By their very nature the last words people utter carry a very special significance. To those who are close, they can bring solace or can engender guilt and anxiety, but whichever, they are likely to linger indefinitely. They somehow encapsulate our memories of the dead person, even becoming a sort of personification. And there are some classic utterances. Who does not know the stoic last words of Captain William Oates who, towards the end of the ill-fated Antarctic expedition told his companions, “I am just going outside and may be some time.” Or Lord Nelson’s enigmatic “Kiss me Hardy” that has left people puzzled ever since. Or Oscar Wilde’s outrageous, “This wallpaper is dreadful, one of us will have to go.” And, of course, there is Spike Milligan’s headstone epitaph (not quite a last utterance), “I told you I was ill.”
When we are lucky enough to hear them, such words can sometimes lighten what is otherwise a most awful occasion. And this is just what happened when my mother-in-law died a fortnight ago. Joyce was 91 and had been a successful and renowned psychoanalyst, but her last years were blighted by Alzheimer’s dementia. She had had a gentle personality and right to the end she remained charming, polite and undemanding. For most of her life she had lived in France where she had become something of a wine connoisseur – although in her last year her interest in wine diminished. As she lay dying, having said little coherent for days and then only in whispers, she suddenly and very clearly said to my wife Rohan and a very close friend, “A glass of red wine please.” A good bottle was found and opened with some ceremony, a glass was poured and, little by little, sip by sip and with great difficulty the wine was drunk. With her hands cupping Rohan’s, she then closed her eyes, relaxed her face, smiled a very ‘Joyce’ smile, and fell asleep. Next morning she was gone.
Somehow this story and these words have made her death more bearable. Already they have been recounted countless times. They have allowed us to dwell on the more positive bits of her last days if not months. Her love of simple pleasures and to an extent, of the outrageous, which had been so much part of her life were in evidence right to the end.
Whatever is said in such circumstances, in the real world there is no opportunity for a follow-up question and that may not be a bad thing. The apocryphal story has it that when a wise old Jew was dying, his followers gathered round begging him to reveal the meaning of life. Just before he fell unconscious he whispered, “All the world’s a barrel.” His observation was noted and there followed vigorous debate but nothing sensible emerged as to the meaning of these words. By some miracle, the old man regained consciousness and the most persistent of the followers went back to his bedside seeking clarification. He asked the old man to explain what exactly his final words had meant. At this the old man, now rather resigned, gathered up his strength and said, “OK, all the world is not a barrel.” Then he died.
Joyce’s request for wine, and the way in which it was honoured, have permitted us and others to say our goodbyes so much more comfortably. How lucky we are.