My friend’s 96-year-old mother recently died. Her death ended a 73-year marriage to her 101-year-old husband. This loving and loyal couple restored wholeness to broken lives by their Christian service. They modeled Christ’s life of compassionate living.
This 96-year veteran of life didn’t die alone. Her daughter stayed at bedside and heard her mom’s final words. She exclaimed, “Family, family!” and then stopped breathing. Her daughter doesn’t believe these last words were a cry from a frightened, lonely mother.
The exclamation “Family, family!” exuded hope. Death signified a reunion with cherished family members who had previously died. It didn’t erect a barrier separating her from loved ones but provided a gateway to a heavenly reunion.
“Family, family!” stands as a Christian’s testimony, a sign-off for a significant life.
These final words echo Thomas Jefferson’s expectation of what lies beyond death. He wrote in retirement about a reunion at death with patriots who sacrificed to give birth to our Republic’s freedom. Jefferson anticipated being reunited with his deceased wife, Martha. They were married for a brief decade. She died of medical complications caused by six pregnancies that weakened her.
Jefferson’s last words keyed upon another great love — his country. He didn’t fear death’s inevitability. TJ spoke of it using a simple, colloquial comparison. He compared the probability of his demise to the prospect of being caught in a shower — an event not desired but of natural occurrence, so it shouldn’t be feared.
Moreover, he recited to a great granddaughter an ancient biblical sign-off. Mary and Joseph brought their son to the Temple where they met aged Simeon. He felt his life completed when meeting the Christ child and uttered, “Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace” (Luke 2:29).
Namesake Thomas Jefferson Randolph tried to buck up Jefferson who sounded morose about his demise. “I am like an old watch,” Jefferson matter-of-factly declared, “with a pinion worn out here, and a wheel there, until it can go no longer.”
As the Fourth of July approached, 83-year-old Jefferson neared what he once referred to as “that eternal sleep which, whether with or without dreams, awaits us hereafter.”
Other final words expressed his longing to make it to Independence Day in 1826, fifty years after writing the Declaration of Independence.
In early July, Jefferson’s strength sagged, but he rallied on the 3rd. In the evening around 7 p.m. he asked his physician, “Doctor, are you still there?” He wanted to know the time. Had the Fourth of July come?
Taking some painkiller, Jefferson exclaimed, “Oh God!” as if he wanted the Creator not to take him until the Declaration’s half-century anniversary had arrived. Later in the evening, Jefferson quizzed relative Nicholas Trist, “This is the Fourth?” Trist wanted to fill the patriot’s desire and so he told a white lie, nodding that the Fourth had come. “Just as I wished,” Jefferson replied.
Then he slipped in and out of consciousness. Murmuring about a crisis at our nation’s birth that he had “met and overcome,” Jefferson mentioned the Revolutionary Committee of Safety. He began “gesturing, as if he were writing. ‘Warn the Committee to be on the alert,’ he said. He was dwelling on danger. In his last hours he was still struggling to defend the American cause, if only in his flickering imagination,” (Jon Meacham’s “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power”).
Jefferson’s desire was fulfilled. He died in his Monticello bed 50 minutes after noon on Tuesday, July 4, 1826.
Sometimes people obsess over sign-offs. They mull final words, trying over-much to make them sound witty, wise and quotable. They fear a sign-off might sound dull, perhaps like their pedestrian lives.
Irony clings like barnacles on a hull to some last words. During the Civil War in 1863, Union Army Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick was shot and killed by a Confederate sharpshooter. He had bellowed as he neared enemy lines, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance!”
Other final words are clever. Henry Thoreau was asked if he had made his peace with God. “We never quarreled,” he replied.
Repeated often, Thoreau’s sign-off took on a life of its own. Others added variations on his original reply. At Thoreau’s deathbed, a visitor queried whether Henry might benefit from a conversation about the afterlife. “Thoreau shot back, ‘One world at a time, please,’” before dying. Another bit of lore records that Thoreau, before slipping into unconsciousness, muttered something mundane about “moose” and “Indians.”
Don’t we get so wrapped up in memorably summing up our lives that we forget a life well-lived is of greater consequence than sign-offs aptly expressed?
Summing up my life, I’d reflect the Methodist founder John Wesley’s last words: “Best of all, God is with us.” We don’t die alone because God cares for us.
My sign-off: “Thank God for faith, family and friends.” What more could a person ask for?
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.