Mary came to my office in tears. Because of her illness, Mary knew she would not be living long and did not want to make the same mistake she made with her mother. As Mary’s mother’s health was declining, her mother said to Mary, “There are things I never told you.” Not wanting to distress her mother further, Mary replied, “You don’t have to tell me now.” Mary’s mother rapidly deteriorated over a few days. In the hospital, Mary asked her mother, “What did you want to tell me?” Slipping into a coma never to recover, her mother could not answer her. That was 26 years ago and it still bothered Mary. “I don’t have much time left. I want my daughter and my grandchildren to know who I am and what I believe and feel. When should I tell them what I want desperately to share with them?” she pleaded.

A recent column in The New York Times by Katie Roiphe suggested that nearly everyone has a fantasy about a “last conversation,” but few people actually have it. Roiphe claims this “may be the last chance for the dying person to clarify, but clarity doesn’t necessarily come. In this way, death is a lot like life.” In her research, she found that most “did not find their way to conversation that offered a satisfying ending. They left things messy, unresolved, dangling.” In her column, Roiphe does not offer any solution to this conundrum.

In the Bible, there is a character whose life may help us with this vexing problem. Forty days after the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem for the rite of dedication required by the Law of Moses (Exodus 13:1-2). One of those they encountered at the Temple was Anna: “There was also a prophet Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was 84. She never left the Temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them (Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus) that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem (Luke 2: 36-38).”

Anna helps us in two ways in communicating who we are to our family and others: First, Anna spoke her mind about what she believed and did not wait until her final days: “(Anna) gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem (Luke 2: 38).” Secondly, she lived a transparent life so that her beliefs showed through her actions: “(Anna) never left the Temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying (Luke 2:37).”

Anna would counsel Mary not to wait until the very end of her life to speak her mind to her family. That day might not come in a fashion to allow Mary to speak coherently or extensively. There is often too much to say about a lifetime in just a few words or in a short time. Roiphe is insightful when she adds “the last conversation is perhaps just the feeling that there is something more to say.” It takes time to open up our hearts. Anna would recommend: Say something whenever you have the chance.

What if an individual does not have the opportunity to speak with her family at the end of her life? Another patient of mine said her family came together to celebrate her 90th birthday. Jeannette lamented to me, “They had no interest in my life, past or present. They asked me nothing!” Jeannette asked me how could she then pass on what mattered most to her family. Jeannette could also learn from Anna in the Bible. There was still time for Jeannette to pass on her legacy. Anna would counsel Jeannette to live openly so her family could see what was important to her by her actions. If Jeannette wanted to pass on what she considered what was good, she should live a good life.

The right time to speak and the right time to act is every day.

Dr. Delvyn C. Case, Jr. is a hematologist/oncologist, playwright and director, columnist, and consultant to the Department of Spiritual Care at Maine Medical Center in Portland.