NOTE: This post is rated R for mild strong language.
I had the unfortunate opportunity recently to hear somebody’s last words. As in, on his deathbed. I suspect that few people’s last words are memorable, or at least get remembered. However, I came well prepared for my opportunity as witness, which gratified my longtime fascination with dying words. In this post I’ll explore that fascination with you.
Famous last words
My brother Max and I have discussed this at length. We want to go out saying something impressive. Max declared, “I wouldn’t want to go into death unprepared. I want to have something rehearsed.” Like what? “Well, something like, ‘Stay gold, Ponyboy … stay gold.’” Of course he was joking, as that’s been taken. Myself, I’ve always kept the following quote handy, ready to rattle off whenever I don’t know what else to say: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” Those are Vladimir Nabokov’s words, but not his last. His last words were, “A certain butterfly is already on the wing.”
Pretty glib, eh? Almost too perfect. And that’s the challenge: to have something queued up in advance, and then to have the lucidity and presence of mind to recall it in your last moment. Adding to the difficulty is that you may not know which moment will be your last. As I’ve discussed with Max, there’s always the Little Big Man scenario: you think the time has come to die, and you make a big speech and everything, and then you unexpectedly go on living for quite some time, making this “final” thing you said a bit of an embarrassment.
There’s also the scenario where you give a nice little speech, thinking it’s the end, but then you live just long enough to spoil it with some other random utterance. This happened to the famous writer Roald Dahl, who had his family gathered around him and said, “You know, I’m not frightened. It’s just that I’ll miss you all so much.” Pretty nice sentiment, but then, as he seemed to lose consciousness, his nurse decided to give him a morphine injection to ease his transition—whereupon Dahl cried out, “Ow, fuck!” And then died. Ow, fuck … famous last words.
Convicted murderers, right before being executed, have a great opportunity to say something memorable. In my extensive study of last words (i.e., reading the entire Wikiquotes entry), I found murderers to be the best represented. They can predict the moment of death beforehand, and they’ve had some time on death row to think of something. James French, just before getting the electric chair, yelled to the assembled press, “Hey fellas! How about this for a headline … ‘French fries!’” Thomas Grasso declared, “I did not get my Spaghetti-O’s; I got spaghetti. I want the press to know this.” Of course, even murderers can screw this moment up. Shannon Charles Thomas gave some long formal statement, but then forgot to shut up afterward. His actual last words: “Is the mic still on?”
Perhaps murderers aren’t whom to look to for the crème de la crème of last words, as these people don’t tend to be well educated and/or or deep thinkers. I’ve found wittier quotes from those executed in the name of politics. Consider Pedro Munoz Seca, a playwright executed during the Spanish Civil War, whose last words, facing a firing squad, were, “I am starting to believe you are not intending to count me amongst your friends.” George Jacques Danton, a French revolutionary famous for his physical ugliness, said just before being beheaded, “Show my head to the people. It is well worth seeing.” But my favorite line comes from James Scott, First Duke of Monmouth, a British nobleman executed on Tower Hill. It was customary in those days to tip the executioner in advance (as a way to ensure good—i.e., swift—service), but Scott refused. Perhaps for that reason, the first blow of the axe landed on his shoulder. He looked up at the executioner and said, “Sir, if you miss like that again, I cannot guarantee that I shall remain still.”
Of course, anybody whose life ends like this has the benefit of an audience which knows it is witnessing somebody’s demise. This audience is prepared in advance to register what is said and may naturally suppose the words will be remarkable—so they’re paying attention. But the death doesn’t need to be deliberate, if there are enough people in attendance. There is very little doubt as to the authenticity of the final words of Mark Sandman, the lead singer of Morphine. Addressing a stadium full of fans at a concert in Palestrina, Italy, he said, “Thank you Palestrina. It’s a wonderful evening, it’s great to be here and I wanna dedicate you a super sexy song.” And then he collapsed of a fatal heart attack.
In contrast, when a famous person dies but not many are around to hear his or her last words, there’s certainly room for error—especially when posterity so badly wants to glorify the memory of the deceased. Perhaps this is how history has recorded so many conflicting (and thus inaccurate) accounts. For example, Groucho Marx is said to have parted with, “This is no way to live!”—but his last utterance is also reported as, “Die, my dear? Why, that's the last thing I'll do!” So which account is correct? At most one, and quite possibly neither. Humphrey Bogart supposedly said, “I should never have switched from scotch to martinis.” But other sources have him leaving off by telling his wife, “Goodbye, kid. Hurry back.” Maybe the thing about martinis was merely toward the end? Who knows.
Dylan Thomas either said, at the last, “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies … I think that’s the record,” or, “Roses plural or Rose’s with an apostrophe?” The second report, spoken to his girlfriend, strikes me as more authentic (for being less pitch-perfect), but again we can’t really know. Elvis Presley is purported to have made his final utterance, “I’m going to the bathroom to read,” but the more believable account is that he said, “Okay, I won’t,” which gives the more interesting utterance to his fiancée, who (as he headed for the john) warned him, “Don’t fall asleep in there.”
One apocryphal final utterance that I’m guilty of repeating is that of Tom Simpson, a cyclist who died of a drug overdose during a Tour de France stage. He supposedly said, “Put me back on my bike.” What he actually said was, “Up … up….” Of course that doesn’t make as good a story. Pancho Villa left us a nice touch of irony along these lines, saying at the end, “Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something.” Very witty and “meta,” except that, alas, this quote too is apocryphal … nobody knows what his last words actually were.
Other last words can perhaps be better trusted, not because of who was around to remember them, but because they’re memorable without being uttered by a famous person burdened with the responsibility of saying something bright. For example, Louise-Marie-Thérèse de Saint Maurice, Comtesse de Vercellis, reportedly said, “Good. A woman who can fart is not dead.” This was, yes, after letting one rip. That’s just too good to be made up (and if it was untrue, people would surely have spoken up). Another utterance that seems too apropos to have been apocryphal is the final utterance of the surgeon Joseph Henry Green who, upon checking his own pulse, spoke just one word: “Stopped.”
Then we have the case of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, whose last words were, “God bless, God damn!” According to Wikiquotes, “He was known to spend many long hours trying to decide what his last words would be; one can only speculate if this is what he had intended to say.” I guess there are worse final proclamations; after all, “God bless, God damn!” was reportedly good enough for James Thurber, a noted wordsmith. (Perhaps Thurber was quoting Santa Anna?)
Where last words are concerned, accurate recall is a two-way street: anybody who might be in the room with the dying could be the only one to hear these words, and may or may not care to commit them to memory, especially if they’re humdrum things. Freddy Mercury, on his deathbed and weak from AIDS, probably didn’t realize his humble and necessarily concise request for help getting to the restroom—“Pee pee”—would be the last thing he ever said. But was it, really? Unless he literally died moments later while getting this assistance, he might have died half an hour or so later, and do we really know he didn’t say some other similarly bland thing during that time?
My father’s last words
Many of my dad’s utterances, toward the end, seemed like candidates for his last words. In these final days, I struggled to remember not only every single thing my dad said, from the profound to the truly banal, but also the sequence in which he said them. After all, I wanted to get this right. There’s a world of difference, to me, between something said toward the end versus the very last thing a person ever said.
When people are gravely ill and thus not of a reliably lucid mind, or even when they’re just bummed out about being terminal, they run the risk of leaving off with something less than totally profound. Agnieszka Osiecka, the Polish writer, said to her children on her deathbed, “Do Dupy,” which translates, “This sucks.” Perhaps she didn’t intend these to be the last words she ever spoke. Similarly, I doubt my dad intended his last word to be “Integers!” which he said quite loudly and emphatically, but apparently to nobody; my brother and I heard it from the next room. But he also said, “Urinal,” because he needed to pee. It vexed me at the time that I could not recall which came first. What if he never said another thing? What if I wouldn’t be able to know his last words for certain?
Hanging on my dad’s every word during those final days seemed a fool’s errand, because nobody could know how long he would last. It seemed he could die any minute, or in the next few hours, or maybe not for days, and possibly a week or more. How long could I go on committing his every verbal output to memory?
There was also the risk that If I didn’t nail down my father’s last words, I might unknowingly invent something. I’m not talking about putting words in his mouth, but about conveniently seizing on something profound, and later recalling it, inaccurately (though inadvertently) as the last thing he said. For example, he did gather my three brothers and me around him toward the end to bid farewell. “Okay boys,” he said, and then paused. So far he was off to a great start. How many times had he addressed us that way? I was almost crying already.
Then, working to summon the breath needed to continue, our dad cleared his throat and said, “This is the last time I’ll have an audience.” This, because it came from a man who had always enjoyed an audience, was profound. But now he was truly running out of breath, and mental clarity, and only managed to finish up with: “Bye-bye.” And this could have been it, and though it’s not a total zinger, it does have a nice sense of closure, perhaps not worthy of My Dinner with Andre, but more than good enough.
But I knew this might not be his final utterance. I stayed focused, because if I didn’t catch whatever he said next, I’d forget that next thing, and fall back on the last thing I did remember—i.e., the “bye-bye” speech. And that wouldn’t be fair to my dad. Make no mistake about it: the last words should be remembered exactly—not for the benefit of the audience, but for the benefit of the dead.
A bit later our dad said some very nice things to Max, that I could probably remember pretty much verbatim if I thought hard (and which deserve to committed to memory, I suppose), but I know for a fact these weren’t my dad’s last words. He was going to go around and give a final benediction to each of us, and you’d better believe I’d have paid close attention and made sure to immortalize whatever he said specifically to me—but he never got to it. He ran out of steam. And the really crazy part is that I can’t even remember if this was the very day he died, or the day before. That’s how quickly these memories get warped.
But you know what? In the end, I managed it. I know unequivocally what my dad’s last utterance was, and what’s more I have a witness. Two of us heard him, distinctly. And this was in the last hour of his life, and we were with him the rest of the way, and he never said another thing. And what he said was totally unexpected, completely lucid, and—in its way, coming from the mouth it did—totally profound. It was also pretty funny. What he said was this:
Wait, hold on. About the only feedback I ever get on this blog is that my posts are too long. And look at this, I’m at like 2,300 words already! So I’m going to just snip this off right here so you can get back to binge-watching House of Thrones or Game of Cards, or tweeting or snapchatting or whatever I dragged you away from. Tune in next week for the thrilling conclusion (I originally typed it “confusion”) of albertnet’s Famous Last Words!
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