by G G Collins
How many last times have you experienced? What year did you last believe in Santa Claus? How old were you the last time you played with dolls? When was the last time you said “See you later” to a friend and you never saw her again?
This happened to me. I met my long-time friend for lunch and a movie. We are a couple of horsey girls and so we took in the film “Secretariat” and ate at our favorite Mexican restaurant. Over chile rellenos and margaritas she told me she loved me and always would. She is a demonstrative person, but there seemed to be an undercurrent of urgency in her words. I haven’t seen her since. Three years later, she called and told me she had early onset Alzheimer’s. I could almost hear my heart break. I still write her, but I don’t know if she remembers me or if she can still read.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about last times. We had to place a family member in a nursing home. He’d been having memory problems and then had an apparent stroke. That day was the last time he will likely ever see his house where he has lived his whole adult life.
As we all stood around the crowded hospital room his son said, “I took him to his favorite store just a couple weeks ago. Do you suppose if he’d known it was the last time he’d have bought something special?”
The man we’re talking about is Joe and he’s 89. He’s outlived his parents, his wife and many of his friends. He fought in WWII. He had a long and successful career after getting a GED on his own. He’s never known a stranger and is well-liked and loved by his family. Joe felt it was important to vote, have a spiritual life and give to those less fortunate. And he was proud of his son even though the two men were different in some ways. But one day Joe’s mind began to short-circuit just like my friend’s and life became more difficult and eventually frightening. He didn’t recognize me on my last visit. I listened to him and tried to respond in kind to where his malfunctioning brain took him. When I got home, I curled up on my sofa and cried.
Joe got up every morning at 5:30 a.m., precisely, to go meet with his coffee klatch. I wonder if he had known it was his last time, would he have lingered over a third cup, told another joke, bitched about the no-can-do Congress?
Not all last times are bad. Some are even celebratory. It felt pretty good to walk out of high school and university for the last time—with diploma held tightly in hand. The job you hated? Yeah, we’ve all had one. It was a relief to walk out of that place for the last time. But even good endings are accompanied by pangs of regret or sadness; friends we will miss or things we wish we’d done differently.
And so I’ve been thinking about last times. Those necessary losses we must endure to pave the way for our own ultimate loss. The truth is, we won’t know when the last time arrives until it gets here and we are separated from the only reality we have known. Endings are hard.
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Postscript: I’m sad to report my friend died in May. I never saw her again. Joe followed in July. He made it to his 90th birthday which he had set as a personal goal. He never saw his house again. I miss them both.