MAXWELL:  In the end, one can bring humor to life

5/24/2000 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

A powerful, formerly mean, mean man uttered these words the other day:

“Many people in the city have felt a big change, a great sense of optimism. They’ve gotten a lot of help and they’ve gotten a lot of benefits, and they feel very differently. But it hasn’t reached everyone in the city. And there are a lot of people who haven’t felt that. And I’m going to dedicate myself to trying to figure out how we can get them to feel that, too, including maybe changes I have to make in the way I approach it, the way I look at it.”

Who is this newly, kind, gentle personage? Believe it or not, folks, these contrite utterances belong to none other than New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Yes, he is hinting at reaching out to African-American New Yorkers. These are the same residents who, until now, could not get a smile or a kind word out of their mayor; or get him to set foot in their communities; or get him to participate in a single parade or attend any other event. Many Harlem residents still call him “Adolf Fooliani.” Behind his back, of course.

So, what humbled the rough-talking, inflexible and seemingly invincible Hizzoner?

Cancer.

The mayor has been diagnosed with prostate cancer, and the dreaded disease has scared him to death, as it were. “All of a sudden he was shaken up _ he got a feeling for the human side of what life is all about,” Westchester psychologist Dr. Gilda Carle told the New York Post. “It’s only when we have these kinds of crises that we are shaken into another sort of reality.”

Another psychologist, Dr. Marie Sacco, who practices in Manhattan, told the Post of the mayor: “He’s having the big confrontation with his own mortality.”

Indeed, bouts with mortality can make the meanest human change his or her tune. Because I, too, have come face-to-face with my mortality _ not from disease but from gunfire _ I understand the need to “get right” with the world. In fact, I was preparing some memorable last words for my family and brethren in green fatigues. After learning that I would live, I kept my words to myself.

Apparently, Hizzoner does not need to concern himself with last words any time soon. But I still wonder. Anyway, since with my bout with the Big M, I have developed a keen interest in the famous last words of famous people, especially those with histories of abusing others or who committed human atrocities.

Check out these priceless jewels, from Gyles Brandreth’s book Famous Last Words & Tombstone Humor and from Barnaby Conrad’s book Famous Last Words:

+ Agrippina (15-59 A.D.), mother of the Emperor Nero. When assassins sent by her son to kill her arrived, she said: “Smite my womb.”

+ Albert Anastasia (d. 1957), gangster. On being shot while in a barber’s chair: “Haircut!”

+ Max Baer (1909-59), World Heavyweight Boxing Champion: “Oh, God, here I go!”

+ Henry James (1843-1916), writer: “So here it is at last, the distinguished thing.”

+ William James (1842-82), philosopher, brother of Henry James: “It’s so good to get home!”

+ Dylan Thomas (1914-53), writer: “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies. I think that is the record. . . . ”

+ “Black Jack” Ketchum (d. 1901), bank robber and killer. On being hanged: “I’ll be in hell before you’re finished with breakfast, boys. . . . Let her rip!”

+ D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930), novelist: “I think it’s time for the morphine.”

+ Lytton Strachey (1880-1938), biographer and critic: “If this is dying, I don’t think much of it.”

+ Ethan Allen (1738-89), leader of Green Mountain Boys, on being told by the parson that the angels were waiting: “Waiting are they? Waiting are they? Well, Goddamn ’em, let ’em wait!”

+ Dominique Bouhours (1662-1702), grammarian: “I am about to _ or I am going to _ die: either expression is used.”

+ Henri De Talleyrand De Chalais (1599-1626), French traitor, speaking to his executioner: “Do not keep me in suspense.”

My favorite last words are those of irreverent men, such as this gem of outlaw and horse thief Ned Kelly (1855-80), on being hanged: “Such is life.” Or those of jaunty author Donn Byrne (1889-1928): “I think I’ll go for a drive before dinner. Anyone come along?”

Anyway, the end need not be scary. It need not be hell, as many who have gone before have shown. Many famous people write their last words years before they die. They do so to leave their mark, of course, but some do it to give the living reason to enjoy themselves. I have written my last words.

Have you considered yours?