I’m a collector of last words. The first last words I collected in my career itched under my young dog collar: “Fuck your white god. If he.” Death interrupted the man. Closed his life with that final full stop.
He had seen it in the way my feet counted steps when I walked in that I was only a greenhorn under that sombre black of my cassock, and had gone straight for the throat of my belief.
I had never been in the same room with Death, or with a person with death’s grey breath on their lips, so I did not know anything about the ceremony of dying and how only the dying person’s words are important at that moment, because it is the only thing they have left in them, the rest of their being already at the edge of the dark.
When he said, “Fuck your white god. If he—,” a holy wrath started up a boiling from the bottom of my heart, but I bit Satan down, and spat, from behind clenched teeth, “First, God is not white; He does not have a colour. He—” I could feel my voice a hot thing in my throat, the words burning on my tongue in defence of my Employer.
It was his daughter. She was the one who had called me.
Dead? How could he be? Did people just die in mid-breath like that? How could he just leave me with my indignation half-cooked, the hot fury beating in my chest, useless now. How hadn’t I noticed; how would I be a successful collector of last words if I couldn’t tell the sigh of a full stop from one of a comma, or semi-colon. Yes, I’d heard a sigh, but had thought it was just one of many sighs in a long chain of dying sighs waiting beneath his breath; you know, death unfolding in small breaths. I thought people died in pieces, sigh by sigh, not abruptly like that. Wasn’t it why it was a dying.
I soon came to learn that that final sigh was actually the sound of life leaving as a whole, not in bits of breaths, not in small-small phrases broken by commas of sighs like I’d imagined. It was all of the dying person’s life, all the years of his existence compressed into that single breath and relinquished to its Owner.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
“I am sorry,” she said, on his behalf.
You cannot hold a grudge against a dead person, it’s holding air in your pocket if you do. I was sorry. I was the fool. When I should have prayed for the man’s soul when it was still within reach, I had drawn the shiny theological sword against a dying man, and had kept waving it even after the ‘attacker’ had conceded.
“It’s okay,” the daughter said, touching my tears, as if the father who had died was mine.
“He was lost anyway,” she continued, “Calling you had only been a last desperate lunge for his drowning soul, and—”
I couldn’t bear to hear another heavy word about this soul that had slipped between my fingers because instead of holding it I had made a fist and let it go.
I took the rest of my tears home with me, to cry them in the darkness of my room, listening to monastic chants from the distance, listen for God. . .
I’m the first person they call when they sense Death’s presence as just a shadow on the horizon. I collect the dying person’s words in my heart, and try to guide them towards the Light, before the night comes for them.
My memory is a bag full of these last words, forgotten, of forgotten faces, unremembered names, unknown people.
When they called me for you, you were not at the end yet like the others; you still had a long way to go, and miles of words to walk through with me.
Why did they call me this early, while you were still on the outskirts of death, I wondered as I sat beside the bed.
You took my hand, and began,
“Remember my father? He died in this same room thirty years ago, in the middle of a sentence. Told you to go and, no, didn’t tell you to go and do it; he said, ‘Fuck your white god’.”
Because that had been my first it was at the bottomest part of the heap of dead memories of last words. It came up with a stink now, stung.
“You remember. I’m the daughter.” The years were heavy in your eyes, the weight had ground you to a paste; as if you would pour out of the bed if anyone tried to move you. You had been young then, and even in that moment of death many years ago you had looked immortal in the way you were like a glass filled to the brim with life; but now you looked as if you had lived three other people’s lives in yours, piling their ages upon yours as well.
“I had called you not to pray for him, but to tell you something, in his presence, before he died. But you had. . . He had touched your god in the wrong place, and you had, I’m sorry. . .”
You were so weak that your voice could only manage to come out in thin, frail breaths that broke off your lips and fell, and I had to bend my ear to your face to catch the words. I had spent many years collecting these last words that I now knew not to interrupt them, just let them fill the space, and gather them up at the end. I could now sense the end, in the way a breath broke in the middle; that was when, with a gentle touch, I would stop the speaker, to give them that final word of prayer to take with them on the rest of the journey.
“But the invitation had not been about God, but about you, us — me, him, you. . . He was not a good man, and I hadn’t called you to make him one, like I said then, his soul was lost, and I saw how you mourned that loss as if it was your fault, it wasn’t. It wasn’t for his soul I called you that day. . . He was not just my father — he was yours too.”
I didn’t have a father. Had never had one. Well, “God is your Father, our Father,” the Sisters at the orphanage told us while growing up. “And your mother, and brother, and sister — the only true family anyone has is God, whether they have a father or not.”
I hadn’t understood how God could be our Father, everybody’s at the same time, but I’d let Him be It, and didn’t argue with the Sisters.
“He was,” you continued. “But he didn’t know. The orphanage found you where I put you to be found. I was only fifteen, and he should have stopped. But nine years doesn’t just stop one day, and it didn’t, he didn’t, until I put that. . . that majele in his food one day, and he began to die in bits, for years, I watched him, but couldn’t take back from him the years he’d stolen from me, so it was useless; but then, I couldn’t give him his life back, I just let it slip away in sips, watching it. . . I couldn’t be mother and sister in one body, especially a battered one like mine; you were too beautiful, but you were a wound, a rotting one that had to be gotten rid of or it would have become the gangrenous limb of the family. . . But when I saw you again, I saw that that wound hadn’t healed, hadn’t been just a scar far away. Your presence in the parish those many years ago opened up this wound, and I knew it was time to deal with it, so I.”
I looked up. Looked for life in your eyes, on your lips. Looked around the room — caught the hem of Death’s cloak just sweeping out of sight.