I don’t remember the final words I said to Florence in 1984. I’m not even certain when the last time was I spoke with her.
By that time, we had been separated by more than distance. We had been separated by generations. She, a lady in her 80’s, and me, a young man in his 20’s. The occasional phone call is all that kept us connected as she went about her day-to-day life shuttling between Manhattan and upstate New York, and I went about building a career in South Florida.
She never forgot birthdays and holidays, always marking them with a card, a crisp $5 or $10 bill tucked neatly in the fold. Cards that exist, somewhere. I never threw one of them out. To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever tossed a card from those I love. Scattered as they may be in boxes separated by shelves or miles, they all still exist somewhere.
And on their pages are the last words I have to remember them by. Always bright, always cheery, always positive and loving. Yet in her case, no matter how hard I try, I cannot remember the last actual conversation we had.
Florence, or “Flory” as she was called by her husband of so many decades, was my Granny. My “sainted” Granny, as I like to refer to her. A woman who loved me and taught me so very much, seeking to leave me with a few words of wisdom when she could.
“People will judge you by the way you speak”. “People will know you by the company you keep”. “Make sure to zip your snow suit all the way to your neck so you stay nice and warm”.
OK, so not everything was sage advice. But it was all out of her affection for her only Grandchild.
As a kid, I saw her and Grandpa almost every weekend. Every Sunday, we made the trip of about 20 miles to their upstate residence. A sprawling 5 acres, or at least it felt like that. Face it, when you’re a kid everything looks and feels bigger than it really is.
The kitchen was her indoor domain, the garden along a rock wall was her outdoor passion. It was in these 2 locations she would tell stories, show me how to properly plant flowers, and how to stay away from the kitchen gas burner, lest I find myself reaching for the fire extinguisher that was conveniently on the counter.
Granny is where I got my red hair. No one else in my family tree had red hair. Couldn’t find, and still can’t discern, one other relative that had red hair. It’s what made our bond all the more special. It’s what tied us together like no other member of my family.
That, and her sponge cake, a recipe that left this rocky piece of ground with her. Sure, others have tried over the years but it never comes out quite the same. That is, of course, because it can never again comes from her hands.
I never knew how sick she was near the end, and to this day my Father can’t, or won’t, talk about it. I’ve heard it might have been cancer, it might have been brought on by dementia, it could have just been old age. I may never find out.
But what pains me more is that I can’t recall the last words we said to each other.
There is no doubt in my mind that somewhere in the conversation were the words “I love you”. She was that warm blanket I could always fall into, that laughter and smile that always went together. But a young man making his way in the world finds himself so often concerned with the moment, not the past and certainly not the consequences of the future.
Because when we age, we look back and realize we never thought about the last time we would see the ones we love. We take it for granted they will always be there. We wrap ourselves in so many other inconsequential moments that the ones we need to be paying close attention to take a back memory seat and just reside there, waiting hopefully for the day we reach back and bring it to the fore.
Then, without warning, we find ourselves saying farewell to friends and relatives. It creeps up on us, Father Time. We’re getting a little older every day, as are those around us, and then without warning comes the realization of life.
Somewhere, right now, is a person you likely have said your last words to before they, or you, are gone forever.
And we find ourselves wondering what were those final words. Were they in jest? In haste? Were they friendly, or were they filled with venom?
Did we smile when we said it, or were we shouting?
How did we leave those final moments, and what does it say about us?
More than ever in our history, thanks to what I call unsocial media, we find ourselves furiously typing away, video recording, audio recording and seeking to have “the last word”. Often, it’s in discourse and debate. Plenty of times it’s words stated between people we’ve never met, and those we’ve known for decades.
It could be the last words we leave behind. Not just to an individual or group, but the words that could echo into history as to the kind of person we were.
Think of it as our virtual tombstone, if you will. It’s what we’re leaving behind. It’s how we’re changing the space around us. For better and for worse.
Of late, I’m trying to be much more judicious in what I write and what I say to others. I’ve watched and listened as the level of hate and verbal violence has risen to a point where I no longer feel comfortable nor want to be part of the anger.
I’m not helping. Neither are those that make this sort of spewing a daily part of their ritual.
But let me come back to the last thing we say. The last words we speak to someone.
Over the past year, I’ve had several friends die unexpectedly. By today’s standards, most of them weren’t old. A few of them were very sick and knew their time was coming to an end. Two of them were taken from us without any warning whatsoever.
And in each case, I thought about the last thing I said or wrote to them.
In one particular case, I wasn’t proud of myself at all. Our last words were in anger, haste, disagreement and at an increased volume level. Which one of us were at fault wasn’t the issue. Fact of the matter was we disagreed and decided to end this conversation with some harsh words.
The last words we ever spoke. The words I will live with for the rest of my life, ashamed I allowed the conversation to reach that point.
Then, there are members of my family, both close and extended, I know are living on borrowed time. Every time I speak to them, I’m fully aware this could be the final time we talk.
So I now go out of my way to tell stories, ask about their life, share moments we’ve spent together, and try to bring something positive to the few moments we have.
I also tell them how much they mean to me, and how much I love them.
Lady Shannon is a big reason why this all happened. Boundless love for a man who, let’s be honest, often feels as if I don’t deserve it. But she believes it’s earned. She makes me every day wake to the realization I have another day to tell her I love her and could not move forward without her. I never want what could be my last words to her said in anger. She’s earned so much more.
It’s not only humans, either. I’m Daddy to a pair of fuzzy kids that mean the world to us both. Five years ago when they came into my life, I was transformed. Gone forever was the tough guy. In his place was a soft jello-like heart that beats for them every day. They may be only 5 years old, but I know our time is limited. I know there is an excellent chance I will say goodbye to them one day, and my soul will never be the same. While I’m writing this, it’s tough to keep the waterworks from flowing. One day, I will say final words to them. It could be when I’m leaving the house, and fate could intervene. So I hug and kiss them, and tell them I love them.
The words they don’t understand. The actions, they do.
It all comes back to Granny. I wish I could remember that last conversation we had. But I do take solace in knowing there was never a cross word spoken between us, and when she closed her eyes for that final time, she knew how much her only Grandson loved her.
We all tell jokes. We all say things we regret. We all have debates and arguments with the people we care about it. It’s called “Life”. It’s unavoidable. In many ways, it’s healthy to disagree. It’s how we learn.
Lately, however, it doesn’t seem as if we’re all doing much learning. Other than how to rage and hate.
Maybe, just maybe, if we stopped for a moment and thought about a conversation with those we care about perhaps being the last thing we ever say to them, the world would be just a smidge brighter, a little brighter, and tad more tolerant.
And that echo into eternity might be heard by someone else, and make a difference in their lives long after we’re gone.
Hopefully, those were the last words Granny heard me say.
“I love you”.
She may not be around to hear them today, but I say them anyway every time I think of her. So perhaps, if indeed she’s listening, those final words are not so final after all.
Until we see each other again.