“How would you like me to remember you?” I asked my friend who was in the active stage of dying. Death was days or maybe only hours away. She lay silent for a long while in a hospital-bed newly parked in her sunroom. Her eyebrows scrunched up. I felt bad that my question was making her work so hard, so I rephrased it, “All this time we’ve spent together, what do you want me to remember?”
She finally whispered her response and I repeated it out loud so I would never forget. And shortly after, howling in the car, I wrote down what she said, and then dashed off to roam the unfamiliar country roads north or east of her house, to lose myself before it could be announced that I’d lost my friend.
Over the next three days I became more and more unmoored, ungrounded. Restless and unruly, I waited as family members and a vast community of friends made their farewells. I thought there would be time to be with her, to hear more of her final words.
For the last two years I’d known exactly where I’d be Wednesday afternoons—in my friend’s sunroom, sipping tea, surrounded by her cats and my dog. We would read aloud each other’s words and missions—hers to leave a legacy for her family, mine to record the journey through the wilds of cancer with my daughter, and to address the issues my daughter and I never talked about. The tough conversations about living and dying. Cancer. And loving. In my friend’s sunroom, on Wednesdays, ideas and words I could never before discuss became routine. We learned words could plant one’s footprints firmly for others to follow, or set a person floating off into space. We explored and captured the right words, the best words, ever aware that my friend’s time was running out.
Three days after that last visit, when I got the text, “She left this morning very peacefully,” I pulled out the page on which I’d scrawled what my friend had responded:
“Remember that the two of us, together, asked the hard questions.” Except for “goodbye” and “I love you,” this was the last thing she told me. Rereading her words, the ones I am now taping to my computer, was like finding a map that pointed the way home from a long odyssey.
What are the hardest things to talk about? Do you remember your loved one’s last words?