Last Words: Be Sure to Choose Wisely

The elderly Lady Nancy Astor, the first female member of the British House of Commons, awoke during her last illness to find that her family was assembled around her bed. Clever to the end, she said, “Am I dying or is this my birthday?”

Most of us associate the idea of last words with the solemn and quotable pronouncements of great men and women, not the sassy commentary of the once beautiful English politician pictured above. Here is something more typical: John Adams, our second President, alternately rival and friend of Thomas Jefferson, found some relief and gratitude in uttering “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 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, precisely 50 years after the Declaration of Independence that they both signed and Jefferson wrote.

On a less ironic note, 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 by a Chicago street that bears his name.

There are other kinds of last words, of course. And though most of us probably won’t plan out what to say in advance, I think you will agree that you could do worse than follow the example of Ernesto Giulini, an Italian timber salesman born in the 19th century. He gathered his family around his death-bed, including musician-son Carlo Maria, 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 words “love” and “I love you,” have been on the lips of both the dying and their survivors at the very end of earthly things. The religiously faithful have been heard to add, “See you on the other side.”

A rather more wry approach to imminent mortality is attributed to Voltaire. Asked by a priest to renounce Satan, he reportedly uttered: “Now, now my good man — this is not the time for making enemies.”

As Voltaire’s comments suggest, timing is everything and it is best to consider carefully what you want to be remembered for — and by whom. Last words from or to our parents tend to linger in the memory of those who survive, sometimes because of what was said, sometimes because of what wasn’t. Too many people — including some of my ex-patients — lament never having heard the words “I love you” from a parent at the time of his death or any time before.

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 causing an injury in what proves to be the last possible moment. Nearly all of us would avoid cruelty if we only knew when that would be. Usually we don’t. The dead may not care, but those surviving surely do.

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 mom’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, fractious 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, “I don’t care.”

Not 24 hours later the words were realized. Deserved or not, the father was dead of a second cardiac arrest. And despite the fact that one could easily make a convincing argument that his death would have happened very soon even without the argument as a trigger, it is easy to imagine a lasting sense of guilt in the son.

That said, I’m not opposed to standing up to people who have injured you, including parents, well before they check out of this mortal coil. Choosing 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 also 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 real-life discussion. What is essential, however, is to make certain that any continuing mistreatment stops. This usually means that you, the by-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. Nor should you usually hesitate for fear of “killing” your parent, as in the example I’ve given, especially if health issues aren’t present. That is the only story of its kind I’ve ever been told.

Better, though — so much better — to live among friends and relatives who live as Giulini’s family lived, with love at the center of their being. That way, even if there is no time for a formal goodbye, nothing will have been left unsaid: respect and affection will be well-known long before the end because of the way each treated the other. 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 it is 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 Ernesto Giulini’s last words, but words to live (and love) by.

Lady Astor (1909) by John Singer Sargent, is sourced from Wikipedia Commons. The photo of Carlo Maria Giulini comes from the front cover of the superb biography by Thomas Saler, published by University of Illinois Press. The present essay is a revised version of an earlier blog post from 2009: “Last Words: Be Careful What You Say.”

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