Famous last words.
We've all heard the phrase. But have you ever thought about what your last words will be?
The truth of the matter is that very few people are able to consciously provide dying words that have any particular meaning, or that are particularly memorable. Whether we go quietly in the night or suddenly and violently, rarely do we have the opportunity to compose even so much as a meaningful sentence at our pending departure.
About the only people who do are those sentenced to death. Various states have gone to great lengths to preserve the final words of condemned inmates, as if there is lasting wisdom to be derived from the final comments of a murderer.
Outside an institutional setting, however, few people are quite so prepared to offer up last words, and even the recorded last words of famous people often are suspect - remembered by fond supporters who want to tie a bow on their legacy.
I'm not sure we know the exact last words of Neda Brodhecker, of Martinez. But I don't know either when I've heard a more powerful story about someone's final comments on this planet.
The information below comes from Mrs. Brodhecker's family. I share it today, on the day she is laid to rest.
Neda Brodhecker was a native of Kiev, in the Ukraine, who was sent to a Nazi concentration camp in Austria early in World War II. She was 14 at the time, and she never saw her mother, father, grandmother or two younger sisters again.
She was freed three years later, and met John Brodhecker, an American soldier, at an Army snack bar. They married, and later had one son, Mike.
Mike is the facilities supervisor for Columbia County's Recreation Department. His wife, Lisa, is a physical education teacher at Evans Middle School. Mrs. Brodhecker had never told her Holocaust survival story outside the family, but decided last week to talk to students at Lisa's school.
In that speech, to an audience of 27 sixth-graders, Mrs. Brodhecker told her important life story for the first time - and last. Her speech began to slur ever so slightly toward the end, and after leaving the classroom Mrs. Brodhecker collapsed.
She was taken by ambulance to a local hospital where she was diagnosed with bleeding on the brain. She died a short time later. A member of the family said she was ready to go; the next day was four years to the day since her former soldier husband had passed away, and she longed to see him again.
So, what were Mrs. Brodhecker's last words? I don't know if anyone recorded them exactly, especially when her heavy Polish accent is taken into account.
But the family member who passed along the story says a teacher relayed that the sixth-graders hung on every word. "The students were mesmerized and unbelievably quiet," the message says.
What did those students hear? In essence: Love your family, love your country, and cherish your freedom.
It's not that the words are so profound. It's that those were the last words of an incredible survivor of an era of devastating human history, delivered for the first time to an extraordinarily fortunate audience of people outside her family.
That family, the account says, rejoices that Mrs. Brodhecker will see her husband and her long-lost family again. Meanwhile, we should all hope that those sixth-graders at Evans Middle School will come to understand the tremendous gift that they have received as the recipients of her final message.
May God bless them and Mrs. Brodhecker's family, and may she find the heavenly reward for which she waited all these years.
Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 706-863-6165, extension 106.
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