I was standing at the street corner, waiting for the light to change when I saw him out of the corner of my eye. He was waving his left arm from his car window, urgently trying to get my attention. Then, pulling out of his parking space, he stopped in front of me, blocking me from crossing the street. Only after he lowered his electric window on the passenger side could I see who it was.
“I liked your sermon yesterday; I liked it a lot.”
Extending his arm full length towards me, he gave me a wave of approval and sped away before I could even say, “Thanks.”
Less than 24 hours later, Bill Hagan had died of a heart attack. The words he spoke to me weren’t his last, but they were the last ones I heard from him.
Bill wasn’t a member of the church I pastor. He faithfully worshipped at The Holy Name of Mary Catholic Church, but he would watch our morning worship service on television. Bill would teasingly say he needed a double dose, one from the Catholic Church and then another from the Baptist. I was afraid to ask him which was the most difficult to swallow, but since he smiled when he told me, I guessed both were good for him.
It would have been easier for Bill to have kept driving that last day he saw me. But he took time to stop — even for just a couple of seconds — halt traffic, lower his window, and speak the words. It doesn’t take long to bless another, as he did me, but it does take time. And I will forever remember the last thing I heard him say.
What we say tells others what we are. And the truth is, we never know what words we speak will be the last ones someone else hears from us. It could be anybody, not just our immediate family. I was far from one of the more significant people in Bill Hagan’s life. Our conversations were brief and casual. But he paused long enough to say something positive that day. And that made a forever difference.
Even when one knows death is imminent, words are sometimes unwittingly uttered, and in that unplanned moment, those words reveal the character of the speaker. It is said that Marie Antoinette’s last words were, “Pardonnez-moi, monsieur. Je ne l’ai pas fait exprès,” which translated means, “Pardon me, sir. I did not do it on purpose.” She had accidentally stepped on the foot of her executioner as he was taking her to the guillotine.
“Please don’t leave me, please don’t leave,” were the last words comedian Chris Farley spoke to a prostitute before collapsing and dying of an apparent drug overdose. Those desperately lonely words from that funny man remind me that comedy often covers sadness.
When I think of all the stupid and insensitive words I’ve spoken, I can only give thanks that I’ve been given another day to replace those words with others, words that reveal a better side, words that can make a positive difference for someone else — not just for the well-adjusted, the well-behaved, the well-situated, but also for the downcast, the deserted, and the despised as well, for the right word spoken at the right time is never wasted on anyone, regardless of their station in life.
And the best way to make sure it’s the right word is to remember the fragility of life, life which comes as a precious gift moment by moment, is lived only in the present, the now, and expressed with words that will sooner or later be our last — echoing in the lives of others for the eternity we share.
Contact Dr. David B. Whitlock at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at davidbwhitlock.com.