Last Day

On the day my father died, his nurse brought him a can of Coke.

He’d been in ICU for a week, getting all his nourishment through a tube because a stroke had left him unable to eat solid foods (he’d failed a swallowing test earlier in the week, and had to have vanilla pudding suctioned out of his throat). His body wasn’t actually hungry, but the nurse understood that if your tongue doesn’t ever get to play, then your brain has a hard time believing that you’ve been fed…and besides, once all your dignity has been stripped away because your body has utterly betrayed you, the least a person can do is offer you a little bit of something that feels “normal”. He’d been having apple juice on oral swabs–about a half-teaspoon at a time, just enough to give him a taste–for a couple of days, but he wanted a Coke. And so on the morning of his last day on earth, she got him a Coke, and put that on his swabs instead of the juice. When we came in that day, the first thing he said to us was “Michelle for President!”. And now, knowing what we do about how that day would eventually turn out, I am profoundly grateful to Michelle for that small kindness.

Now at the risk of being morbid, here’s a truth for you: every single one of us is, someday, going to have our last morning. We’re going to wake up and go about whatever our day may hold, and at some point during that day, it’s all going to end. Maybe we’ll have some warning that it’s coming, and maybe we won’t–but the bottom line is that nobody here gets out alive, which means that every one of us will, someday, have our last meal, talk to our loved ones for the last time, listen to the last song we’ll ever hear on the radio, see the last face we’ll ever see, interact with the last stranger we’ll ever meet.

And this will happen to everybody. Every body eventually gives out. And depending on where you are at a given moment in the world’s timeline, yours might be the last face a person sees. You might be the last person they talk to. You might be the one who brings them their last meal, or who tells them their last joke, or who plays their last song. This doesn’t just apply to family members and loved ones, either: the folks in the World Trade Center on 9/11, for instance, probably had their last interaction with a coworker, or a vendor, or a random stranger in the elevator.

What this means for you, then, is that every single interaction you have with others has the potential to be the last interaction they’ll ever have with anyone.

So how do you want that interaction to go?

There’s a quote by Og Mandino that’s floating around the internet, and that’s what got me started down this path today:

Think about someone you love more than anyone else on earth. If you knew that person was going to die tonight at midnight on the nose, would you want someone to cut them off in traffic on their way home? Would you want their last meal to be something from the microwave? Would you want someone to give them a nasty look because they accidentally bumped carts in the grocery store?

Or would you want everyone they met to go out of their way to be kind, so that your loved one would have an absolutely terrific last day? Maybe it wouldn’t be the Best Day Ever–not everybody can die in the middle of a blissful nap in a hammock with a gentle breeze on a warm beach on vacation–but wouldn’t you want the random people of the world to, at the very least, not be jerks?

It is true that you cannot control anyone’s behavior but your own. Whether we like it or not, there will always be people who flip us off as they swerve around us on the highway, get our order wrong at the restaurant and seem annoyed when we ask them to fix it, put the milk on top of the grapes in the bag at the grocery store, and give us nasty looks because they don’t like the bumper stickers we’ve got on our cars. You can’t do much about that except to grin and bear it.

But you can control your own actions. You can choose to treat everyone as though today was going to be their last day on earth, and by gosh, you’re determined to make it count. You can be the nice man who smiled at them, or the nice lady who held the door for them, or the nice rep on the phone who couldn’t do a blessed thing to solve their problems but who at least sounded like their call really was important. And it’s also easy enough to flip the situation around and look at it from another direction: maybe the guy who just blasted past you on the road is on the way to the hospital because he just got the call that his father has gone into a lethal cardiac rhythm, and because of his father’s Do Not Resuscitate order, there’s nothing the hospital staff can do except wait and hope. My brother had that day, and I hope like hell that nobody honked at him as he tried to make it to the hospital in time.

You can be the person who honks, or you can be the person who prays. And you can be the person who holds the door for the next guy, or you can be the person who clearly doesn’t care that the next guy exists.

You can be the person who brings the dying man a can of Coke.

So why not take the opportunity?

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