Every time I board a plane, I write my last words.
I fly often for work, so I do this once or twice a month, usually tapping my final thoughts on my phone to my wife. I hope it will, in some small way, comfort my family in the immediate period of shock and grief that will follow my unexpected, sudden, tragic death.
Composing the right final text is a challenge.
“Boarding now. Love you all so much. Home soon.” Not bad, but “home soon” will seem tragically wrong when I never make it home. Good intent, but not a smart way to close.
“On plane. Heading home. Love you all so much, no matter what happens.” Too much foreshadowing. It’s not like I knew the plane was going down, even though I did.
“On plane. Heading home. Love you all so much.” Much better. It has a bit of rhythm. It says where I was, where I was going, and where my heart was before I was engulfed in a fiery doom.
I hit send. And brace myself for the end.
History takes note of great last words. If you’re lucky, your final words are memorable or poetic. The last thing Thomas Jefferson said, we are told, was, “I resign my spirit to God, my daughter to my country.” Only someone who died feeling pretty satisfied with their life’s body of work could end with that line. It’s noble, distinguished, and unafraid. I’m no Thomas Jefferson. Steve Jobs’s last words, as he drifted away, were, “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.” I’d like to think I might, at the last moment, gasp such a simple, fearless expression of wonder and awe. But Jobs was at the end of a long struggle with cancer; he knew death was coming and had time to come to terms with it.
After a lifetime of shaping economic theory, his final words show regret he didn’t have more fun along the way.
I worry more about a sudden, unexpected death—falling from a cliff or losing a fight to a grizzly—the kind of stunning demise where there is no time to think, let alone prepare oneself mentally and spiritually for the end. The last words of influential economist John Maynard Keynes were, “I should have drunk more Champagne.” There’s something simple and poignant about that. After a lifetime of research, teaching, and writing, along with a legacy of shaping modern economic theory, his final words show regret that he didn’t have more fun along the way. I suspect I might have a similar thought on my deathbed, though more likely about cookie dough or Cinnabon.
But when it comes to last words, it’s hard to top U.S. Sen. Huey Long, shot by an assassin in Baton Rouge, La., who said, “Don’t let me die; I have so much to do.” At last, those are final words I can identify with. When the end comes, I can’t imagine anything else crossing my mind.
Final words have always been rife with revisionism; people take literary liberties on behalf of the deceased. But digital technologies increasingly preserve the exact, final words of the dead. Those final expressions can be poignant or powerful. Melissa Harrington Hughes, who died on 9/11, trapped on the 101st floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, tried to reach her husband Sean at their home in San Francisco before the tower fell. He was asleep when she called, and so she left a message on their answering machine: “I just wanted to let you know I love you and I’m stuck in this building in New York. There’s lots of smoke and I just wanted you to know I love you always.” Andrew Ashcraft, one of 19 firefighters who died June 30 while trying to contain a fire near Yarnell, Ariz., had a final text exchange with his four-year-old daughter, Shiloh. She told him that it was raining at home. Ashcraft’s reply, his last recorded words, were, “We could really use a little rain down here.”
But the era of smartphones and Twitter makes it increasingly likely that our last words will be mundane nonsense. Studies by Pew and Experian found that teenagers send between 60 and 70 text messages a day. An even more stunning 2010 Nielsen study found that the average American teenager sends or receives 3,339 texts per month. And the trend isn’t limited to kids: adults between the ages of 35-44 send nearly 800 texts a month. Even Boomers up to the age of 54, send, on average, nearly 500 texts each month. More and more, our culture communicates in short bursts of text. Letters may be dead, but we still write to each other constantly.
Before we texted relentlessly, we used to call people on the phone, and if that failed, we left messages on answering machines. The last words I ever heard from an old friend and mentor, Myron “Bernie” Cuthbertson, were recorded on an old dorm room answering machine. I was in Chicago at the time. He was back in Los Angeles, dying of AIDS. The last time I had seen him in person, he was in a hospital bed, gaunt and pale and more subdued than I had ever seen him. I tried to hug him as I left, but the IV tubes got in the way and I couldn’t quite get my arms around him. In the months that followed, he had been in and out of the hospital. We didn’t talk often. The distance gave me the excuse not to think about or see his condition or his declining health. I avoided his calls. I was scared for him, spooked by what he was facing, and too cowardly to deal with his death up close. One night he called and left me a long, rambling message. He ended it saying, “I know you don’t think I’m OK, but I’m OK!” I didn’t call him back. Myron died later that year. Oct. 28, 1990. He was 36. I’ll never know what his last words were, but I remember the last thing he said to me.
Two nights before I graduated from college, I got drunk, dove into a lake, got disoriented, panicked, swallowed half a gallon of swampy water, and nearly drowned. In my 20s, I bungee-jumped illegally off the side of a bridge in the Los Angeles National Forest with a shady, amateur crew who were clearly avoiding the police. I rode around in cars with friends who were drunk. Around this same time, I also ate McRibs two times a week. Back then, I just didn’t worry about dying.
In my 30s, I found myself single and at the low-point of a series of poor career and personal choices that left me feeling trapped in a dead-end job. I never felt suicidal, but I sometimes imagined redemption through some heroic and self-sacrificing act. It’s not that I wanted to die; but I could imagine the nobility of it, in the right circumstances. I imagined myself pushing my nieces out of the way of a runaway truck or saving someone who fell onto the Metro tracks. I felt, in the best possible way, expendable.
The birth of a child splinters your sense of self. You are still who you were, but part of you is also outside and beyond yourself—fragile, vulnerable, but embodied with limitless potential.
Years later, as a married man, the stakes of my life felt higher, but my mortality didn’t terrify me; it still felt distant and abstract. On a trip to Thailand, my wife and I flew across the Pacific. I remember thinking about the huge void of cold blue water thousands of feet below. We hit a pocket of turbulence and the plane shuddered; it occurred to me that if the plane went down, we would at least be together at the end. Death would almost be romantic.
Everything changed after I had two girls.
Before I had children, I might not have really understood why Jefferson’s final words mention his daughter; now I do. Centuries have passed since his day, but something basic and fundamental endures when it comes to parenthood: The birth of a child splinters your sense of self. You are still who you were, but part of you is also outside and beyond yourself—fragile, vulnerable, but embodied with limitless potential. You see yourself in your child’s face, and you can close your eyes and see all the people they may become. Someday, they may do more than you, achieve greater things, touch the lives of countless other people. But for now, and the foreseeable future, they need you. Your existence matters, much more than it did the day before they entered the world.
My daughter’s first delivery room cries popped the bubble of invulnerability that had surrounded me. I was prepared for the work and patience and sleeplessness that fatherhood demanded, but not the primal, biological switch that would flip after I became a parent. The ego and self-absorption that had defined the first three decades of my life were pushed to the side.
And my sense of peril, a swirling vertigo of fear, deepened less than two years later when my second daughter was born.
My personal hopes and dreams and ambitions were still important, but now they were irrevocably intertwined with two little people who needed me, who depended on me for everything from diaper changes to swimming pool rides to slightly-undercooked mini pancakes.
But more than that, I now felt vulnerable, fragile, and easily ripped to pieces.
Not only was I exposed, but now, the world seemed actively out to get me: a cosmic game of dodge ball. I lived in terror of the usual suspects: cancer, stroke, heart attack, respiratory failure, brain injury. But the news reminded me daily that death could sucker-punch me from any direction: elevator crashes, household electrocutions, bridge collapses, bike wrecks, lightning strikes. A plane crash holds a particular place of prominence in my personal Mount Rushmore of death fears, squeezed in next to drowning, Alzheimer’s disease, and an attack by a great white shark.
Not only am I more scared of death than I used to be, but the stakes feel higher. Watching my girls, curled up on the sofa in one-piece footie pajamas, I envision everything I don’t want to miss: recitals, award ceremonies, family vacations, graduations, weddings. All the cliché stuff of parenthood matters in ways that a younger, more cynical version of me couldn’t have imagined.
If I were gone, who would introduce them to the original Star Wars trilogy? Or Chicago-style stuffed pizza? Or Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles? Or no-limit Texas hold ‘em? Who would take them to their first horror movie? Who would show them how to toss a water balloon? Who would make sure they grew up to hate the Boston Celtics, the Green Bay Packers, and Duke basketball? Who would chase away the bees that stalked them in the yard and squash the spiders that crawled into their house? Who would protect them from nighttime monsters that lurked in the shadows of their rooms?
There is no longer anything romantic or noble or poetic about the notion that I might die young in some memorable, heroic way. Dying young could only mean that I would be letting my kids down; I would be failing them in a million immeasurable ways.
Before I was a father, I used to worry about being remembered by the world—about leaving my mark, building a legacy, etching out a body of work that would outlive me. Now my concern is much more focused: I worry about being forgotten by my children.
When my first daughter, Isabella, was a little more than a year old, we took a vacation to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. On the last day of our trip, Isabella woke early, and I took her outside while the house slept. We sat on the deck and looked out at the Atlantic Ocean together. The sun had just risen over the horizon and filled the baby blue sky with beams of golden, warm light. The beach was empty and still. A tender breeze nudged past us and half-heartedly rustled the flags that hung over the abandoned lifeguard station. The only sounds around us were the occasional squawk of a sea gulls and the gentle rolling of the foamy waves.
“Beautiful,” I said.
“Beautiful,” she repeated, putting her hand on top of mine.
My children are both still so young. If I died tomorrow, what would they remember of me in five years? Ten years? Thirty?
And then we sat there for a while, not saying another word; just listening to the waves together and watching the shimmering azure water that stretched out ahead of us as far as we could see.
It was one of those moments you keep in your heart, a second in time that you want to freeze and live in forever.
And then it’s gone.
The other day, I asked Isabella, now five, if she remembers that beach trip. She doesn’t. Not any of it.
“Is that me?” she asked when I showed her pictures from the trip.
Children retain very few memories from before the age of three; only little wisps of recall endure. And my children are both still so young. If I died tomorrow, what would they remember of me in five years? Ten years? Thirty? Would I just be a hazy recollection, a fragmented constellation of flickering memories: an unshaven chin, a voice from the front seat of the car, a strong pair of arms that tossed them into the air and caught them when they floated back toward the ground?
Or maybe all they would remember were the times I lost my cool and yelled at them for climbing onto the kitchen table or running toward the street; maybe they’d only remember my angry voice, the one that scared them.
Or, worst of all, would I just vanish altogether?
Worse than the fear of texting or posting something mundane as my final message is the possibility of leaving without any message at all; the idea that I might vanish without a word, without any final expression of love. Ultimately, it’s not the poetry of my last words that terrifies me; it’s the silence that will follow.
A final nine-word message won’t protect me from fading into the foggy world of memory. But it might buy me a little extra time. It can’t hurt to try to get the words right.