By Suzette Martinez Standring
Renowned columnist Art Buchwald has refused dialysis, and it’s only a matter of time, maybe a short time, before he dies. For a man awaiting The Reaper, he’s in unusually fine fettle.
I spent two days by his side to find Buchwald doesn’t see himself as courageous, nor does he feel shored up by supernatural spiritual strength. To fade away naturally is the decision he made when faced with the alternative of being hooked up to a dialysis machine three times a week, for five hours at a stretch for the rest of his life.
He said, “I had two decisions. Continue dialysis, and that’s boring to do three times a week, and I don’t know where that’s going, or I can just enjoy life and see where it takes me.”
I had come to his Washington D.C. hospice to present to him the 2006 Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. He was due to be honored at our Boston conference in June, but now his appearance isn’t likely.
I offered to bring it to Washington to lift his spirits and to let him know in person how highly his NSNC colleagues regarded him.
Cathy Crary, his assistant, suggested I “come sooner than later.” She picked me up at Dulles Airport and during our drive to hospice, she talked about her friendship and career with him since 1984, his great heart, and his accessibility through the years.
“He’s listed in the phone directory and always has been. People see his name and can’t believe it’s the real Art Buchwald, but that’s how he is,” she said.
His daughter, Jennifer Buchwald, lives in Massachusetts not far from me. She and I are new friends and now she stays close by her father in hospice. Her dad had been “holding court” with a steady stream of visitors over the past two weeks. Jennifer invited me to stay an extra day with her, since it offered more chance for an audience with the king of political satire, now the newly crowned king of The Washington Home hospice.
February 28, the day I arrived, would have marked the fourth week since he stopped dialysis. That can’t be good. Would I arrive in time? What condition would he be in?
“Raucous” came to mind when Crary and I stepped through the glass doors around 9:30 a.m. and found him in the middle of a lively gab with Eunice and Maria Shriver, laughing it up over old memories and private jokes that bubbled up like champagne. Jennifer was there, as was Buchwald’s son Joel, his wife Tamara and their two small children. I felt a bit the interloper when things quieted down for brief introductions, but Buchwald brought the energy back up with, “Let me tell you just one more story.”
It’s obvious a “good dish” with his friends has him twinkling with happiness.
Art, in a blue and white striped golf shirt and blue sweat pants, wore a black tennis shoe on his left foot. His other pant leg hung loosely where his right leg has been amputated below his knee, but he gave no hint of pain or discomfort.
At a certain point, Jennifer announced, “Suzette’s going to give him an award.”
It was akin to cake time at a birthday party. Everyone clapped their hands and said, “Ooh! An award!”
I didn’t know what was more nerve wracking, trying to remember my little speech or having Eunice and Maria Shriver staring at me not two feet away.
Pulling the plaque out, I stood up and said, “Art, I bring you national greetings from your friends, fans and colleagues at the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. We want to present you with our 2006 Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award.
“As you can see, Ernie Pyle’s likeness graces the plaque because we consider him to be our patron saint, a legendary columnist who brought a human face to World War II with his stories about our soldiers, simply and profoundly told.
“And in the tradition of extraordinary columnists, you’ve shined a light on the politics of humanity. In that sense, you’ve been patron saint of political satire for almost six decades and we revere you.
“I bring congratulations and best wishes from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.”
Everybody clapped, and Art nodded his thanks.
Maria Shriver said, “Patron saint of political satire. I like that. See Art? You can be a saint.”
After they left, I found myself hanging out in hospice with Art and his family.
He looks great and still enjoys his food, which is a good sign. It was pure pleasure not having anything to do, but to eat whatever he wanted to eat, according to Buchwald.
“His favorite breakfast is fruit parfait, mini-cinnamon buns and chocolate milk from McDonald’s,” said Tamara, his daughter-in-law.
NPR talk show host Diane Rehm had conducted a poignant interview with Buchwald regarding his decision to forego further medical intervention, which aired four days earlier on February 24.
Buchwald’s candor was stunning. It’s said that when facing death, a man’s life passes before him, and this man passed along intimate insights to Rehm, including his fears (none), regrets (none) and any spiritual expectations (he’s not sure, but probably none). Buchwald’s number is coming up, and he wants to meet his fate squarely, sans any extraordinary means of delay, thank you very much.
“I’ve received unbelievable mail from people who agreed with me,” he said.
He read through a fat folder of fan mail, which later, Jennifer shared with me. The emails, cards and letters saluted and supported him. Many were tapped out with tears, according to their senders. Strangers wrote with relief, as if Buchwald’s decision to captain his own destiny gave them permission someday to do so, too.
The willingness to jump overboard and wave off any lifeboat seems quite courageous, but Buchwald was unimpressed with the idea of bravery. “I hated dialysis because it had to do with sitting there for five hours. It had to do with time. Once I made up my mind, that was it,” he told me.
“The end” is not taboo talk. In fact, Buchwald finds funny fodder in knock-knock-knocking on heaven’s door.
A nurse comes up, “Mr. Buchwald, Tom Brokaw is on the line.”
Buchwald takes the call, laughing, “Hey, I’m still here and I don’t know why. ”
No doubt about it. Buchwald is a celebrity patient at hospice. Not everyone gets letters from Neal Simon or daily visits from members of the Kennedy clan.
But hospice hasn’t been the non-stop party it was two weeks ago, according to his daughter, at least not today, which was fairly quiet. Time can stretch out in the warm living room where he sits most of the time, napping.
Joel and his family visit three times a day. Jennifer quit school in Massachusetts to be with her father. Whenever he slept nearby, she and I read or wrote on our laptops. We took the occasional walk whenever her father wanted something special, like a fruit parfait from McDonalds.
“You better go now, and you might be lucky to get the last one,” he said.
The cold dessert perked him up and with no celebrities to compete with, I pulled up a chair and asked him questions, like, “Art, why aren’t you afraid of death?”
“Because I don’t know what it is and I don’t have control over it,” he said.
“If you met God, what would he say to you?”
“There may or may not be a God, but I’m not going to be the one who is going to give the answers. Every religion is telling us there’s one God, but I’m not sure, so I’m not giving it a lot of thought,” he said.
His daughter asked, “Dad, did you ever have a near death experience?”
Buchwald said, “Maybe during the war. It felt like near death in a foxhole when it was being mobbed. It wasn’t a very pleasant thing.”
“Here, at hospice, what thoughts bring you joy?” I asked.
“My children, the fact that it all came out pretty damn good. Making people laugh, getting joy out of that,” he said.
Buchwald easily wrote about 8,000 columns during his career, according to Crary. He wrote three columns a week until about 1995, and penned two weekly until this past January.
I asked, “Art, do you miss writing? I know you’re not doing your columns anymore, but are there moments when you’re here and you wish you could just tap out one more column?” “No, not really. I wrote a column, a sad one to run the day after I go to heaven,” he said.
I asked, “What would you tell any humor columnists who want to be the next Art Buchwald?”
He said, “You are what you are. At the time all these things happened to me, newspapers were a great thing. If I tried to do it now, I might not even succeed today. Newspapers don’t look at columns the way they used to.”
Through the wooden slats just outside the windows, afternoon slices of sun gave the room a warm, lazy feel. This hospice was his last stop. Was it an uncomfortable thought?
Buchwald remained upbeat, “You gotta be somewhere and this is a pretty good place.”
Then he added, “Now I’m going to sleep.”
He snoozed amid gifts and mementos. A box arrived, a gourmet frozen dessert from a friend. Buchwald resembled a sleeping Buddha before a table of orchids, spring bouquets and baskets of potted flowers. Nearby, a white teddy bear wore a purple chapeau with a polka dotted ribbon and white feather, a gift from one of the Kennedy clan.
I pressed a button, and the little bear’s head moved side to side and a baby voice sang, “You fill up my thenses like a night in a foresth.”
“Hey, it’s singing Annie’s Song by John Denver and the bear has a lisp,” I said. We giggled.
Jennifer said, “When he dies, it’s going with him.”
Her father will be cremated along with gifts and pictures of his family and closest friends.
Later Buchwald took a call from Ken Starr, his business agent (not the attorney). Afterwards, I asked him, “Did you have a nice conversation?”
He said, “Yeah, I told him I’m amazed. There’s no change.”
I said, “Why are you amazed?”
“Because they said I’d be dead without dialysis and it’s been six weeks. I’m not supposed to be doing this good,” Buchwald said. (Note: His dialysis actually ended February 1).
I said, “Maybe it’s the power of positive thinking. Maybe you’re being carried along on love.”
Later, it was time to fly back to Boston. My departure coincided with the afternoon arrival of two more Kennedy family members.
We all said hello, but now it was time for a goodbye kiss on the top of Art Buchwald’s head.
He took my hand, “Thanks, honey, thanks for bringing the award.”
“Art, any pearls of wisdom for all the columnists who love you?”
“Keep writing. Tell them to just keep writing,” he said.
Contact Suzette Martinez Standring: firstname.lastname@example.org