The driver of tomorrow is not thinking Green...

The driver of tomorrow is not thinking Green...
He's thinking Classic. (click on photo)


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Sep 30, 2009

This Is the End - Martha Brockenbrough

The dying words of famous people
By Martha Brockenbrough

This is my last column for Encarta, a job I've had for nine years. In the grand scheme, that isn't a lot of time. But it does amount to more than half of my career and about a quarter of my life, not to mention hundreds of thousands of words.
For me, anyway, it's a big deal.

There's a lot of pressure to make my last words here great ones, which is why I've been thinking about the subject with the help of a delightful little book compiled by Ray Robinson called "Famous Last Words: Fond Farewells, Deathbed Diatribes and Exclamations Upon Expiration." I'm not the first writer to have a little morbid fun with other people's dying utterances.

The novelist John Green in "Looking for Alaska" made last words his main character's hobby. The ones he credits to Leo Tolstoy are perhaps my favorite: "The truth is … I care a great deal … what they …."

What does he care a great deal about? What is on the lunch menu? What they discovered living in his giant, puffy beard? We'll never know -- and I do love a good mystery.
Maybe even more appropriate for me is the novel "elsewhere," by Gabrielle Zevin. It's about a dead 15-year-old whose last word is "um" -- oddly fitting for someone fatally interrupted in the midst of age-appropriate confusion.

"Um" almost works here.

It's much more honest than "I am ready," the last gasp of President Woodrow Wilson. It's more appealing than "Get my swan costume ready," last uttered by the ballerina Anna Pavlova.

(Besides, my family owns a one-size-fits-all chicken suit, which is very useful for lessons in the difference between lie and lay.)

The question is: What do I really want someone else to say for me?
If I had regrets to express, I might quote the economist John Maynard Keynes, who said, "I wish I had drunk more champagne." If he'd lived to see this economy, he might have said a lot more. (Keynes was a big fan of public-works spending; it would be a celebratory thing.)

If I wanted to go for a good laugh, maybe I'd quote General John Sedgwick, a Union army commander.

"They couldn't hit an elephant at this dist-" he said, just before he was fatally shot in the face. But really, there's only so much comedy you can milk out of fatal face shootings. (Non-lethal face shootings are a much more fertile subject. See Cheney, Dick: fun hunting trips with friends.)

If I were totally unethical, I could quote Warren G. Harding, one of our most corrupt presidents (and coiner of the word "normalcy.") As he lay dying, he said, "That's good. Go on, read some more," which I could say was his endorsement of my goal with this column: to interest people in a topic and encourage them to seek more knowledge.

That would be taking things wildly out of context, though. Harding's wife was reading a puff piece about him in the Saturday Evening Post and he didn't want the flattery to end. Then again, maybe taking things out of context is the right unethical way to honor Harding.
I could go for a bit of gauzy poetry, too. Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, illuminated his wife with a tantalizing message. "It's very beautiful over there," he said. (Was he going toward the light? Is heaven lit with 60-watt bulbs -- or more? And was Jennifer Love Hewitt's "Ghost Whisperer" there?)

I wish I could say that what's next for me with any certainty (beyond the compact fluorescent bulb, which is what I've stocked my office with). The truth is that the writer's life is much as the journalist and satirist Ambrose Bierce described in a letter before he disappeared in Mexico when he was 71.

"As to me," he wrote, "I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination."

So do I, and this is one of the hardest parts about making a living with words. You really don't know what's next, and unless you're James Patterson, there's no such thing as a sure thing. But that's also what keeps it interesting. That, and the great exchanges I've had with my editors and readers. Those are the connections that turn the act of making a living into a life full of joy and meaning.

I think, though, my favorite set of last words comes from Karl Marx. It's especially appropriate given that my first real newspaper article, written for my college newspaper 21 years ago, was about his associate Friedrich Engels. The headline read: "New Marks from Engels" -- a cheesy pun that still delights me.
Marx said, "Go on, get out. Last words are for fools who haven't said enough."

I think that's good advice. And besides, I've had a glimmer of an idea about starting a whole new category of last utterances, one that reflects my work with the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar.

So I'm not going to give any last words here. Instead, I'm choosing a final bit of punctuation, the one that shows an omission, a pause, or a thought that's trailing off, or more hopefully, marching ahead. So go ahead, read my ellipsis, however you choose ...

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