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Songbook: For All We Know

For all we know, we may never meet again. So goes the 1934 song, interpreted here by Carmen McRae. A classic love song, at first glance. But like many compositions of that era, if you listen to it again, if you return to it in passing years, its meaning world grows larger. It begins to conjure all of life's last times. Last time we made it back home. Last time we returned to a special place. Last time we saw a friend or family member alive.

Before you go, make this moment sweet again. We each have so many last times. Here is one of mine. I have just passed through the security point at a small, regional airport in America. Before I head to the gate, I turn for a last look at my father. There he is, at a distance now, barred by passport control and metal scanners, facing me and waiting to be certain I am gone. But he cannot be certain I am gone because he has lost almost all his vision. I am beyond his range, a blur to him at best. This waiting is an act of generosity. Pretending to me that he can see me, although we both know he cannot. He is carefully measuring how long to stand there. We have done this many times and he never gets it wrong. That is how I know that when I turn to look for my dad, he'll be there.

But I lie. That was not the last time I saw my father. To tell the truth, the last time I saw him, he was on life support in an intensive care unit. Already lost to us. When they took him off life support, we held him and talked to him for his remaining moments. We won't say goodnight until the last minute. I'll hold out my hand, and my heart will be in it.

By placing my father back at the airport, I am re-writing my last time, telling myself stories. There he is, breathing on his own, thinking and talking. Tall, strong, proud, warm-blooded. Yet in a foreshadowing of our factual last time, he was a little diminished at each leave-taking. I can see that now, even in the stories I tell myself. How long do we have? How many visits? In truth, the world endlessly re-enacts that other classic song - every time we say goodbye, I die a little. Each parting in life diminishes us in some measure, and we may pause to wonder if it is the last one. Time and events will intervene sooner or later. Accidents. Illnesses. Cells age and mutate. Breaths become shallow. Hearts begin to skip beats. We die a little every day.

I tell this story not to burden the reader with my memories, but because one person's story may help us recover our own and think about its meaning. "We tell ourselves stories in order to live," Joan Didion wrote. I hope that somewhere during the telling of mine, your thoughts wandered to your own important last times, whether they occurred around the corner from where you live, in the next room or an ocean away. A last time is a last time. I hope you find your story.

Tomorrow was made for some, tomorrow may never come. Let's turn our minds to people who cannot go home. Refugees who never wanted to leave, who may not see their most loved people and places again. They will not have the gift of counting last times, cherishing the tiny differences in each reunion and each parting. There may only be one last time.

Let's consider the unanticipated last times associated with extreme events. A loved one leaves for work in the morning and doesn't come home. An unexpected loss has occurred and so now, we confront a last time for which we are utterly unprepared. Read of any disaster, road accident, act of violence, terror, wartime experience. In verb tenses that collide and overtake one another, the survivors may say something along these lines: I saw her that morning, but I never guessed that was to be our last time. If only I had known, I would have told her how much I... In these cases, we forever view our lives as a broken narrative, a before-and-after. There is a rupture in our personal timelines. Our longing to go back to the land of before is so acute and confused that language itself fractures under the strain.

Consider too, the question of how we mediate and memorialize our last times. There is memory - comforting, painful, simultaneously true and woefully unreliable. There are photographs, recorded messages, personal items retrieved or given. I keep my mother's half-empty perfume bottle, its contents now cloudy after ten years, in the vain hope that there may never be a last time of catching the scent of her.

Ask refugees what they have held close, when the choice of what to carry is so limited. We now understand, for example, the importance of the smartphone. Its many uses include the storing of photographs, text messages, perhaps seconds of film of loved ones now dead or left behind. Hala, a refugee from Aleppo, holds up her phone and says, "See why this phone is so dear? It has everything. All my family, all my world is here. That's why I'm always holding it."

Think about the now regular use of smartphones to record the deaths of African Americans as a result of police violence. Here the smartphone speaks for the dead. The smartphone serves as a crucial tool in the hands of eyewitnesses who may otherwise go unheard. For the thousands who view these recordings online, we engage in the experience of a last time with a complete stranger, one that calls out to us, demands our compassion and anger. But for the loved ones, this turns the last time into a layered experience. There is the private final contact with the deceased, perhaps at breakfast that morning, ordinary and untroubled. But now there is this other last time, a highly public, brutal and haunting presence on social media, shared with the world in the hope of bringing social change. Nowhere were all these points made more forcibly than in the death of Philando Castile, live-streamed to Facebook by his partner, Diamond Reynolds. "I want the people to be the testimony here," she said afterwards. "All of us saw with our eyes."

We come and we go, like the ripples of a stream. I hope the old song may help you, even as you fill the page with your own examples of last times. In the meantime, if you should brush against a stranger at a crowded bus stop or some other public place, smile. Be kind. For all we know, that person may have said goodbye to someone only hours or days before. For all we know, it may have been a last goodbye. For all we know, you may never have a chance to show that person kindness again.

With thanks to the producers of Democracy Now whose use of this song during their broadcast on July 8, 2016 inspired this post.

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