I have often sat by the bedside of dying people with their relatives close, waiting for those "last words." The threshold between life and death imparts poignancy to the utterances of the dying. Some believe the veil between this world and the next is thinnest at this time, that we can somehow penetrate the mystery of death through their experience. Perhaps those closest to death can tell us what we long to know: What is this mystery we call death? And, knowing that death is inevitable, what do they treasure most? Mr. Toler answers with words of reassurance and compassion: His dying was as gentle as falling to sleep, and, he told his loved ones, his connection to them will transcend this world. His note is a gift to all of us. His simple message seems to honor the best in our human connectedness, suggesting that it is the relationships in our lives that are most precious and holy.
Last words can also raise profound questions for the living, and propel us on a search for our own answers. The writer Elizabeth Barrett Browning uttered the word: "Beautiful," as she was dying. We ask ourselves, Can death be beautiful? Charles Darwin exclaimed, "I am not the least afraid to die," and we wonder, Am I afraid to die? The last words Thomas Edison uttered were, "It is very beautiful over there." Where is this 'over there'? Will I get there? Who will be there? The last words of Jesus, from Luke 23:46, were "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit." To what will I commend my spirit?
All of these last words are teachings--not only about death, but about how we live. Ultimately they help us understand the truth of impermanence, the fragility of all that we love, and can be a wondrous admonition to appreciate the life before us right now. Some believe we will meet each other on the "other side." Yet in this hope, we may ask ourselves: Can we meet each other now? Gautama Buddha said, "the whole of the holy life is good friends." He too seemed to believe that relationships are what give depth and meaning to our lives.
"I love you," said Mr. Toler. "Beautiful," said Elizabeth Barrett Browning. We cannot know death except by dying: This mystery lies underneath the skin of life. But we can learn something from those who are closest to death's door.