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The Mortality Club

Tears in the Rain

What do people think about when they are on the verge of death? Their last words give us an indication of their deepest thoughts as they face the great unknown. The more philosophical among us contemplate what death itself means. These contemplations lead to soliloquies that are memorable both in terms of their poetic brilliance, but also in terms of the insights they offer.

That few of us are capable of rendering such poetry at the moment of death is evident to me when I realize the only example I can think of is a fictional hero. At the end of the Ridley Scott film Blade Runner, the replicant Roy Batty sits in the rain on the top of a roof with his life-long human adversary whom he has just rescued. He utters an incredibly moving death soliloguy.

“I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears...in...rain. Time to die.”

“Tears in the Rain.” What a beautifully melancholic symbol. And yet many would not agree that the experiences that have molded us during our lives disappear or fail to have an impact after we die. The last words of some heroic figures focus on the positive impact their lives have made and their deaths will make. Again, a fictitious hero comes to mind.

At the end of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, the alchoholic lawyer, Sydney Carton performs the most heroic act of his life. He enters the prison in which his aristocratic client, Darnay, is being held as he awaits death by guillotine at hands of the French revolutionaries. He drugs Darnay and then changes places with him, thereby saving the life of the man whom he both admires and envies because he has captured the affection the woman Carton himself loves. He is determined to die himself on the guillotine in order to save Lucie, her child and Darnay, the man she has chosen to marry. His head on the block, awaiting the cut of the blade, he recites one of the most famous lines in English literature: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

Great last words are also spoken by real people who believe their demise will benefit others, even others who are responsible for their death. Just before he died at hands of the Mexican government, Maximilian, the Austrian whom Napoleon III had named Emperor of Mexico, proclaimed, “I forgive everybody. I pray that everybody may also forgive me, and my blood which is about to be shed will bring peace to Mexico. Long live Mexico! Long Live Independence!”

People who choose to take their own lives are often eloquent in the last words they commit to paper. The writer/lecturer/feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman was an early advocate for the right-to-die. On August 17, 1935, she chose, in her words, “chloroform over cancer.” In the note she left, she said, “When all usefulness is over, when one is assured of an unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one.”

I knew a man who suffered from bladder cancer. When he learned that it was incurable, and that he had only months to live, he asked his doctors to help him die. He swallowed the pills that would soon cause his heart to stop beating, and then went around the room, telling his wife, his children, and his brother how much he loved them, and thanking them for being in his life. His expressions of love were more eloquent than they had ever been when he was strong and healthy.

Frequently, the last words a dying person utters are about death itself. Sometimes, they express a feeling of awe. As he was close to taking his last breath, Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, exclaimed, “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”

Others speak of fear at going into the great unknown. They talk about it as a dark place. “I see a black light.” (Victor Hugo, 1885) “I am about to take my last voyage, a great leap in the dark. (Thomas Hobbes, 1679)

Still others devote their last words to explaining that they are no longer afraid of dying, or that other emotions, such as gratitude for a life well-lived, are stronger than fear. Oliver Sacks’ last words were, “I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude.”

Shortly before Mozart died, he said that he had come to regard the idea of death as comforting. “As death, when we come to consider it closely, is the true goal of our existence, I have formed during the last few years such close relationships with this best and truest friend of mankind that death's image is not only no longer terrifying to me, but is indeed very soothing and consoling.”

Others resort to humor, attempting to lighten their own mood and that of those who have come to say their final goodbyes. The American-born English socialite Nancy Astor looked around at the people gathered by her bedside, smiled and asked, “Am I dying, or is this my birthday?”

Florenz Ziegfeld, the producer of the Ziegfeld Follies, elaborate theatrical revue productions that ran on Broadway in New York City from 1907 through 1931, regarded his own death as a major theatrical production. On his deathbed, he explained, “Curtain! Fast music! Light! Ready for the last finale! Great! The show looks good, the show looks good!”

The novelist William Saroyan’s last words were: “I always knew everybody had to die sometime, but I thought an exception would be made in my case.”

I think many of us feel that way. We don’t dwell on what we want to say when we are dying, because we don’t want to think about being dead. That leaves most of us struggling to find the right words as we prepare to depart this realm. And why do we struggle? Because we tend to want to say something. Pancho Villa, the Mexican Revolutionary general who died in 1923 from an assassin’s bullet managed to utter, “Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something.”

The philosopher and revolutionary socialist, Karl Marx disagreed. As he lay dying, his housekeeper urged him to tell her his last words so she could record them for posterity. He replied, “Go on, get out. Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough.”

I guess it’s up to each of us to decide what our last words will be, if any. Although I have no immediate plans to die, I am trying to spend a little time thinking about those words. If I do so, and chose to utter last words, perhaps they will be worth remembering, like “tears in the rain.”

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