As I was setting up my display table for a book reading at Crane’s Mill Retirement Community, a woman hurried over to point to the subtitle of my book and say, “Why would anyone want to know what other people said at the end?” As I answered, I had the feeling that no answer would do, because after I did so, she retorted, disappointment marring her face, “That’s what I thought you would say,” and took off before I could refine the dialogue further. My answer had been, “As we hear what people say at such a poignant and intimate time, we can gain some insight as to what is important and meaningful to ourselves, and ponder how we want to spend the rest of our own lives.”
I wonder what she was after, and why she was so unsatisfied by my answer. Shall we speculate? (I say “we” because you can respond in the comments section after this post.) If she had lingered longer, perhaps our dialogue would have gone like this:
Me: What do you wish I had said?
Her: Well I’m not sure, but that is the expected answer.
Me: (Nodding in agreement) Uh-huh. A canned answer.
Her: (Flustered) Well no it’s you see it’s just like wanting to know what is going through a prisoner’s mind before they get executed.
Me: What would be scary about finding out?
Her: Oh I don’t know about scary. Some things are better left to the imagination.
Me: My curiosity does get the better of me sometimes.
Her: I suppose there’s no harm in that. But why about such a….such a (look of distaste on her face) subject.
Me: I guess finding out what people think towards the end makes you uneasy. Maybe for you it’s not like what people say who are about to start a new job or how are about to retire or who are trying something else that’s new for the first time.
Her: Yes, those are different.
Me: (I keep quiet, wondering if I’ve struck gold.)
Her: This is too close to home. (She pauses and I refrain from any potential diversions from what she needs to articulate.) It’s private. We shouldn’t know about what other people say. It’s like, I don’t know, it’s like catching someone in their pajamas. Like you first said, it’s a very personal time.
Me: When someone is dying, or looking back on their life as a whole, it can be very intimate. And when we hear about these conversations, we can feel very vulnerable and unprotected. Perhaps you have lost a loved one recently. I hope, though, that in the spirit that I reveal these encounters, that readers will feel accompanied and understood rather than intruded upon.
Her: (She nods and thanks me, leaving me wondering what even deeper layer would evolve if we were to speak at a future time. Had she lost someone recently? Had that person not talked with her towards the end and left her feeling alienated? Had she herself not broached important but scary subjects and regrets not having done so while she still had the chance? Perhaps she did not like my initial answer because it reminded her that she failed to make use of that intimate and irretrievable time.)
You: (If that woman had engaged in a dialogue with you about her repugnance at finding out what other people say at the end, what other direction might it have gone?)