The weight and wonder of a brother's last words


Deathbed hand

'The answer is in the questioning.'

That was the very last thing my brother Kevin said before he died. He died on the first day of summer two years ago. Six words, after millions of words spoken and read and taught and typed over 60 years. He had been a college professor. We give great weight to last words, the words spoken on the precipice. Most of the time I would guess that those words are about love. I would guess that many of those words have something to do with light. I would guess that some of those final words are shrieks or gasps or utterances of astonishment.

The answer is in the questioning.

I have thought about those six words for two years now, since I first heard them. It turns out you can ponder them from every conceivable angle and never get to the bottom of what they mean.

He spoke them with authority, says his wife, who was there. He spoke them with a sort of amazement, as if he had finally realised something crucial, says his friend the deacon, who was there. Did he mean that if you ask a question, the answer is inside it somewhere? Did he mean that everything we have always been desperate to know is alive inside our curiosity? Was he talking about what we mean when we use the word god?

He was not a man to use words lightly. He was not much for small talk. He was not much for airy remarks or banter. If you asked him a question he would be silent for a moment, thinking, and then silent for another moment, composing his answer, and then he would answer, succinctly. In his early years he could be curt and terse and tart and rude but in his later years he was never any of those things that I remember.

One of the things I loved about him was that if he did not know the answer to a question he would say (after pondering for a moment) I do not know, four lovely words when ordered in that fashion. Many of us issue answers with unwarranted confidence, sometimes when we know full well that we do not know. Or we think before we speak, or issue opinion rather than answer, or issue someone else's opinion, or issue opinions so ossified by years of neglect that you could stand them in the corner with the umbrellas and the walking sticks.

The answer is in the questioning. Did he mean we are verbs and not nouns? Did he mean that as long as we quest we are answered? Did he mean that curiosity, the itch to know, the urge to inquire, the eager opening of doors and windows each to each, the desire to know a new intricacy of the maze, another level of the mystery, another revelation of the relentless miracle, is the answer to every question, is why we are here? Could it be that every answer we yearn for is answered already? Could that be what we mean when we talk about god?

He died in his house on a little hill. His house was once the only house for miles around, when it was a farmhouse. From his window he could see a sugar maple and a fir tree and crows and a tatter of the smiling sky. He spoke his last six words in the morning and he died in the afternoon. The answer is in the questioning. He had been a brilliant mathematician and he told me once that mathematics was a sort of language and literature and music all at once. You could almost sing it, sometimes, he said.

He died around four in the afternoon, just about the time the sun would have swung in the window to his left. For many thousands of years the sun is what we meant when we spoke of god. The sun was the answer to all questions. Perhaps the last thing my brother felt in this world was the sun on his face. Light is a language too, when you think about it. You can ask questions in it and the answers always seem to be yes.

Brian DoyleBrian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of the essay collection Grace Notes.

Deathbed hand image from Shutterstock

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I believe this to be the most beautiful piece of writing I have been privileged to read this year, and perhaps for many years. Thank you; I was deeply moved.
Barry G | 17 June 2014

Many thanks Brian. You rekindled memories deep and feed them well. To breathe is life. I am breathing better this morning as I nestle my questions. Enjoy the Light.
Vic O'Callaghan | 18 June 2014

Wonder full writing !!!
john frawley | 18 June 2014

Sitting with a dying loved one can be a painful privilege. It is difficult close to the event to articulate words describing the end and the effect on yourself. My sister died recently. We sat with her as she entered her new reality. Brian your words as usual have touched me deeply .and enabled me to treasure even more my sister and all the experiences we have shared.Thank you.
Celia | 18 June 2014

it is always a pleasure to read your articles This one moved me especially.Thank you
Margaret Rush | 18 June 2014

The organisation I work for, St John of God Health Care, begins each meeting with a reflection. This will be our reflection for today. The answer is in the questioning is such a powerful final statement. Thank you Brian for such a beautiful piece.
Martin Loney | 18 June 2014

The answer is in the questioning: God is a verb in which we move and live. Our ‘being’ in the dynamic of engagement with another is fullness of life; the answer is concerned with the movement involved in ‘doing.’ The Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once said: The word ‘question contains the word ‘quest’ and we are all engaged in the ‘quest’ for fullness of ‘being.’ The essential questions have no answers however (Elie noted); you are my question and I am yours and then there is dialogue. The minute we have answers there is no longer dialogue. I loved reading this article. Thank you Brian, I pray that Kevin is now engaged with the most awesome adventure of ‘being’ in God's eternity. Trish Martin.
Trish Martin | 18 June 2014

I am sorry for your loss. I wonder if he was saying that when it comes to looking for answers you'll only find them if you keep questioning. When we ask who or what is God, our loving creater will always answer. As long as we stay open to the possibility that God will answer in the end we will get our answer. We lost our Brother in Law this week. I guess they both now have their answer.
Paul | 18 June 2014

i feel deeply privileged to be invited into Brian Doyle's ponderings on the final words his brother spoke before he died. I feel I am walking on holy ground here ... and I want to thank Brian for sharing his brother's end-of-life question. Learning to 'live the questions' is good pastoral care praxis and is exactly where life is examined and lived out. Bless you both for the gift/s in this question.
mary tehan | 18 June 2014

Most luminous.
Annoying Orange | 19 June 2014

The life of contemplation implies two levels of awareness: first, awareness of the question, and second, awareness of the answer. Though these are two distinct and enormously different levels, yet they are in fact an awareness of the same thing. The question is, itself, the answer. And we ourselves are both. But we cannot know this until we have moved into the second kind of awareness. We awake, not to find absolutely distinct from the question, but realize that the question is its own answer. All is summed up in one awareness - not a proposition, but an experience: “I am”.
Thomas Merton | 19 June 2014

I love this essay, and I miss Brian deeply. I feel that the world needs him to be making more essays. Thankfully, he wrote so many before he died. {Editors: surely the phrasing here is reversed: "Or we think before we speak" should be "Or we speak before we think."}
Patrick Madden | 20 June 2019

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