This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode.
Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.
Patrick Cox: In 2012, Michael Erard was living in Portland, Maine. He was foraging for wild blackberries on the edge of town one day, when something on the ground stopped him short. A set of bones.
Michael Erard: You do a lot of hiking in the woods and you come across carcasses. And this just didn’t look like bones that I had ever seen before. And it slowly, then kind of horrifically, dawned on me what this was.
Patrick Cox: Human remains. A woman. Her name, Michael found out later, was Toina. She’d been living on the streets. She’d disappeared maybe a year earlier, it wasn’t clear. No one reported her disappearance to the police. There was no announcement on local news, no search parties.
Michael Erard:She just kind of vanished, but she was always invisible. So you can’t really say that she vanished. But I found her.
Patrick Cox: These thoughts — the whole incident — shook Michael. He came to realize he owed something to Toina.
Michael Erard: I did a lot of reading in the anthropology of death and came to understand that there are two there are two deaths. One is the biological death and the other is the social death. And the living are intensely involved in both. And that in some cultures, occasionally you can have circumstances where someone might be trapped between the biological death and the social death, where they’re physically dead, but they haven’t fully been sort of socially sent off. And one of those conditions is when people are sort of unburied. So I had found someone who was in this liminal state.
Patrick Cox: And because of that circumstance — and also because no cause of death could be determined by the medical examiner — Michael decided to take on certain responsibilities himself.
Michael Erard: And I ended up kind of writing her story, doing a lot of research, a lot of reporting and writing her story as a way of completing her social death.
You know, I sort of thought about what her experience of dying was or what it might have been. How she came to be. There is still a mystery. But thinking about how she was alone, if she was indeed dying in the woods and that that condition of dying alone — to to me, and I think to a lot of people in America, sort of sounds like a lot like a the very definition of a bad death, to do that sort of thing alone. And because she was alone, there was no one there to comfort her, and there was no one there to hear anything that she would say, you know, that would be the last sort of message that she would provide.
Patrick Cox: What did Toina say at the end of her life, if she said anything? That, for Michael, was as big a mystery as all the others. Hearing someone’s last words — or reading about them — it acts as, I don’t know: Comfort? Connection? It does seem to be part of that the social death. We can think about those words, talk about them with others, try to interpret them.
With Toina, none of that was possible.
Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered. Sometimes — often — witnesses at the death bed don’t fully understand what their loved one is actually saying because the words appear to make no sense or are barely whispered, impossible to make out. But still, we — the people left behind by the dying — we feel the need to witness and record and cherish those words.
Patrick Cox: From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle: stories about languages and the people who speak them. In this episode, the utterances that mark the end of our linguistic lives. Why we value them, and sometimes misjudge them.
Patrick Cox: Quick note: Usually we strive to maintain a consistent tone throughout an episode. With this one, we’re not even going to try to do that. Death, loved ones and language: that’s just too unstable a compound. You’ve been warned.
Kavita Pillay: Hi Patrick.
Patrick Cox: It’s Kavita Pillay who’s here to help me with Chapter One. Chapter One: A quiz.
Patrick Cox: OK, so I’ve got some quotes here. They’re all last words of famous people who supposedly set them just right before they popped off.
Kavita Pillay: Okay.
Patrick Cox: I would like you to guess or to tell me if you know which famous person said each of them.
Kavita Pillay: All right, I’ll give it a go.
Patrick Cox: And I will reveal the answers at the end of the episode.
Kavita Pillay: I have to wait that long?
Patrick Cox: Afraid so.Number one: “All my possessions for a moment of time.”
Kavita Pillay: Oh, my. That’s it.
Patrick Cox: That’s it.
Kavita Pillay: “All my possessions for a moment of time.” Okay, so it’s someone with a lot of possessions. I don’t know. I’m going to say Cleopatra.
Patrick Cox: Okay. I’m not going to tell if you’re right or not. I’m just going to move right along.
Kavita Pillay: All right.
Patrick Cox: Number two, this is actually my favorite deathbed quote. This was in response to a question from somebody, a friend or family member, who was asking how this person was. It goes, “I am dying, but otherwise quite well.”
Kavita Pillay: Very dry humor up till the end. I’m tempted to say Cleopatra for all of these. But at some point it’s going to be Cleopatra. Who does not have such wit at the end of their life? Let’s see. Bob Hope.
Patrick Cox: Another good guess. Let’s go on to the next one. This was someone who died in a shabby hotel room. “Either that wallpaper goes or I do.”
Kavita Pillay: Oh, this one I know, because it’s so great. It’s so famous. It’s Oscar Wilde.
Patrick Cox: That’s right. He died in poverty in a hotel in Paris in 1900.
Kavita Pillay: Such a great quote. Whether or not he actually said it, I mean, is it known whether he actually said this or is this one of those apocryphal deathbed quotes?
Patrick Cox: I will reveal that, too, at the end of the episode.
Kavita Pillay: Okay.
Patrick Cox: Number four is extremely short: “I’m bored.”
Kavita Pillay: Wow. “I’m bored.” What I would guess on this is it was someone who was very exciting in life. Can I get a hint? Like what part of the world?
Patrick Cox: This is an American writer, and I can give you the year: 1987.
Kavita Pillay: Oh, ’87, an American writer. I’m going to say Philip Roth. I have no idea. I don’t remember when he died.
Patrick Cox: It was not Philip Roth, although I imagine that Philip Roth may well have been extremely bored. It’s a boring thing to do, especially if it’s prolonged.
Kavita Pillay: Right.
Patrick Cox: Number five: This is also kind of a favorite of mine, although this is not a long-time favorite. I only came across it when I was researching this episode: “You are supposed to say beautiful things and you can’t.”
Kavita Pillay: Oh, okay. That’s it? “You are supposed to say beautiful things and you can’t.”
Patrick Cox: This is unfair, this one, because you’re not going to know who this was. I didn’t even know this person existed, although in her country, I think everybody knew her.
Kavita Pillay: Okay. Tell me the country, if you will.
Patrick Cox: Yes, of course. Romania.
Kavita Pillay: Oh, goodness. I have no idea. I think I could have come up with something if I was just guessing without that hint. I really have no idea. I couldn’t even make something up, I don’t think.
Patrick Cox: I would accept a title without the name.
Kavita Pillay: A title? You mean, like some sort of royalty?
Patrick Cox: Ding, ding, ding! Yes. It’s Queen Elisabeth of Romania, who died in 1916. And I feel so sorry for her if that indeed was her last spoken thought.
Kavita Pillay: That’s pretty rough. Obviously, she lived a life in the limelight with a lot of pressure till the end.
Patrick Cox: Till the end. I don’t know about you, but no one I know has ever overheard a dying loved one say something deep or mystical at the very end, or crack a joke. Maybe Queen Elisabeth of Romania didn’t realize that these pronouncements– a lot of them– are invented by others, or at the least, conceived in healthier, earlier days. Maybe she thought these aphorisms and witticisms arrived spur-of-the-moment on the lips of the dying, as a final inspiration. Instead, she is left with her final disappointment: that she couldn’t come up with anything.
“You are supposed to say beautiful things and you can’t.”
But what do we know? Maybe the context was totally different. Maybe Queen Elisabeth of Romania was speaking to her speechwriter, whose job it was to make her sound profound and regal. Maybe she was accusing the speechwriter of having writer’s block, at the most key of moments.
“You are supposed to say beautiful things and you can’t.”
It works that way too.
Sadly, though, there’s no mention in the history books of a speechwriter. Instead, we learn that not only was Elisabeth no longer Queen when she said those words. She lost the title two years before when her husband died. But she was speaking to the new queen, Marie.
No wonder she was at a loss for words.
Patrick Cox: Chapter Two: Whispered in my ear.
Tanmoy Goswami is the founder of Sanity, which is an independent mental health journalism platform in India. He told me this story from his home in Delhi in the middle of a heatwave, which accounts for the noise of the fan in the background.
Tanmoy Goswami: When I was really young — maybe about eight or ten years old– that’s when I experienced the first death, in my family, when my grandfather passed away. And just before he died, he called me and he was very, very old and very ill. And he kind of whispered in my ears — and it’s funny, because I have not remembered or told the story to anybody in a long, long time— he called me and he whispered in my ears the names of his father and his grandfather and his great grandfather. And I was 10 like I said, I don’t remember. I probably remember one or two names, but. I told my father that he had done that and my father was very moved because I think what was obviously happening there was he was trying to make sure that somebody after him knows where his lineage comes from. Of course, only the men: there was no mention of women. That was the first time that I got a taste — and I can only say this in retrospect, of course — of how important it is to us to witness somebody’s last words. That is hard to forget, I think.
Patrick Cox: What comes before last words, long before, if you rewind back to the very beginning.
That’s after the break.
Patrick Cox: Jumping in here to tell you about another podcast you might check out: It’s called All Ears English. This is a great podcast for anyone looking for a new and fun way to learn American English. Hosts Lindsay McMahon and Michelle Kaplan will help you navigate vocab and idioms and– very important– American English small talk. All Ears English is an English as a Second Language podcast for intermediate to advanced English learners around the world. But frankly, I — a native English speaker — I have started listening and I’m learning a ton too. Join the community to learn to speak American English as if you were born in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty! As Lindsay and Michelle say, it’s about Connection not Perfection. Subscribe to All Ears English wherever you’re listening right now.
Patrick Cox: Chapter Three: First words
Michael Erard didn’t just wonder about the last words of Toina, whose remains he’d discovered in the Maine woods. He found himself thinking about first words too.
Michael Erard: I later came to find out that she had kids of her own and that they had, you know, first words. Maybe she remembered them. Maybe she didn’t. If she did when she died, that knowledge sort of disappeared. That passed away as well.
Patrick Cox: Michael’s discovery of Toina came at a pivotal point in his life.
Michael Erard: It was a couple of years after that whole experience of trying to understand why I was so unsettled by it that I had another baby. So, it was kind of this really intense experience with mortality sandwiched by the arrival of two children who were using language for the first time.
Sound of baby saying mama and mother reax
Patrick Cox: Just to be clear, this is not Michael’s family. But you know the scene. Excited baby. Even more excited parent. It was like that for Michael too with his older son.
Michael Erard: He was about 13 months old and he was lying on his back on a bed. And we were at a small hotel in Canada, which is only relevant because there was a ceiling fan above the bed, which we don’t have at home. And this was a baby who was fascinated by things that went around: fans, wheels, propellers. And I was changing his diaper and he was saying, “woun-woun! Woun-woun!” And we might have pointed those things out — you know, fans — and said, “Oh, it’s going around and around.” And I stopped and I said, “Are you saying round-round?” It suddenly occurred to me this might be a production.
Patrick Cox: Something he was actively trying to say. And something that his father responded to.
Michael Erard: He got this big smile on his face. And it was actually the smile in some ways that was the confirmation that I had accurately perceived and identified the thing that he had intended to say to point out to me. “Wow! You said ‘round-round’” and he was really happy that I recognized that.
Patrick Cox: But was that the first word? Michael’s not sure. There were earlier things he said too. Like “ka.” He said that a lot, often pointing at random things. It didn’t seem to have a fixed meaning.
Michael Erard: But it was probably something like just, “Hey, look at that.” Why he would choose “ka” for that? I don’t know. But that was the thing that he regularly said over and over.
Patrick Cox: Does that meet the definition of word? “Ka” meant something. It was intended to draw attention to things. It was part of an interaction. But at the time, it didn’t strike Michael as that moment when a human crosses the linguistic threshold.
Michael Erard: Because I was obsessed with trying to be there for the emergence of this thing and to know, “Oh, here I am on this side. I lived through it, and now I’m on the other side of this.” But I missed it entirely. We didn’t celebrate that. We were scratching our heads.
Patrick Cox: There were sounds before that too, things like “Eh.” Words? No. But Michael’s son did produce these vocalizations for a reason.
Michael Erard: He was manipulating our attention. He was recognizing that we were looking at the same thing. And the same thing that we were looking at was each other, which was now in retrospect really was the dawn of something that was significant, and that things were from there were about to change in some interesting ways.
I kind of came to that first experience with parenting with this idea that when he uses words, then I will really know who he is, then we’ll really be able to connect. But in some ways, I really found that in the year that it took for him to say “eh,” then “ka” and finally, “round-round,” that I didn’t need them. There were so many other ways of understanding his emotional state, his physical needs, his feelings of connection to me and indicating my connection to him that that the words as a thing really weren’t that important. And that happens at the end of life as well.
Patrick Cox: Chapter Four: The diversity of death.
There are many ways to die, and just as many ways to interpret what the dying are saying.
Steve Jobs had pancreatic cancer. His last reported words were, “Oh Wow. Oh Wow. Oh Wow.” Oh course I’ve no idea how he said those words. Was he looking back on his life? Or being transported into a new reality? Was he responding to pain? Or was he delirious?
Other last words are more concrete, much more. Reminders of how cruelly people have died.
“I can’t breathe.”
Those are words with a clear intention — an appeal to be allowed to breathe. Now, because who said them weren’t allowed to breathe, the words have taken on new meanings or subtexts. No more police brutality, End societal racism. Don’t let those ever be anyone’s last words again.
And then there are people’s last words online.
Shephali Bhatt: So Patrick to be honest with you, I have been thinking about our last digital footprints for a while now.
Patrick Cox: This is Shephali Bhatt, a journalist with the Indian publication, Mint. She reports on how the internet is changing how we live. And that term she uses, “last digital footprint,” it’s disconcerting. I don’t know about you, but I don’t especially like the idea of being memorialized via Google searches or my latest tweets.
Shephali Bhatt: There was somebody who was a year younger than me who passed away earlier this year.
Patrick Cox: Someone who worked in tech, who tweeted a lot.
Shephali Bhatt: Their last tweet was actually about hiring dilemmas, a hot topic in the tech industry. So a lot of people engaged with that tweet. A few days after they tweeted that they passed away from a cardiac arrest. And a lot of people wouldn’t know about it if they saw that tweet on their timeline and would respond.
Patrick Cox: The comments, the conversation, they continued for days. Occasionally, someone would chime in saying the person had died. But a lot of people just continued the original conversation about jobs in the tech industry.
Shephali Bhatt: And then an Internet service company that this person had once worked with, put out a tweet saying that this person was once a part of our organization and we pay our condolences. And as is the practice with the Internet, right, people just see a tweet from a service company, and without looking at the context, they just start complaining about the bad service that that company has. It’s just very disrespectful to the last memories of that person. And I think that really pained me to see what was happening.
Patrick Cox: Even now, months later, Shephali is haunted by this arbitrary, misplaced reaction to a person’s last digital footprint. She says she still doesn’t know what to make of it. The circumstances are just too new.
Shephali Bhatt: There are so many ways that it affects you. But how it affects you is something which is very hard to explain.
Patrick Cox: Chapter Five: Hello Goodbye
Among the new end-of-life situations we faced during the pandemic was the presence of technology as a form of communication. Betsy Roslyn is a registered nurse who during part of that time worked in end-of-life-care.
Betsy Roslyn: We had iPads and we did FaceTime.
Patrick Cox: Listening to Betsy, the presence of devices and the Internet in those final interactions, it doesn’t even seem that novel anymore. We are already used to the idea of it.
Betsy Roslyn: It is different talking to someone through a screen rather than having someone hold their loved one’s hands. That’s sort of the hallmark of intimacy at that stage. Even when the words have gone, touch is really important. And hearing loud and clear from people that want to say their goodbyes. And, of course, they were doing it over the screen and it was hard.
Patrick Cox: It also made for hard decisions from the hospice nurses who themselves feared infection.
Betsy Roslyn: Everyone was pretty terrified. I can think of some people that did pass away at our facility and we wouldn’t let any visitors in. One was a 40-year-old man, and I made the decision to admit him to a room that had a window that was directly to the outside. We were used to having a lot of visitors, but we couldn’t allow them in, based on what our director had mandated. And I opened the window but there was still a screen there. And, you know, it was very difficult. If I had to do it again, I probably would have just let them in and dealt with the consequences. As it was, someone questioned my judgment, even opening the window. And I thought, my goodness, you know, here’s this mother trying to touch her son through a screen. And even though we had pushed the bed as close as possible, it seemed really distant.
Patrick Cox: Did you witness — I wouldn’t ask you to relate what specifically what people said to each other — but was the nature of how people may have said their goodbyes or what they said? Did any of that was that different because of those circumstances?
Betsy Roslyn: I think it was. I think it was a lot more tearful. There was an extra level of heartache. It was still something that just made that last interaction so distant. You know, literally the next time they would see this loved one would be at the funeral home. So there was this whole missing piece of the puzzle that is very important when that is the last time they would ever have a chance to see each other.
Patrick Cox: That’s so interesting that you put it that way. And you said before, how important touch was. I mean, here I am doing a story about last words. And it sounds as though there’s a whole missing bit there, which is between those last words and, as you say, the funeral home. And a lot of us have experienced precisely that. I mean, my last week with my dad was entirely without verbal communication. And yet there was plenty of communication. It was just gestural or or, you know, hand squeezes, those kinds of things.
Betsy Roslyn: I think touch is very important and, you know, a cool cloth on someone’s brow, sponging their parched lips. There’s a lot of intimacy in that. And so all of that was taken away.
Patrick Cox: Betsy says the way we die varies of course, from one person to the next. But like everyone who’s been around it a lot, she sees patterns.
Betsy Roslyn: There’s a description called the “laboring process of death.” And much like a woman going into labor and experiencing the contractions, there’s a flow to it with an expectation at the end of the birth. A patient transitions from a state of functioning organs to a literal shutting down, somewhat systematically. Words can come back, but I don’t think they would be a sentence. It might be monosyllables, a repetitive word — or I’ve read that people will say “Mama” or things like that. And they lack the strength to actually get a verbalization out. Their vocal cords fail them at that point. Does that make sense?
Patrick Cox: Yeah. I mean, it’s funny you should say “Mama” because one thinks of that more typically as a first word.
Betsy Roslyn: That’s true.
Michael Erard: We are such a word-oriented culture and we are such a speech-oriented culture. Words, legible words — and legible words to which we can attribute some sort of intention — will always take precedence over other sorts of behaviors.
Patrick Cox: We have to beat back words, Michael Erard says. Or at least understand them for what they are. And sometimes they don’t have much to do with what they’re supposed to mean.
Michael Erard: There’s a whole set of things that happen at the end of life which are kind of problematic such as delirious language. Are the things that someone says when they’re delirious, are they intentional? Is it that person speaking? You’ll hear, you know, phrases like, “That’s not your father, that’s the disease.” Or, “Your father is not saying that. Your father is gone.” So you don’t have to be troubled by what it is that you’re hearing. But in the same way that when you look at observations of children’s early communicative behavior — the emergence of early vocabulary — it’s not a straight line.
Patrick Cox: Not a straight line but a gradient. At the beginning of life, words are thrown out in the air, sometimes with meaning, sometimes without. And bit by bit, they acquire what we think of as sense. It may be an indication that the person speaking is behaving less as an organism, more as their own self.
The reverse happens at the end of life, as words become detached from their semantic meaning– though they may still have some sort of meaning, especially when combined with groans, sighs, gestures, eye contact, and all kinds of other communication cues that aren’t rooted in language.
Michael Erard: So it opens up the possibility of considering other sorts of behaviors as an articulation of consciousness, as a final articulation of who that person is that’s not just the witticism or is not just the word, but is — someone told me a story about, you know, someone who has a father, not very old, who was dying of cancer and wasn’t able to to to verbalize anything but sort of opened his eyes and very intently, had he had as his daughters, who are quite young at the bar and sort of just looked at each of them, one after another very intently. And then he passed away.
Patrick Cox: Michael Erard is writing a book about all this, last words and first. He owes a lot, he says, to Toina. Finding what was left of her in the woods, he knew he had that responsibility that he talked about, to help give her a social death. But also, he’d never met her, he didn’t know her. And that’s why that encounter opened a door, he says, when it came to starting to write about death and words.
Michael Erard: Because I had no connection to her I don’t need my discussion of dying and death to reflect anything that I need from her. I don’t need to connect to her specifically through these ideas or what I’m writing about. Sometimes — and I’m probably not going to say this right — but sometimes I feel like people who get interested in death and dying are doing so because someone close to them has passed away and they’re still processing that personal loss at the same time that they’re learning about death and dying. One of the gifts that I think that Toina gave to me was opening the door to the topic. But without that personal grief. It was a grief for sure, but it wasn’t a personal one.
Patrick Cox: Michael Erard. His book on first and last words and what they tell us about language will be published by MIT Press at some point in the future. Big thanks to Michael, also to Tanmoy Goswani , Shephali Bhatt and Betsy Roslyn. And of course to Kavita Pillay, Subtitle co-host and quiz contestant. The answers, by the way, are coming up in a minute or so.
Subtitle is a member of the Hub and Spoke audio collective. We’re a bunch of podcasters who’re all dedicated to telling stories about stuff that you won’t come across in many other places. Here’s one of the other Hub and Spoke podcasts: Ministry of Ideas. In the latest episode of Ministry of Ideas, host Zachary Davis explores the complex nature of national borders and discovers they are not really the fixed lines on a map some of us imagine them to be.
Thanks for listening. Now for the answers to the quiz.
Patrick Cox: Kavi.
Kavita Pillay: Let’s do it.
Patrick Cox: “All my possessions for a moment of time.”
Kavita Pillay: I said Cleopatra.
Patrick Cox: You said Cleopatra. It was Queen Elizabeth I of England.
Kavita Pillay: Okay, so I was on the right track.
Patrick Cox: Number two. This was the one that’s my favorite. In response to a question about how this person was: “I am dying, but otherwise quite well.” This was the British poet and critic Edith Sitwell, who died in 1964.
Kavita Pillay: Good quote, I wouldn’t have known it.
Patrick Cox: Okay. Number three you got right. That was the Oscar Wilde quote, just before he died in 1900: “Either that wallpaper goes or I do.” That particular quote is probably not those words. It may have only appeared in a letter that he wrote. There’s all kinds of different stories about that. As there are with the other ones, the Queen Elizabeth I too. I don’t think many people think that she actually said that, but it was said on her behalf, perhaps. Okay. Number Four was “I’m bored.” American author and activist, died in 1987. James Baldwin.
Kavita Pillay: Oh, wow. I would not have paired up James Baldwin with that quote.
Patrick Cox: I think everything in his whole world moved at great speed and with great passion. And dying probably was a bit of a letdown. And number five, which you got right. Again, “You’re supposed to say beautiful things and you can’t.” Queen Elisabeth of Romania, who died in 1916. A bonus quote for you now, just so we don’t end on a total bummer. This was from 1994. And here’s the quote: “I want the world to be filled with white, fluffy duckies.”
Kavita Pillay: Oh, what a lovely thought on your way out. Could you say it again? Lovely, fluffy duckies?
Patrick Cox: “I want the world to be filled with white, fluffy duckies.”
Kavita Pillay: Ah, white fluffy duckies. Is this a person who was somehow known for duckies?
Patrick Cox: Not to my knowledge. This is a person who dreamed up very baroque images. So in that sense, it is in keeping.
Kavita Pillay: Okay. So someone creative?
Patrick Cox: Yes.
Kavita Pillay: Any other hints?
Patrick Cox: He was a filmmaker, a British filmmaker who made kind of art films that sometimes entered not exactly the mainstream, but they were successes.
Kavita Pillay: Let’s see.
Patrick Cox: Oh, there’s my barking dog in the background. Louis, have you got the answer?
Kavita Pillay: Oh, sweet.
Patrick Cox: His name is Derek Jarman.
Kavita Pillay: Oh, yeah. I would not have known that, but it’s a great quote.
Patrick Cox: His world may now be filled with white, fluffy duckies.
Kavita Pillay: Let’s hope. I hope he got his wish.
Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.