I'm such a control freak that I'm already planning my last words even though—knock wood—it doesn't appear that I'll be on my deathbed anytime soon.
I know that I probably have as much chance of actually uttering the words I'll choose for that inevitable moment as I do of controlling my teenage daughter's taste in TV shows or my husband's penchant for tuning out when he senses an argument brewing.
We don't get to choose the when/where/what of our last moments on earth. But it's such a big moment in one's life–death–that I'll do what I can to manage it.
So here goes: For my final fadeout, my favorite lipstick, Hemp Organics brand in Black Cherry. Fresh highlights by Irina, the only person I trust to do a good job with my sort-of-wavy locks—a must. Oh, and would someone kindly see to it that in very glamorous Hollywood fashion, I'm bathed in soft, flattering light while wearing a silky robe and leaning demurely against a set of ruffled satin pillows? (Not my everyday black yoga pants and faded African bedspread, please!)
I'll make certain that my devoted, kind (argument-averse) husband and my joyful, compassionate (reality-TV-obsessed) daughter will be there, each clutching one of my hands, as we're a touchy-feely family. My dearest friends must be there, as well, meaning the ones who actually listen as well as talk.
Now, as to those last words … what should they be?
One thing for certain: I don't intend to end up like Elvis Presley, found on the toilet, keeled over with his head on the floor. He'd announced, "I'm going to the bathroom to read." How tragic and banal. And I can completely empathize with the frustration of being interrupted when you're finally enjoying some private time with a good book or an issue of The New Yorker you've been wanting to read.
Margaret Sanger, the birth-control pioneer, insisted, "A party! Let's have a party!" It's easy for me to relate to this. I often throw carefully orchestrated parties and luncheons, and I wouldn't mind one last soiree, as long as I'm in complete charge of the food, music, décor and guest list. (Begone, anyone who ever snubbed me, especially if it was at one of my own parties.)
Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol, of "Dead Souls" fame, mysteriously shouted, seconds before expiring: "A ladder, quick, a ladder!" Was he making sure he'd make it all the way to heaven? Or did he suddenly remember a household chore he'd promised to take care of? I do worry that I might cry out, "Oh no, I never organized the Tupperware!"
Recently, Brad Pitt, discussing his newfound sobriety, said, "People on their deathbeds don't talk about what they obtained or were awarded. They talk about their loved ones or their regrets—that seems to be on the menu." I'm intrigued by Brad's idea that when we're on our last legs we're offered a menu from which to pick and choose. Hmmn … maybe an adverb from Column A and a noun from Column B?
I love the inclusive and generous last words of TV actor Michael Landon of "Little House on the Prairie" fame. I'd had a crush on him as a young girl because he seemed so sweet, and he didn't disappoint at the end. Gathering his family at his bedside, he sweetly told them, "I love you all."
To my surprise, my own mother was also inclusive and generous. She was frail and tired after nine years of battling various illnesses that had landed her in and out of numerous hospitals. I'd been her primary caretaker all those years, an exhausting and all-consuming role I had never envisioned for myself. We hadn't been close when I was growing up; I was feisty and rebellious, and she was depressed and withdrawn, unhappily married to my rage-filled, volatile father.
As I grew up, she disapproved of many things about me, including my decision to become a writer as opposed to something more financially stable, and my not wanting to become a parent until middle age. I envied my friends who enjoyed intimate daily phone calls and weekly lunches with their mothers. Despite living near each other, my mother and I spoke briefly and awkwardly on the phone just once a week. And, once a month we spent a few equally awkward hours together. I sensed that we both yearned for a deeper connection, but neither of us knew how to make it happen.
And then, unexpectedly, she became ill. I recalled the things I admired and cherished about her: her lifelong loyalty to close friends; her social activism; her generosity to me—despite her own precarious finances—when I was broke in my 20s; her all-night vigils at my bedside when I was sick and feverish as a child. With a ferocious love I could no longer deny, I made it my full responsibility to keep her alive and well for as long as possible.
"Thank you, everyone, for all you have done for me," she whispered at the very end of her life. "I'm ready to go now."
I believe she was speaking mostly to me. Perhaps she had planned her words, or perhaps they'd just come to her. In either case, I was stunned and deeply moved by this final, beautiful "mitzvah" (a Hebrew word denoting an act of kindness).
And now, also to my surprise, I realize that it is she I hope to emulate. I would like to perform my own mitzvah. If I'm fortunate enough to act according to plan, I'll fluff my highlighted hair, smooth my glossy robe and gather to my satin-bedecked bedside the people I care most about in the world. I will tell them, "You are my beloveds."