Last Word Syndrome. That's what I call it. Since the first movie that had some important character expire after great turmoil, ushered in by a great pithy remark that, no doubt, had been planned for ages but delivered with an offhand graced polished by directors, we've wanted our own last words to be remembered. We're interested in Oliver Stone making some movie titled "Never Forget, Never Surrender" based on our lives - the words etched on a tombstone decorated with white lilies. Last Word Syndrome reminds us of our mortality, even as it leads us to remember a loved one's immortality. The hope of never really dying, not in the way that really matters. Of being remembered. Last Word Syndrome.
My brother David was always trying to out-do me, just as brothers are supposed to do. He's older by 2 years, but I've generally shown more aptitude with scholastics, with humor, artistic inspiration - his laziness has ever been his undoing, and his ego his worst enemy. In first grade I picked up the trombone. Later that same year he decided to learn the violin. I spent every waking minute learning to better massage the beauty from the horn, where he plucked offensive notes only during the scheduled class periods. Honor Roll lists, college achievement, paychecks - yet we remained the best of friends.
I reminded my brother of all these victories of mine in a champagne toast at his wedding reception. He fell in love with Sarah, who had been like a sister my entire life. The change from "sister" to sister-in-law was an easy shift for me.
It took David 22 years to convince her to come to the altar with him. I reminded him of this, as well.
He rebutted that I had not yet found someone myself (at the time I was 20 years old). Given how very much I loved the two of them, that was one competition I was perfectly happy to lose, so long as the two of them smiled at each other each morning.
It had been a very fast engagement. Sarah was in the grip of leukemia, and David's insurance would cover the various hospital visits and chemotherapy, and she had little money herself. A short engagement to precede a short marriage, cut tragically by the Autumn of 2001. The first round of chemotherapy was, apparently, not enough, so when she went back under radiation, for the second time destroying her fragile immune system, and a fungus infiltrated her lungs, the fall was all she had left.
I'll never forget what she said to me on that evening when she was put on a ventilator to pump air into her lungs. The rest of us brimmed with optimism. The idea was that the pause in forcing her to breathe on her own would offer her system a chance to defend and rebuild. She, however, knew she wasn't waking up.
The room was dark during the few minutes we would have with her before being put on the machine. Her eyes glowed a faint, jaundiced yellow and her skin was clammy, mildly translucent from not seeing the sun in so long. She had always been a beautiful woman, and now she looked like a beautiful woman saying goodbye to the world. She squinted, even in the dim gloom, as each of us assembled - my parents, her parents, David, her brother and sister, and myself - crouched by her bedside and shared whispered encouragement.
"I believe in you, Steve," was all she decided to say to me. By this point she was on a great deal of morphine for the pain. No doubt neurons were firing in her brain that weren't connected with her intentions. She was high as a kite, and she decided to believe in me, like I was the specter and she the solid observer. Like I was the Easter Bunny, and she the enthusiastic 10 year old.
It was just past midnight on a cold night in October when David and Sarah's parents decided, with the help of a cadre of experienced doctors, that she wasn't going to wake up again. The rest of us sat in the waiting area - nicely carpeted, clean rooms with soft chairs and boxes of Kleenex on every horizontal surface, many on top of copies of National Geographic and People Weekly. One of the priests from the family church, Fr. Vinsel, was called, and he made a quick trip of the 15 mile journey. He arrived out of breath, with a heaviness on his eyes. As a devout Catholic, the Last Rites were important to Sarah.
Her last words stick with me, and not entirely because they were the last words I would ever hear from her. It was a universal message - it didn't really mean all that much. She could've said, "Succeed in all your ventures," or perhaps, "There is nothing stopping you from all your dreams," and the meaning would be virtually the same. Stamped on a fortune cookie, any of these comments would taste a bit dry. But in the grip of her last conscious moments on Earth, she wanted to say something to me. By that point, it didn't really matter what.