We tend to think of last words in terms of famous quotations. On her death-bed, Gertrude Stein (no relation to me) was asked, “What is the answer (to the meaning of life)?” Her matter of fact response was “What is the question?”
John Adams, our second President, alternately rival and friend of Thomas Jefferson, found some relief and gratitude in the belief that “Thomas Jefferson still survives” as he (Adams) lay dying. What he did not know in the pre-electronic year of 1826, was that Jefferson had in fact predeceased him by a few hours. Nor did either of them appear to reflect on the irony that these founding fathers both expired on July 4th.
On a less ironic note, students of American history will recall the story of Nathan Hale, captured and convicted of spying on the British during the Revolutionary War. “I only regret that I have but one life to give my country,” uttered Hale before his execution. More locally, those of us in Chicago might have heard of Giuseppe Zangara, an anarchist, who took aim at President Elect Franklin D. Roosevelt as he and the Mayor of Chicago shook hands in Miami’s Bayfront Park on February 15, 1933. The bullet hit Mayor Anton Cermak, who reportedly said to FDR, “I’m glad it was me instead of you.” Cermak died soon after and is memorialized to this day with a Chicago street that bears his name.
There are other kinds of last words, of course. The father of legendary musician and conductor Carlo Maria Giulini gathered his family around his death-bed to remind them that the word love, “amore,” should guide their thought and conduct throughout their lives. And one can only imagine how many times the word “love,” the words “I love you,” have been on the lips of both the dying and their survivors at the every end of earthly things. The religiously faithful have been heard to add, “See you on the other side.”
Last words of our parents tend to linger in the memory. We are often cautioned to part from loved ones on a high note, not a dissonant one, lest someone be left with the recollection and pain of a final disagreement, or the regret of injuring a loved one in what proves to be their last possible moment.
Two unfortunate examples from my clinical practice come to mind in this regard. One woman, whose mother had died many years before, had difficulty in shaking her mother’s last minute assertion, “You’re an ass, Jenny (not her real name).” It is not the only such example I can recall hearing from one or another of my patients. But the all-time cake-taker, the grand prize winner in an imaginary Hall of Shame of ill-timed and venomously expressed invective, are the words of a rebellious teenager to his severely taxed father.
A long history of mutual destructiveness typified their relationship. It seems that the pater familias was inept and self-interested in raising his son, and the son repaid his parent’s cruelty and clumsiness with as much drug use and petty crime as he could muster. Nor did it help that the family was under financial pressure and that the two adults of the home were a badly matched pair.
The father had only recently sustained a heart attack when the school reported to him and his wife that the son had once again been suspended. The “mother-of-all” shouting matches ensued between the middle-aged man and his first-born disappointment. And then, the last words: “You’re going to kill me.” And the reply, “You deserve to die.”
Not 24 hours later the words were realized. Deserved or not, the father was dead. And despite the fact that one could easily make a convincing rational argument that his death was not produced by his son’s words (or, at least, that the killing heart attack was waiting for whatever the next stressor was and would have happened very soon even without the argument as a trigger), it is easy to imagine that the sense of guilt would be lasting.
That said, I’m not opposed to standing up to people who have injured you, including parents. To say, “I know what you did (even if you deny it or justify it); and I won’t let you do it any more” is sometimes perfectly appropriate. That act of self-assertion can be therapeutic, even though it is usually not essential.
You can recover from childhood mistreatment without confronting the offender. Witness those individuals who do so when their abusive parents are already dead and therefore unavailable for any real-life discussion. What is essential, however, is to make certain that the mistreatment stops. This usually means that you, the now adult child, have to stop it: walk away, say “no,” or hang up the phone — whatever is required.
If, instead, you aim to change the offender, be prepared to be disappointed. Most won’t change or even admit that they did anything wrong. But if you wish to overcome your fear and master the situation, that mastery, at least, is possible.
Better, though, so much better to live as Giulini’s family lived, with love at the center of their being. I’m told that the old Italian expression for this is, “volersi bene” or “voler bene:” an untranslatable sentiment indicating that you cannot be happy without the happiness of the other. Yes, much better this way.
Perhaps its no mistake that in English and German the words for life and love are so close. Change the word “live” by one letter and you have “love.” In German, change the word “leben” (to live) by adding one letter and you have “lieben” (to love). Not just last words or Giulini’s father’s last words, but words to live (and love) by.
The 1935 photo of Gertrude Stein is the work of Carl Van Vechten, from the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division; sourced from Wikimedia Commons.