Elisabeth Morris

The embarrassment of finality

“Live as if each moment were your last.” How often I used to come across such advice in the books that I read! At least it seemed often to me too often. For while I accepted it as being probably good advice if one could follow it, yet follow it I couldn’t.

For one thing, I could never bring myself to feel this “last”-ness of each moment. I tried and failed. I was good at make-believe, too, but this was out of all reason.

I still fail. The probability that each moment is really my last is, I suppose, growing theoretically greater as the clock ticks, yet I am no more able to realize it than I used to be. I no longer try to; and, what is more, I hope I never shall. I hope that when my last moment really comes, it may slip by unrecognized. If it doesn’t, I am sure I don’t know what I shall do.

For I find that this sense of finality is not a spur, but an embarrassment. Only consider: suppose this moment, or let us say the next five minutes, is really my last what shall I do? Bless me, I can’t think! I really cannot hit upon anything important enough to do at such a time. Clearly, it ought to be important, something having about it this peculiar quality of finality. It should have finish, it should in some way be expressive of something I wonder what? It should leave a good taste in one’s mouth. If I consulted my own savage instincts I should probably pick up a child and kiss it; that would at all events leave a good taste. But, suppose there were no child about, or suppose the child kicked because he was playing and didn’t want to be interrupted what a fiasco!

Moreover, one must consider the matter from the child’s standpoint: he, of course, ought also to be acting as if each moment were his last. And in that case, ought he to spend it in being kissed by me? Not necessarily. At any rate, I should be selfish to assume this. Perhaps he ought to wash his hands, or tell his little sister that he is sorry he slapped her. Perhaps I ought to tell my little sister something of that sort if it wasn’t slapping, it was probably something else.

But no, five minutes are precious. If they are my last, she will forgive me anyway de mortuis, etc.; it would be much more necessary to do this if I were sure of going on living and meeting her at meals; then, indeed.

Yet there must be something that one ought to do in these five minutes. There is enough that needs doing, at least there would be if they were not my last. There is the dusting, and the marketing, and letter-writing, and sewing, and reading, and seeing one’s friends. But under the peculiar circumstances, none of these things seems suitable. I give it up. The fact must be that very early in life before I can remember I formed a habit of going on living, and of expecting to go on, which became incorrigible. And the contrary assumption produces hopeless paralysis. As to these last five minutes that I have been trying to plan for, I think I will cut them out, and stop right here. It will do as well as anywhere. Though I still have a hankering to kiss that baby!

I might think the trouble entirely with myself, but that I have noticed indications of the same thing in others. Have you ever been met by an old friend at a railroad station where one can stop only a few moments? I have. She comes down for a glimpse of me; good of her, too! We have not met for years, and it will be years before we can meet again. It is almost like those fatal last moments of life. I stand on the car-platform and wave, and she dashes out of the crowd. “Oh, there you are! Well—how are you? Come over here where we can talk.—Why,—you’re looking well—yes, I am, too, only I’ve been having a horrid time with the dentist.” (Pause.) “Are you having a pleasant journey?—Yes, of course, those vestibule trains are always hideously close. I’ve been in a hot car, too.—I thought I’d never get here, the cars were blocked—you know they’re tearing up the streets again—they always are.” (Pause.) “How’s Alice?—That’s nice.—And how’s Egbert?—Yes, you wrote me about his eyes. What a good-looking hat you have! I hated to come down in this old thing, but my new one didn’t come home—she promised, too—and I just had to see you.—Do look at those two over there! How can people do such things on a public platform, do you see? I’ll move round so you can look.—Why, it isn’t time yet, is it? Oh, dear! And we haven’t really begun to talk. Well, stand on the step and then you won’t get left.—Yes, I’ll write. So glad to have seen you.—Going to be gone all winter?—Oh, yes, I remember, you wrote me. Well, good bye, good-bye!”

The train pulls out a few feet, then pauses—one more precious moment for epochal conversation—we laugh. “Why, I thought it had started—Well, give my love to Alice—and I hope Bert’s eyes will be better—I said, I hoped his eyes—Egbert’s eyes—will be better—will improve.”

The train starts again. “Good-bye once more!” I stand clutching the car door, holding my breath lest the train change its mind a second time. But it moves smoothly out, I give a last wave, and reenter my car, trying to erase the fatuous smile of farewell from my features, that I may not feel too foolish before my fellow passengers. I sink into my seat, feeling rather worn and frazzled. No more five-minute meetings for me if I can help it! Give me a leisurely letter, or my own thoughts and memories, until I can spend with my friend at least a half day. Then, perhaps, when we are not oppressed by the importance of the speeding moments, we may be able to talk together with the unconscious nonchalance that makes talk precious.

I have never heard a death-bed conversation, but I fancy it must be something like this, only worse, and my suspicions are so far corroborated by what I am able to glean from those who have witnessed such scenes—in hospitals, for instance. Friends come to visit the dying man; they sit down, hug one knee, make an embarrassed remark, drop that knee and pick up the other ankle. They rise, walk to the foot of the bed, then tiptoe back uneasily. Hang it, what is there to say! If he wasn’t dying there would be plenty, but that sort of talk doesn’t seem appropriate. What is appropriate—except hymns?

When my time comes, defend me from this! I shall not repine at going, but if my friends can’t talk to me just as they always have, I shall be really exasperated. And if they offer me hymns—!

No—last minutes, or hours, for me might better be discounted at once dropped out. I have a friend who thinks otherwise, at least about visits. She says that it makes no difference how you behave on a visit, so long as you act prettily during the last day or two. People will remember that, and forget the rest. Perhaps; but I doubt it. I think we are much more apt to remember the middles of things, and their beginnings, than their endings. Almost all the great pieces of music have commonplace endings; well enough, of course, but what one remembers are bits here and there in the middle, or some wonderful beginning. If one is saying good-bye to a beloved spot, and goes for a last glimpse, does one really take that away to cherish? No, I venture to say, one forgets that, and remembers the place as one saw it on some other day, some time when one had no thought of finality, and was not consciously storing up its beauty to be kept against the time of famine.

One makes a last visit to a friend, and all one remembers about it is its painful “last”-ness. The friend herself one recalls rather as one has known her in other, happy, thoughtless moments, which were neither last nor first, and therefore most rich because most unconscious.

Live as if each moment were my last? Not at all! I know better now. I choose to live as if each moment were my first, as if life had just come to me fresh. Or perhaps, better yet, to live as if each moment were, not last, for that gives up the future, nor first, for that would relinquish the past, but in the midst of things, enriched by memory, lighted by anticipation, aware of no trivialities, because acknowledging no finality.

(1917)

MLA Citation

Morris, Elisabeth. “The embarrassment of finality.” 1917. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 8 Oct 2008. 26 Apr 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/morris/embarrassment_of_finality/>.

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