The Last Time
Photo: The Family Homestead in rural Nova Scotia where my father was born and raised.
How to Deepen Your Relationships and Sweeten Your Life With This Simple and Ancient Practice.
If you’d rather listen than read, you can find the audio version on my podcast, Sound Insight, Season 2, episode 12.
Do you have friends like this?
The other day I met a friend for tea. We’ve known each other for more than 40 years. She’s one of those people who has drifted in and out of my life, like a fine weave in a treasured garment. Sometimes we will go a few years with no contact at all and then come together again for a season, as if no time has passed.
Still, this conversation was different. Warm and easy as always, but deeper and more connected somehow.
We talked about getting older and that sense that, as another friend puts it, “the runway is getting short.” We talked about what that means for our mutual passion for writing and our desire to publish. We talked about the sense of urgency this awareness of a short runway creates.
Then she told me that as much as there is lots of writing she still wants to do, she’s decided to make more time for tea with good friends.
“Afterall,” she said, “You never know how many more afternoon teas like this we will get.”
I don’t think this thought came out of the blue. She had recently lost a friend who went from a terminal diagnosis to death within a few months.
For me, the comment turned the conversation from a casual catch up to a precious opportunity to connect with someone important to me.
This is life. It ends. And we rarely know when any encounter will be our last.
The Stoics spoke about the power of this simple truth to transform our relationships with each other and with life.
It’s the great and often hidden gift of impermanence.
The last piece of chocolate.
On the meditation app, Waking Up, there’s a brief recording called “The Last Time Meditation” guided by William B. Irvine, author, and expert on Stoic philosophy. He begins, “I have some gloomy news for you, for everything you do, there will be a last time.”
He goes on to make the point that this really isn’t gloomy at all, but a powerful practice we can use to keep us from taking life and our relationships for granted.
Imagine, if someone offers you a piece of chocolate and tells you that this is the last piece of chocolate you will ever eat.
What are you going to do?
Are you going to drop to your knees and wail that life is unfair and unbearable because, you are about to be deprived of chocolate? (Well maybe. Probably.)
But also, you would take that piece of chocolate and savor every single morsel. You would allow yourself to experience every exquisite bite. That piece of chocolate might turn out to be the best piece of chocolate you ever eat.
The Last Time Practice is to briefly consider the question, what if this is the last time?
The last time to eat this chocolate, or the last time to connect with this person? What would I do differently?
On his popular and very funny blog Wait but Why, author, Tim Urban shares a light-hearted, but no less sobering take on this in an article called, The Tail End. Among other things, he does some brutal math on how little time we all get to do the things we really love. And how little time there is to connect to the people who are really important to us.
After doing some personal calculations, he wrote “It turns out that when I graduated from high school, I had already used up 93% of my in-person parent time.”
You can think about that from the parent’s point of view. That teenager who is causing you no end of grief right now, is not going to be “in your face” very much longer. And that’s assuming all goes well and you both live long healthy lives.
Contemplating loss heightens our appreciation of what we have.
The last months of my father’s life were difficult.
He was an old man suffering the final ravages of Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s had robbed him of his ability to walk and stripped away his voice. He spoke in whispers and in the end, I was one of the few who could still understand him.
It was a sad, exhausting, and heartbreaking time. But it was also a precious time. I began to feel an almost overwhelming sense of gratitude for him, for the wonderful father he had been to me, for our special relationship. It was bittersweet.
During that time, I wrote a tribute to him that would eventually serve as his eulogy. I didn’t write it for him. I wrote it for me, in part, to help me process my almost overwhelming waves of anticipatory grief.
When I finished it, though, I began to wonder if I should share it with him. To do so, would be to openly acknowledge what we all knew. I wasn’t sure how he would feel about hearing his own eulogy? Would he want to?
I talked to some people close to me about it and the response was mixed. My husband feared it might be too difficult for both of us. Others wondered if it might be depressing for him or make him anxious.
But this haunting question remained, “How would I feel when he died, if I didn’t share this expression of how much he meant to me?” What if the next time I saw him was the last?
I decided to ask the one person who would know the right thing to do.
I asked my dad.
I was uncomfortable and tentative, “I wrote this thing. It’s about you. I decided to write it knowing that you will not be around much longer.”
He did the perfect thing to put me at ease. He put his hand to his chest and gasped, as if the thought that he was nearing the end of his life had never occurred to him. I laughed.
“Would you like me to read it to you?” I asked.
He nodded his head vigorously. His eyes brimming with eagerness and curiosity.
When I finished reading it, because it was difficult to speak, he reached out and grabbed my hand. Then he put his other hand over his heart. (A few days later he confessed that he reread it four times.)
That was not our last conversation, but after that, no more conversation was necessary. I felt a tremendous sense of peace.
How would your interactions change if you considered them your last?
What if the fight you had with your spouse was your last conversation?
What if you were about to hug your daughter or kiss the top of your son’s head for the last time?
What if you had just one more chance to have tea with a dear friend?
The Stoics did not mean for us to dwell or churn on these questions, or to become morose and depressed. They meant us to hold them lightly in the back of our minds. They wanted us to be present to the preciousness and impermanence of life.
One of the gifts of getting older is that these questions do not seem like such a stretch. As you get older, you start losing friends and loved ones. You become increasingly mindful that you are approaching your last time for many things. And strangely, for me, it heightens my appreciation of them. It makes me more present and more grateful.
But the last time practice is not just for when you get older. The Stoics taught this practice to their young students.
Holding that question, “What if this is the last time?” is a powerful way to live no matter your age. It sharpens your attention. It heightens your experience. It kicks you into a higher level of appreciation and gratitude for what poet Mary Oliver calls, “your one wild and precious life.”
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