LIVE BY DESIGN | What will you say when it’s the last time you’ll talk?

I have been thinking of last conversations, the ones you had when you absolutely knew it was the last time – so often we don’t. Roberta Flack’s lyrics have played in my head. My mind unconsciously switched her word first and replaced it with the word, last.

The last time ever I saw your face

I thought the sun rose in your eyes

And the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave

To the dark and endless skies, my love

To the dark and endless skies.

Perhaps there is less brightness in the eyes of the person you love? It is possible that it is the end of a long road of deteriorating health and there’s acceptance of imminent death – no more hoping for a miracle. Their eyes may be hollowed out in a face that tells you of their pain and suffering.

But it is the next line, “And the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave.” Those words about gifts given are what has trigged this reflection.

This is the week of my mother-in-law’s “jahrzeit” – that’s the Jewish word for the anniversary of the date of her death. On this day, I like sitting with favourite memories of Ina. I will be forever grateful for the gift she gave me of our last conversation.

It was a Sunday in 2012. My bags were packed ready for a flight to Istanbul the next day. I was off to meet up with my younger daughter. She had completed her master’s degree at London School of Economics. We would have a mommy and daughter holiday in Turkey and then fly to London together for the graduation. We would be joined by each of our respective husbands. And then, after celebrating, we would say goodbye and she would go off to her new life in New York. Big transitions.

Ina lived in Nature’s Valley, some three hundred houses nestled in a bay at the foot of the Tsitsikamma mountains. One shop, a small restaurant, and a community hall doubling up as a church. No petrol station. No doctor. The previous Thursday, Ina felt unwell and organised transport with a neighbour that she go to a hospital in Knysna, an hours drive away. As she walked through the door of her home, she didn’t know that she would not ever come back

On Sunday, the doctor called my husband. Ina’s condition was deteriorating. Her organs were shutting down. She was fully conscious and adamant there should be no life prolonging interventions, such as kidney dialysis. She wanted comfort care only. The doctor surmised that within the next forty-eight hours she would become unconscious and die shortly afterwards. Anyone who wanted to see her, he said, must come as quickly as possible.

With Ina’s death as imminent, I felt in a quandary. Within a week she would have died, been cremated and there would be a memorial service. I know how important ritual is to me as part of closure. If I did not cancel my travel plans, I would miss this important family week. And how unsettling would it be to not participate in the events that support our process of acceptance and offer comfort as we grieve?

That day Ina and I spoke telephonically. True to her character she was clear and instructional. This is the last time we would speak, she said. No, I was not to consider for one single minute that I should cancel my holiday with my daughter. She was dying. It was more important, she said, to live life for the living. My relationship with my daughter, who I did not see often enough, was what mattered most. I was to fly as planned to Istanbul.

The last words we shared? I said, “I’ll miss you.” Ina’s reply, “I’ll miss you too.”

I flew to Istanbul the next day. I flew with Ina’s blessing. I did not feel conflicted about the choice being made. I had no guilt feelings. This was a huge gift she offered me as she lay dying. I am thankful.

Mostly, the advice given to the living as to what to say to the dying when having last conversations often cover the following:

1) Love

2) Thanks

3) Forgiveness: “I’m sorry.” It might be that there is something still unresolved

4) Acceptance: Permission to go.

5) Reassurance: “We’ll be okay.” Or, do not worry about X, we will take care of her.

6) Messages: Is there any message you want me to pass on to someone?

I have never come across any advice that goes in the other direction. What would be helpful for the living to hear from the dying?

This week my colleague Mapi is travelling – a trip with a group of nine relatives and friends. Earlier in the week, a family member sustained a head injury. The planned holiday was suddenly in jeopardy.

Cultures differ. “Live life for the living.” Ina’s instruction to me is less likely to have prevailed. Unless, of course, the family member, like Ina, were to offer that gift?

Food for thought. What do you want to make sure you have said in any conversation that you think may possibly be the last one that you will have with that person?

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