Transforming Software Developers into Solution Providers

Traditional approaches to software development have been greatly influenced by the Agile Manifesto, a fundamental guide for those involved in this field. At its core, the manifesto prioritises…


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Last Words

In the middle of the night I often wake up thinking of “last words” as the stuff of fiction and fate. Death is always a thigh-slapper, even at two in the morning. I am thinking about being at sea, reflecting on my years in the Navy and returning to the sea one last time after my death. The idea came neither in a dream or an unsolicited email from Nigeria. The idea came in a Facebook message from the Navy about burial at sea. As the color guard belts out Taps one last time, a line officer reads my last third-party words: “This sailor who felt he was at sea most of his life is finally coming home.” Or I could use a heroic couplet.

I’m thinking about writing a book about “Last Words,” the moment, with death staring us in the face, when meaning and clarity stops us in our tracks. I recall when my father was on his deathbed and my mother told her three sons that he had seen angels dancing at the foot of his bed. We were Catholic and I was not surprised that my Dad would see angels, even though we were immigrants, the toilet didn’t work and the furniture was wobbly. The angels apparently arrived before the priest who claimed we were a little outside his blessed zip code.

The last words I remember him saying were that the boys would be better off in America. I thought about his last words a lot. I recall standing by his graveside at St. Agnes Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, wondering if I would be better off joining my father at that time. I was fifteen so goodness knows what I was thinking. Of course I was sad at my father’s death but I was also hungry, bullied at school, and treated like a Limey outsider.

But the mind wanders. Something seemed out of place at graveside. My father was in a heavy, ornate mahogany coffin that seemed like expensive furniture one would find in the shop window. Years later, I learned this was a shell game by the Skeleton Funeral home — no joke — that removed the outer skin before the burial and put in the ground a wooden box. I discovered this switch when I returned to Pittsburgh to have my father disinterred and reburied with my mother. A grave digger told me the tale.

A few years ago I phoned my older brother who was living in Tucson. He had Parkinson’s and was having a tough time. That was the arc of his life. Our mother had put him an orphanage when he was three and he stayed there until he went into the British Army on his way to Hiroshima to help with cleanup operations after the bomb was dropped.

I heard my brother’s voice as if through the fog: “My phone, my phone,” he said while someone in the background urged, “Now you must try to move your legs.” I assumed he was in the hospital. Those were the last words I heard from my brother. He died shortly after the call. His son took over the phone and seemed to delight in the power to keep the rest of the family at bay. He sent out a death announcement without mentioning his father’s fifteen years in an orphanage.

I had flown in to see my sister in Canterbury, England, right before Christmas. I could see right away that she was nervous and out of sorts. We walked a lot and she held tight to my hand. I thought it strange that my sister, who rarely drank alcohol, carried a flask of whiskey diluted with water. I begged her to go to the doctor or hospital but she was reluctant, citing dealing with the National Health Service before Christmas. But she promised to get help after I left for the states. Her last words to me were: “If something happens, would you take care of things.” I said yes and left for New York. The day after Christmas I received word from the hospital that she died of a cerebral hemorrhage. My brothers and I returned to England to bury her.

I recall my last conversation with a friend, a veteran who served in Korea. He had been treated over the years for PTSD at the VA but never seemed to banish the demon. As far as I could tell, his family was very kind and supportive. During my last conversation with him he said, “These women are killing me.” I think I just listened, attributing this to the pain he was feeling. I didn’t for a minute think this was an accurate description of his wife, daughters and in-laws. A month later I received a message that he had taken his own life. His last words still haunt me.

During Hurricane Harvey I have been thinking about being in and under water. I recalled being in a typhoon in the Pacific. We had lost our engines, our rudder and electronics. In a number of holds the bombs had broken loose and were careening around the lower decks. We were helpless and could do little more than toss our bedding between the bombs to soften their movement. My shipmates and I knew that was a fantasy. I was sure our ship was going to sink.

During this bedlam we heard the captain’s voice over the 1MC, the ship’s communications system. He was reciting the Lord’s Prayer that reached us below decks in bits and pieces, mournful and incomplete. Within hours I returned to the navigation bridge to watch the waters recede, the winds back down and the sun rise in the east. It was an exquisite religious moment, outside of doctrine and outside of time.

When I reflect on these “Last Words,” I think about what else I could have done, to intervene, to slow or stop death. I’m not sure but know that is the heroic approach and life doesn’t away give us that option. Our lives are filled with such tragic moments that slip beyond our fingertips.

At the very least, hearing and preserving “Last Words” is a huge responsibility, an invitation to act, listen and remember and an invitation to prayer.

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