What will your last words be?
Karl Marx’s famous last words: “Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough.”
Winston Churchill’s famous last words: “I’m bored with it all.”
Jack Daniels’ famous last words: “One last drink, please.”
My famous last words: ???
One muggy July morning in 2017, I found myself signing a liability waiver at Trapeze Arts, Inc, strapped to a harness. The harness, in turn, was roped to a pole. The pole was fifty feet high. And the rope was very, very thin.
This is me living fearlessly, I thought to myself, as my mind filled with images of my own stupid face, smiling blandly from a variety of funeral programs, memorial services flyers, and Internet obituaries. I completed the waiver and climbed the ladder. It was thin, like the rope, and wobbly. At the top, I thought I saw a cemetery monument. Turns out it was the trapeze bar.
As I stood on the platform, I wondered what my last words could be, in case the rope snapped and the net broke and the floor of the gymnasium opened up so that I plummeted directly to the center of the Earth. I could go profound: “What was life but an opportunity?” I could go witty: “Take everything very seriously, except yourself.” Or, and this was the most likely possibility, I could yell, “I love you, Mom!”
Here’s what happened:
- I step off the platform.
- I fly back and forth as the coach yells for me to hook my knees over the bar.
- I hook my knees over the bar.
- I fly back and forth, upside down, as the coach yells to reach back and catch the arms of Ferdinand.
- I catch the arms of Ferdinand.
- I am flying right-side-up again, except instead of holding on to the bar, I am holding on to the arms of Ferdinand.
- And Ferdinand goes, “Goodbye!”
Without warning: FREE FALL.
And I went, “Oh sh*t.”
I always think before I speak. But that implies there is time for a signal to jump from the brain to the mouth. When I hit free fall, that time did not exist.
To be clear:
- For his last words, Emperor Chongzhen said: “I, feeble and of small virtue, have offended against Heaven; the rebels have seized my capital because my ministers deceived me. Ashamed to face my ancestors, I die. Removing my imperial cap and with my hair disheveled about my face, I leave to the rebels the dismemberment of my body. Let them not harm my people!”
- And I said: “Oh sh*t.”
Not only did Emperor Chongzhen accomplish far more in his life than I have, but he left a whopper of a legacy with his last words. Whereas, if that had been “It” for me, I would have left an “oh sh*t.”
My moment of instinctive carnal panic made for a great laugh with Ferdinand and the other trapeze coaches. But it made for some deep thinking too. After I left the gym—alive—I marveled over the fact that I had so carefully planned my last words mere seconds before that moment. “I love you, Mom!” isn’t hard to say, linguistically. But there was no time for that reaction. My mouth just went—well, we all know what my mouth went and said.
A few months later, I was involved in a bad crash. Needless to say, I wasn’t envisioning my headstone engraving, or practicing my last words, as I got inside in the car. This time, I was even less prepared. Not only that, but there wasn’t even a chance for instinctive panic. We were driving. I blinked. When I opened my eyes, I was face down on the floor.
So, here’s the deal. None of us are guaranteed a tomorrow, or even the rest of today. Not even the next split second. We might be lucky (or unlucky) enough to squeeze in an “oh sh*t” before we’re crushed by, say, a falling piano. More likely, we won’t even see the piano, and we’ll simply leave life, just like that, our last words having been “I’m hungry” or “is it October already?” or “I can’t believe Netflix isn’t working.”
Here’s the other deal: Karl Marx, Winston Churchill, and Jack Daniels made it big enough that their last words ended up on Wikipedia. Where would mine have gone? Nowhere. Because I am not famous. In this life, I have loved. And that is enough—but not enough to get my last words on Wikipedia.
That’s what we, the not-Marx, not-Churchill, not-Daniel ones, are dealt in life. No guarantee of a next moment alive. No “famous last words” compilation to take note of our legacy.
Yet, scrolling through Wikipedia’s “famous last words” compilation, I came across George Orwell’s last words: “At fifty, everyone has the face he deserves” (ironically, he died when he was 46). Now, Orwell was smart. Not only did he write Animal Farm, but he somehow gamed the system so that the last words he’s remembered for … were ones he wrote. As in, he sat down and wrote, and rewrote, and reworked, and rewrote these last words to perfection. He shaped his own legacy. He was, and is, in full control. In other words, there was absolutely no chance of him leaving the world with his last remembered words being “oh” and a synonym for poop.
Though I am still young, lucky, and healthy, the memory of the crash reminds me, day after day, that being alive is just a flip of a coin. The memory of the flying trapeze—the sad, yet hilarious shame of that quiet, matter-of-fact little “oh, sh*t”—reminds me that it’s not enough to make preparations in my head. In case that errant piano falls from the sky, I’ll want to have written, rewritten, reworked, and rewritten my legacy to perfection, just like Orwell did. And because Wikipedia can’t care less about memorializing my last words like Orwell’s, I will find a safe place to store mine, to be delivered to the ones I have loved: the ones who will remember me, who will make sure my legacy lives on.
Some ideas for you to get you started:
- “Don’t cry! This is a moment of joy, a moment of glory.” – Pope John XXIII, 1963
- “This is the fight of day and night. I see black light.” – Victor Hugo, French novelist, 1885
- “So here it is at last, the distinguished thing.” – Henry James, American-British author, 1916
- “Now we can cross the Shifting Sands.” – L. Frank Baum, American author, 1919
- “Are you happy? I’m happy.” – Ethel Barrymore, American actress, 1959
- “Put in my coffin a deck of cards, a mashie niblick, and a pretty blonde.” – Chico Marx, American actor and comedian, 1961
- “Bring down the curtain, the farce is played out.” – Francois Rabelais, French writer and physician
- “Let my epitaph be, ‘Here lies Joseph, who was unsuccessful in all his undertakings.’” – Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor, 1790
- “Ah, Luisa, you always arrive just as I am leaving.” – Massimo d’Azeglio, Italian statesman, 1866
- “God bless . . . God damn.” – James Thurber, American humorist
Go instinctive carnal panic:
- “I’m dizzy!” – Knud Enemark Jensen, Danish cyclist, 1960
- “Oh God, here I go.” – Max Baer, American boxer, 1959
- “Wait a second.” – Madame de Pompadour, chief mistress of Louis XV of France, 1764
- “I die.” – Leonard Euler, Swiss mathematician and scientist, 1783
- “Oh!” – Spencer Perceval, Prime Minister of the UK, 1812