Tom writes feature stories, including this one on the last words people say before they die.
Last words reveal so much with so little
They can sum up a life or even resolve a problem
By TOM KERTSCHER
Posted: Dec. 15, 2007
Our family was blessed to hear the last words of my grandma, Ruth Kertscher, before she passed away at age 87.
Early that afternoon at the hospital in Mequon, Grandma said she wanted to see her mommy and daddy.
Later, in a more fitful phase, she kept repeating, “I don’t want to go there, I don’t want to go there.”
But eventually she was ready, telling her son: “Jim, go get my shoes.”
That experience two years ago made me want to hear more last words. So I’ve begun interviewing people who were, more or less, in the position I was in when a loved one passed away.
Here are some of their stories.
Why so young?
What tormented Donell Lauters of West Bend was why she – a single mother of a disabled child – would have to die young, while her daughter still needed so much care.
By the end, she would know.
Donell was an elementary school teacher before the birth of Becky, her only child. She stayed home with Becky for a few years, then changed careers, eventually becoming vice president of data services for a large company.
Donell’s illness – bone marrow cancer – was discovered during the winter of 1999, after she hurt her back while shoveling snow.
“It’s a death sentence,” she said then.
She would die four months later, at age 47.
Donell wasn’t afraid to die, said her sister, Mary Nygaard of Thiensville, but she couldn’t resolve the fate that would be dealt to her daughter.
Becky, then 22, had been born with a congenital heart defect and, as a toddler, suffered brain damage in a heart attack. She was left incapable of caring for herself.
One Monday morning near the end, the hospital called Donell’s family and they rushed to see her. Donell spoke to each family member individually.
Afterward, they all gathered in the room and Donell seemed to enter another realm.
Mary, who would become Becky’s guardian, sensed there were angels in the room.
“She started talking gibberish, but it was very directed gibberish,” Mary said. “Clearly, she knew what she was saying and, clearly, someone else in the room knew what she was saying, but not us.”
The “conversation” continued for several minutes, and then Donell stopped speaking before experiencing a moment of singular clarity.
“I understand this now,” Donell said suddenly, looking directly at Mary. “I understand why this all had to happen.”
The next morning, the family took turns telling Donell that she could let go.
A few minutes after they finished, she was gone.
Knowing when to go
Jean Jacobs knew when it was her time to go.
Christine Murphy of Cedarburg, one of her granddaughters, knew it, too.
But Margie Matous – Jean’s daughter and Christine’s mother – wouldn’t let Jean go.
So Jean did what she had to do.
Jean had grown up in Polish Hill, a neighborhood of winding streets and steep slopes east of downtown Pittsburgh. Polish immigrants settled the hillside area, overlooking the Allegheny River, in the late 1800s.
As a young woman, Jean worked in factories where the noise was so bad it made her deaf. Jean’s husband and children wrote notes to communicate with her. Her grandchildren drew words in the air, one letter at a time.
Jean moved from Pittsburgh to Port Washington in 1982, two years after her husband died. She was close to Margie, who was raising Christine and the rest of her family.
In 2005, Jean was diagnosed with a heart condition, and she steadily declined. In February, she moved into a hospice.
It looked as though Jean, then 89, would die on Valentine’s Day, but Margie couldn’t bear it.
That afternoon, the family was told Jean was dying and they rushed to her side. Before Christine entered the room, she was shocked to hear her grandma laughing and playing with her grandchildren.
But “there was something in her eyes,” Christine recalled.
That evening, Jean slipped into a coma. Then, about 11 p.m., she shot up in bed.
“Suddenly, she sits right up and starts reaching into the sky and trying to get out of bed,” Christine said.
Christine immediately sensed that Jean was ready to go to heaven. But Margie resisted.
“My mom keeps pushing her down, saying she has to go to the bathroom,” Christine recalled, “and Grandma is saying, ‘It’s time, Margie; Margie, let me go, let me go.’ ”
A nurse put a catheter in Jean and she calmed down, never to regain consciousness.
Margie spent that night with her mother, but the next morning she was persuaded to go home for a while to rest and take a shower.
Jean seemed to know. By the time Margie got home, Jean was gone.
True to the end
Mike Trost of Rhinelander first experienced death when his mother passed away. He was just 3 and she just 27.
In effect, he said, his life took hers.
Mike was 14 pounds at birth; his mother, Rose Marie, barely weighed a hundred. Already fragile, Rose Marie was weakened by complications from Mike’s birth, and then by scarlet fever.
Mike’s father, a regional director of the FBI, had connections. But even Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s cardiologist couldn’t save Rose Marie. She died in 1947.
Mike was raised by his father, John, John’s parents and a housekeeper in Glendale’s Clovernook subdivision, which had once nurtured many farms.
John Trost liked to raise Airedale English terriers – each was named Max – and to fish. He and Wisconsin-born actor Fred MacMurray (“My Three Sons”) would take fishing trips together in Canada.
In most matters, John was as straight-laced as you would expect a onetime G-man to be. After leaving the FBI and becoming the top personnel man for Briggs & Stratton, John would only hire men with shined shoes and clean fingernails. He was about as regimented with his son.
“Dad was anti-Elvis Presley, completely and totally,” said Mike, who was a crew-cut teen in the 1950s. “Anybody who had long hair like James Dean or Elvis Presley was not a real man.”
John’s death came unexpectedly, in 1979. At 68, he suffered a heart attack in his bed. A neighbor found him with his Siamese cat, Sam, a 65th birthday gift from Mike.
A few hours earlier, John had visited Mike’s home. As he left, his final words to Mike – who, by then, was 36 – were predictable: “Get a damn haircut,” John said.
That order carried an echo of sorts for Mike. A year earlier in a Milwaukee hospital, Mike was holding his Grandpa Hugo Trost’s hand when the 84-year-old Hugo died.
Hugo had remained obsessed with the flowers in his garden.
“Dust the phlox,” he told Mike, before passing away.
And Mike did.
The last words of Mike’s grandmother were more sentimental.
Selma Trost was a paraplegic for most of her life, due to injuries from a car accident. Her final days were spent in a Milwaukee nursing home.
Mike would help her play solitaire, just as he had done for years in their own home. To the end, Selma would break the rules, and Mike would comply.
She appreciated it.
“Thanks for letting me cheat,” Selma told Mike, before dying in his arms. “It was fun.”