I am obsessed with last words. I know it stems from my grandmother’s death when I was ten years old. For a long time, I was upset that I can’t remember my last conversation with her. She passed suddenly on a normal sunny afternoon. At the time, I was playing with my cousin when suddenly our world changed. Had I been nice to her? Were my words kind? Did I say something that made her feel good or made her laugh? Perhaps I was short and annoyed as ten year old kids can be. I’ll never know. In movies, there’s usually a definite goodbye. The characters deliver their final monologues, sometimes embrace, sometimes shout in anger, but the finality of the words are known. What happens in real life though, when words are spoken in anger and the person dies before there’s a chance to take them back?
Early this year, I had an argument with one of my neighbors. Honestly, she was more than a neighbor. She’d been a part of my family since before I was born. She was sometimes mean and a fountain of gossip. But, I accepted it because everyone did. It was just her personality. However, when I became the subject of a pretty hurtful piece of gossip she created and shared, I had had enough. We had, what could be mildly described as, a highly intense discussion. Truthfully, there wasn’t a lot of discussion just vitriol on my part. I unleashed pretty much every negative thought I’d ever had about this woman. I was not kind. I did not show up as my highest and best self. Immediately afterwards, I felt horrible as my friends can attest. My ego, though, was too big to allow me to call her and apologize. I didn’t feel bad for my intention of telling her that I didn’t appreciate her spreading untruths about me. I did feel bad for the way I did it. I knew eventually I’d apologize. I’d get around to it. One day.
Two weeks ago, on a normal sunny afternoon, she died. Unlike my grandmother, I know exactly what my last words were. Her death was shocking because a fixture of my life was gone, but also because my last words to her were so awful. I didn’t thank her for the good times in my childhood. I didn’t thank her for teaching me the Serenity Prayer when I was in second grade. I didn’t thank her for all the times she would take me for rides in her Cadillac and let me talk to her about all the nonsense of my day. Instead, she left this earth believing that I hated her. And she believed it because I said it. I wish I could take it back.
I’ve talked about this to her daughter and my friends and they all tell me to forgive myself. One of the best things I was told was that, “I know you’re hurt by the words you used, but don’t beat yourself up for finally standing up for yourself.” I do find comfort in that advice though it’s hard to fully accept.
I don’t know the right thing to do when words become final. We all hope that our last words with someone we love will be filled with love. Sometimes they aren’t. Loving a person doesn’t mean excusing their behavior. Loving a person doesn’t mean you can allow them to disrespect you. In the movie version of life, cooler heads can prevail and even if there’s an argument, there’s always a chance to bring it back around, to apologize before the closing credits. There is mutual forgiveness and tears. In the real world, our stories can end with no resolution at all. We have to be okay with that. The only thing we can do is remember the good times and choose to focus on them moving forward. Also, if you want to apologize, do it. If you don’t want to apologize, don’t.
There are no neat bows on life. It’s messy and complicated but it’s still the greatest gift we will ever receive. End every interaction like it might be the last one. I don’t mean to say final goodbyes or deliver great monologues. I do mean to always end in kindness. End each interaction with people you love on a good note. Then, you won’t ever have to wonder what your last words were.