Last Words, Last Wishes
The last words my Mom spoke to me were, “Take care of yourself.” The cancer had moved to her brain but on that day, she spoke into the phone loud and clear, “Take care of yourself.”
My Mom, Pam Blalock, was diagnosed with stage four, terminal cancer in early January 2003 and she died 8 months later on August 15. She had time to contemplate her death and the people around her had time to contemplate what our lives would be like without her.
Talking about death with someone who is actively dying is extremely sensitive. My sister, Andi and I needed to know her last wishes but it was difficult to directly ask the question. One day out of the blue, our Mom was ready to speak about the details. Because Andi and I were holding vigil around her, we were ready and available to receive her burst of courage.
What is it about our culture that makes it difficult to address the topic of death? There seems to be a conspiracy of pretending that we aren’t going to die – like that’s for other people, not me. The Truth is that we are all going to die and the question is: Will you die well? Will your affairs be in order? Will the people who you are leaving behind know your last wishes? Do you have a will? Are you leaving behind a disorganized mess? Are you an organ donor? Do you have a do not resuscitate order (DNR)?
I have been contemplating my last wishes and am feeling a sense of urgency to write them down. At 53, I am healthy and not intending to die any time soon but death can occur in a quick, unexpected moment. I wrote my last wishes years ago when I lived in France and they need to be updated because my life situation has changed. The act of writing my last wishes is an act of love. Why should people have to guess what I want?
On that fateful day when my Mom was ready to express her last wishes, the sky opened with bright sunshine. It was March 9, 2003 and Pam was in a humorous mood. She was imitating the Austin Power’s “me” and “mini-me” character. Andi, Max (her grandson) and I were by her side in the living room. Smiles and levity were in the air which was rare given the treatment schedule, the pain and physical exhaustion she felt.
She began by writing on a legal pad that she wanted to be cremated. That Andi and I should immediately empty her “rat hole,” “just in case” bank account which had a few thousand dollars in it. When the time was right for all of us, we should plan a little funeral service in Jacksonville, FL where my parents owned a condo. The written document specifies that we should stay in the Marriott, “first class” which we amended to the much preferred Ponte Vedre Inn and host a dinner party. She told us to “rent a boat and take my ashes to the sea and pitch them in the ocean.” Her dog, Porsche, a giant schnauzer, had died a couple years before and Mom still had her ashes, and she wanted Porsche to be pitched at the same time.
She wanted her regular funeral service to be held at a catholic church with pictures of her with family and friends that were labeled with names. She wanted paintings by her young grandchildren displayed and poems read by the older ones. Our oldest brother offered to host the after church wake/ceremony at his house and our Mom requested that “Benham’s cater it and Tom (our Dad), you pay for it.” Her last wishes were read out loud at the wake and the line about Dad paying for it got a big laugh.
Her last wishes, hand written on one page, signed and dated were communicated with all pertinent people well in advance. We knew what to do when she died. What a relief. When the time came to implement her wishes, we were prepared. The pictures were ready, the kids had prior warning about their speaking parts and we knew we would reconvene in Jacksonville in the near future to check in with our grief and celebrate her life. We could be present to honoring her without worrying if she would have approved. It was her plan and her gift to us.
And her last words to me, “Take care of yourself,” echo in my heart many years later. I keep a picture of her with her perfectly shaped bald head close to me. It’s housed in a small, whimsical watering pot frame that she would love. Years ago the Oprah magazine ran a piece on a prescription for health which had pictures of small pills with the words “take care.” I glued one on the frame as a poignant reminder from Mom. She’s never far away. She’s a woman who died well and helped her beloveds every step of the way. I love you, Mom.