The last time I saw Martha was on a blustery November afternoon, when her eighty-year-old emaciated body lay bedridden, wheezing, and curled in the fetal position, a tiny sickly lump of human flesh with wiry unwashed grey hair, eyes squeezed tightly shut, and a wrinkled face contorted in pain or despair or both. A few days later, she died, and a then second-year medical student was forced to cope with the first real loss in his life.
Martha and I had first met four years earlier when, during a religious period in my life, I responded to a church bulletin asking for volunteers to visit this elderly, widowed German lady who was confined to nursing care and who could not attend worship services. Nearly every Saturday afternoon thereafter, she and I would meet for an hour of snacks and pleasant conversation, and I grew to know her well. In the late 1940s, after having lost her entire family to Nazi persecution, she had immigrated to the U.S. as the new bride of a dashing young Air Force captain. Their marriage was long and happy, and after her husband died, she remained fiercely patriotic, decorating her nursing home bedroom with American flags, pictures of the Statue of Liberty, and “God Bless the USA” plaques. Her two adult children, unfortunately, had little to do with her aside from managing her finances; and so, my weekly visits served as the key highlights of Martha’s last years of life.
On that chilly autumn day when I sat by her bedside for what would become the final occasion, thin nasal cannulae snaked out from her nostrils and across the grimy, long-unwashed sheets to a bedside oxygen machine whose noisy gurgling disturbed the room’s otherwise funereal silence. Martha lived in a cheap, disreputable nursing facility; her small, poorly lit, dank apartment reminded me of a dungeon. She had wrapped herself into her favorite blanket, a tattered fleece quilt with a pattern of little red cardinals hopping along tree branches against a background of forest green leaves. Her bed had a stout wooden frame surmounted by an even stouter headboard that had built-in shelves and drawers decorated with innumerable USA-themed memorabilia, tiny plastic biblical figurines, and stacks of old greeting cards. The giant structure engulfed Martha’s frail, dying body, and the mattress reeked of stale urine. “Martha…it’s me. Martha, can you hear me?” I whispered loudly, cognizant of her poor hearing. She responded to my greeting by turning a bleary-eyed ashen face to me, muttering something incoherent, and falling immediately back into a stupor. She died four days later, before my next weekly visit.
For some time after Martha’s death, I felt haunted by our last moment together and how it hadn’t ended in cinematic fashion, with the dying character imparting a brilliant, life-altering message to the captivated audience. According to popular lore, Martha should have awakened, turned lucid eyes to me one last time, and whispered some deep philosophical advice as her parting words. Instead, she gave me a vacant, expressionless stare and an unintelligible mumble. I felt as though she and I had in some way failed because we did not generate the necessary amount of profundity and significance during that final encounter. This sense of failure threatened to eclipse the many fond memories I held from our preceding four years of friendship. I kept wondering, was all of our time together meaningless simply because the last moments before death seemed so unsatisfactorily unremarkable?
The answer, I have eventually realized, is no. Do not overemphasize the importance of “last words.” Obsessing over a loved one’s departing words simply adds undue stress to an already tense moment. The surviving kith and kin hover ’round their dying friend or family member and scour their final breaths for meaning, coming away disappointed and distraught if they uncover no timeless, breathtaking, everlasting truths. Fixation on the perimortem period can cause us to overlook the day-to-day words and experiences of life, believing them to hold less importance than the words spoken on the deathbed. This thinking is fallacy. The opportunities for gaining wisdom, the chances for finding meaning and wonder and remembrance, come to us daily in our interactions with others. Life is simply too rich a soil to bear fruit only on the eve of the harvest; instead, we should search daily for new growth.
I kept waiting for Martha to awaken and impart to me some penetrating, soul-shaking, sagacious insight that would shape evermore the direction of my destiny. She didn’t. She had already spoken those words, in the countless afternoons we spent talking with one another; in the shaky, scribbled lines of the letters she constantly mailed to me; and in the laughter we shared over hamburger and onion pizza–her favorite. Her memory should not be relegated to a single, cold, November day out of the hundreds of beautiful, sun-filled, happy ones we enjoyed. Her brilliance, her beauty, and her wisdom, they were found in her life, not in her death.