“Tell everyone, I love them.” Those were the last words that my baby brother ever said to me, or actually chatted to me via Yahoo! Messenger. It is a day and a conversation that I’ll never forget, as long as I live. My brother wasn’t the chatty type, so it surprised me when he initiated the conversation. It started with, “Hey sis, whatcha doing?” As the words popped up on my screen, I was sitting in a glassed-in conference room named Durham running a cross-departmental product meeting. Typically, I would ignore any personal chat or phone call while at work, especially while in a meeting with a room full of people. On this day I felt compelled to ask my colleagues to excuse me for just a minute while I found out if my brother needed something. We decided it was a good time for a brief restroom and snack break anyway, so I settled in for a few minutes of online chatting with my little brother. Chatting was definitely out of character for him, so my curiosity was peeked.
Joining him in the conversation, I responded with, “Nothing much, bro. How are you?” We chatted back and forth about what felt like nothing, I kept waiting for him to have a purpose for the chat, he didn’t. He just wanted to talk. He worked as a tree trimmer for Asplundh and was bummed that his crew hadn’t been sent out to do clean up work in Florida following the hurricane. “I’ve never seen the ocean and think it would be cool.” he said. I asked about family in Kentucky, he said everyone was fine. We chatted about storms and trees, dogs, kids and family. As my colleagues began to filter back into the room to resume the meeting, I said, “Hey bro, can I call you later? I’m in a meeting.” He said, “Sure, sis. I’m about to leave to go over to town and get some dog food anyway.” I said, “Okay, I’ll give you a call tonight.” and he responded with, “Okay.” I closed the chat box and proceeded with the meeting. A few seconds later he popped back up and said, “Tell everyone, I love them.” I didn’t respond, I was in a meeting.
An hour and a half later, I was driving home from work when my phone rang. The caller ID said, “Momma.” I answered and on the other end of the line was my mom screaming, “He’s dead! He’s dead!” I managed to get her to listen to me and was able to say, “Mom, who are you talking about? Who’s dead?” Her next words will forever be etched in my memory, “Your brother, Chris. He’s dead!” As I struggled to come to grips with her words, my brain was trying to convince me that she was lying. Just as I was about to tell her that it couldn’t be true, my phone beeped; I moved it from my ear to see who was calling and my heart sank; the caller ID said, “Daddy.” It is true. My dear baby brother was gone. On his way to town to get the dog food, he had lost control of his car and flipped into a swamp. He never got out. Our Yahoo! chat was the last conversation that he ever had. The last words that he left were this, “Tell everyone, I love them.” I did, bro, I did.
A little over a week ago, another birthday passed without Chris, he would have been 38. It’s been almost 11-years since we lost him on that terrible day and writing these words now feel just as fresh as if I’d written them then. It is still the worst day, worst phone call of my life. As I’ve recently reflected on his life and death, I’ve thought about the greatest lesson he taught me on that day in that little chat box—last words matter.
Every day since that conversation I’ve been keenly aware of how I leave situations with those that I love. I almost never leave a discussion, a phone call, even an argument without saying, “I love you.” Why? Because it matters.
Here are four critical reasons that I practice leaving conversations well, to this day:
I care about the legacy and memory that I’ll leave behind. I honestly can’t imagine getting that phone call from my mom and not having his last words to hang onto. Chris’ chat conversation has brought me so much comfort over the years and I never want to leave those I love without a last memory of my love for them. In a very real and conscious way, I don’t want my legacy and memory to be hanging up on someone, screaming hateful words or storming off in a huff. Even if I’m angry, I try to say something loving and validating to every person before I leave the conversation, especially my family and close friends.
Those you love need to hear you say it. Life is too short for those you love not to know it. Say it. If they don’t respond, fine, that’s on them, but say it anyway. I say it so much that I’ve been known to end a business call and nearly tell the person on the other end that I love them. Embarrassing.
The most broken moments are the most important. The hardest time to say I love you is when you’ve been hurt by someone or you’re angry. Yet these are the most important moments. Regardless of what someone has done to you, if you love them, don’t hold it back. My husband and I practice this a lot in parenting our daughters. No matter how angry or frustrated we are with our girls, we always want them to know they are valued, loved and ours—no matter what. We end almost every interaction with a version of, “I love you,” whether they return the favor or not.
You never know which words will be your last. Losing someone you love, especially someone young and so unexpectedly, changes you. From that day on, I’ve been deeply aware of the value of life and how quickly it can be taken from us. Don’t waste moments, and don’t leave behind ugly words that you don’t mean. You never know when they might be your last.
I’ll leave you with this quote and a couple of my favorite photos—one with both of my brothers and one of Chris. Don’t forget, you are loved.
“Beginning today, treat everyone you meet as if they were going to be dead by midnight. Extend to them all the care, kindness and understanding you can muster, and do it with no thought of any reward. Your life will never be the same again.” Og Mandino