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Next time may be the last time

I said goodbye to an 88-year-old friend last week who was leaving for Colorado, not to return until next summer. His health was in serious decline. I've only known him for seven or eight years, but I've enjoyed his company immensely. He is charming, quick-witted, full of humor and just plain fun to be around. When he left he shook my hand, looked me in the eye and said, "I hope our paths cross again." I blinked, and all I could say in reply was, "I hope so too."

We had a little family get together this past weekend -- just our kids and grandkids to celebrate two birthdays and an anniversary. We had a great time. Then when it was over, we all hugged, got in our cars and drove away. Warm, but on reflection, probably not adequate for the occasion.

As the years roll on it is dawning on me that every time we say goodbye could be the last time. But we hesitate to speak from the heart because we don't know it is the last time. So we wait and usually leave the best things unsaid.

Regrets, I've had a few. Years ago, my younger brother lay in a hospital dying of cancer. We visited a number of times, but always there were other visitors there, non-family members. There never seemed to be a time of privacy. I should have cleared the room and asked of our moment together but I never did. Then one night he was gone. Eleven years later, the last time I talked to my dad he looked healthy and fit, vigorous, younger than his 73 years and still sharp. We shook hands, said goodbye and he left. Less than three weeks later we were at his funeral. Many years later, by the time I knew my mother was dying -- the last month of her life -- it was too late to say the things we usually save for the last. Yes, regrets.

Hubert Humphrey, former Minnesota Senator, Vice President and presidential candidate, was dying of cancer and he knew it. And he knew how to go about it. He spent hours on the phone visiting with his many, many friends and colleagues. They shared their experiences of the past, some laughs, some tears and their feelings. A few didn't realize Humphrey was saying goodbye, but he was. Most understood exactly what was taking place and were able to say the things they really felt. That was one of those rare circumstances, rare opportunities to do it right.

Most of us will never experience that perfect opportunity. But we all have family and friends we really care about. And we're going to be seeing them, calling them and -- (yes, it still happens) -- writing to them. Each additional contact is another opportunity for a few words that really count. Not last words maybe, but words that leave no regrets if they turn out to be the last.

So for those we love, respect, admire, esteem, honor or just plain enjoy (and the greatest of these is love), the next time we see them, call them or write to them, we may just have to start telling them how we feel, because it may turn out to be our last chance.