When I was young, a woman I knew died unexpectedly in her sleep. She went to bed seemingly healthy and never woke up in the morning. For all of the years after, her death haunted me with its terrifying possibility. It was entirely plausible that I too could die without warning, that I could snuggle down under the sheets at night never to see daylight again. I hated the children’s prayer “Now I lay me down to sleep” for its line about dying before you wake. And the Great Litany we prayed every Ash Wednesday disturbed me with its petition, “From dying suddenly and unprepared, Good Lord, deliver us.”
I have carried this fear of sudden loss for most of my adult life. I reasoned naively that I could endure a death with warning — months or years, God willing. But, Lord Jesus, please, not a sudden death. As if one kind of death were an easier goodbye than another, simply because of its pacing.
I brought this fear into my marriage in an unassuming but, I admit, mildly obsessive habit. I committed to always making the last words out of my mouth at night be “I love you.” Every night for 17 years, I climbed into bed beside Rob, snuggled against his warm body, and said those words. On good nights and on hard ones. Especially on nights when we disagreed that day. I would allow no sun to go down upon my anger. Not when there was so much possibly at stake. It was an innocuous, perhaps even admirable, evening ritual for a married couple.
Sometimes, I’d read in bed late; and Rob would nod off beside me. On those nights, I’d jostle him awake as I turned off the light. “I want you to know I love you,” I’d tell him as he moaned a protest. If there was a possibility he or I might not make it through the night, I never wanted Rob to doubt that my last words for him were of love. If there came a time when I was gone, I wanted those words to linger over him — my bedtime benediction.
No doubt you see the irony that Rob’s death was the kind I feared the most. We never got the warning I wanted. We had no long goodbye. We had none at all. I had to say goodbye at Rob’s graveside, not in his arms. But I will always cling to the last words I spoke to him before he fell asleep the night before he died. We lay in the bed he’d built us in our camper. His head rested on my shoulder. My arms wrapped around him. It had been a long day, and Rob was tired. He began to drift off to sleep, and I roused him as I pulled my arm from beneath him and snuggled in close. “I love you,” I whispered into his curls. “I love you too, honey,” he mumbled back.
If God had given me many days warning, I know exactly how I would have filled every hour. I simply would have repeated those words over and over. Through tears. Until my voice was hoarse or gone. I would have done exactly what I did the night before Rob died. I always believed “I love you” could be a farewell.
Bob Dylan sang, “Goodbye’s too good a word.” But, respectfully, I’d like to disagree. Goodbye isn’t nearly good enough. I’m now convinced “I love you” will be forever the very best goodbye of all. So whether I have much warning or little, many days or few, someday when my own time comes, may those three little words be the last ones on my tongue.