When I was a lad, my mother told me about the death of her grandmother in the 1920s. “She was speaking to angels,” mom told me. At least that is what she had told her family gathered around her bed.
When I was a hospice volunteer, I visited one of my patients a few days before he died. When his wife left the room, he told me that he could hear his mother calling him. Here’s the thing: His mother was long dead and the voice he heard was hers, he told me, and used the nickname that only she had ever called him. “Am I going nuts?” he asked me. ”No,” I told him, thinking of my own mother’s story, ”it’s perfectly natural.” ”Is it really my mother?” he asked. “I don’t know,” I replied. ”But I hope it is.”
Another friend, who died of breast cancer far too young, told me shortly before her death that she had experienced a vision of being held in the arms of Jesus. She was a faithful Catholic and it gave her great comfort. We all have such stories.
I bring this up because Steve Jobs’ last words, as reported by his sister Mona Simpson, seemed to imply that something awesome was happening to him. The columnist Peggy Noonan also noticed. From her Wall Street Journal column:
“Before embarking, he’d looked at his sister Patty, then for a long time at his children, then at his life’s partner, Laurene, and then over their shoulders past them. Steve’s final words were: ‘OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW.’” The caps are Simpson’s, and if she meant to impart a sense of wonder and mystery she succeeded. “Oh wow” is not a bad way to express the bigness, power and force of life, and death. And of love, by which he was literally surrounded.
Ultimate questions arise, even if we are reading into his statement that which was not intended. I like Noonan’s analysis:
I sent Ms. Simpson’s eulogy to a number of people and spoke to some of them, and they all had two things in common in terms of their reaction. They’d get a faraway look, and think. And if they had a thought to share they did it with modesty. No one said, “I think I can guess what he saw,” “I know who he saw,” or “Believe me, if he saw anything it was the product of the last, disordered sparks of misfiring neurons.” They were always modest, reflective. One just said, “Wow.” Modesty when contemplating death is a good thing. When words leave people silent and thinking they are powerful words. Steve Jobs’ last words were the best thing said in 2011.
We will all reach that, “Oh wow,” moment. Uniquely among the species, we know it is coming ever closer and that, transhumanism notwithstanding, there is no escape. More than anything else, I think, that terrible understanding is core to what it means to be human, powerfully influencing what we believe and how we choose to live. Death matters because life does, and life matters because we are all going to die.