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Emails to my Therapist

Revealing Final Words

Dear Nicholas, Some years back in a family sit-around, several of my folks were engaging in gallows humor about what word or phrase we’d used so much that we’d wind up repeating it when we were ancient and vacant-minded. In effect, our revealing final words.

My brother Franc who was in the clothing business, said his repeated line would be: “We’ll be happy to exchange it; we don’t give refunds.”

My psychologist husband jokingly said his would be: “Mmm-hmmm.”

I don’t remember what I came up with. I believe it had to do with being much too busy.

A Lovable Last Message

Today I learned something new and not-at-all-a-joke — in fact, wonderfully serious — about such repeating late-in-the-game lines. At the memorial service for our mutual friend Bob Phillips, I learned what he had said again and again at the end of his life.

I knew that in his last five years, he had aphasia.  I’d assumed it meant he could never speak at all. I was wrong.

In those last five years,  his writer daughter Stuart Phillips said, he had a vocabulary of three words. revealing final wordsThey were:



*thank you

And, she said, he was so much himself and present even without conversation; his essence came through even more clearly.

I so admire this revealing choice of words.

My Revealing Final Words?

I hate to think what the essence of me would say at the moment if reduced to three words. Some possibilities:

*I’m running behind

*need some chocolate

*read my books

*don’t you die

Of course, I’m not satisfied with these. Must do better.

Baby Words

Back when North Carolina Governor Jim Martin was making his final speech in office, he told the story of, I think, a grandchild of his, a little girl pre-school age. He and she were playing miniature golf. Accustomed to watching political life, she reached up and seized the sides of the little writing stand meant for keeping score–as if it were a podium. She then made a speech which was in total: “Thank you. Bye-bye. God bless.”

The departing governor said that speech of hers covered well what to say on the last day in office. I agree.

(A child’s first words can be pretty revealing too. I realized that when I ran across in my mother’s papers a list of my own.)

Can’t Wait Until the Last Minute

It seems clear that revealing final words aren’t something any of us will be able to come up with at the last minute. Instead it’s words often thought or said that have shaped one’s being.

What would I like mine to be? Something generous and noble, of course. I’m not counting on that happening. I’d settle for witty and memorable, which is a sorry little ambition in itself.

For the very last three ever, I imagine saying to the surrounding LOs (loved ones):

revealing final words

*Love you all

and either

*Sorry about this


*I’m not leaving

How about you? Not that either of us will ever need last words. Not a chance.

Let’s keep talking.


revealing final words




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  • Kenju
    November 16, 2019 at 6:01 pm Reply

    I’ll have to give that some thought. My husband would say my famous last words would be
    “What did you say?”

    But now that I have new hearing aids, that may change. However, another phrase that comes to me is “See? I knew I was right! “

    • Peggy Payne
      November 16, 2019 at 6:28 pm Reply

      Bob and I do a lot of that “what did you say?” stuff, too, Kenju. It can get aggravating. Where’re my glasses/keys? is also good.

  • Sandy Babb
    November 16, 2019 at 6:15 pm Reply

    I really like this. It set me thinking down a new line.

    • Peggy Payne
      November 16, 2019 at 6:27 pm Reply

      Me too, Sandy. I never thought about it seriously when that family conversation happened way back. ‘Course, I’m a lot older now.

  • November 16, 2019 at 9:04 pm Reply

    I don’t really want “last” words, I want continuing words, so I’ll continue best I can, as long as i can. And whether I speak them or not, my last words would have to be “I’m sad to be leaving, I love you, and thanks for loving me so long and so well”.

    • Peggy Payne
      November 16, 2019 at 9:25 pm Reply

      My favorite comment ever, Bob!

  • November 16, 2019 at 9:32 pm Reply

    As are you, mine.

    • Peggy Payne
      November 16, 2019 at 9:43 pm Reply

      Picture heart emoji here!

  • Mike Collins
    November 16, 2019 at 11:22 pm Reply

    According to my mother, my younger brother’s first complete sentence was, “Mama, make Mike stop!”…I’m Mike.

    • Peggy Payne
      November 16, 2019 at 11:43 pm Reply

      And I can just imagine you were a caution, Mike!

  • Lee Grohse
    November 17, 2019 at 1:49 pm Reply

    As an extreme introvert who has spent a lot of time with family members, human and otherwise, who are a bit on the engaging (translate: intrusive) side of the fence, it is possible that my only remaining words at the end will be “leave me alone.” Not that inspiring, uplifting or witty. I love your friend, Bob Phillip’s, remaining words. What a gift to those close to him to know that he retained those positive experiences and expressions. I’ve always enjoyed reading those lists of last words of famous people and favor the witty and sarcastic-no surprise there. My favorite is the well known (probably apocryphal) words of Oscar Wilde, “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.”

    • Peggy Payne
      November 17, 2019 at 3:27 pm Reply

      I’ll bet almost all those witty sarcastic words quoted were said, but weren’t the actual last–maybe in the last week or so. For posterity, that ought to be close enough.

      Your own three seem perfectly reasonable to me and your family might well expect them– think, that’s so endearingly Lee. Also, I’ve read that a huge % of patients dying in the hospital do so when the attending loved one has stepped out for a few minutes, to the cafeteria or bathroom.

  • Ron Perkinson
    November 19, 2019 at 8:49 pm Reply

    Seems to me that scripting your last words drains the spontaneity and defeats the chance for anything memorable. One might as well publish the last words in anticipation of the event. Then when you are tapping out you could blurt out your real last thoughts. That would be hard to script. Isn’t choosing our last words a bit like picking a nickname for yourself.

    • Peggy Payne
      November 19, 2019 at 8:59 pm Reply

      Exactly. Can’t be done. The trick, I think, is to live and think in a way that leads naturally to a final few words that the person would be happy with– whether they’re witty, sarcastic, optimistic, noble, irritated, grateful, whatever…

    • November 19, 2019 at 11:47 pm Reply

      Yes Ron, and there’s something to be said for thinking about what one’s last words might be, as an exercize toward arranging to live a life that personifies/ summarizes how you’ve wanted to and actually have lived. Spontanaiety is good too, though for me not neessarialy the only or primary criterion, even if you’re not good at it. I don’t know what Oliver Sacks’ last words were, if he had any. And the collection of his final 4 very short essays called “Gratitude” could certainly be an example of writing down last words having lived them fully.

  • La’in
    March 6, 2020 at 4:01 pm Reply

    The words I end every conversation with my children with can also work as last words…
    ” I love you, Be safe, God Bless you❤️❤️❤️“
    Or the mantra I constantly repeated
    to my “forgetful son” when he was growing up…keys, phone, money

    • Peggy Payne
      March 6, 2020 at 4:31 pm Reply

      I love all these “last words,” La’in! The pragmatic reminder is loving in its own way. I may adopt for myself: keys, laptop, sunglasses.

  • La’in
    March 6, 2020 at 4:55 pm Reply

    Peggy, I’ve actuaally recently adopted it for myself too.

    • Peggy Payne
      March 6, 2020 at 9:58 pm Reply

      Very wise. We’re both so orderly now!

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