What if. Those two little words can hold a lot of regret. What if I’d said I loved her? What if I’d told him I admired him? What if I’d had time to say goodbye? But the phrase isn’t always bad.
My story comes from the days when I was a book editor. At my company, I had a reputation as a wanderer. I didn’t so much work in the office as motor through it, bouncing along the halls and up and down stairs from the third floor to the basement — wherever my nervous energy took me. Helped me think, I said, but good luck ever reaching me on the phone.
That Tuesday morning was different. Just around 11, I’d put the finishing touches on a children’s book that I’d been busy with for three months. Now it was gone — the proofed pages, the diagrams, the original artwork. I was at my desk in the post-book stage I often called my “internal holiday” (the day or two before getting started on the next project when you don’t really do anything).
The phone rang. My mother. For once she had connected with me, and for once I had time to talk. And so we did. About what? Oh, the book, life at home and how she was fitting in at her new retirement residence in Ottawa. Just one more instalment in a long conversation she and I had been having since before I was able to speak.
The next day, she went into hospital. By Thursday, she was in intensive care. She died Friday.
And so, what if. What if I hadn’t just finished that book? What if I hadn’t been at my desk? What if I hadn’t had the time to talk? A minute either way, and who knows? Then maybe we never would have had that final conversation. What was said wasn’t terribly profound — it was the connection, not the content, that mattered. And I am grateful.
Ian Coutts is a writer in Kingston, Ont.
He’s operating. He’s doing rounds. He has office hours. He’s on call. When these statements really were in the present tense, they were how our family kept track of the comings and goings of Dad’s working life. He was a busy ophthalmologist.
When he was at work, he was at work. It was mostly invisible to us. But I caught glimpses of his profession. I’d wait in his office for a ride home after swimming lessons at the Y on Saturday mornings, and I’d hear his flat, undemonstrative voice coming from the examination room. I’d accompany him, every now and then, on his hospital rounds. He was always the unruffled administrator of family first aid. There is still a slight crease above my right eye where, without much fuss, he stitched me up after a fall from a tricycle.
But that was a long time ago. He’d been retired for almost 15 years when he died. I’d come to think of him as our children’s grandfather more than as a skilled surgeon. I’d come to think of him more as a puttering gardener than as a decisive physician. Were it not for his last stay in a hospital, I wouldn’t remember him as a younger man as clearly as I do.
He had a collegial manner with the nurses who attended him — and that took me back to how he always was with hospital staff when I accompanied him on his rounds. He listened to what the doctors and residents and interns who gathered around his bed had to say, and he agreed or disagreed with their assessments in what sounded more like a discussion among professionals than the delivery of a not-very-promising prognosis to an elderly patient.
And when, very near the end, it fell to me to tell him of some last-ditch effort his medical team was proposing, he calmly shook his head. He was a doctor after all. “No further treatment,” he said. And that was that.
David Macfarlane is a writer in Toronto.
My wife, Peggy, and I were snuggled under the duvet at our lake-side cottage in Ontario’s Algonquin region. At about 1:30 a.m., we were jolted awake by the ringing of our bedside phone. It was our son, Mark, calling from his cabin next door. He reported a crashing sound of the barbecue being toppled. He believed it was a bear, attracted by the fat drippings.
Peggy, who had picked up the phone, sought to quell his fears, explaining it was more likely to be raccoons. She passed the phone to me, and I added my own words of reassurance, saying, “Don’t worry, you are safely ensconced inside your cabin. Just keep the doors and windows closed and don’t be concerned. Settle down and have a good sleep.”
The next morning was overcast and misty. Shortly before eight, I walked the path to Mark’s cabin and unexpectedly found him lying on the deck. I nudged him with my foot and teased, “Wake up, sleepy head, and assault the day.” No reply. I dropped down and turned his head and looked into his wide-open, startlingly blue eyes. Mark was dead. Not from a bear attack, but from heart failure.
That was 10 years ago. I was 76, and Mark was in his 40s. I will always regret my last words, spoken so casually on the phone. Why had I not invited him over to our cottage or gone to his? I knew well that there’s no substitute for physical presence when in distress. A disembodied voice saying “don’t worry” won’t do it. If I had remembered this, my last words to Mark would have been different. We may not have been able to save him, but at least he would not have died alone.
Rev. Antonio Gualtieri is an emeritus professor of religion at Carleton University in Ottawa.
Mort and her sister Pip were my first experiences with being a cat mama. I’d only planned to get one kitten, but the Humane Society worker told me that when they’re really small (barely three months old in this case), it’s best to adopt a cat and a companion. I got Pip because I had always wanted a grey tabby.
I got Mort because I’d heard black cats are always the last to get adopted. And I called her Mort because, unless you’re a superstitious francophone, there’s something delicious about a black cat named Death.
Her name was quickly updated to Mort the Adventure Cat — this wee ball of fur was fearless. Pip was sweet and curious and classically beautiful, the one every visitor wanted to pat. But Mort was unstoppable. She was lithe and quick and capable of jumping over our chain-link fence in an easy bound.
She would bring back an alarming number of trophies in the form of mice, voles and even a small squirrel. Once she accompanied me on a 15-minute walk from my house in Cobourg, Ont., down to the beach, where she amused herself by jumping on sand flies until I was ready to go home. Truth be told, she became my favourite.
It wasn’t unusual for my little rebel without a cause to be gone for 24 hours, so I didn’t worry at first when she didn’t come home last August. After five days, I found out she’d been hit by a car and died. That was a bad day.
Mort came home in a big plastic bag, collected by my sister from the road crew that found her. We buried her in the backyard under a catnip plant. My last words to her, as I let her outside: “All right, out you go. Try not to kill too many little critters.”
Kate Spencer is a writer in Cobourg, Ont.
At 97, Norman Dow was the longest-living member of our church in Fullarton, Ont. He faithfully attended Thamesview United until two weeks before his death. He had developed pneumonia, and we knew the prognosis was poor when he couldn’t attend the service.
So more than a dozen of us crowded into Norman’s room at the nursing home. Choking back tears, we sang The Gift of Love, and Norman seemed to emerge from a reverie. He thanked us and a few minutes later told his family, “That was lovely. I really appreciate the choir.” It was the last full sentence he spoke. He slipped into a coma and died the next afternoon.
At his funeral, the choir reassembled. We sang The Gift of Love again, as well as I’ll Fly Away, which Norman had requested for the service. Somehow having one more chance to sing in our friend’s honour made it easy to send him off with a rousing, hand-clapping final song. After all, the stubborn, opinionated, generous and cantankerous member of our church was in “a land where joys never end.”
Paul Knowles is a writer in New Hamburg, Ont.
The last time I saw my uncle Donald Reid was a few weeks before he died. I stopped to visit him in the hospital, on the way home from a conference. He was glad to see me and said he wanted to tell me about his dream.
“Only if you have time,” he said, because I was very busy with my work. Of course, I stayed. I don’t remember the exact words of the dream, but it was about being somewhere down south, where he was watching sailors get a boat ready for an ocean journey. He didn’t understand their language, but he knew they were asking him to come along.
“What do you think it means?” he mused. I asked if he wanted to go with them. He thought for a moment, then smiled, squeezed my hand and said, “Thank you.”
All these years later, I can’t recall what the conference was about or what was keeping me so busy at work. But I still have a strong physical memory of that conversation and the feel of my uncle’s hand. He seemed to have found in my question the answer he wanted.
Jane Dawson is a writer, educator and spiritual director in Victoria.
I like thinking about my uncle Len's fondness for red turtlenecks, his miles-long chuckle and penchant for bold gestures — the urn that holds his ashes is an ornately carved eagle perched on a rock, just his style. What I don’t like is recalling my last words, which felt inadequate during our final visits and seem painfully more so now: “How’s the ice fishing this year?” “We’ll see you at Christmas!? “Thanks for having us.”
Even when faced with the strict knowledge we were going to lose Uncle Len to cancer, I tricked myself into believing that niceties were the best way to handle it. In the moment, they lightened the weight of the unbearable, but it’s sad to have mostly banalities to remember as our last conversations. So instead of words, I reflect on actions.
The last time we saw him, just as we were about to put on our coats to head home, Uncle Len decided his hair was too long and that my husband and I would be the ones to cut it. No one in the room knew what to do with such a request except comply. So we did — with some kitchen shears and a yellow plastic cup to catch the trimmings.
The haircut itself was fine at best. But it made my uncle so happy that leaving his house that day didn’t seem quite so horrible.
Chantal Braganza is a writer in Toronto.
Strands of white-blond hair poked out from under my teenage son’s ball cap. We were standing on the front porch debating our usual topic — that his clothing wasn’t appropriate for the weather. It was March 27, and Ryan was wearing a T-shirt that hung over his baggy jeans. They rode so low I could see his red-plaid boxers when he bent over.
“Please put your navy sweatshirt on,” I said to him. Ryan smirked to let me know I was overreacting. He had a way of saying so much with a simple look.
For some parents, it’s hunger. The thought of their child being hungry bothers them more than anything else. For me, it was the cold. I couldn’t stand the thought of Ryan being cold and often worried he might get sick.
It was a fear that may have come from the nine weeks I cared for him through the portholes of an incubator. He was born weighing three and a half pounds, his bony little legs looking like a baby bird. Eighteen years later, he’d grown into a six-foot-one gorgeous teen with thick hair and size 11 feet.
As we stood on the front porch that March night, Ryan could see I wasn’t giving in and he finally relented. He came back out wearing his navy Wind River sweatshirt, which, like most of his clothes, could have fit two of him.
“Thank you,” I said, reaching up to kiss his cheek. He turned and headed down the driveway, his jeans rustling as he walked. “Love ya,” I said.
He glanced back at me. His ball cap partially hid his eyes, but I could see his shy smile. I watched him until he was halfway down the street, walking into the night.
A few hours later, two police officers came to my door and told me my son had been killed in an accident. He was wearing a navy Wind River sweatshirt, they said.
Denise Davy is a writer in Hamilton.
It was February 1990 when the phone rang in our house in Calgary. It was my dad. He opened with the phrase, “Now, there is nothing to worry about,” which in Dad-speak meant there was something major to worry about.
It was my mom. The doctors had found something they were sure wasn’t “significant.” But knowing about her 25-year journey with breast cancer, I wasn’t convinced. Sadly, I was proven right. The cancer had returned and this time metastasized in her liver.
My wife, young daughter and I travelled back to Toronto as much as we could and saw my mother slowly disappear with each visit. One day in June, we had just arrived home from the airport when we received a call. We had to go back — the end was coming.
When I walked into my mom’s hospital room, she was in the last stages of her life. She grabbed my hand as I sat at her bedside and spoke to me with an urgency and strength I thought she no longer possessed: “I gave you life to live, now go live it.” She died later that night.
Her final words became my cri de coeur, shaping all that I have done as a minister, a writer, an activist and a father. And I have passed them on to my daughters, encouraging them to pursue their vocations with passion and energy. Twenty-eight years later, I believe I’ve been faithful to my mom’s final request. Like all human beings, I have fallen short at times, but I will do my best to honour her legacy until my dying breath.
Rev. Christopher White is a minister in Toronto.
My husband was dying. The mind that made him what he was and the spirit that had nurtured our love for almost 60 years were struggling to rise free of the wasted body. Some days there were openings to reach him. I tested for them when I greeted him each morning by asking his name. Sometimes he replied.
One morning, when he told me, I added, “And what’s my name?”
“Mmm. I can’t quite remember.”
“It’s Pat Clarke,” I said.
“Oh, same as mine.”
“Yes,” I said. “That’s because I’m your wife.”
“Well! I’ll drink to that!”
He died two weeks later. I don’t remember that he ever spoke again. The nurse encouraged us to talk to him. Hearing is the last sense to go, she said.
So we poured out our love and our thankfulness for his life. Were we heard? Understood? As his breathing grew laboured, our daughter urged, “It’s all right, Daddy. You can let go.” And he did.
Those, I suppose, were the last words, but not the ones I treasure. “I’m your wife,” I had said. “I’ll drink to that.”
Patricia Clarke is a writer and editor in Toronto.
My last words to my father were something like, “Stop calling me.” I don’t remember exactly because at the time I didn’t care enough to remember. I was still angry with him for being an alcoholic, angry with him for not being the father I had wanted him to be, angry with him for leaving me to a troubled childhood.
With all the selfishness of a 20-something, I was annoyed that he called me so much. In my mind, he had no right to contact me or expect me to call him back. He hadn’t raised me. Hadn’t even paid child support to my mother. So when he phoned for the third time that week, I told him to stop, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t say it nicely.
I’d like to think if I knew he’d only be alive for another 18 months, I would have been kinder and more understanding. But I’m not sure I would have. I didn’t think of my father as a lonely man, trying to know a daughter he regretted losing. I only thought of that later, after he died. And I have thought of that every day since.
Melanie Brooks is a writer and editor in Geneva.
It was one of those splendid autumn evenings that herald change. The air had a touch of cool but was still balmy enough for a stroll through the hospital garden. The ice cream vendor had wheeled his cart along the path with his late-season wares. My mom, Alma, just shy of her 95th birthday, was tucking into her cone and admiring the fall colours while I pushed her wheelchair through the garden.
She’d had a heart attack. The doctor had explained she could not recover, but she hung on while the family gathered from afar. One even cut his honeymoon short to be with the beloved woman all the grandchildren called Gammie.
The sun was dipping behind the trees and casting striated beams on her when she turned her huge brown eyes to me and suddenly asked, “Do you remember the words carved into the mantelpiece of the fireplace at the cottage?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Do you?” As though her age and ailing heart meant nothing at all, she recited the words we had learned as children and cherished as adults: “Let the world wag on — here we take our ease.”
Dusk was slipping in, and it was time to wheel her chair back to her room. I tucked her into bed that night and stayed by her side until she was fast asleep. It was morning when the head nurse phoned and said, “Come quickly.” I didn’t get there in time. Later, I realized the last words she spoke to me were code for happy family times.
Sally Armstrong is an author and journalist in Toronto.
My father was self-sufficient and authoritarian for most of his life, and I had a complicated relationship with him for most of mine. He came from an extremely modest family, put himself through school and literally built an architectural empire as one of Morocco’s first architects after the French left in 1956. A few years ago, following a prolonged struggle with colon cancer and other related ailments, he passed away.
Near the end, my sister and I had to assist him with basic physical needs — getting dressed, eating, going to the washroom. He always apologized and looked away when we did, ashamed of how dependent he’d become on others.
One of the last memories I have of him occurred hours before he died while my sister and I were helping him clean himself. He could no longer really speak and was in so much pain that he bit my left shoulder for some relief with all the strength he had left.
Days after he died, I would look at the bruise, shaped by his teeth marks, watching it change colours, almost wishing it wouldn’t fade away because it was all that was left. The physical closeness we experienced at the end gave us the opportunity to express the love and affection we weren’t able to when he was a healthy man. And so what I hold on to aren’t last words but last actions.
Sheima Benembarek is a writer in Toronto.
You had to remind yourself with Mom that she’d ever lost anything. When loss was around her, she answered it by dancing — not as a conscious defiance but as a reflex.
During the war years, with death in people’s mailboxes, Mom and her friends would cut it up at Montreal’s Victoria Hall to a sensational young piano player named Oscar Peterson. I suppose that’s what you throw back at the face of war.
With peace, she met a returning soldier, Gerry Mahoney. They married against the echoes of two atomic bombs. The kids came — a boy, a girl, a second boy, Keith. Keith got sick. At 10 months, he perished of pneumonia. Then four more kids, among them yours truly.
How do things happen so fast? Mom whirls around me now in a carousel of sensations: the smell of wet wool in the winter as she helped us out of snowsuits; her Cheshire grin over a good hand of cards; her “look” when we were bad. In 1966, her adored father died — that was the first time I saw Mom cry. But what I recall more was her face on the rides at La Ronde during Expo ’67. She took us to the amusement park every day.
In the early 1970s, my dad, a psychologist, experienced early onset dementia; he was just 60. Ten hard years followed, but they also brought weddings, grandchildren, careers, burning the mortgage on the house we grew up in, more weddings. Mom was always dancing. Then Dad died in 1983.
In the 1990s, our beloved Uncle Edmund, Mom’s older brother, took his exit, then Mummum, Mom’s comical hurricane of a mother, at age 97. By now there were great grandchildren.
A year and a half ago, Mom fell. A seizure, then unconsciousness. In hospital, she came to for a short time. We six kids and several grandchildren took turns at her bedside. “I love you, Mom,” I said. She looked at me, engulfing me with her smile. “I love you, too.”
Then, my last words: “How do you feel, Mom?” She smiled again, I would say happily. Her beautiful eyes seemed bright and lively, almost dancing with a kind of wisdom. She answered slowly, “I . . . feel . . . greeeaaatt.” Soon after, she was gone.
Jeff Mahoney is a journalist in Hamilton.
This story first appeared in the March 2018 edition of The UC Observer with the title "Last Words." If you have a final conversation to share, please add it in the comments below.
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