NOTE: This post is rated R for mild strong language.
If you haven’t read last week’s post, I recommend you click here and do so now. In that essay I explored the phenomenon of a dying person’s last words, and was all set to tell you my father’s last words—but then ran out of room. Well, not room, exactly, but I had gone on long enough and didn’t want to bore you. So today you get to find out what my father’s last words actually were.
My father’s last words
My father, just before he died, said … well, wait. Before I get to that, I should give you a bit of background, so that you can fully appreciate just how funny, unexpected, and yet apropos my father’s last words truly were.
To start, my father always fancied himself a gentleman. He never cussed. I mean, ever. It was weird. This is a guy who never even said “fart.” I think he said “damn” here and there, but less frequently even than my daughters, who aren’t officially even allowed say this. When my dad needed emphasis, he either resorted to volume or other means.
For example, he was once a passenger in my 1984 Volvo when I had a mishap. I was parking in front of my house and came in a little too close to a broken curb outcropping, which caught the edge of my car’s trim and zipped it right off the side of the car. This made a terrible, loud noise like the car was shrieking in pain. When my dad got out he was shocked—almost disappointed, it seemed—that my comeuppance involved so little damage. I zipped the trim right back on to the car, good as new, and my dad said, “You are real lucky you didn’t do more damage.” For him to use the adjective “real,” where the adverb “really” is called for, was tantamount to profanity, given his normally precise, professorial syntax.
Even when my dad was clearly angry, he didn’t resort to strong language. Once, on a beautiful summer evening, just before dusk, my dad was driving my brothers and me up Flagstaff Road, just for the pleasure of it, when we encountered an encampment of drunken college kids whooping it up. I can’t remember what they were saying but it was vulgar and far louder than necessary. They were being loud, it seemed, just to disturb the peace, and to flaunt their youth and irresponsibility and drunkenness. (I even seem to recall a soiled prophylactic sailing through the air, but perhaps this is the embroidery of memory.) My dad did not yell, “Shut up, you bastards!” like any normal person. What he yelled was, “Hush up!” Who says “Hush up”? Nobody, that’s who. (Oddly, this caught the drunks so off-guard they were momentarily speechless as their soused brains attempted to parse this utterance.)
My dad’s uncannily clean mouth wasn’t due to any moral or religious airs. He just had this profound sense of decorum. Surely he was aware that a certain amount of profanity is common among adults. In fact, on one occasion, a year or so ago, he even alluded to this. He remarked, “I encountered recently a rather humorous website cataloguing all the ways the F-word can be used. The F-word turns out to be highly elastic, and can be used as almost any part of speech … as a noun, as a verb, and so forth.” I was so eager to encourage this exploration that I probably overstepped a bit. I replied, “Oh, yes, I’ve seen that website and it’s pretty funny. But you know, it’s incomplete. The guy compiling the list missed one: ‘fuck’ as gerund adverb, as in, ‘Are you fucking shitting me?!” This seemed to catch my dad completely off guard, and just like that the conversation was over. He responded as though I’d been verbally abusive. I realized this may have been the first time he’d heard me use such language. (I just shrugged it off, like, “You started it, dude.”)
Notwithstanding my dad’s lifelong avoidance of profanity and other tough talk, I knew toward the end of his life that, as far as last words go, anything was possible. Perhaps a new experience like dying of cancer would unleash an entirely new lexicon. This was the case with a former President of Bolivia, Antonio José de Sucre, who was known to be a gentleman who had never cursed in his life. Upon being shot twice in the head (but before a third shot, to the heart, killed him) he cried out, “¡Carajo, un balazo!” [“Fuck, a bullet!”]. So he had that word in him but had just never been upset enough to deploy it.
So it was with my dad, not long before he died, when in the middle of the night I heard him yell out, “Shit!” I had literally never heard him utter this word before. Of course, he didn’t have an audience—or at least, he didn’t realize he did, being alone in his bedroom—so maybe this wasn’t eligible to be his last word. On the other hand, he yelled it quite loudly, and was well aware that a crack team of his sons was assembled in the living room on cots and mattresses, taking turns attending to him during his hospice. Novel as this word choice was, though, I can’t say I was surprised. Something about having an ostomy bag burst open would surely loosen anyone’s tongue. (If it had been me in there bursting my ostomy bag, I’d have woven a tapestry of profanities that would make Eminem blush.)
Still, cursing to an empty room in the dark is a long way from challenging somebody verbally, in broad daylight, face to face. Throughout his life my father avoided pointed statements and direct challenges whenever possible. If you said something that upset him, he would either fold up completely—the conversational equivalent of going limp or playing possum—or he would quietly explain that you were upsetting him.
He had a special way of reacting if you were boring him or about to hold forth on a topic he didn’t want to hear about. His protocol in this scenario was even more efficient than a teenager’s “Whatever dude” or “Like I care.” He would essentially cut you off with the simple word, “Good.” For example, I once said to him, “I just started a pretty cool project at work.” For some reason he didn’t want to hear it. Maybe his brain was tired, or maybe he was afraid he’d be out of his depth with this topic (which would have been ironic, as my brothers and I grew up hearing all about his work in the field of rocket science). Whatever the reason, he just said, “Good.” It’s impossible to capture, with mere text, the peculiar inflection he employed to convey the utterly dismissive intent of this utterance, but his meaning was impossible to miss. Dad’s “good” meant “All right, good for you … but I don’t give a rat’s ass, so shut up already.” So often did he employ this “good,” it became a running family joke. Even my kids have become expert at mimicking it. So I’ll say, for example, “Girls, I want to talk to you about Internet security,” and they’ll reply, with perfect Grandpa inflection, “Good”—and then disappear.
Okay, great … so what were his last words?
My father’s last words were … well, first let me paint the picture for you, of this deathbed scene. My dad had reached the phase where lucidity was a huge struggle. If somebody visited with whom he really wanted to connect, he dug deep, made eye contact, swallowed, cleared his throat, and then asked (with a gesture or a croak) for a drink of water, which would cause a coughing fit right after he swallowed it, and then he would utter a sentence clearly tailored for maximum brevity. The effort would exhaust him, and then he would slump back on the pillow, and his eyelids would half close, and his eyes would roll up toward the top of his head. For long spells between these verbal efforts—which became progressively rarer—he would just lie there in a partial doze.
My brothers and I learned that our dad seemed to appreciate our presence even if he couldn’t communicate (verbally or through eye contact). So we’d sit by the bed and hold his hand. He’d acknowledge this, sometimes, with a brief hand squeeze. (And if our presence didn’t always register with him, the gesture meant something to us, anyway.) And so, sometime in the last hour of our dad’s life, my brother Geoff and I just sat with him, across the bed from each other, each holding one of his hands. We sat there quietly, looking upon him, knowing full well that we wouldn’t be looking upon him for much longer, and then never again.
What a sight he was. He hadn’t gotten around to getting a haircut or trimming his beard before a big surgery in mid-August, and the ensuing complications and follow-on surgeries—one crisis after another, each advancing him toward this early death—meant he never got around to these petty sartorial matters, so now his hair was long and wild, his beard long past the professorial stage into well into hipster territory. From the neck up, he was like some crazy old man from a Faulkner novel. But below the neck, his body was just wasted away—nothing but skin and bones. His rib cage was so prominent we couldn’t help but think of E.T. His arms and legs were so spindly, so utterly devoid of flesh, he was like an honest-to-God prisoner of war. His remaining skeletal frame was birdlike—like Poe’s “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore.” In short, our dad’s physical presence was nothing short of heartbreaking to look upon.
And yet his hands, amazingly, remained unchanged. Sure, they were old person’s hands—mottled, red, sun-ravaged—but still large and strong. His grip was surprisingly good. Looking from the wrist down, you might have said this guy had gotten too much sun—but not that he was clearly a terminal patient heading down the home stretch of a wasting death. Geoff and I sat there holding his hands for a long time and then Geoff said exactly what I’d been thinking: “His hands are still the same as ever.”
So we sat there, gripping his hands, managing to find something to admire in this broken, wasted man. “Think of all the cool stuff he built with these hands,” Geoff said. It was true. Our dad was always building things, his whole life long. He made custom roof racks to put his bikes on his car. He built world class telescope tripods from old hockey sticks. He once built a prototype of some kind of aerospace stabilizer out of crap he found in the basement, including an old car tire that was suspended over the floor horizontally; as I stared at it, wondering what the point could possibly be, Dad invited me to give it a kick. This I did with gusto, and to my amazement there was a sudden whizzing and whirring of servos and the swinging of the tire was stopped in an instant, like magic.
“Think of all the knots these hands have tied,” I said. My dad knew all the sailors’ knots. He could do a clove hitch, a half hitch, a bowline, a sheepshank—all of these in his sleep, in the dark. Geoff replied, “Yeah—” but was suddenly cut off because:
“Shup,” our dad said. Huh? Shup?
I looked into his eyes, and he looked back. “You mean, ‘shut up’?” I asked. He nodded. And that was it. The last words he ever spoke. Shut up.
Now, this may not seem momentous to you, but remember everything I said above. This man had surely never, in his life, told anybody to shut up—certainly not us. That really says something, because we were four very boisterous boys—I can still hear our mom yelling, “Stop all that yammering!”—but our dad had never, ever told us to shut up.
So Geoff and I shut right up, believe me. And we looked at each other in astonishment. What was our dad reacting to? I guess it must have been painful for him to be talked about like that, right in front of him, almost in the past tense, and without being part of the conversation. Maybe the allusion to his wasted body was hard to take; to hear the statement “His hands are still the same as ever” was part and parcel of the bigger point—that the rest of his body was ruined. Or maybe he just couldn’t handle the casual ease with which we expressed ourselves, when he was barely able to speak.
Or maybe, just maybe, after a lifetime of decorum and politesse, and now facing imminent death, he decided there was no reason not to finally say those simple words—“shut up”—that he’d been waiting his whole life to be able to say.
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