Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


The weight and wonder of a brother's last words

  • 18 June 2014

'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