His brother John F. Kennedy, like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., never had that luxury. Thomas Jefferson seemed to plan his death to the day, leaving the planet on the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence — the same Fourth of July, in 1826, on which another founder, John Adams, died. “Thomas Jefferson survives,” were Adams’s final words, off by a few hours.
Last words can be overrated. “I should never have switched from Scotch to martinis,” said Humphrey Bogart. Or maybe not. Other accounts have him calling out to his lovely wife, Lauren Bacall: “Goodbye, kid. Hurry back.”
What matters more are last acts. So McCain has already lined up Barack Obama and George W. Bush for eulogies at his memorial, while excluding President Trump. He’s also making one last moral stand against torture and a C.I.A. nominee who refuses to universally condemn it.
And, like others who’ve seen death’s door creaking open, McCain is trying to separate the petty from the profound, the ephemeral from the lasting.
“The most obvious” response, wrote the neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi in “When Breath Becomes Air,” his memoir of a brilliant life cut short, “might be an impulse to frantic activity: to live life to the fullest, to travel, to dine, to achieve a host of neglected ambitions.” But cancer limits the energy for compacted living, and a longer view takes hold. “Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described hold so little interest; a chasing after wind, indeed.”
Kalanithi died at the age of 38. McCain is 81. Two ends of the spectrum. But it is an ageless desire to want — and deserve — what both men got as they closed out their lives. Not politics. Not platitudes. Not score-settling. As Joe Biden explained, after his visit to the sylvan slice of heaven that is McCain’s ranch in Sedona, Ariz.: “I wanted to let him know how much I love him.”