It takes some by surprise during the night — I think they’re the lucky ones. I think others are holding off for something — their daughter’s marriage, their grandchildren — something powerful enough to give the last grains of the hourglass weight. Others simply make up their mind that it’s time. There’s one man in particular I remember who hadn’t moved a muscle for a day. Several of us at the hospice thought he was already gone a half-dozen times, but then all at once he stood up. He carefully put on his suit, tied his tie, fastened his shoes, and then laid back down. He was dead within the hour.
Its their last words that really stick with me though. Logically I know they’re a random line of conversation slipping from a deteriorating mind, but somehow it also feels like their truest reflection. In that moment when I’m holding her frail hand, I know her better than her husband or her children ever did. People can hide their whole life long, but they can’t keep hiding into death. That’s how I feel anyway, and it’s why I started keeping a journal of all the last words I hear.
“I don’t know where to go next.” That hit me hard. She was 94 years old, hardly bigger than yoda, and she usually just watched me in silence while I cleaned her room. It was late and I was tired — I didn’t know how to comfort her, and I just pretended that I didn’t hear. She was gone when I got in the next morning.
“Am I in the way?” Seems silly, doesn’t it? Inconsequential. But the man was a world war 2 veteran. He told me once about how he and a dozen men broke over a thousand people out of the camps. He wanted to go home at the end, but I saw his two sons fighting over who would take him in the lobby. Neither did, he died in the hospice, his last words being: “Am I in the way?”
“Not going without a fight.” I liked that one. Barrel chested bearded man, looked as healthy as could be. The fight was a seizure though, and one of the worst I’d ever seen. It must have lasted half an hour, bucking and flailing and gasping for breath. He would have done better to go quietly.
“Dead… dead… dead… dead…” over and over. Ever since the woman’s stroke, she convinced that she’d already died. She never stopped muttering to herself, “dead…dead…” being one of her favorite mantras.
Sometimes I wonder if thoughts can linger in the air after their thinker has died. I can swear that the rooms are darker for at least a week after someone goes. If its a violent death, sometimes I’ll feel a tension in the air — something like anger without a body attached to it. I decided to start keeping track, my hobby of journaling became a bit more of an obsession, if I’m being honest. I took a calendar and marked down how I felt about the rooms each day. I didn’t fill in the deaths until the end of the month, and sure enough, each death marked the change in a room.
Now I know this isn’t an exact science, but in the process I did notice something that I couldn’t explain. For the last four deaths in my building, their last utterances began with the following words:
“I. Am. Not. Dead.”
It’s silly, right? Here were four unrelated people who never talked to each other. And their last words formed a sentence. It was a silly coincidence, it meant nothing, and it kept getting stranger.
“Can you get me a little water?” 11B, a few days later.
“You look like an angel.” 23A, a heart attack during the night.
“Hear the birds outside? I do love the spring.” Sitting by her window, the sun on her face. It should have been the most peaceful one for me, but the moment she closed her eyes I knew the word fit.
“I. Am. Not. Dead. Can. You. Hear.”
Can I hear what? I found out this morning.
I wasn’t there when he said it, but everybody at the hospice knew I was keeping track. My friend told me the moment I walked in the door.
“Me and my buddies are going to see each other real soon.”
I am not dead. Can you hear me?
The rooms all seem dark today.