A Word about Final Words


I often contemplate my mortality these days. I think that, as you get older, it is normal to review your life, pat yourself on the back for all the good things you have done, chide yourself for all the bad things, and lament the missed opportunities to accomplish those goals you set for yourself in youth.



It seems like a normal phase of human existence, to burn off all those hours of tedium– time wasted waiting in lines in grocery stores, or waiting to get your drivers license renewed, or waiting for your spouse to get dressed finally– to burn all that way, so that you can see only the highlights and lowlights. It is only then, after reducing your life to so many Cliff’s notes, that you can get a clear picture of who you have been.



This is what I’ve been doing lately, each time I wake in the morning with a new pain whose origins are unfathomable. Where exactly did it come from? Why does it linger so? How different it is from the pains of my youth. Back then, I always knew why something or other hurt. I could always count on the pain to get better and vanish within a couple days. But now, pains hang on, they loiter, they set up house, they are remindful of unwanted house guests who seem to be sneaking in more personal effects every day.



I realize, though, that it is impossible for me to sum up my life: I am, after all, still alive. The best I can do is create an update– up until now I’ve been pretty much a bastard, or I really have been too nice, too easy-going….

Things can still chance, significant feats may still be performed.



Then there is the niggling issue of final words– the last punctuation mark in the book that is my life. The dilemma is: should I conceive my final words now, or should I be spontaneous at the end? If I write my final words now, they will be well polished when I have to utter them. But how accurate will they be?



So maybe I ought to be spontaneous. But the problem with that is you run the chance of saying something stupid, and then, for time in memorial, you will be better know for saying something weird upon death than you will be for anything special you’ve done in life.



I looked for examples in my own family history. My mother’s final words– the best I can remember– were something about making sure the back door was locked. They were fitting final words; throughout her life, my mother was a worrier, as well as a practical woman. My uncle, her brother, uttered something factual yet enigmatic on his death bed: as my cousin left him in his hospital room one evening, he waved and said, “Bye, bye, I’m dying.” And, of course, he passed away later that night.



For inspiration, I researched the last words of some famous, and infamous, people.



Louisa M. Alcott said: “Is it not meningitis?”



Here I am fundamentally opposed to last words that are a question, because, you know, you never get to hear the answer.



Jane Austin said: “Nothing, but death.”



This, I feel, is just a little too fatalistic, even for someone on their death bed.




Kit Carson, American frontiersman, said: “I just wish I had time for one more bowl of chili.”



Lou Costello said: “That was the best ice-cream soda I ever tasted.“


Humphrey Bogart said: “I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis.”


Tallulah Bankhead said: “Codeine…bourbon.”


Paul Claudel said: “Doctor, do you think it could have been the sausage?”



The problem with these final sayings is they mention those earthly substances that probably were at least partly responsible for these people ending up in their death beds in the first place.



Max Baer, American boxer, said: “Oh God, here I go…”



Luther Burbank said: “I don’t feel good.”



Lord Byron: “Now I shall go to sleep. Goodnight.”



Noel Coward: “Goodnight, my darlings, I’ll see you tomorrow.”


These are all pretty mundane. I would definitely have expected something more pithy from Lord Byron and Noel Coward.


Joan Crawford said: “Damn it… Don’t you dare ask God to help me.”


Heinrich Heine said: “God will pardon me, that’s his line of work.”



Well, I suppose it’s natural to invoke the name of God in one way or



Saki(Hector Hugh Munro) said, just before being shot by a sniper: “Put that bloody cigarette out.”


John Sedgwich, Union Commander said, responding to a suggestion he not show himself over a parapet: “Nonsense, they couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist…”



Maybe it’s in poor taste, but the humor in these last two final sayings is unavoidable.


Voltaire, when asked by a priest to renounce Satan, said: “Now, now, my good man, this is not time for making enemies.”


James W. Rodgers, American criminal, before being executed by a firing squad, on being asked if he had a final request, said: “Why, yes, a bulletproof vest!”


Oscar Wilde said: “Either the wallpaper goes, or I do.”


Eugene O’Neill said: “I knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel– and god damn it– died in a hotel.”


Dominique Bouhours, French grammarian, said: “I am about to– or I am going to– die: either expression is correct.”


I think that these last examples of final words are my favorite. Maybe the best way to leave this world is with a joke; better to leave people laughing than to leave them crying.


Hopefully I still have quite a bit of time to think over the issue, so that when the time comes, I will have just the perfect thing to say.


But who am I kidding? When my time comes, I’ll probably say what most people say:


“Oh, crap– now?”

For death is the ultimate inconvenience










One Response to “A Word about Final Words”

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