Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last time.
James A. Baldwin
Today’s rumination was actually written in the fall of 2015. I found it among many others I’d entered in my .journal for that year but, for whatever reason, unlike the others, this one still spoke to me. It’s backstory was simple enough. It began when my husband and I stopped for coffee on our way to the Oregon coast. The weather was terrible and business in the cafe was slow, so, the gal who waited on us kept one eye on the television as she poured our coffee. We could hear her mumbling, “Man, he’s really cooked his goose.” It made me smile because it was the first time I’d heard a cooking metaphor used politically. Others sitting at the counter shared her grim assessment, and while I was severely tempted to chime in, I thought it best to leave them to their thoughts and let the matter rest.
Warmed, if not refreshed, we headed back to the car. I probably wouldn’t have given her comment another thought had the skies not opened and dumped a rain of biblical proportions on us. Over the din, Bob, who is generally non-verbal before noon, commented, “It’s a good day to die!” He was being more than a tad dramatic. The weather was bad, but it wasn’t horrendous and there wasn’t a lot of traffic on the road to distract him. I suspect he’s been waiting years to use that line and was egged on by the waitress and her cooked goose. Bob’s a Star Trek fan with a fondness for Worf and the Klingons who regularly used those words going into combat. Actually, the phrase is centuries old and was coined by Native Americans. While it’s attributed to Chief Crazy Horse, he borrowed the battle cry from tribal elders and used it to inspire his warriors at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. “Hóka-héy,” or “Today is a good day to die,” embodied their desire to die an honorable and brave death in battle. By nine in the morning the images of a cooked goose and my husband charging the light brigade moved into my frontal lobes and stayed with me for the remainder of the day.
The rest of the morning was spent photographing the sea as it hammered the coastline, spewing funnels and foam well into the air. By noon, the damp had chilled us to the bone and the need for warmth drove us to a coastal haunt for large, steaming bowls of cioppino. Seated across from us was a party of eight. They were about our age, but wearing Coast Guard uniforms that no longer fit well. I sensed a story here, so I perked up my ears, intent on finding clues that would explain why these eight very senior, seniors were here in uniform on such a foul and gloomy day. While nosy people eavesdrop, writers have a superpower that generally goes unnoticed. We have learned to listen in without appearing to do so. I extended my invisible antenna and had my answers soon enough. When the waitress brought boilermakers to their table, the reason for the gathering became clear. One of the group stood and proposed a simple toast, “To Jim.” The shots were downed and then he continued, “He had a good last day.” They had just buried an old shipmate. I left them to their recollections.
Our trip home was uneventful, but on return I kept my eyes furtively on the television as I made dinner. Wouldn’t you know that on a day where death in one form or another repeatedly came up, I managed to hit a program as it described the death of a character who “died doing what he loved to do.” I think the fates and furies were messaging me. It started me thinking, and I began to wonder what I would do if I knew this was to be the last day of my life.
I wanted to resist the usual cliches, so I turned to other sources, but as I paged through them, a memory of Sister Annunciata came to mind. At the ripe old age of seven, she taught me to end my prayers with a request for a happy death. Now, before you get all riled, it was not at all unsettling. At the time, it had no more meaning than a wish for pudding after dinner, but I’ve come to like her idea of a happy death. As a matter of fact, I’d like to be healthy, mobile and mentally alert when my time comes, and, while it rarely happens, I’d also like to be surprised. Barring the element of surprise, I’d like my last day to be fairly normal.
Surprising little has been written about hopes or plans for the last day of life. Steve Jobs is probably the most famous to address the issue. In a powerful video, which you can see here, he asks, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today? And whenever the answer is no for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.” While I urge you to listen to his insights, I’m more drawn to the thoughts of John Burroughs who wrote, “I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read, and all the friends I want to see.”
How do we pack the hopes and fears and wants of a lifetime into one day? It’s impossible, and, for that reason, I’d like my last day to be like the one that came before it, save for the fact I’d want my family with me. I’d rise early and before the others woke, I’d go through the box that contains the photos and odd treasures that connect me to my past and to the family, friends and mentors who’ve passed before me. I’d take my coffee to the deck and watch first light fade as the sun erased all hints of gray from an opalescent sky now faintly tinged with narrow bands of red and pink. I’d like to spend an hour alone with each of my children and another with my sister to say goodbye and let each of them know how they have enriched my life. We’d walk along the river banks and I’d read to the babies until they wiggled free. As the witching hour approached, Bob and I would retreat to the sofa and surrender to the warmth of a roaring fire. Words would not be necessary, though I know he’d read our favorite lines from Paradise Lost. “The world was all before them, where to seek their place of rest, and (with) Providence their guide: They hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow, through Eden took their solitary way.” Then with my head on his shoulder, I’d close my eyes and with a sigh fade into the void and the memories of those I loved. The cycle would be complete.