Afterthoughts: What would you want your final words to be?

One Last Thing

Illustration: Daniel Fishel

We’ve been thinking a lot about last words at the office this month. It was kicked off by a letter from a reader, disputing a point in our November cover feature, “Honolulu in 1888.” In that story, we quoted David Kalākaua as having said, on his deathbed, “Tell my people I tried.” It’s a poetic sentiment, the kind of declaration that perfectly sums up the tragic struggle of Hawaii’s last reigning king to protect his kingdom. It was also a piece of fiction, according to this reader.

Interest piqued, we dug into all the primary documentation we could find and learned that, indeed, Kalākaua’s last hours weren’t quite as storybook as we had thought.

Just as we were puzzling that mystery out, Sen. Daniel Inouye passed away. It was huge news, but even then, one bit from the newspaper accounts jumped out at us: Inouye’s reported last word: “Aloha.” Now there’s a signoff worthy of a legend.

What would you choose as your last words, given the chance? Let’s assume fate grants you a cinematic deathbed scene—your friends and family gathered around you, your hand draped dramatically across your brow. What do you say? Do you go the route of Oscar Wilde, shuffling off with an easy quip? “Either this wallpaper goes, or I do!” Or maybe something a little more heartfelt is called for, a la Steve Jobs, who went out saying, “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”

I personally like the panache of bank robber Francis “Two Gun” Crowley’s 1931 sendoff, as he sat in the electric chair: “You sons of bitches. Give my love to Mother.” But honestly, Kurt Vonnegut’s famous refrain probably comes closest to how I’d like to feel about my passing, when the time comes: “So it goes.”

Of course, feeling it is one thing. Actually saying it out loud might come across as a tad theatrical. I’ll have to play it by ear.

This is all assuming you even get the courtesy of the advance notice required for a profound last word. What’s more likely, these days, is that your final message to the world will be a written one, either on Facebook or Twitter. If you’re lucky, it’ll be something with some heft to it, like rapper Heavy D’s last tweet before he died at the age of 44: “BE INSPIRED!” If you’re anything like most social media users, though, it’ll probably be something unsatisfyingly mundane, maybe with a sprinkling of emoticons and too-clever hashtags. #whoops #sadtrombone 🙁  

I, for one, am willing to commit to never typing “LOL” in an update ever again, just to ensure I don’t get stuck with that as the punchline of my obituary.

As a magazine writer, I also have to think about my published pieces, any one of which could conceivably be my last. There have definitely been a couple of Afterthoughts columns that would have made for ironic capstones, and that I’m glad to have outlived (this one will be joining their ranks, knock on wood).

I fervently hope I can do half as well as our late, great dining editor John Heckathorn, who penned his last column for the magazine a year ago this month. It happened to be a profile on downtown restaurateur Dave Stewart, a wonderful piece, less a restaurant review than an entertaining hangout with Stewart, full of humor and keenly observed detail. You could hardly ask for a better encapsulation of Heckathorn’s spirit. The closing line of the piece was a quote from Stewart, but it seemed to describe Heckathorn’s ethos perfectly, too: “There’s absolutely no point in working if you’re not enjoying yourself.”

Really, though, almost any of his dining columns would have served as a fitting coda—that’s just how Heckathorn wrote, all the time. And maybe therein lies the secret to finding the right last words: just live your life as best you can. It’s harder than holding a one-liner in reserve, but, you know … so it goes.