Why are we so fascinated by a person’s last words? Perhaps we believe that these final words somehow recount in just a few words the meaning of his or her entire life. Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt, from Richard II, observes that these few final words are profoundly meaningful: “O! but they say the tongues of dying men / Enforce attention like deep harmony: / When words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain, / For they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain.” Yet another reason is that a person’s last words reveal something about his or her character, particularly in the shadow of death. And finally, last words can sometimes provide some insight of what it is like to die.
There is this wonderfully poignant and thought-provoking scene in The Kominsky Method in season five, episode three, titled “Near, far, wherever you are.” Having just lost his closest friend and agent of many years, and now losing his ex-wife to leukemia, the protagonist, Sandy Kominsky, a famous acting coach in Hollywood in his twilight years, addresses his students about playing death scenes. With a mixture of deep sorrow and compassion, Kominsky reflects on those precious, fleeting moments, focusing on a person’s last thoughts and words before the final curtain falls:
“Let’s talk about the subject matter of the scene — dying, on camera or on stage, to play a heartbreaking and hopefully slow death, is the dream of every actor. I would wage there’s not an actor or actress who hasn’t fantasized about how they would play those final moments… as the life force slowly slips away and as we teeter on the edge of nonexistence — how would we gasp out those last words of wit and wisdom? But is that what happens as death draws close? Do the dying exact promises from those they leave behind? Do they confess their sins? Do they make a joke?… What I’m asking you to think about is what actually happens in those final moments. I’m not talking about a shocking, violent death. I’m talking about… when you know it’s coming. When you’ve fully surrendered to the ultimate magic trick — when we really and truly disappear. I’ve sat at the bedside and I’ve held the hands of friends and loved ones as they breathed their last breath… and I can tell you this: the dramatic soliloquy at the end of life is pure and utter nonsense. If anything is being said, it’s internal. You can almost hear it. They’re having an internal conversation filled with disbelief and wonder that their life has come to an end. They hardly notice you sitting there at all. For the dying, the living are irrelevant. So, if you should ever have the opportunity to play such a scene — approach it with reverence. Consider it holy. Make sure it receives your utmost care and respect.”
When circumstances permit and that final curtain begins to fall, what will you be thinking about? Who do you want to be near you? What will be your final words? What dreams may come in that sleep of death? (Recall those memorable lines from Hamlet’s famous soliloquy: “To die, to sleep — / To sleep — perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub, / For in that sleep of death what dreams may come / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil…”)
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