Hearing the Real Meaning: The First and Last Words
Several years ago, Ron and I went to Italy. Every night, I sat up late, taking notes in my travel journal.
Five nights into our trip, Ron asked, “What are you writing? Are you describing the churches we saw today, are you waxing lyrical about the vineyards and fields?”
“No, I’m making a vocabulary list.”
You see, before we left on our trip, we took 12 Italian lessons. I was keeping a list of words I had spoken or understood. I wanted to find out how much each word cost and if our Italian lessons had been worth it. In five days I had only used 50 words—each word from my lips costs more than a bottle of mineral water and less than a glass of wine. I realized I had to be increasingly outgoing if I wanted to make the most of my Italian.
People’s faces lit up when I tried speaking their language, even when I asked something simple, like, “Where is the bathroom?” One dark evening when we were hopelessly lost, we stopped at the only establishment that was open on the narrow winding road: a bar. I walked in and asked, “Where am I?” in Italian. That one awkward, existential sentence resulted in a kind couple offering to drive ahead of us and lead us to our hotel.
By the end of our trip, I had used or understood 200 words and I had connected with many people. The cost was measurable—the results were priceless.
Just like my first words of a new language offered me rich connections, my mother’s last words were deeply meaningful. I wrote about this in my story, Words, to the Wise.
Mom is in bed when I visit one afternoon, her eyes open, her hands twisting the blanket, like a kid who’s had enough of her nap. She smiles when I walk in.
“Hi, Mom, how are you?” I certainly expect no direct response from Mom, but the greeting makes me feel normal.
“How are,” she says and I feel a little thrill at this social nicety.
“I’m fine, Mom. How are you?”
“I know what you mean,” she says, staring out towards the hallway.
I am excited by Mom’s pointillistic little monologue. Alzheimer’s has erased most of Mom’s considerable vocabulary and this spill of words is a treat. As I stroke her arm and smile at her, I realize I am literally listening to my mother’s last words.
In the movies, the last words are profound gems of wisdom, uttered upon a deathbed. Those words are a raft to hang on to so you don’t drown with grief. Though my mother is lying in bed, she is definitely not dying. In fact, given her vast years and advanced Alzheimer’s, she’s relatively physically healthy.
“Well we item” Mom says. “All right”
She no longer needs a listener’s approval. She no longer checks for understanding. The words spill out, like the random winnings from a nickel slot machine.
“So, but that’s,” Mom says, as I touch her leg.
Each word is an independent contractor, a one-act play. Mom’s words require interpretation, involvement, imagination and curiosity. Unlike last words in a deathbed scene, Mom’s words do not neatly sum up her life or her philosophy. Still, these words are gifts. Many visits have gone by with the barest scraps of language. I get out my pen and paper and write down every one of my mother’s last words.
As I write, I imagine she is giving me a secret code, sending me a message from the last cognitive bastion of her brain. “I don’t know. I paid. I’ll try.” What depth, what meaning, what spiritual significance these simple phrases might have!
Q 4 U
Are there times when a few words have made a big difference?
When my dad was about to walk me down the aisle he said, “Ready? We’re only doing this once.” That was over 51 years ago.