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.”

War Requiem

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War — the cost of war — seems worth consideration on the occasion of Memorial Day 2010. Perhaps you have seen the movie Brothers. It will be in the same spirit, I hope, that I reflect a bit on the cost that any war brings, however necessary it might be. I will do this by quoting two poems and directing you to some wonderful music using poetry as text.

World War I,  “a war to end all wars” according to President Woodrow Wilson, generated lots of verse. British poets, in particular, found the pity in wartime, and as Wilfred Owen wrote, “the poetry is in the pity.” Owen fought and wrote about fighting, as in a letter to his mother just after his arrival in France:

“I can see no excuse for deceiving you about these 4 days. I have suffered seventh hell.

I have not been at the front.

I have been in front of it.”

The 25 year-old Owen was to die in battle just one week before the armistice on November 11, 1918.

When Benjamin Britten, the pacifist English composer, was commissioned to write music in honor of the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962 (which had been destroyed in World War II), it was Owen’s World War I poetry and the Latin Mass for the Dead to which he turned. The piece, for large orchestra (with the addition of a chamber orchestra), three vocal soloists, and chorus, alternately rages against and laments the ravages of wartime.

The War Requiem ends with the Owen poem Strange Meeting, sung at the première by an English tenor and a German baritone, no coincidence as England and Germany fought against each other in both World Wars.

In this poem (excerpted below), the narrator finds himself in the bomb shelter and sleeping quarters below the trenches of the enemy, “down some profound dull tunnel,” as part of a night raid where he encounters dead and dying soldiers. There, he and his enemy recognize their shared human bond:

…Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell

“Strange friend, ” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” said the other, “save the undone years, the hopelessness.
Whatever hope is yours, was my life also…
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled…

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now…”

The English language changed because of World War I. Phrases and references to the word “trench” became part of common parlance, as in the phrase “in the trenches” which still refers to working at a hard, grinding task; and even the phrase “trench foot,” which led back to a type of frost bite common in the muddy, cold, wet, and verminous condition of those dark places inhabited by the warriors.

Or, how about “trench fever,” a bacterial infection associated with the lice that bred there. The expression “No Man’s Land,” plays back to the space between the trenches — between you and the enemy trench — which could be a few hundred yards. It was the place belonging to “no man” or side in the conflict, and it was the place where no man could easily survive. So too, when one army decided to launch an attack on the other, they had to go “over the top” of the trench and into hostile fire.

But it was to a much earlier use of the trench in warfare that the poet Patrick Shaw-Stewart would refer.

Patrick Shaw-Stewart was born on 17 August 1888 in Wales, and fought as part of the British Expeditionary Force at Gallipoli on the Chersonese peninsula during World War I, not far from the site of the Trojan War.

Gallipoli was a disaster for the British. Shaw-Stewart was on three days leave from the front on the island of Imbros when he wrote the untitled poem that follows. It refers to the Trojan War as represented in The Iliad, so a little background is required to better understand it.

The war began soon after the Trojan prince Paris abducted Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, but the wife of one of the Greek kings (Menelaus). The Greeks organized their own expeditionary force and followed Helen to Troy so they might retrieve her.

Many years into the conflict, Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors, stopped fighting because the leader of the Greeks (Agamemnon) had taken away Achilles’ concubine. Achilles’ rage and his decision not to fight is called “The Wrath of Achilles.” In addition, Achilles knew if he returned to battle he would not survive the war. Despite this, he resumed the fight and turned its tide, with the goddess Athena beside him, both shouting in a trumpet-like, horror-inducing scream to make the Trojans flee.

Achilles and Athena stood at the ditch in front of the wall built by the Greeks to protect their ships. Achilles’ head was surrounded by an aura of flame created by the goddess (to which the poet refers in the heart breaking last stanza), so better to terrify the Trojans, who panicked and ran away.

Shaw-Stewart tells his own Illiad-like war story from the standpoint of his temporary leave from fighting:

I saw a man this morning
Who did not wish to die
I ask, and cannot answer,
If otherwise wish I.

Fair broke the day this morning
Against the Dardanelles ;
The breeze blew soft, the morn’s cheeks
Were cold as cold sea-shells

But other shells are waiting
Across the Aegean sea,
Shrapnel and high explosive,
Shells and hells for me.

O hell of ships and cities,
Hell of men like me,
Fatal second Helen,
Why must I follow thee?

Achilles came to Troyland
And I to Chersonese :
He turned from wrath to battle,
And I from three days’ peace.

Was it so hard, Achilles,
So very hard to die?
Thou knewest and I know not-
So much the happier I.

I will go back this morning
From Imbros over the sea;
Stand in the trench, Achilles,
Flame-capped, and shout for me.

Much like Achilles, Patrick Shaw-Stewart survived the Gallipoli campaign, but not the war.

He was 29 at the time of his death.

Performers, Priests, and Other Intermediaries

Do you remember your childhood friend, the one who knew the girl you fancied, the one who was the intermediary between you and “your heart’s desire,” who let you know if she was equally fond of you, and who passed messages and notes between the two of you? And do you remember when you asked one parent to “run interference” with the other, to shield you from the blow or scolding or grounding that you were afraid you would receive if your defender couldn’t soften the heart of the other? These were probably your first experiences with the role of an intermediary.

Putting these things in the terms of childhood memory will, I hope, help you to recall just how important that mediator was, how much you counted on her or him to put things right for you, how much dependency was involved, and how grateful you were if she was able to do the job of advocating for you efficiently and well.

As adults we still use these kinds of mediators, intermediaries, or advocates. Lawyers “make our case,” accountants talk to the IRS on our behalf, reference persons write letters or recommendations to potential employers or universities, agents negotiate salaries for us, and a marital therapist tries to help two people repair their relationship.

But the intermediaries whom we most esteem, I think, are those that perform a public form of intercession. I am speaking of musicians, actors, and clergymen.

What do I mean by this? Let’s start with musicians. They take the printed note on the page of music paper and give it life—sing it, play it, form it in the way that they understand the notation. The players interpret the music. It is said that they “recreate” it, but truly, it does not exist except as an abstraction until they begin to perform it; we do not hear it until they begin to “make” the music. They are the intermediaries between the composer (who might be long dead) and us.

So too, actors and actresses. They give life to the playwright’s or script writer’s words. These players shape the words, give them emphasis and color, drama and intensity. And they are the carriers of the playwright’s meaning, his advocates and his intermediaries in the communication he hopes to bring to us, the audience.

Clergymen and clergywomen serve much the same purpose, only with religious texts. If you believe that they serve a higher being, then you also believe that they mediate between God and man. Their sermons, if eloquently delivered, are no less moving than the sounds of stirring music or the voice that an actor gives to Shakespeare’s lines.

We esteem these mediators, in part, because (at their best) they reveal to us a higher, loftier, more intense and creatively imagined way of being; they move us to tears or to excitement or to hope; they quicken life, stimulate thought, open our hearts, teach us, and, if we are ready, change us.

Given the effect that they have on us, these mediators receive our appreciation and, sometimes, adulation. Indeed, because the composer or playwright or screen writer has given over the task of performance to these people (while he is in the shadows, even if alive), we can lose sight of the author of the creative work being presented to us on stage. And, so too, the recreative artist (the actor or musician) can get a bit too carried away with his own self-importance. Indeed, it is rare for the great conductors, singers, actors, violinists, and actresses of the world not to be at least a little full of themselves.

One who was not, however, is the subject of an excellent new biography: Serving Genius: Carlo Maria Giulini by Thomas Saler.

Giulini was an Italian symphony and opera conductor who lived from 1914 to 2005. His humility in the face of the geniuses he served, that is, the great composers, would have been for nothing if not for his own talent in giving life to their music. Giulini felt that his role was a small one, as the servant of these great men, as the mediator of something much bigger, more important, and more lasting than himself. Giulini was a man both great and good, an extraordinarily rare combination. I had the good luck to hear him perform dozens of times and to interview him once (and, in the interest of full disclosure, I was interviewed for Mr. Saler’s book).

Giulini took his role as the link between composer and listener very seriously; indeed, the responsibility to the composer, to do his art justice, was a weighty one to this enormously conscientious man. Giulini gave the concert that celebrated the liberation of Rome from fascist control in 1944 during World War II. Soon after, he was asked to play Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, pieces he admired but did not feel ready to perform. Pressured to do so in a concert that was well received, Giulini nonetheless felt he had let down both the composer and the audience by playing these pieces before he was convinced of how to best recreate every note. It was 22 years before he finally felt that conviction and again conducted any work of Bach.

As quoted in the biography, Robert Marsh said of the conductor, “He is one of the most completely civilized men I have ever met, one who can command without every raising his voice, who wins and holds your loyalty by the nobility of his character. If music is to lead us to the fullest awareness of humanistic values, men such as Giulini will be the models we must follow.”

Intermediaries. They mean a great deal to us.

As you can tell, Giulini did to me.

Leaving Life With an Empty Trunk

I recently watched a documentary on the life of Bela Bartok, the 20th century Hungarian classical composer. He died at age 64, still full of ideas yet to be put to music paper, not to be given the life that would allow us to be enriched by his creativity. He knew it and he regretted it, saying on his death bed that he had hoped to have left the world with an “empty trunk.” His “trunk,” occupied by what he could yet compose, had he “world enough and time,” was still full.

It strikes me that Bartok’s sense of responsibility to life is admirable. He believed that since he had come into this world with nothing, as all of us do, he should leave with nothing. He saw this as his obligation to himself, his fellow man, and to life itself. That is, to give everything that he had, to empty himself of whatever “good” or goods he had to give. In other words, to live as full and complete a life as possible in revealing the gifts that nature had bestowed upon him.

Creative people often feel chosen. They tend to believe that they have a “calling,” something that cannot be ignored. They write or compose, not because it is a way to make a living. Indeed, they often continue their creative efforts despite the fact that, like Bartok, they cannot make a living doing it (Bartok was about to be evicted from his New York City apartment when he died). These people persist, even without recognition, out of an “inner necessity.” They write, in a way, because they cannot do otherwise. Many people consider this to be something similar to the religious calling often described by clergy.

What is your calling? Perhaps you don’t feel you have one. But even if you lack this sense of driveness and purpose, Bartok’s example might still provide you with a model for life. I think that Bartok’s notion isn’t really very different from those athletes who say that they try to “leave it all on the field,” giving everything they have to the game they are playing. And, while most of us are not great heros, creative geniuses, or athletes, we can emulate this model if we choose: to live as fully and intensely as possible, work hard, love our friends and family passionately and well, seek always to enrich our knowledge and understanding, face challenges rather than running from them, and give the world whatever we have to give in order to make it, and us, better — in Bartok’s words, to arrive at the end of our days with a trunk that is empty.

To choose such a life rejects the alternative of dutiful routine and “quiet desperation.” It will also, I suspect, reduce your chance of regret. And what is regret? According to Janet Landman, it is “the persistence of the possible,” the aching reproach of the road not taken, the fear not faced, the effort not made, the life that might have been, “if only…”

Yes, the idea of living so that one might leave with “an empty trunk” has appeal.

I can think of worse philosophies of life.

A Few Good Books

You won’t be looking at this unless you are a reader. So here are a few brief recommendations of books that have made a lasting impression on me. Most are not new and I suspect that some are out of print, but are likely to be obtainable by a search on the Internet. In no particular order:

1. Frauen by Allison Owings. Owings comes as close as anyone to answering the question, “How did the Holocaust Happen.” An American journalist who studied in Germany, she returned there to interview mostly gentile women who had lived through the period of the Third Reich. Owings summary does an extraordinary job of describing the psychology of the bystanding German population.

2.  A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. Irving gives away the plot of his novel early on: Owen Meany will die an unusual death. But rather than destroying the tension of the book, this puts the reader in Owen’s shoes as a man who knows that he will come to an untimely end, but doesn’t know exactly how. As the book progresses and that end comes closer, the terror is almost unbearable.

3.  Agitato by Jerome Toobin. The story of Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra in the one decade that it attempted to survive after his retirement. If you enjoy anecdotes about famous musicians, this book is for you. The tale Toobin tells is both funny and sad, since the orchestra did not last. Jerome Toobin, by the way, is the father of Jeffrey Toobin, the legal scholar and public intellectual.

4.  Regret: the Persistence of the Possible by Janet Landman. A book about the title emotion, viewed from literary, psychological, and other perspectives.

5.  What is the Good Life? by Luc Ferry. A very good attempt to answer the biggest question of all: what is the meaning of life?

6.  The Long Walk by Slavomir Ramicz. The author tells the true story of his escape from a Siberian prison camp. He and his compatriots, with almost no equipment, food, or appropriate clothing, attempted to walk to freedom and Western Civilization, which took them as far as India. As you can imagine, not all of them made it. That anyone at all did is astonishing.

7.  Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. This story of an unhappily married Russian woman touches on almost all that is important in life: love, friendship, obligation, children, religion, the value (or lack) of value to be found in work and education, death, and the meaning of life. None of that would matter much without the author’s gift of telling his story and allowing these issues to flow out of the human relationships and events he describes.

8.  The Boys of  Summer by Roger Kahn. Kahn’s classic tribute to the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team of the 1950s, the team that had Jackie Robinson as its central figure and leader.

9.  War Without Mercy by John Dower. Dower describes the racism that underpinned the Pacific theater of World War II. Unlike the war in Europe, each side viewed the other as less than human and treated the enemy with a brutality consistent with that view.

10.  The Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch. Although the book is now a few decades old, the writer’s message is still spot on. He looks at the empty pursuit of happiness in material things and acquisitions, driven by the increasingly disconnected nature of social relationships in this country, and the promise of the media that happiness lies, not in fulfilling human contact, but in the goods that come with “success.”

11.  The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. A fantastic and touching creation about a man unstuck in time, thrown forward and back, and the woman who loves him. Its being made into a movie, I’m told.

12. Patrimony by Philip Roth. Roth’s account of the illness and death of his father.

13.  The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker . More than one person has told me that this is the finest nonfiction book they have ever read. It is a meditation on what it means to be mortal, and how the knowledge we all have of our inevitable demise influences how we live, in both conscious and unconscious ways. Becker’s book has lead to an entire area of psychological research called “Terror Management Theory.”

14.  For Your Own Good by Alice Miller. Miller is a controversial Swiss psychiatrist who looks at the effect of harsh upbringing on the welfare of children. If you believe that children should be seen and not heard, this book might make you think twice.

15.  A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. A story of self sacrifice and heroism set in the French Revolution. If you can read the last few pages without tears, you have a firmer grip on your emotions that I have on mine.

16.  The Glory of Their Times by Lawrence Ritter. Ritter was a college professor when he began to travel around the country in the 1960s, tape recorder in tow, to obtain the first hand stories of the great baseball players of the first two decades of the 20th century, who were by then very old men. Probably as great an oral history as any of those written by Studs Terkel, and perhaps the greatest baseball book ever.

17.  American Prometheus: the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. Oppenheimer is the man who brought the Manhattan Project to fruition, that is, helped create the bomb we used to end World War II in 1945. But more than that, this book is a wonderful biography of a complex, peculiar, and brilliant man, who was brought low by those who wished to discredit his opposition to nuclear proliferation in the period after the war.

18.  The Mascot by Mark Kurzem. A story that is beyond belief, but turns out to be true. The central figure of the story, when he was a little boy, was adopted as a mascot by a Latvian SS troop after surviving the murder of his family. Why beyond belief? Because he was Jewish. The book reads like the most extraordinary mystery.

19.  All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. The most famous anti-war novel ever written. The book is told from the standpoint of a young German infantryman during World War I.

What “Fidelio” Tells Us About Life

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I’m not much of an opera lover. The stories are mostly preposterous, and I prefer instrumental music to vocal music most of the time. But, every so often opera puts words to music in a way that is immensely touching and wise. For me, the best example of this comes in the vocal quartet “Mir ist so wunderbar,” from Beethoven’s only opera “Fidelio.

Beethoven sets the drama up quickly. Florestan, housed in a dungeon, is the political prisoner of an evil and corrupt Governor named Pizarro. Florestan’s wife, Leonore, doesn’t know whether Florestan is living or dead. But, ever faithful, she disguises herself as a man using the name “Fidelio” (so much for the preposterous part) and gets a job at the prison. Her boss, the jailer Rocco, has a beautiful adult daughter named Marzelline, who is being pursued by a prison guard called Jacquino. But as soon as Marzelline gets a look at her dad’s new assistant, she pushes Jaquino away and has eyes only for Fidelio. Fidelio can’t exactly reject his boss’s daughter, and he lets her and her father assume that a marriage will be near at hand.

At this point, Fidelio (“faithful one”), Marzelline, Rocco, and Jaquino sing a vocal quartet that is touching because of its gorgeous music, but even more, because it describes the poignancy of the human dilemma in which these four decent people find themselves.

As the musical lines of the four voices weave in and out, Fidelio expresses her worries over her husband, the possibility that she will not find him,  and the anguish she feels at Marzelline’s affection for her;  Jaquino articulates his heartbreak at having been jilted by Marzelline for Fidelio; Marzelline sings as a young woman in love; and her father, Rocco, looks forward to the happiness of these two good young people — his daughter and Fidelio — and their domestic life together.

The music touches us because of what we know that they do not. Marzelline will have her heart broken, as she must very soon, when she discovers that her future husband is a woman. Rocco, too, will have his future hopes for this daughter dashed. Fidelio faces danger if Florestan lives and she attempts to rescue him, and her own unhappiness if she has arrived too late to save him. And there is no certainty that Jaquino will ever win over Marzelline, even as a “rebound romance,” once Fidelio’s identity and true gender as Leonore are revealed.

But there is more, and it is what Beethoven’s opera tells us about life by way of this music. It is that even decent and good people such as these four will sometimes be at cross purposes that frustrate them and hurt them. The disappointment will not happen because any one of them wanted to harm any other one of them. It will occur simply because that is the nature of human existence. And Beethoven made art of this fact of life. We feel for the characters, however absurd the opera’s premise, because we’ve been there too, been in difficult relationships where pain was inevitable despite our best efforts to avoid it for ourselves and avoid inflicting it on others.

The disappointments that are bound up with living, the tragedy that touches virtually every life before its end (and, often, because of its end), is the stuff of opera, life, and of psychotherapy, too. Fidelio moves us because it is a story of self sacrificing love and courage. And the irony of great art that comments on human suffering, such is this vocal quartet, is that just as Beethoven moves us to tears, he touches our heart in a way that enlivens us, and makes life worth living in the moment that we share the beauty and wisdom of his vision.

The above image is a poster for an April 12, 1904 performance of Fidelio, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Last Words: Be Careful What You Say

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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.