08/22/2014 07:10 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Last Words

Editors Note: The following story is fictional.


A young man and a young woman sit on separate benches in a park. Both in business attire, they tap away on their smartphones oblivious to the world until a ragged old man wanders in front of them, teeters and falls - hitting his head heavily on the paved path.

The young man runs to the old guy. The young woman dials 911. Blood streams from a wound at the back of the old man's head.

"There's an urgent care place four blocks from here," shouts the young woman looking up from her phone. "We might get help quicker that way." She has a natural command of the situation. Clearly management.

She stands and leans heavily on a cane. "I can't run," she says. "You go."

"Stay," says the old guy without lifting his head. His voice is hoarse, but still strong.

The young man hesitates.

"Don't talk," says the woman to the old man. Her voice is kind but forceful. "You need to rest. We'll go get help."

The man grunts. "Young woman, what do you see here?"

"I see a man who desperately needs medical care," says the woman. "I see an emergency."

"Well, I see angels." The corners of the old man's mouth lift slightly in a smile. "They're all around us singing, you know. It's beautiful."

The young man bends down and takes the old man's hand.

His fingernails are cracked and discolored. But his hands are clean.

"I made a fortune in the soap business," the old man says. "Then I lost it all. Betting on anything that moved - horses, dogs, dice, women. When I was in the clover, I told myself I deserved it. When I was skint, I told myself I deserved better. Truth is, I didn't deserve anything.

"Isn't it funny how when you're about to stop breathing for good, you suddenly realize what a blessing it is just to inhale and exhale. Now I see everything. A flower, the sky, a drop of water. The little eye staring at you from a butterfly's wing. Every day is a parade of opportunities and blessings. I see now that Voltaire was right. 'Paradise is where I am.'"

"I wish I had made those five words the story of my life. People think stories are fairy tales. I see now a story can be a map of life. They say the journey is all. But we aren't just travelers. We're map-makers."

They all fall quiet. Even the young woman with the cane stops looking to see if the ambulance is coming.

"Promise me one thing," says the old man to the young man. "Promise me you will re-write the story of your life, draw a new map. And that you'll do it before it's too late."


"Now, quickly ...." The old man's voice falters, then slowly grinds on like a rasp on wood. "Tell me what your story will say."

The young man doesn't have a clue. "I don't know," he stammers.

"Good beginning," the old man says. He closes his eyes. "You can always make up the rest as you go. Work on it every day. It's your story, remember. It's the map of your life."

He dies just as the EMTs rush up. They try to revive his body for 10 minutes. To no avail. Like Elvis, the old man has left the building.



Coffee steam rises between the young man and the young woman. They sit in a café near the hospital.

The young man doodles on a pad of paper.

"Why didn't you go get help?" she says.

He looks up at her. "I could hear the angels singing, too,"

She looks at him as if he were stage curtains just beginning to part on opening night.

"I didn't hear the angels at all," she says.

He shrugs with a sad smile.

"I guess I don't have much time to lose." He winks. "If I'm going to be a cartographer, that is." He shows her his drawing. "The style's a little raw, but I think it has a certain cheeky insouciance. What do you think?"


She smiles. Then she grabs the pad from him and turns to a new page.

"I think it's my turn."

Cross-posted on "Thinking Philanthropy"