Seven years ago my parents went on a cruise to celebrate my father’s 70th birthday.
My family and I happened to call them just as they were sailing away. We could hear the ship’s booming horn blasting out as we quickly wished dad a happy birthday and them a wonderful trip and told them to call us when they were back in port.
They spent the next few hours exploring the ship, having a birthday dinner, and then they went to bed, excited for the week ahead of them.
The following morning, my mother had gotten up early and snuck out of the room and went down to the cafe to get coffee for them, so they could enjoy the morning view from the balcony. Just as she’d done countless times over their nearly five decades together, she made his coffee just the way he liked it. When you’ve been with someone most of your life, these things are part of the muscle memory of your relationship.
When she got back to the room she was surprised that he was still asleep, and after setting the cups down on the side table, she said, “John, get up, I got us some coffee.”
When he didn’t stir up right away, she assumed he was playing. “C’mon, get up!” she said louder and with a smile.
He didn’t move.
She went to rouse him awake and when she touched him she realized he was gone. He was cold.
A couple hours later when news reached us and I was able to get her on the phone, she told me that story through tears, and the world I knew when I went to bed the night before (much like hers) caved in: a tidal wave of emotions and questions and thoughts flooded in and altered my life irrevocably.
One of the images that flashed in my mind that morning and has remained to this day, is of that cup of coffee sitting just a few feet from my father’s body, coffee that was lovingly made for him, coffee that he would never get to enjoy, coffee that went cold.
I wondered how long it sat there on that table, if it was still there long after they’d removed him, if anyone even noticed it, if my mom had thought about it.
Every day that full cup of coffee reminds me of the way death interrupts our plans without warning. It leaves so much unfinished.
When my father took his last breath, there were so many things that were now forever undone: activities he’d planned for the ship the next day, flights back the following week, business trips he’d scheduled after he got home, golf outings with friends, meals with my siblings, retirement plans, and a billion infinitesimal decisions and intentions that were now permanently incomplete.
That sunset became my father’s last.
That dinner became his last.
That phone call became our last.
The hug I gave him in the airport three months earlier became our last.
The goofy voicemail he left me a week ago became his last.
That after-dinner coffee became his last.
I know he could never have dreamed on that Friday night, that this would be his final cup of coffee in his 70-year journey.
I’m sure it never entered his mind.
Had it, I know he’d have savored it.
He’d have drank it slowly and let every sip be a celebration.
He’d not have taken it for granted.
He’d have paid attention to it, to everything around him, to my mom and the people with him, because the finality would have demanded it.
If only we could know when we were experiencing the last occasions and the last moments with people when we were, so that we could give them the gratitude and reverence and joy they deserve.
We would live differently.
We would be more attentive.
We would be more present.
We would be more alive while we are living.
Friend, you will do things today that appear quite normal: perhaps things you no longer notice or that you take for granted or even that you are annoyed by because they seem like burdens: tasks and activities that seem so mundane and uneventful—but only because you’re so used to them. It’s so very easy to assume that you will get to do them all again or experience them again or see people again, but you may not.
This may be your last cup of coffee,
your last night sleeping next to your beloved,
your last family dinner,
your last time embracing your child,
your last little league game,
your last dog walk,
your last kiss,
your last sunset,
your last breath.
And since few of these moments will come with a message telling you this, do your best to linger and enjoy and celebrate them all.
One day there will be a cold cup of coffee that you will not get to drink.
Savor the one in front of you.
Savor every breath.