What My Final Words Will Be
My father had the great luck, or amazing foresight, to have “I love you” be last words he said to his children. I remember sitting on the floor, on my mother’s favorite blanket, sewn by her grandmother. The sun didn’t quite breach the gray cloud cover outside our screen door. There was a movie, The Man From Snowy River, playing in the background. My dad’s voice was on the phone, ragged and rattling as he tried to breathe out those last few words. I remember hearing the hospital monitor beeping behind him. I can still feel my hand clutching my mother’s cell phone like it was the only thing grounding me.
At that moment, I was ten years old — the oldest of three children from a “broken” home. At ten, I became the keeper of a secret lead-heavy and feather-light at the same time. I heard my dad’s last words. It was so broken I didn’t know if I’d heard right until my grandmother’s voice confirmed it over the speaker. I remember a lot about that day. I remember the slight pain in my mom’s face, the way my sisters crowded around me. That day, we avoided saying ‘cancer’ like it made the disease non-existent. The only thing I don’t remember is if I cried at that moment.
My parents divorced when I was four. It didn’t affect my life much. I don’t remember having a “normal” family. For me, it was always mom, my sisters, the twins, me and dad every other weekend. We were patchwork, odd and not attractive, but warm and comfortable all the same.
People have often apologized for my dad’s death. I know it’s because they don’t know what else to say. What can words do in the face of death? While I know they mean well, I’ve never thought death was something the living should apologize for. My life, with all its difficulties, was nothing to be ashamed or be sorry about. To me, it was just life, each event shaping me like another cut on a diamond. They had nothing to be sorry for, and neither did I. Still, dad’s death was the sharpest cut.
At his funeral, they fired twenty-one shots in honor of my dad’s Navy service. As the eldest child, an officer offered me the flag filled with the spent shells. I remember the way the officer knelt on one knee before me, holding out the folded flag. He was so solemn, at least forty, and held out the flag without his hands trembling. Small me thought this was hilarious. I was wearing a scratchy, black dress on a hard chair in the steamed Carolina summer. The image of this man, kneeling before me like he was proposing at my father’s funeral, made me snort. I hung my head and tried to make the manic giggles sound like sobs as I accepted the flag. I didn’t have to try hard.
We left the flag with my dad’s parents. A month later I was in their kitchen, letting my grandmother sob on my shoulder. I patted her back and watched a roach scuttle its way across the floor. A few months later, my grandfather died. His third heart attack, the first he’d gotten after his son’s passing, was the one that took his life. We’d never go to the honky-tonk hall where his band played again. His funeral was sunny, just like my dad’s. I don’t remember the last thing he said to me. But I bear his name, his legacy.
Since then, I’ve thought a lot about my last words. Will I leave behind a child who tastes something bitter when they hear that their parent is ill? Will my partner have to tell our children over gas station donuts? The kind the kids wouldn’t get, no matter how much they ask? That’s how my mom told us. Will my relationship with them be whole, or shattered like my parents’? Will I accept my death? I didn’t have an answer to all those questions. A ten-year-old couldn’t understand such a grand concept. So, I came up with a solution to the problem. I said, “I love you.”
I‘d said those words a thousand times before then. I‘d whispered and yelled it at family and friends, even a few teachers. If I liked someone, I told them. After that day, though, it took on a new meaning. After that, I said it even if I didn’t mean it. If I was angry at my mom, I still said it as she drove off to work. If, for a moment, I hated my sisters for something they’d done or said, I still told them. I made sure everyone knew, even in the moments where I was angry with them, that I loved them. Every time my mother drove off, or my sisters went to school, could be the last time I see them. Every time I got on a plane could be the last time I’d get to say anything. They or I could have died.
I‘ve stopped saying it so much since then. I use “I love you” only in the moments where I mean it. I haven’t told my family about my little habit; they haven’t noticed the change. I‘ve moved on since the child of ten, who held the weight of a final thought, final words. I‘ve grown. I‘ve allowed myself to be angry, and to cry over the things that I’ve lost. I‘ve gone to more funerals and held more hands. The pain is still there, but it’s more of a comfortable weight than a sting. There is no magic cure for forgetting a loved one. I still turn around sometimes with words in my mouth, expecting my dad to be there. Sometimes, I still cry when he’s not.
In twenty-two years, I’ve lived in four states, nine houses and three dorms. I‘ve been to three continents, moved twelve times and visited seven countries. I‘ve found my dream in life and am working towards it. I‘m content with remembering these experiences and not worrying about my last words. After all, if Roald Dahl’s last words can be “Ow, f***!” Mine could be anything! I’m reminded often of One Republic‘s song ‘I Lived’ when considering my death. Even at the ripe old age of twenty-two, I’ve lived a great deal. I’ve drifted in and out of the lives of hundreds of people, remaining in their memories or forgotten. A few I’ve fallen in love with, other’s I’ve hated. I learned how to play instruments and speak other languages. I’ve graduated from high school and college. There are a lot of memories from two decades and change.
One day, my last words will be important again. I’ll have something worth passing on. I might not get the chance to say anything. Either way, I’ll be content. I’d rather my legacy be memories. Ones you revisit so many times they become dreams of a time before. I could give my name to some small infant that needs it more than I do. I could even drift out of this world the way I drifted through so many school hallways. My last words could be, “I love you.”
That would be nice.