Last Words

I can’t imagine laying in bed knowing I’ll never again stand up, never wait for a traffic light to change and stroll across the street. I’m afraid to die, not sure what comes next. Death is final and nothing like going to sleep. You never wake up and – this is the part that I find troubling – you don’t even know you’re dead.

“Beautiful” was Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s last word , and a beautiful last word it was. Poems are always last words, even when they’re not.

It seems sophomoric to say that Yannis Ritsos is my favorite poet. But he is. So many times I’ve read his poems and imagine them as his last words.

“I am dying. I haven’t drunk champagne for a long time” was Chekhov’s last words and I wouldn’t have expected less from a great writer.

Emily Dickinson’s last words, 1886, could be a poem, “I must go in, for the fog is rising.” And the fog did rise. Kidney disease took her life.

I hope to live to 100* but let me say for the record, even at this premature point, there’s nothing I have said or will say at some future date that needs to be remembered outside of my poems. Though I will check that somewhere along the way I’ve written the words “I love you” in a poem for all of those that I have.

I’ve never appreciated found poems as much as I probably should but have thought to write a poem, and here I use the word write loosely, made up entirely of last words.

One of my favorite last words used to be by Daniel Webster, according to a book they were “I still live.... Poetry!” How much I would like to believe that! You deserve to know that everything you’re reading in my book is true. I did some research. According to the New York Times article published Oct. 12, 1881, Webster’s last words really were “I still live – more brandy!”

Pancho Villa had a sense of history and drama he gets little credit for – “Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something.”

Cancer took three years to drag my father to his death. My mother sat in the chair beside his hospital bed for the final thirteen days. In a poem I once imagined his last words, then sent the poem to my mother. She called and told me his real last words. “That’s enough, that’s enough.”

The world will end in a poem. I’m convinced of it!

* Doctor Lawrence Gorlick won’t go as far to predict the date of my death but winces when I tell him of this expectation. Of course, he hopes I do live that long but always points out he’ll long be gone. If he goes first I will write poems about him. Long before he was my doctor he was my cousin and a good sport about lending his persona to my poems. This prose poem I wrote about him first appeared in The Harvard Review:

The Plan

I walked into my apartment after work and my left foot was immediately overwhelmed by the warm air. Why didn’t my right foot also enjoy the climate change as quickly? I looked down. My left shoe was missing! I was wearing it when I left the store. No doubt it was stolen by that one-legged bastard Dr. Gorlick. He sat across from me on the bus, eyeing my new shoes as we wove through late afternoon traffic. Not once did he mention the polished leather’s soft glow, the imported style. His envious silence was confession enough. In the few minutes I was asleep -- I always take short naps on buses -- he slipped my shoe off and hid it in his black bag. I know he’ll wear my shoe while he treats patients tomorrow but not on the bus ride home. So I’ll disguise myself as a policeman wounded with a bullet in the stomach. The ambulance will deliver me to his office. My disguise will be so effective that as soon as he finishes treating the wound I’ll arrest him. Before sleep tonight I’ll read a book on police procedure. His crime should not go unpunished because of a technicality on my part.