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Last Words

4 · Mar · 2006

In August 2000 a Russian submarine, the Kirsk, only 100 kilometers from its nations border, sank to the bottom of the sea. Engines went off and never came on again. All 18 seamen on board perished.
Later, when three bodies were finally recovered, a letter that had been written in the last moments of life was found on one man, Captain Lieutenant Dmitri Kolesnikov. He was a newlywed and the letter was to his wife, Olga. It read:

My dearest Olga,
“It's dark here to write, but I'll try by touch. It seems like there are no chances, 10%-20%. Let's hope that at least someone will read this / Regards to everybody. No need to despair. I love you. Kolesnikov."

Once, I was on a plane that had trouble with its landing gear. As we approached the runway, a terrible thumping noise began from under my seat and everyone started to look at each other with alarm. On impulse, I reached for my journal under the seat in front of me, but by the time I found my pen, I realized we were safe. Later, I wondered to whom I would’ve written a note and what I might’ve said. I had no plan – what is there to say in the end?

Mike has noticed that before we leave each other every day I am sure to say, “I love you.” This is not something that I do from habit. Saying I love you when I part with him for the day or a few hours is a conscious decision I made that stems from a few instances when I did not have the opportunity to say goodbye properly to a friend or relative. In all instances I wished that the last thing they heard from me were those three words – at least. Morbid to always be somewhat prepared for goodbye? Maybe. But how can it hurt to tell, especially when I mean it every time?

There are times when simply the words we chose are extremely important. Dying words, first impression words, words we say in crisis. My friend Candy tells me that when I go into labor and go through the birth process to bring my daughter into the world certain things might be said could be seared into my memory forever. As sleep deprived and sensitive as I have been lately, I opt to believe her. Any hint of non-support for my idea of what I need to pull off this most difficult task I will ever do sends me spiraling into a void of doubt and fear. For my own sake and the sake of my daughter I would chose to have the birth in a tent in on a secluded beach with only Mike and no one else within a 50 mile radius for several days if that is the only way I can avoid dealing with any more advice or suggestions from family and friends.

I can’t help but think that most people often know the better words to say in each situation, but simply don’t because our culture has fallen into the habit of thinking of ourselves first. For example, at a funeral it is much easier for us to say the standard “If you need anything, call me.” to the loved ones left behind, rather than actually using our intelligence to call that person in a week or so to suggest that we mow their lawn, take their dog for a walk or do some monotonous favor that the grieving person might not want to do for a while. When my loved ones have died, I have often wished that the attendees at the funeral that I didn’t know would come up to me and tell me how they knew my relative, why they were there and what they would miss about the deceased. That type of thing would remind me of the fullness of my loved one’s life, thus help me believe that their life may have in fact been complete, having touched so many others.

When I was growing up, there seemed to be a lot of fathers who did not verbalize their love, pride, or appreciation for their children. We became familiar with this line a couple of times a year, “Though I don’t say it often, you know I love you.” As a kid, I accepted this excuse because I had no choice. As an adult I’m almost outraged that so many of us were expected to live off less verbal love than what we needed –all because one or both of our parents were uncomfortable giving it to us. I hope that if my children ever have a complaint about my verbal expression it’s that I never tire of expressing my adoration and affection for them.

Part of my frustration with the lack of verbal love is when I’m told I should ask for it. This suggests that the failure of communication begins with me. But loving words are not something I demand, they are something I require. Can you imagine explaining to a toddler that the reason you do not feed him often is because he does not ask you to prepare his meal? How can any one tell another person that they didn’t know they needed to express their affection verbally? This is not a matter of not knowing the right words or when to say them. This is a matter of caring enough to say them regardless of our own emotional inconvenience.

On hijacked United Flight 93 a few passengers called their loved ones to say goodbye before they crashed. But many did not call anyone. I’ve often thought, not of the families that received those frightening calls, but of those who did not, though their family member was on the plane and had the opportunity to say some last words.

And then I think of every day that people walk out their front doors, no way of knowing if they will return, without having taken the time to say not just “I love you” to someone but all the other encouraging words that we are each so desperate to hear.

I am proud of who you are.
You are so beautiful.
I am happy.
I’m sorry that I hurt you.
I was wrong.
You are more important to me than anything else.
You make my life better.

Had Kolesnikov fallen into his final sleep without writing his Olga, she surely would have known that he still loved her. But he didn’t. One last time he reminded her. What’s beautiful about his note to her is not what he said; it is that he said it.

If you knew that today was your last day, what would you say? Would you write a letter? Would you call someone you have not spoke to in a while? What are the words that need to be said? What excuse are you using to not say them? Most important of all – aren’t the people who need to hear them worth the effort?

Posted by Penny Rene at March 4, 2006 07:22 PM


I'm so far behind on reading your blogs that it is embarrassing. . .

I was so touched when I read this Penny. I feel like I can really relate to this because I work in such a high-acuity area in the hospital. I see more death and dying than I would ever care to admit.

With trauma, it is like you said-- how do you know when you leave the house that you might not come back? So true. . .

From my observations over the past eleven years in the hospital, I have noticed that in general, people do a really poor job at REALLY communicating. Oh sure, we're great at the semantics, but really communicating? It's like a foreign language to so many folks. Sad, because I have had the luxury of being brought up in a family where you NEVER had to wonder about how people felt about you. I remember getting into trouble when I started elementary school. The teacher had to explain to me that not everyone enjoyed being hugged and smothered right off the bat! I couldn't understand why my classmates weren't as glad to see me and as demonstrative as the people at home were.

The point is, which you have already so eloquently stated, we need to be aware of time and how truly precious it is. Every single day is a gift. I can't tell you how many times I have watched family members hold vigil over a dying family member's bed. I can't tell you how many times unresolved issues were brought up, but only too late-- "I wish I would've told him/her. . . ", "We should've done. . ."

As you have already experienced, losing someone is tragic. It's hard enough adjusting to that person's absence, but to deal with regret and guilt? I don't think that should be added to one's grief experience.

In the meantime, I will continue to work on my communication with renewed fervor. Thanks for this and know how much I value your thoughts.


Posted by: Kimmy on April 25, 2006 10:01 PM

As important as it is to give and share those feelings with those around you, it is equally important to cultivate within yourself the ability to listen to and receive love through action. I have found that many who do not feel comfortable with words can and do find ways to convey their love in ways that might surprise you.

It can be found in tiny gestures that, if you are asleep at the wheel, you might miss forever. Some people are in such terrible pain that saying "I love you" makes them far too vulnerable, but they express it in the safest way they can.

My brother is a giant man 13 years my senior. He's a big, gun-toting, no nonsense kind of guy. He doesn't suffer any fools, as my Mother would say. He is not accustomed to sharing himself or expressing his affection. When I was 16 my parents left me alone for two weeks in the summertime. The rest of the family thought they must have been insane. My brother drove me nuts during those two weeks, driving over to the house and quietly retrieving tools from the basement and then heading back to his home. Barely a word to me. He walked through a few parties that I threw, but said nothing. He just got his wrenches or drill bits or whatever, tipped his hat and left. One morning, after a bunch of friends had crashed at the house and then left I noticed that my brother was sitting in his car hidden at the end of the long driveway. Apparently he had been there most of the night. He came in, tipped his hat, dropped off some tools and asked me if everything was okay. Indeed it was. He smiled and left. At the time I just thought he was trying to piss me off and that he was going to be a dirty snitch.

He never said a word to my parents. My big brother was looking out for me. He was doing his best not to get in my way or cramp my style, but he was going to catch me if I fell. We never talk about it. We keep our conversations to safe topics like how Saturday Night Live stinks on ice and whether or not a third party could ever be viable in our current political system. All the same, the quiet watchfulness that he employs even across a distance of 1500 miles tells me just how much he loves me.

Since I've learned to look for it, I see these cues every day. When my husband buys my favorite cheese even though it is something he despises, when my friend knows how I take my coffee, and when I see that twinkle in my son's eye. These things are all gifts to me, because what is kindness between humans but the passage of love from soul to soul? If you are open to receiving kindness, you will never need to wonder whether or not you are loved because you are.

There really and truly is a wealth of love in this world, you need only give yourself the permission to claim it as your own and then do exactly as you prescribed- send that love back out into the world.

Thanks for your thoughts, they are truly lovely.

Posted by: Bree on May 16, 2006 07:37 PM