Charles Cave lives and writes in Chicago. His work has appeared in The Edge, Tales of Suspense, Futures Mystery Anthology, Apocalypse and Black Petals.br> br>
charles a. cave
The last words of convicted murderer, Robert Alton Harris, shortly before his 1992 execution in a Californian gas chamber: "You can be a king or a street sweeper, but everyone dances with the Grim Reaper."
The last words of Susana Love aren't nearly as poetic. Shortly before her death by asphyxiation, Susana stated the following: "Please, please, don't kill me. I don't want to die." Love's words are hardly noteworthy and are of little inspiration. Her words offer no new insight into the great mystery that is death, and do very little to increase our understanding of the life cycle.
Conversely, when Ned Kelly was hung in 1880, the Australian outlaw simply stated, "Such is life." In so doing, he powerfully conveys the paradoxical nature of life (that is, we live to die) with the powerful subtlety of minimalism at its best. Unlike, for instance, Jerome Goodwill's final remarks, as he slowly bled to death: "I’ll do anything. I mean anything. Just let me live."
Goodwill's contribution is not at all compelling, nor is it in the least bit thought provoking. Especially when compared to Emily Dickinson's masterful final statement: "I must go in, the fog is rising." Rich in meaning and figurative language, Dickinson's last words demonstrate her command of the English language. Indeed, it's abundantly clear why Dickinson has secured her status as one of America's greatest poets.
But had she actually seen a fog rising, or was Dickinson merely exercising her poetic gift one final time before departing this lifetime? Were Dickinson's final words spontaneously uttered, or were they carefully crafted, as she lay dying in bed? Are the final words of Dickinson, and, Harris for that matter, so perfectly profound simply because they had had time to think them over? These are the questions one must ask when contemplating the overall worth of a person's last words. As one goes about the processes of collecting and cataloguing the final remarks of the dead, all conditions must be considered.
In any case, not all people are so premeditated. Consider Gary Aldo. Despite having been given considerable time to ponder his last words, Aldo had only this to say before he was shot and killed: "Go to hell you sick bastard." Not much of a contribution; however, in the grand scheme of things his final words must be recorded as they may lead to future understanding when coupled with the last remarks of others. While Aldo's last statement as a living being suggests defiance and outward hostility, unfortunately, he isn't the only person who was unable to capitalize on such a defining moment.
Despite having spent fourteen years on death row, on May 10, 1994, convicted serial killer John Wayne Gacy had only this to offer when asked if he had any last words before being put to death by lethal injection: "Kiss my ass."
Perhaps, Aldo and Gacy carried too much inner anger, which prevented them from reconciling themselves to the fact that these were going to be the final words they'd ever speak. As a result, both men were far less calculating than Dickinson; thereby, rendering their words far less effective. As a result, Gacy and Aldo will forever be remembered as being crass and crude, while Dickinson is considered a genius. Still, each person is the author of his or her own words, and so judgment must be reserved.
I am simply the recorder.
Few people are able to comprehend the ultimate power and significance of the spoken word; especially, the final words of an individual's life. There are, of course, exceptions. Consider if you will, Pancho Villa, the Mexican revolutionary, who at the time of his death appeared to have been acutely aware of the importance of a memorable final remark. Riddled by gunfire, Pancho Villa clung to a comrade, and, sensing the magnitude of the moment, beseeched, "Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something…" Certainly Villa understood the impact and influence his final words would have on the world he was soon to depart and recognized the necessity for them to be meaningful. Indeed, Villa solemnly pleaded for "it" not to "end like this." Whether the "it" refers to the Mexican Revolution or to Villa's own legacy is of little importance. The fact of the matter remains, paradoxically, that Villa consciously understood that he could use words to imbue life into something even though he lay dying.
Many decades later, Eric Carter's final declaration would echo Villa's when he desperately chanted, "not like this, not like this, not like this," as water steadily filled the fifty-five gallon drum he’d been encased in. Although their sentiments are similar, Villa is remembered and Carter is not -– but this may soon change.
Extended and arduous research has revealed many things. For instance, some people eagerly accept their death, whereas others aggressively oppose it. Take, for instance, the last words of renowned author Jane Austen. As Austen lay dying, her sister, Cassandra, asked if there was anything she could get for her. "Nothing," Austen responded, "but death."
Conversely, James R. Gannon's last words were less embracing. “No, no, NO, nonononononononoNOOOOOOOOOOOOOO-– ” Gannon protested prior to his beheading. To be sure, Gannon's inability to accept the inevitability of his predicament prevented him from taking full advantage of the opportunity he'd been afforded. Not many people are privileged enough to know when they are going to die, and as a result, they blabber about nonsensically through life, wasting their chance to actually contribute a meaningful phrase for humanity's sake before making the transition from life to death. Gannon's denial of the unavoidable prevented him from capitalizing on a possible life defining moment. His fear hindered his ability to embrace his moment. As a result, rather than contributing to the greater well-being of humankind by enlightening our understanding of the death process, Gannon's conclusive statement has the detrimental effect of further reinforcing the common fear of death. In spite of this, they must be recorded. At best, Gannon's extreme protests can be viewed as an indication of just how much the living value life. In either case, Gannon's comments will never be categorized as courageous, indifferent, or enlightening.