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Notes From the End of a Very Long Life by New York’s Oldest

“No, no,” Jonas answered. “There is fine. It’s here that needs help. The world needs a lot of help. I will be very busy, busier than I’ve ever been.”

It was a declaration that what one did mattered, and that it did not stop mattering even when all else was lost.

For almost seven years, Ruth and the other elders have served as correspondents from a country that most of us have not traveled in, though many will. Their dispatches have been generous, surprising, predictable, enlightening, contradictory and occasionally full of beans, befitting what the novelist Penelope Lively, born a decade after Ruth, called “this place at which we arrive with a certain surprise — ambushed, or so it can seem.”

They have been, after all, stories of loss: accepting loss, resisting it, living fully with it even while acknowledging the pain it brings. Which is to say, they have been stories of life. And as such, the stories come to an end, in this final article in a Times series that began back in the Obama administration.

At the end of each year, I asked the elders if they were glad to have lived it. Did the year have value to them? Always the answer was the same, even from those, including Ruth, who had said during the year that they were ready to go, that they wished for an end sooner rather than later. Yes, they said, yes, it was worth living.

I could not ask this question of Ruth this year, so her last words will have to stand as her answer. When she could no longer speak on her final day, surrounded by family, she simply kissed her daughters’ hands. But before that she turned to her nurse. “Thank you,” she said, and did not speak again.

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