It was a Saturday afternoon. My French husband, who had taken early retirement three months earlier, was alone at his family home in Brittany. I was in London, where I was due to do the Sunday shift at work. The distance was nothing unusual, as a driven “career woman” I’d insisted on keeping separate identities.
Over our years together, we’d survived Moscow-Paris, New York-Strasbourg and Paris-Strasbourg. London-Paris was a doddle by comparison. On that Saturday afternoon, I rang Sylvain, who was in the house for which he had big plans for when we would be retired. He told me that he was waiting for a man to empty the septic tank.
The next morning, Sunday 25 January, 2009, Sylvain got up, went into the bathroom and had a brain haemorrhage that killed him instantly. His mother called me when I was on my way to work, panicked that she couldn’t get hold of him for their daily chat. I left a series of increasingly anxious voicemails. Within the hour, his body had been found and I left London to get to the village in Brittany.
I can never forget that last phone call in which nothing personal was discussed, and I pretended to express an interest in the workings of a septic tank and Sylvain’s DIY progress. When I look back on our conversation now with continuing regret, it was an important lesson for me. A wake-up call, even, about getting the work-life balance right.
The last time I saw my sister, she stormed out of the room. I can’t remember what I said. I can’t remember what she said. I can’t even remember if that definitely was the last time I saw her. But I will never, ever forget the phone call from my father telling me that she had collapsed and died.
I can’t remember the last thing my father said, when he died, two years later. I can’t remember the last thing my mother said, when she died, just before Christmas last year. But the other day I found the voicemail she left me, on my birthday, the week before she died. When I listened to it, I thought I was going to have to lie down in the street. I could not bear the thought that I would not hear that voice again.
My heart goes out to princes William and Harry, as they endlessly replay that too-short conversation with the mother they lost when they were far too young. But no conversation can bear the weight, and freight, of words that are only “last words” when you look back. None of us can know when we will die. None of us can know when anyone else will die. And the truth is, it doesn’t matter what people say before they die. What matters is that the people we love know we love them, and we know that they love us.
It was a shock when my uncle died, but it wasn’t sudden. He’d been suffering since his traffic accident nearly 10 years ago, and when a stroke some years later left him housebound – and his spirit altered in ways he worked hard to hide as his condition deteriorated.
There was a language barrier between my uncle and I. As a child I didn’t seem to care, but as the self-consciousness of adulthood loomed, the barrier began to cause me anxiety. I felt ashamed that I couldn’t communicate with him better, and soon I found telephone calls – already painful enough with line delays – were bordering on unbearable.
Instead, I wrote emails. In an email I had time to put the best version of myself forward, and to be the niece who made him proud. I knew my English-speaking cousins could read it to him if Google wasn’t up to scratch, and I was confident I could make him smile. Some small omissions from the truth, sure, but what harm could there be?
When he’d write back – also via Cousin Mail – he’d often say he wanted to hear my voice. “Sure, I’ll call soon,” I’d say. I never did.
When he died, I cried about not calling. I thought if I had heard his voice, maybe I could have done what all other relatives living an ocean apart from him couldn’t: realise he was sicker than he said.
Afterwards, the doctors told us there was nothing anyone could have done, that he lasted much longer than expected, that he always seemed happy, and he wanted others to be happy; that happiness kept people going. I realise now that phone call or not – we spoke the same language after all.
I still have the Very Rev’d Colin Slee’s mobile number in my phone contacts. Formerly the Dean of Southwark Cathedral, he died back in 2010, and I still can’t bring myself to delete his number. Colin was a great friend, and we shared the same mischievous weakness for ecclesiastical gossip. That’s the reason I thought he’d phoned the last time we spoke. “Mate, can I call you back?” I said, busy with something or other. But by the time I remembered to call him back, a few days later, he was dead. And every time I scroll down past his name in my contacts I regret I didn’t speak to him there and then.
Since having a heart attack a few weeks ago I have thought quite a lot about what conversations my own death would have left undone. Often people say they want to die quickly, painlessly and in their sleep. I think that’s a huge mistake. Because to die quickly can be to miss out on some of the most important conversations you can ever have with someone: “I’m sorry” or “I love you” or even some version of plain “goodbye”. Some are robbed of these conversations by a sudden death, and none of us know how long we have left. Which is why it’s worth having them with each other all the time. Now. Tonight. Don’t put it off. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wasn’t far off when he advised us to live each day as if it were our last.