Eric Noah Feldman

No Second Chance at a Last Impression


ISSUE 6 | MAKING AN EXIT | JUL 2011

A distinguished man should be as particular about his last words as he is about his last breath. - Mark Twain

Being a morbid little man saddled with an overactive imagination, I often find myself daydreaming about how I would address Death should I meet him face to face. On my morning commute, I prepare perfect one-liners in the off chance that my downtown express train hops the track and takes out everyone on board. I knew I should’ve taken the local, or something to that effect. While the other straphangers peck at their Kindles and scratch cautious 4’s and 7’s into medium difficulty Sudoku puzzles, I smile smugly, content in the knowledge that if tragedy struck I would easily be the wittiest corpse within earshot.

Entertaining such saturnine reveries has long been one of my favorite hobbies. I remember whiling away prayer time at Hebrew school as my thoughts drifted towards activities more fit for the palette of a nine-year-old boy. But as the kids around me pretended they were off hitting homeruns or counting down the hours until they could pop on their brand new Spin Doctors cassettes, I strategized on how best to respond to an imminent ninja attack.


Illustration by Tom Tian

Stranded in the center-most pews of a Long Island synagogue, I would stare glass-eyed at the speakers overhead while lip-syncing half-hearted benedictions. Curious, I told myself, that those speakers are perfectly ninja-sized. Keen warriors that they were, the tenugui-clad assassins might preternaturally sense that I was on to them, and choose just that moment to strike. My Nintendo-addled brain conjured images of a speaker’s front screen exploding downward, knocked heavily to the earth by the swift ninja-kick that loosed it from its screws. The prepubescent sons and daughters of Abraham would run screaming for cover, confused by the unexpected assault. Carnage would meet them unprepared, their final utterances the muffled pantings of fevered flight.

But not mine.

Yet unable to cross the street on my own and wholly terrified at the thought of talking to girls, young me would stand firm in the face of the approaching ninja. My confidence would confuse him, and through his mask I would stare deeply into his eyes, freezing him in his path.

Oh thank god, I would coolly remark. I totally didn’t know the rest of the words.

My pie-eyed college years convinced me I would want to forestall Death with some clever is that all you got-style retort might the scythe fall during a fraternity mixer. Moribund literati have for decades cited Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” as inspiration when the end drew near, but I instead took solace in knowing that the Welsh wine-bibbler’s final yarn boasted, “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies…I think that’s the record.” While freshmen caroused in the front rooms, I’d take an extra minute to practice a farewell communiqué in the bathroom mirror. Glaring into my reversed reality just long enough to break natural focus, the minimal distance created between persistence and perception provided fertile battleground in which to cultivate imagined orders for the hereafter.

Not yet, I commanded it with little more than a glare. I’m next on the beer pong table.

Despite countless iterations, I am only just now starting to understand the inner workings of my macabre musings. I struggle to understand why I spend so many hours romanticizing what I would want to hear myself say as the curtain falls. Taking into account the full corpus of my gloomy reflections, one central theme pushes back the shadows and highlights what I think I’m really looking for when staring into the abyss: control. Some of us know when the next breath will be our last, but those enlightened few are in the great minority. Ideally I would still want to feel like it was I captaining the ship right up until the end. And at the very least, I wouldn’t want to sound like a bumbling idiot.

After careful consideration, I reject outright opting for non-action. While I suppose there are those who might find some utilitarian simplicity in Karl Marx’s belief that “last words are for fools who haven’t said enough,” I’ve spent my whole life rambling on and have found it quite enjoyable so far. Steadfast in my long-established verbosity, I doubt I’ll be dissuaded from speaking out by the passing witticisms of a long-dead Communist.

I want something zippy, perhaps a dash of badass with hints of epic awesomeness. I’m inspired by George Washington’s final adieu, boldly telling his doctor, “I die hard, but I am not afraid to go.” Granted it would be hard for me to compare my life to that of the American Fabius, but a boy can dream. Luckily, bold farewells are not the sole province of the historically significant. James French, famed American criminal sentenced to death by electrocution in the 1960s, allegedly gave one last wink to the peanut gallery before lightning bolted him to the afterlife. “How’s this for a headline,” he chuckled to onlookers, “FRENCH FRIES.” While I wouldn’t take a convict’s counsel, there is a certain charm in seeing a man who flouted the laws of man spit just the same in the face of Death. I figure if a Southern murderer with a flair for shtick can grab some laughs on the way out, I sure as hell ought to be able to pull it off.

Perhaps it’s that feeling of control that drives me to hope for irreverence in spite of such grave fortunes. I want to know that my relative fearlessness in life was more than just an act, more than empty boastings to show off in front of my buttoned-down coworkers at gallery openings. I’m a strong believer, after all, that if one is afraid to die, they were afraid to truly live.

I hope I get another hundred years to workshop my ultimate quip, and I’m happy for now just to let these daydreams vividly break up the monotony of a morning commute with the imagined heft of a send-off address. With any luck, by the time I really need to worry about it I’ll be so pleased with my life that I won’t need to prove anything else to the world before I leave it. Maybe a quick thank you, or an it’s been fun. But until I find that peace, I’ll continue to strive for irreverence, and I’ll keep preparing cool one-liners to lob at ninjas while everyone else pretends they’re hitting home runs.

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