Last Words

Sep 19, 2018

Why wait for a walk up the mountain to exchange last words?
Credit Hudson River School / Wikipedia

Hello, Radio Readers. I’m Jane Holwerda from Dodge City, Kansas, here to talk about death and dying, for our Fall 2018 book series. 

In reading and talking about the books in our series, I’ve found myself thinking about that moment when we cease to be one kind of thing and become another kind of thing.

In Medicine Walk, a 2016 novel by the late Canadian Ojibwa author Richard Wagamese , death and dying are shown as natural facets of being and becoming.

Depicting issues and traditions of indigenous peoples, and mirroring events of his own life, the novel is about  a 16-year old boy  asked to walk deep into the backcountry  with his father, who is dying and who wishes to be buried in a wild place, an untamed place,  he had known when he himself was a boy. 

The thing is, the father and the son don’t actually know each other, the woman connecting the two, the wife and the mother, having died shortly after the son was born, and the father having left the son in the care of another. The father has had his troubles and has done little for his son over 16 years, yet as he is dying, his son is whom he seeks, and the son, whether from duty, curiosity, or an inability to think of an excuse not to, agrees.  On their long walk, the son hears his father’s stories, learns about his mother, his father’s drinking, and of his own coming into being.

His father’s last words moaned soft and low are: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”  The son’s reply is a gentle caress of his father’s face, and then he says, “’Hush.’” He says it, writes Wagamese as if giving a benediction. The son then digs a grave and buries his father, mounding the grave with protective stone, as best he can.

In these actions are the demonstrations of the son’s acceptance of his father’s plea for forgiveness.  There is, of course, much to be said for the sincere apology, even one offered at the very end, the kind that doesn’t allow time to mend the bond, to heal the betrayal. Sometimes death may be a relief, not only for the dying who are released from physical and emotional pain but also for the survivors, no longer to witness suffering, in this case, of a man who dies too young and disappointed by the choices he made, as limited as those choices may have been.  And, as Wagamese shows with tenderness and reverence, the forgiveness shared between a parent and a child is a bridge to a new life, or at least a renewed way of being, of living. 

In Wagamese’s beautiful novel, the phenomenon of the “last words” – just two words—give credence to the value of reflecting upon our circumstances and our choices and holding ourselves accountable.  So, my takeaway?  If,  as in Wagamese’s Medicine Walk, I want to extend an apology, claim responsibility, share the love, or reveal a secret, why put it off until the end? What am I waiting for? What are you waiting for?

For HPPR Radio Readers, I’m Jane Holwerda, from Dodge City, Kansas.