A contagious confluence, metaphorical hydraulics in chronofluidity, multiple rippling effects.

Location: Lawrence, Kansas

Thursday, November 04, 2004

The Last Words Project

He had gotten up early for the past week to work on his Last Words Project. He had read that Pancho Villa, gunned down in Chihuahua, had exited muttering, “Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something.” Granted, some mortal occasions might be so sudden, so unanticipated, that there would be no moment for words of moment. But he thought there was no excuse not to be prepared, that one should try to go out on a memorable note. He researched the subject. It seemed that all the elemental exit speeches had already been made. Goethe asked for “more light.” O. Henry pulled off a nice variation: “Turn up the lights. I don’t want to go home in the dark.” And Rudolph Valentino: “Don’t pull down the blinds. I feel fine. I want the sunlight to greet me.” Ulysses Grant left thirsty: “Water!” But not Lou Costello: “That was the best ice-cream soda I ever tasted.” John Maynard Keynes said, “I wish I had drunk more champagne.” Picasso simply said, “Drink to me!”

“Let me finish my work,” begged Isaac Babel before the Soviet secret police pulled the trigger on him.

What should be his final attitude toward life and death? Celebratory? Disappointed? Regretful? Triumphal and affirmative? Defeated and gloomy? Wryly humorous? Darkly humorous? Warm and sentimental? Cynical? Depending on how he felt when the moment came, it could be any of these. That was the point. He needed to decide now how he wanted to be perceived at departure time, have the appropriate words, and stick to the script. One’s dying is not the time to be “in the moment.”

What about length? His research suggested, not surprisingly, that brevity was best, not only from an aesthetic and mnemonic perspective, but also from the very real likelihood that the dying declaimer won’t have much time or breath. Not that brevity is all. Grant’s “water” just sounded like a joke at his expense after a lifetime of whiskey. (But what were the details? Maybe Grant had been drinking whiskey at the time and just called for a chaser before departing.)

What if no one is there to hear the last words? Or the person is deaf, or has an ear infection? Or is so distracted attending a dying man that he or she simply won’t remember what was said? That argued for keeping hard copy on one’s person at all times. And that would be a good backup if he forgot his last words and had time to refer to the hard copy. (Although he wondered what it would look like to onlookers to be digging a slip of paper out of his pocket to read his dying words to his auditors. Was that how he wanted to be remembered? Better just learn the lines.) What about tattooing it in an easy to read location? A cassette tape was another option. Or a microchip in the ear lobe, encoded with digital video of his declaiming the last words in better days. Nah.