor and she was eccentric, God rest her soul) to ask him about it.
After filling him in, he was just as cynical. Why was I surprised?
“So, eh, what. You want to know the last thing she said so you can see if there’s some kind of earth-shattering significance to it? Are you having a nervous breakdown?” he asked flatly.
“Terr, if you’re—no, no. Shut up. If you’re just gonna make fun—”
“I’m not. Hey—hey, will you listen? I’m not making fun of you. I honestly want to know,” he said, his words attempting to hide the chuckle in his voice.
“No, Terr. I already told you.”
“Yeah, but serious? Why the hell is it that important? What are you looking for? You think it’s ‘rosebud’ or something?––some meaning from her childhood that’s going to be some huge statement about the world, or how we live our lives? Don’t you have a job to do?”
“Great. Thanks for summing up every possible good—”
“—I mean, holy shit—.”
“—that might come out of this with your typical, dismissive bullshit.”
“I’m sorry, but seriously. Do you honestly think it’s going to unlock the meaning of the cosmos or answer the riddle of why aspirin actually works?” he said, sarcasm dripping from the tiny speaker in my phone. “I know that’s what you’re looking for—”
“Nevermind, okay? You’re—”
“—just so you can write it down so people in New York can stroke their goatees and call you a genius?”
“No,” I said, again exhausted about having to once again defend this tiny quest of mine, wishing that I had anyone in my family who just ‘got’ it, just ‘got’ me at all, and my little idiosyncrasies, my crazy habit of giving a shit about things, of at least attempting to feel something deeply. “I just want to know what he said—”
“What he said?”
“She, moron. She.”
Terr chuckled at my hastily misspoken pronoun, trying hard to gulp down the tasteless joke that I knew he was desperate to say—about me thinking my aunt was transgender.
“Oh, come on. Don’t be like that.”
“No, I really gotta go,” I said. “Hank’s up to bat soon.”
Everyone seemed nicer when we were young. Friends and family used to be curious about things beneath the surface. We used to wonder about things, or so it seemed at the time. Now that we’d been adults for a while, and everything became about work and plans and getting ahead, it’d all gotten so cold and logical. They all stopped caring about the poetic or artistic things of life, like they were childish things to be thrown away in exchange for respectability. As kids we were addicted to candy. Now it was respectability, or status, a fear of being silly or playful, as if we all got to be adults and there was a sign everyone obeyed: NO VULNERABILITY ALLOWED. I guess I’ve always been different from my entire family, except my mother, God rest her soul. I didn’t want to tell my wife, because as crazy as it seems, I married someone just like my family. My son Hank? I love him, always will. We have a good time. But, uh, yeah. He’s like my wife: a doer more than a feeler. Lonely? Sure. It can be. A little.
Here I was, caught adrift on the ocean of middle age, searching for something to cling to when neither work, play, or even family felt meaningful. I’ve looked for the signs, I’ve tried to believe, but at times it’s all felt so pointless. Everything except for the life you pass to your kids. Trying to make a good life so your kids can pass it on to the next generation. That’s it.
Perhaps the last words of my aunt were something that encapsulated her life, like Chekhov’s last words, something about the wine being good, words that could have easily been a line in one of his plays, something fitting or ironic. A telling portrait, comforting words that ‘fit’ somehow, or maybe they could be a clue to the thoughts that permeated her inner world just before she died.
Or perhaps I held out hope that her last words might be something that gave me hope for the living of my own life, or life in general. What was it about the last thing someone says that fascinated me so? What was the reason for this desire that wouldn’t go away?
It was the finality of it all.
Perhaps that’s what kept me so curious.
Perhaps that’s why we love stories. As Mark Twain said, when asked what the difference was between stories and life: ‘Stories have to make sense.’ Maybe I was just desperate for something that made sense.
Here I am, I thought, back to thinking about meaning.
Hank hit a short grounder but was easily tagged out at first base. His red cap didn’t turn back in my direction when he headed for the dugout.
In the bottom of the ninth, Hank’s team was up to bat, and the other team was up by a run.
I got a call from Jack.
Surprised, I swiped my thumb across the screen. “Jack?”
“Sorry I haven’t told you all this time. I guess I got weirded out about how much you wanted to know. Then I became pretty sure that the reason you wanted to know was to win some stupid bet with a co-worker or your brother.”
“I would never d—”
“I know, I know. That’s what Lara said, but that’s what I thought, okay? That’s why I didn’t want to tell you. I thought you were being disrespectful.”
“So, you assumed I was being disrespectful, even though I’d never been disrespectful to your mom before?”
“I don’t know. That’s just what I thought, okay? My mom just died. She was an amazing lady who went home to God.” After a pause, he said, “I mean, she was your aunt, but she was my mom, okay?”
“Anyway, the last thing she said was Linda,” Jack said.
“Linda?” My mind searched for anyone in our family named Linda. Perhaps it held the clue to—
“It’s the name of her nurse.”
“Yeah,” said Jack. “Her nurse at the Assisted Living Facility.”
There was another long pause. “Well, that’s it,” Jack said. “Hope it means something to ya. Gotta run.”
I lowered the phone with tired eyes.
The muffled thud of a baseball hitting a catcher’s mitt struck my ears, followed by a roar of celebration, and I looked up. Boys dressed in the same red and white uniforms and dejected looks on their faces cleared my son’s dugout. Henry slowly walked toward me, head down.
When he neared me, his gaze still studied the ground. I put an arm around him.
“Let’s go home,” I said.
The ride home was quiet.
As we turned onto our street, Henry said solemnly, “I really wanted us to win.”
He said this sincerely, emotion creeping to the surface.
I said nothing.
image – Pixabay.com