As he lay dying, slowly, from ALS, I once asked my old college professor, Morrie Schwartz, what he thought about people wanting to leave the world with famous last words.
“I think,” he said, his voice raspy and weak, “you need really good timing.”
He was right. None of us know when our final moment will descend, and when it does, what we’re saying is rarely the concern.
The same goes in reverse. Trying to time your last words to a dying loved one is a tricky business. I have learned a valuable lesson in this.
The other day, some family members and I were told a beloved older relative might be nearing the end. He is in his mid-90s and living in Texas. Although it was the middle of the week, a tough time to juggle jobs, families and obligations, we threw together a fast trip on Thursday morning and flew down.
At first, he had some trouble recognizing all of us. But as we sat, holding his hand, hugging him, telling him we loved him, he eased back into things. He smiled. He gripped our fingers. He even started blowing kisses.
“I have … the best … family … in the world,” he said.
There is no measure of how long that sentence will stay with us.
Cherish each time like it’s your last
I was not always so lucky with timing. At 22, I lived in the same apartment building as my favorite uncle, who, sadly, in his early 40s, was stricken with pancreatic cancer. One night, around 4 a.m., my aunt called asking me to come up and watch their two young kids, because my uncle was in bad shape and needed to go to the hospital.
I stood next to him as we waited for the elevator. His skin was a yellowish shade. He was burping. I didn’t know what to say. I’d had little experience with death to that point, and I figured whatever episode he was going through, he’d endure and return.
As he entered the elevator, I blurted out, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of the kids.”
He stared at me. The doors closed.
That was the last I ever saw him.
He died a few hours later.
Since then, I’ve been hit and miss with important goodbyes. Sometimes, I get a chance to say everything I want. Sometimes, the distance, the circumstances or the suddenness of the death make that impossible.
But I’ve been thinking, as COVID-19 roars once again, threatening our autumn and winter, and I’ve been thinking, in reading the news from Afghanistan, and 13 American soldiers who fully expected to be with us this week but are now gone, and I’ve been thinking, as my age and the age of those I love edges into the “I’m afraid I have some bad news” doctor zone, that waiting is simply not an option.
That every visit should be embraced as potentially the last.
And everything we want to say at the end, we should be saying now.
Think about how many people these past 18 months never got a chance to say goodbye to a mother, a father, a sibling, a spouse. The heartbreaking stories of people dying alone in quarantined hospital rooms. The sudden, debilitating strike of COVID-19, masks, ventilators, isolation.
Last month, in Haiti, I sat with one of our orphanage’s teachers, trying to arrange a visit to an orthopedic surgeon. Less than two weeks later, that teacher was dead from COVID-19. He was only 56. There was no hint. No suspicion. I think back to our last conversation and am bothered that it was so mundane, so normal, that I never said anything I wish I could have said to him now.
Don’t wait. I’ve known so many people who rush to attend a funeral, who cancel meetings or obligations because, they say, “I have to be there. He was such a big part of my life.”
But funerals, I’ve always felt, are for the survivors. For the family. To get comfort. To ease the grief. To see how cherished their loved one was in life.
The deceased themselves get nothing from a gravesite service. Given a choice, I think most people would tell those they love, “If you have to pick one, skip the funeral and come see me before I die.”
I’m a big believer in that. Morrie was, too. Believing that ALS was a death sentence, he organized a “living funeral” months before his passing. He had his family, friends, and beloved relatives there. They each rose and spoke lovingly about him. He got to hear every word. Then, at the end, he got to stand up and tell all of them how he felt about them, too.
In a way, that’s what we experienced Thursday down in Texas. We reminisced. We shared photos. We said “I love you” more times than I can remember.
When we left, we promised to come back soon. And hopefully, destiny will give us that chance. But if it doesn’t, if fate strikes quickly and takes him from us, we will still cry, we will still mourn, we will still all attend the funeral service. But we’ll be clinging to that moment when he stared at us from his wheelchair, tears welling in his eyes, and said those words.
“I have … the best … family … in the world.”
It’s always better to prove that than to hope it’s understood. Don’t wait. Don’t count on good timing. Life is fragile. If these August days are teaching us anything, it’s that.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.