My husband’s last words to me were: “Drive carefully.”

It was night at the hospital and my daughter and I were leaving to go home for a couple of hours.  At that stage, he could no longer speak, so he wrote those words in a special notebook. He didn’t write that he loved me or ask me to take good care of our daughters. But when I looked at his words, I understood that that was what he’d meant.

Living in the suburbs for many years first in the US and later on in Israel, driving was a central part of our life. Still, my husband never completely trusted me, and suspected that when I was preoccupied or upset, I didn’t pay enough attention to the road.

He was right.

This instruction had a clear and literal meaning. He just wanted to make sure that we would make it home safely at that dreadful day. But I feel that those seemingly simple words have a broader, even symbolic meaning.

For me, his words implied that he expected me to move ahead, but to be cautious. At the time, focusing on the world around me was a real challenge. It took a while to be able to make sense of what was there, and then to bring myself to make plans for the future.

Throughout the years, whenever we went on vacation, my husband and I took turns driving. Now it was only me; no one would take over when I got tired.  

Many believe that last words sum up who the person is. In the case of my husband, I feel that his last words illuminated an important aspect of his personality.

When he was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer five months earlier, my husband told me that he had made a decision to be a role model to our daughters during his illness. I am convinced that this choice made it easier for him to come to terms with his imminent death. He even decided on a motto for this “project.”  Paraphrasing a well-known political saying, we were expected to fight cancer as though there was no death, and to make peace with death by being prepared.

For example, since my husband was the one responsible for our finances, we went through all the books and wrote down the names and numbers of important contacts. We were prepared. But we kept the information in a folder with the cheery name, “After 120. ” We were hopeful.

Although my husband refused to call it a battle, we lost him to cancer at the age of 55. It was nine years ago this week. To this day, whenever I get into my car, I think of his warning, especially if I am not at my best. It always cheers me to remember that even when he knew that he was dying, my husband did not miss the opportunity to take care of us one last time.

PS:  A reader brought into my attention the vagueness of the reference “after 120.”  It is a variation on the Hebrew birthday wish for long life: “Till  a hundred and twenty.” Some researchers trace the source of this greeting to Moses who lived to be a hundred and twenty. In Hebrew “after 120” refers to the time, in the distant future, when even those who live a long life will die.

The inspiration for this post was an episode of This American Life about last words.

“To live in hearts we leave behind/Is not to die.” Thomas Campbell