Jane Carstens
20 Sep

When is it the last time?

When is it the last time?

At some point, what you have said or done will be your last words or action. I am not sure if this is a melancholic or philosophical thought, perhaps a bit of both, but it is one that deserves reflection.

I recounted in my book “Unstuck” that my last conversation with my brother Peter was rushed. I hurried to get off the phone that night, not knowing that he would die the next night in a car accident. Not knowing it was the last time we would speak. It was a ‘routine’ call, but I’m pretty sure my last words to him were ‘I love you Pete’.

I often contrast this with an incident I witnessed about four years before Peter died. I was a student nurse in the recovery unit of a major hospital, and a dead teenager (he was 19 years old – the same age as me at that time) was brought out from the operating theatres to this unit. He had suffered devastating injuries from a car accident, and the surgical staff had been trying to save his life. Unfortunately his injuries were too extensive and they could not save him. What happened next has stayed with me to this day.

I was preparing this young man’s body to go to the morgue when the lift doors opened. Two distraught men emerged along with a nurse from the emergency department. These men turned out to be the young man’s father and brother. They stood over their dead son and brother, held his hand, hugged him, kissed his forehead, and through their sobs kept repeating the words ‘I’m so sorry, we didn’t mean it, please forgive us’. It turns out they had been arguing earlier that night, and the young man had left the house in anger, got into his car, drove away in a distressed state, and was soon involved in what would be a fatal car accident. They did not know that their angry words would be the last communication they would all have. The dead teenager did not know that driving off that night in anger would be his last action.

Since that night, I have often been mindful of last words and actions. For me, they do not have to be related to the finality of death. There are ‘routine’ tasks that come to an end one day, and you don’t know when. For example, when was it the last time that I read a storybook to my children? When was it the last time that I tied their shoelaces? When was it the last time that I bathed them? When was it the last time that I picked them up and held them in my arms? These types of once daily tasks come with no warning that ‘this is the last time’. The door just quietly closes and never opens again.

I think about the last time moments with my parents too. My mother slowly lost her ability to walk and talk. When was it our last walk together? When was it our last conversation? When mum and then dad needed to be admitted to hospital at the later stage of their illness, I was the person who drove them there. We did not know on both occasions that the journey we were taking was one way. That they would never return to their home again. That it was the last time they would be there. If we did know, then perhaps we would have done things differently. Taken time to look around the house, talk about memories we had made there, and we would also have felt the gravity of the journey we were about to take. But we didn’t know it was going to be the last time. We just left the house as we had done so many times before in a routine way.

I have pondered what lessons can be learned from not knowing when it is the last time. Is it to be more mindful? To make every moment count? To accept the inevitability of change? To resolve conflict quickly? To tell the most important people in your life that you love them more often? To be careful with your words and actions because you don’t know if they will be your last? I think the answer is a collective ‘yes’ to all of these. It’s not only the big moments that count either. It’s life smaller moments that silently fall away over time too. And you don’t realise the door has closed behind them until you find yourself wondering, when was it the last time?

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