I have been touched many times by someone’s last words. And sometimes, I am deeply saddened. At my final visit with my doctor-patient, his only tenuous words to me were the question, “What is my PT/INR?”, as he lay in his bed, wondering about his lab work, when the reality was his quickly deteriorating, dying body likely had every askew lab work known to man. Generally, one does not look jaundiced and shriveled by dehydration with periods of apnea and have normal lab values. I recognized his desire to still understand what was happening to him, now travelling the uncharted territory of his dying. As a physician, lab values had always determined part of his actions. He did not speak again to his family, as he spent the last two days of his life lying in bed with a few brief moments of clarity amid the approaching fog, for he was now dying in earnest. He had no spiritual beliefs, and had only stopped futile chemotherapy the week before signing on to hospice. I believe the physician part of him knew he was dying while at the same time he wondered if it could somehow be remedied.
I don’t think we get to plan our last words. By then, the planning part of our life seems to be overwhelmed with the out of control spinning that our bodies whirl into while dying. Perhaps my favorite words were spoken by a young mother who tried so hard to stay here and be able to finish the job of mothering her two young children. Her cancer marched ahead of all the chemotherapy and curative treatment possible, and finally overwhelmed her human body. She had written in her journal some comforting words for her family to read later, to know that whatever happened, “I will be okay”. Desperate to remain here, yet aware that she might in fact not have years and years left, she wrote those words a long while before she lay dying in her hospital bed in the living room, being turned and cared for by her family. One of the last times we positioned her on her side, she let out a soft moan, and I told her I was so sorry. Though no longer speaking and nearly nonresponsive, she suddenly whispered “I’m okay”. Two simple words that would in fact reassure us all how beautifully she came to terms with the end of her life… “I’m okay”.
I remember reading Steven Job’s final words from his sister’s eulogy, “Oh Wow, oh wow, oh wow.” Last words are often astounding, but not everyone is famous and written about as their not so remarkable lives come to a close. Some are published in books, or articles; some are simply remembered through the lives of those remaining: the gifts of last words.
Rather rich, famous, unknown, or unheard, these words seem to speak of the very thing that the rest of us need to know. If we can only hear these beautiful messages: Yes, you are okay now, and you are seeing scenes of wonder that we here left behind only have a glimpse of.