The Last to Know
Lasts are coming for all of us. Why aren’t we preparing?
“I am about to take my last voyage, a great leap in the dark.” — Thomas Hobbes, 1679
When’s the last time you pondered the word last?
Its use is frequent and common, and can be a verb (noting a length of time, as in “the play lasted two hours”), a noun (a form shaped like a foot, over which a shoe is repaired), or an adverb or adjective (signifying finality, as in “his last hours on earth”).
I was thinking about it last week, after the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Her death marked the end of an era — the second Elizabethan Age — a final curtain on the kind of steady, reassuring, and unassuming leadership she represented.
That’s a significant ‘last.’
And leaders should understand the importance of planning for the eventuality of the end of their service, whether it’s a planned or sudden transition. The Queen knew and had an intricate plan for a series of events that we’re watching unfold now.
When George Washington handed in his commission as commander-in-chief of the army in 1783 and later voluntarily relinquished the presidency after two terms, he demonstrated the importance of the transfer of power.
As ever, Washington served as an example to leaders everywhere about the need to put ego aside for the greater good.
The HBO series Succession (which just won an Emmy award for Best Drama) features a family-run media dynasty that is as dysfunctional as they come, with each sibling more loathsome and thankless as the next.
And that’s where I want us to land: on the gratitude of lasts.
Hey, before we go any farther, make sure this isn’t the last Timeless & Timely you read:
“I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back up the hill to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look.
Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners . . . Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking. . . and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths . . . and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize.” — Thornton Wilder, 1938
When I thought about Queen Elizabeth, I recalled that a few years ago, when her last corgi died, she vowed not to get another dog because she didn’t want to have to leave one behind.
In that case, she made a deliberate decision — one in which she knew that the goodbye she said to that dog was final. This would be her last dog.
And I recall an instance of a friend talking about his elderly parents in their late seventies or early eighties, going through the car-buying process. He said something to me I’ll never forget:
“This will probably be their final car. And they realize it.”
It’s one thing to have an awareness of a final event or task along a known journey, like the corgis or the car. We have a chance to say our goodbyes and to express our thanks.
It’s quite another to have such occurrences happen without our consciousness, as a cat burglar might pull off the heist of a precious heirloom in the middle of the night as we sleep.
I think of friends who have died from cancer, fighting until they no longer had the corporeal strength to get out of bed: did they know their last shower would be their last shower?
My mind drifts to people I haven’t seen for years because of a separation due to miles or mood: the last time I saw them, some decades ago might have been the last time I’d ever see them.
And those we care about whom we see regularly — those relationships we take for granted because we’ll see them at the next holiday, the next community gathering, or simply next week: our existence (or theirs) could be cut short unexpectedly, eliminating any more nexts.
I wonder if Prince Charles expected to see his mother just one more time at Balmoral. Her longevity seemed tied to the national anthem proclaiming, “Long may she reign,” but in the end, she was a mortal like everyone else.
All of this is to say that if we lived our lives with more deliberation and gratitude — whether its for our pets, hot showers, or people who matter to us — we might find a deepening relationship with the world around us.
That cup of coffee you’re drinking might seem even more delicious if you paid more attention to it.
Send that note you’ve been meaning to write to someone so it can reach its destination in time and make them feel special.
Tell that employee what they mean to you before they decide to leave.
Whether or not we have a succession plan, we ought to treat every instance of something as if it’s our last.
There is no guarantee that we’ll have a next chance.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.
Edited to add:
Jack Thomas, a longtime journalist for The Boston Globe, died on October 3, 2022. Last year, he wrote a powerful and poignant essay on being diagnosed with terminal cancer. It’s well worth a read.
“I Just Learned I Only Have Months to Live; This is What I Want to Say” (The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, July 21, 2021)