By CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY
April 26, 2009
Lady Bracknell: Are your parents living?
Jack: I have lost both my parents.
Lady Bracknell: To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a
misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.
OSCAR WILDE, “THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST”
To the extent that this story has a dimension beyond the purely personal, I suppose it’s an account of becoming an orphan. My mother and father died within 11 months of each other in 2007 and 2008. I do realize that “orphan” sounds like an overdramatic term for becoming parentless at age 55, but I was struck by the number of times the word occurred in the 800 or more condolence letters I received after my father died. I hadn’t, until about the seventh or eighth reference, thought of myself as an “orphan.” Now you’re an orphan. . . . I know the pain myself of being an orphan. . . . You must feel so lonely, being an orphan. . . . When I became an orphan it felt like the earth dropping out from under me. . . . A certain chill began to encroach, until I was jolted out of my thousand-yard stare by an e-mail message from my old pal Leon Wieseltier, to whom I’d written that I was headed off to Arizona for some R and R: “May your orphanhood be tanned.”
One realization does dawn upon the death of the second parent, namely that you’ve now moved into the green room to the River Styx. You’re next. Another thing about parental mortality: No matter how much you’ve prepared for the moment, when it comes, it comes at you hot, hard and unrehearsed.
I FORGIVE YOU
The nurse buzzed me into the Critical Care Unit. The chic and stunning Mrs. William F. Buckley — the society columnists used to call her that — lay on her bed, shrunken, open-eyed, unseeing, a thick plastic respirator tube protruding from her mouth, making a loud, rhythmic bellows noise as it pumped and withdrew air from her lungs. I’d driven eight hours through a storm to get here and knew pretty much what to expect, but I lost it and began to sob. The nurse kindly left.
I drew up a chair and held what I could of her hand, which was cold and bony and edematous with fluid. The nurse returned shortly and said that Dr. D’Amico was on the phone. Joe D’Amico was her orthopedist, a kindly, attentive and warm man. The week before, he amputated three dry-gangrenous, mummified toes on her left foot. She stubbed them the previous November and, having fallen and broken so many bones in her body over the years, she, in the fashion of Victorian ladies, took to her bed to die. Sixty-five years of smoking cigarettes, with attendant problems of circulation, had taken their toll. A few days before, an operation to install a stent — to forestall additional amputations — went wrong, and a mortal infection set in.
Joe came on the line. He said how sorry he was, that she was a wonderful lady. He said: “What you’re seeing there isn’t her. She’s already in heaven.”
Joe and I had never discussed religion. I doubt, for that matter, that he and she had ever discussed it. I don’t think I ever once heard Mum utter a religious or spiritual sentiment, a considerable feat considering that she was married for 57 years to one of the most prominent Catholics in the country. But she rigorously observed the proprieties. When Pup taped an episode of “Firing Line” in the Sistine Chapel with Princess Grace, Malcolm Muggeridge, Charlton Heston and David Niven, Mum was included in the post-taping audience with Pope John Paul II. There’s a photo of the occasion: she has on more black lace than a Goya duchess. The total effect is that of Mary Magdalene dressed by Bill Blass.
I stammered out my thanks to Joe for everything he’d done for her. He asked, “Do you want to leave the respirator in or let nature take its course?” I said, “Let’s remove the respirator.”
I’d brought with me a pocket copy of the book of Ecclesiastes. A line in “Moby-Dick” lodged in my mind long ago: “The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe.” I grabbed it off my bookshelf on the way here, figuring that a little fine-hammered steel would probably be a good thing to have on this trip. I’m no longer a believer, but I haven’t quite reached the point of reading aloud from Christopher Hitchens’s “God Is Not Great” at deathbeds of loved ones.
Soon after, a doctor came in to remove the respirator. It was quiet and peaceful in the room, just pings and blips from the monitor. I stroked her hair and said, the words coming out of nowhere, surprising me, “I forgive you.”
It sounded, even at the time, like a terribly presumptuous statement. But it needed to be said. She would never have asked for forgiveness herself, even in extremis. She was far too proud. Only once or twice, when she had been truly awful, did she apologize. Generally, she was defiant — almost magnificently so — when her demons slipped their leash. My wise wife, Lucy, has a rule: don’t go to bed angry. Now, watching Mum go to bed for the last time, I didn’t want any anger left between us, so out came the unrehearsed words.
After removing the tube, the doctor said, “It usually goes quickly.” I sat beside her, watching the monitor, with its numbers and colored lines and chirps that tracked her breathing and heartbeat and other diminishing vital signs. Her heart rate slowed, then quickened, then slowed. After a time, I realized that I had become fixated on the monitor. I could hear her saying to me, a half-century earlier, “Are you just going to sit there and watch television all day?” It would be some spectacularly sunny Saturday morning, and I’d be glued to the telly (her word for it), watching Johnny Weissmuller nod as the remarkably intelligible chimp Tamba explained to him that the missionaries were being held hostage 3.4 miles north-northwest of the abandoned mine by evil Belgian ivory hunters. Some months later, I read that monitor-fixation is routine at deathbeds. Even at the end, we have become compulsive TV watchers.
Just before 2 o’clock in the morning, April 15, 2007, the respiratory line indicated that her breathing had stopped. Still her heart continued to beat, according to the faint but distinct blips. I rushed to find the nurse. “It’s normal,” she said. “It takes a little while.” She examined the monitor, held Mum’s wrist and nodded. It was over.
The Collection of Christopher Buckley
Christopher, age 4, and his parents, Pat and William F. Buckley, Stamford, Conn., 1956.
THAT SOUNDED LIKE A FUN DINNER
That night I wrote up an obituary about Mum and sent it out. Then I drove home to Stamford, Conn., where Pup was sound asleep, and went to bed in the room I grew up in. Pup woke me at about 8:30, calling from his garage study. I had e-mailed him the obituary before going to sleep. He said how glad he was to have it. He had always been encouraging and complimentary about my writing, and just as often critical. Pup was generous but a tough grader. In recent years, he had found it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to compliment something I had written unless it was about him. (I say this with amusement now, but at the time it wasn’t really all that amusing.) Of my last book, a novel published two weeks before Mum died and which reviewers were (for the most part) describing as my best to date, he had confined his comments in an e-mail P.S.: “This one didn’t work for me. Sorry.”
I went to his study. Pup was red-eyed, puffy-faced, out of breath, in rough shape. He was gradually suffocating from emphysema and had just lost his wife of more than five decades. We embraced.
That afternoon, Pup was going to Mass. I said I’d come. Normally, I didn’t. Normally, when in Connecticut on a Sunday, I would discreetly make myself scarce around this time, when he would gather up the Hispanic staff and drive to St. Mary’s Church, where a complaisant priest would say a private Latin Mass for him. Today, however, I reckoned, was not a day to skip church, so I went with them. Pup wept throughout the Mass. Afterward he told a friend who was there that he was “so pleased” that I had attended.
Pup and I had engaged in our own Hundred Years’ War over the matter of faith. Our Sturmiest und Drangiest times were over religion. Pup had the most delicious, reliable, wicked, vibrant sense of humor of anyone I knew, yet his inner Savonarola was released at the merest hint of (to use his term) impiety. Finally exhausted, I adopted — whether hypocritically or cowardly or wisely — a Potemkin stance of being back in the fold. My agnosticism, once defiant, had gone underground. I no longer had the desire to nail my theses to his church door. By now I knew we didn’t have much time left, and I didn’t want to spend it locking theological horns, making him heartsick with my intransigence.
A few days later, after Mum’s private funeral Mass, Pup and I busied ourselves one afternoon by going through her papers. She lost all interest in deskwork during the six or seven months of her invalidity. We found unpaid grocery bills, credit-card bills, undistributed cash for staff Christmas tips; uncashed checks; unopened letters, including, I saw to my disconcertment, a number from me. This was neither carelessness nor any failure of affection on her part, but rather fear, and realizing it made me wince in self-rebuke.
Mum’s serial misbehavior over the years had driven me, despairing, to write her scolding — occasionally scalding — letters. Now I saw that she had simply stopped opening all letters from me, against the possibility that they might contain another excoriation. I opened one of them and read:
Dear Mum, That really was an appalling scene at dinner last night. . . .
I wished that I could take back that letter, even though every word of it had been carefully weighed and justified. On reflection, it wasn’t fair of me. I’m a professional writer; she was not. It wasn’t a level playing field, however outrageous the provocations that had driven me, hot-faced, flushing and furious, to the keyboard. And they never — ever — did one bit of good, these pastoral letters of mine. Why, I wondered now, had I never accepted the futility of hurling myself against Fortress Mum?
My only consolation now was that I had finally stopped lobbing feckless, well-worded catapult-balls over Mum’s parapets. I didn’t even say anything to her about the Incident of July 2006. On that occasion, my daughter, Caitlin, Mum’s only granddaughter, went out to Stamford from New York for the night, taking with her her best friend, Kate Kennedy. I know, I know — but there is simply no way to tell this story without using real names.
Cat and Kate look like Irish twins. They have been soul mates since kindergarten. Kate is beautiful, vivacious, bright, witty and very naughty — a Kennedy through and through, nicknamed Kick after her great-aunt. The friendship between these two colleens is perhaps unusual given that their paternal grandfathers, Robert F. Kennedy and William F. Buckley Jr., were on opposite sides of the old political spectrum.
At any rate, here were two enchanting young ladies at a grandparental country manse on a summer night. An occasion for joy, affection, delighted conversation. You might . . . sigh . . . suppose. I was not — praise the gods — in attendance, inasmuch as Mum and I were not speaking at the time, owing to a previous disgrace of hers, a real beaut even by her standards. The general mood at the dinner table that night was not leavened by the continued — indeed, persistent — presence of a British aristocrat lady friend of Mum’s, who arrived for a visit 10 days before. Now, nearly a fortnight into her encampment, she showed no signs of leaving. Pup’s graciousness as a host was legendary, but it had limits. The poor man was reduced to japery. So, your ladyship, you must be getting jolly homesick for Merry Olde England by now, eh? Ho, ho, ho. . . . But her ladyship showed no sign of homesickness for Old Blighty. Indeed, she had fastened onto our house with the tenacity of a monomaniacal abalone.
Now, on Day 10 of Pup Held Hostage, his mood had congealed from sullenness to smoldering resentment. Meanwhile, Mum’s protracted, vinous afternoons of gin rummy with her ladyship had her by dinnertime in what might be called the spring-loaded position. In such moods, Mum was capable of wheeling on, say, Neil Armstrong to inform him that he knew nothing — nothing what-so-ever — about astrophysics or lunar landing. No hostess in history has ever set a better dinner table than my mother, but on such evenings, I would rather have supped with al Qaeda in a guano-strewn cave.
At some point, Mum turned to — on might be the more exact preposition — Kate, informing her that she (Mum) had been an alternate juror in the murder trial of Kate’s father’s first cousin Michael Skakel. Skakel, nephew of Ethel Kennedy, Kate’s grandmother, was (as you might be aware) the defendant in a sensational murder trial in Stamford several years before, for the 1975 murder of 15-year-old Martha Moxley. Having presented this astonishing and perfectly untrue credential, Mum then proceeded to launch into a protracted lecture on the villainy of Kate’s relative.
Leave aside the issue of Skakel’s culpability, for which he is, at any rate, currently serving a 20-years-to-life sentence. Over the years, I heard Mum utter whoppers that would make Pinocchio look button-nosed, but this one really took the prize, in several categories, the first being Manners. Why on earth would you inflict a jeremiad on an innocent 18-year-old girl, your own granddaughter’s best friend? The mind — as Mum herself used to put it — boggles.
This supper-table donnybrook I learned about over the phone, from breathless, reeling Cat and Kate once they reached the sanctuary of the pool after dinner, along with a much-needed bottle of wine. All I could say to poor Kate was a WASP variation on oy vey. By the time I put down the phone, my blood reached Fahrenheit 451, the temperature at which it starts spurting out your ears.
I breathed into a paper bag for a few days and then called Pup. “Well,” I said, “that sounded like a fun dinner. Sorry to miss it.” He feigned ignorance of the Skakel episode; perhaps he had excused himself early and gone upstairs to short-sheet her ladyship’s bed. He was, anyway, past caring at this, my 500th howl about Mum’s behavior. He tried to wave it away with a spuriously subjunctive, “But why would she say something like that if she weren’t a juror at the trial?” (Pup would have made a superb defense attorney) and changed the subject back to what kind of explosives work best for dislodging aristocratic British houseguests.
I remember the time I first caught Mum in some preposterous untruth, as she called it. It, too, featured British aristos. She grew up a debutante in a grand house in Vancouver, British Columbia, the kind of house that even has a name: Shannon. Grand, but Vancouver-grand, which is to say, provincial.
So one night, when I was 6 or so, sitting with the grown-ups at the dinner table, I heard Mum announce that “the king and queen always stayed with us when they were in Vancouver.” By “king and queen” she meant the parents of the current queen of England. My little antennae went twing? I’d never heard my grandparents refer to a royal visit, which is a pretty big deal. I looked at Mum and realized — twang! — that she was telling an untruth. A big untruth. And I remember thinking in that instant how thrilling and grown-up it must be to say something so completely untrue — as opposed to the little amateur fibs I was already practiced at, horrid little apprentice sinner that I was, like the ones about how you’d already said your prayers or washed under the fingernails. Yes, I was impressed. This was my introduction to a lifetime of mendacity. I, too, must learn to say these gorgeous untruths. Imaginary kings and queens will be my houseguests when I am older!
When Mum was in full prevarication, Pup would assume an expression somewhere between a Jack Benny stare and the stoic grimace of a 13th-century saint being burned at the stake. He knew very well that King George VI and Queen Elizabeth did not routinely decamp at Shannon. The funny thing was that he rarely challenged her when she was in the midst of one of her glorious confections. For that matter, no one did. They wouldn’t have dared. Mum had a regal way about her that did not brook contradiction. The only time she ever threatened to spank me was when I told her, in front of others, following one of her more absurd claims, “Oh, come off it!” Her fluent mendacity, combined with adamantine confidence, made her really indomitable. As awful as it often was, thinking back on it now, I’m filled with a sort of perverse pride in her. She was really, really good at it. She would have made a fantastic spy. Really, she would have made a fantastic anything. She was beautiful, theatrical, bright as a diamond, the wittiest woman I have ever known. (Whatever talent I possess as a “humorist” — dreadful word — I owe to her.) She could have done anything; instead, she devoted herself, heart, soul and body, to being Mrs. William F. Buckley Jr. (A full-time job.)
At any rate, I hadn’t written to rebuke her over the Cat and Kate dinner, so that was one letter from me Mum never had to not open. What, really, would have been the point of writing?
I forgive you. I was glad to have the chance to say that to her at the hospital, holding her hand, tears streaming down my face. I can hear her saying, Are you quite finished, or shall I fetch my Stradivarius?
The Collection of Christopher Buckley
Roman Holiday: Pat and Christopher at the Colosseum, about 1962.
A CHEMICAL EXTENSION OF CONTROL
Pup’s decline was swift. In June, two months after Mum died, I was back at Stamford Hospital, where he was in and out of delirium, on the cusp of kidney failure. Weakened by his emphysema and other problems, he had taken ill and become dangerously dehydrated, taxing his kidneys. I finally got him back home, and we settled into a routine of sorts, which somewhat depended on how many sleeping pills Pup had self-administered during the night.
I did not, as a young bacchant in the ’60s and ’70s, absent myself from the garden of herbal and pharmacological delights — far from it — so I found myself in an odd position, that is, lecturing a parent about drugs. The child-parent relationship inevitably reverses, but to this degree I had not anticipated.
“Pup,” I would say, eyeing the half-empty blister pack of Stilnox, a sleeping pill, by his bedside. “How many Stilnoxes did we take last night?”
“I don’t know. One and a half? Two?”
“Two?” (Examing the pack, which looked as if it had been half-eaten by wolverines in the night.) “Two. O.K.”
“I may have taken another.”
“Another. So — three, say?”
(Becoming annoyed.) “There might have been one more.”
I looked at the blister pack of Ritalin, which Pup took for low blood pressure and energy. “How many Rits did we take yesterday?”
(Fully annoyed.) “What does Rit have to do with not sleeping?”
I still can’t say whether this stunner was denial or a “Firing Line”-quality countermove. I had made the (pretty obvious) point to Pup — 50 times over recent years? — that Ritalin, which acted on him as a stimulant, was no means to a good night’s sleep, especially if you took your final one of the day at dinnertime and washed it down with coffee.
Pup’s self-medicating was, I’d venture, a chemical extension of the control he asserted over every other aspect of his life. The term “control freak” is pejorative. Put it this way: Few great men — and I use the term precisely, for Pup was a great man — do not assert total control over their domains. I doubt Winston Churchill ever said, “Whatever.”
Some years ago, I came across a Thomas Carlyle quote that could serve as the solipsist’s definitive credo: “Let me have my own way in exactly everything and a sunnier and pleasanter creature does not exist.” Pup never plunged into a bad mood or became grouchy if things didn’t go his way, perhaps for the reason that they always went his way. He was invariably the sunniest and most pleasant creature in the room. The moods of those in attendance upon him — Mum’s, mainly — did not always match his.
A TV remote control in the hands of an autocrat of the entertainment room becomes a “Star Trek” phaser set on stun. He and Mum might be watching “Murder on the Orient Express” with a half-dozen guests when, just as a key plot point was being introduced, suddenly the screen would fill with a documentary on Che Guevara or the Tuareg nomads of the Sahara.
During those long months after Mum died, things were no different on that score. Evenings, if Pup was up to it, I and my longtime friend Danny, who was like a surrogate son to Pup,would bring him down on the electric rail-chair. Leaning on my shoulders, he would slowly make his way to the music room, stopping to gasp for air every three feet. There, the three of us would eat one of Julian the cook’s delicious meals on trays and watch a movie. I say “a movie,” but “movies” would be more accurate, since several minutes in, without bothering to say, “Let’s watch something else,” he’d simply change the channel. One day, when I was out of town and called to check in, Danny reported, with a somewhat-strained chuckle, “We watched parts of five movies last night.”
All this seems quite trivial now, but at the time, Pup’s death grip on the remote took on a sort of proxy significance, symbolic of the control he exerted over the solar system around him. Once or twice during the convalescence, I became so splutteringly frustrated after the fourth or fifth channel change that I silently stormed out of the room. He’s sick, I would tell myself, fuming off to my room. But halfway up the stairs, my inner noodge would whisper, Well, yeah, but it’s not quite that simple, is it?
For their 40th wedding anniversary, in 1990, I put together a mock episode of CBS’s “60 Minutes.” I taped interviews with 30 or so of their friends; I even persuaded a sporting Mike Wallace to play along with an ambush interview of himself in which he flees the interviewer (me), protesting, “I find these kinds of interviews distasteful!”
One interview was of Pup’s great friend, the journalist Dick Clurman, and his wife, Shirley. Dick and Shirley had accompanied my parents on a dozen Christmas cruises in the Caribbean aboard chartered sailboats. In the interview, Dick, standing in his Manhattan apartment dressed in yellow foul-weather gear, describes how it was one Christmas Eve on one cruise.
Everything was perfect. Mum had brought and wrapped presents for everyone, arranging them around a Christmas tree she had contrived. (She was brilliant at Christmases, Mum.) She brought and strung up little twinkling lights. Drinks were served. “Silent Night” was playing on the CD player. The boat was anchored in the most charming, lovely, beautiful, protected cove in the entire Caribbean. You see where this is going. Everything was perfect.
At which point Pup suddenly decided that it would be even more perfect if they up-anchored and moved across the way to a different cove. Looking back, I now understand that his greatness was of a piece with the way he conducted himself at sea. Great men always have too much canvas up. Great men take great risks. It’s the timorous souls — souls like myself — who err on the side of caution; who, when they see a storm approaching, take in sail and look for snug harbor. Not my old man. On that Christmas Eve, Mum said, “Bill, just leave it.” But leaving it was not Bill’s way. No, no. Ho, ho, ho.
Dick’s recitation of what followed is quite hilarious, but I’d guess it was far from hilarious at the time.
Pup ordered the anchor up, and as they proceeded across the bay, a sudden squall hit, drenching everything, washing presents overboard, shorting out the Christmas lights, knocking over the tree; whereupon, in the dark and confusion, the yacht went aground. So instead of spending a lovely, calm Christmas Eve in the protected cove listening to Bing Crosby singing amid the twinkling lights, they spent it in the dark, at a 45-degree angle atop a sandbar, in a rainstorm. All because Pup had insisted that it would be “so much nicer over on the other side.” Great men are not content to leave well enough alone.
IF IT WEREN’T FOR THE RELIGIOUS ASPECT
It was mid-July now, three months after Mum’s death. One day a few weeks after I got him back from the hospital, still ailing badly but bored witless by inertia, Pup announced that he was going to go to his garage study to recommence work on his Goldwater memoir. This was valiant. Here he could barely breathe, barely stand, barely speak. Into the bargain, it was blowing a summer gale. We were both drenched to the underwear by the time I got him situated in the cockpit of his study. I approached him with the nose oxygen tube. He made a face. We had had a hundred discussions about this.
“Let’s put in your oxygen tube, O.K.?”
“What good would that do?”
“Well, Pup, it’s oxygen, you know, and since you’re having a hard time breathing — ”
“I don’t see what good it does.”
Ignoring him and looping the tubes around his ears and inserting the end into his nostrils: “Well, can’t be doing any harm, shouldn’t think.”
He fired up his computers. He hunched unsteadily over his keyboard. I hovered behind, ready to catch him if he pitched forward.
“I’m going to have to dictate to you,” he said.
“I’m a little rusty at WordStar,” I said. “It’s been a quarter-century or so.”
Pup still used the word-processing system he first learned in the early 1980s. Generations of his computer gurus had had to install this antiquated system in his increasingly sophisticated computers, which were like F-22 fighter jets with the controls of a Sopwith Camel.
Pup stood, holding onto the edge of his desk for support, and began to dictate the last chapter of his memoirs about Barry Goldwater.
“The years ahead were, by the standards of Barry Goldwater, unhurried. . . .”
What amazed me, and still does now, was how fluent it was. Rereading the final chapter in the recently published book, it’s remarkable how little changed it is from what issued from Pup’s oxygen-deprived blue lips that rainy morning in his study. His mind was a still brightly burning fire deep within the wreckage of his body. He made hardly any self-corrections as he spoke. The words came out punctuated and paragraphed. And fast. My fingers scuttled across the keyboard like crabs. In less than 10 minutes, we were on the last paragraph of the last book he would complete.
“And that was that. No one else comes to mind who sustained for so long a comparable reputation for candor and courage. Over the years, if active in the political community, one comes across rejected aspirants for the presidency. But even in that rare company Goldwater, whether initiating a call from the South Pole to my wife or puddle-jumping the Grand Canyon for his friends, was unique, and will forever remain so.”
My eyes misted up as I typed. I said, “It’s beautiful, Pup.” I was, for the 1,000th time in my life, in awe of him.
I remember, as a child, watching him in the backseat of his limo, with his portable blue Olivetti Lettera 32 propped on his knees, pounding out a deadline column. Between 1962 and 2008, he wrote some 5,600 of these. Assembled into book form, they would fill 45 volumes; add that to his more than 50 published books. This is, I reflect as the author of only 14 books, a humbling tally.
Most authors are happy — thrilled, even, to the point of doing cartwheels — on finishing a book. But not Pup, not this time, for it left him, literally, without a reason to go on living. His already-low spirits deepened into depression. I began to field alarmed phone calls and e-mail messages from his friends.
He summoned me one afternoon to his bed and said to me, a look of near-despair on his face, “Oh, Christo, I feel so bloody awful.”
“I know you do, Pup,” I said. “I know you do. I’m so sorry. I wish. . . .”
“If it weren’t for the religious aspect,” he said, “I’d take a pill.”
The religious aspect. Here we were venturing out onto thin ice. This was not the moment to break what remained of his heart by telling him that although I greatly admired the teachings of Jesus, I had long ago stopped believing that he had risen from the dead. At the same time, I was desperate to help put him out of his misery, if that was what he wanted. Misery it was. He missed Mum desperately.
This was a mystery to me. There had been so many rocky times. And yet I understood. He depended on her for so long. Even when Mum wasn’t speaking to him — which was about a third of the time — she looked after him: packing his bags, making sure he had everything he needed. “I’m just an Arab wife,” she was known to say. “When Bill says, ‘Strike the tent,’ I do.” She had been brought up by a mother who inculcated in her daughters that their primary role in life was to take care of their men. Mum did that. She saw to every detail.
Even when Pup was despairing of her behavior — as he did only occasionally — and sought refuge on the lecture circuit or wherever, he would call her every night, trying reconciliation with, “Hi, Duck.” “Duck” was the formal, vous version of “Ducky,” their term of affection for each other. If a transcript existed of their 57-year-long marriage and you did a computer quick-find search of “Ducky,” you’d find 1,794,326 matches.
I’D DO THE SAME FOR YOU
I had planned to leave mid-July on a trip to the West Coast. One night as we watched the first of three — or was it four? — movies, he said apprehensively, “When are you leaving for California?”
“I’m not, Pup. I’m going to stay here with you.”
He began to cry. I went over and patted him on the back. He recovered his composure and said, somewhat matter-of-factly, “Well, I’d do the same for you.”
I smiled and thought, Oh, no, you wouldn’t. A year or two earlier, I might have said it out loud, initiating one of our antler-clashes. But watching him suffer had made my lingering resentments seem trivial and beside the point.
I wondered, while keeping this vigil with him, whether to bring up certain things and talk them out so that, when the end came, nothing would be left unsaid between us. But each time I hovered on the brink, I found myself shrugging and saying, Let it go. Perhaps it was another way of saying “I forgive you” — as I had to Mum that night in the hospital — on the installment plan. I felt no need for what is called, in other contexts, the “exit interview.” I was able to love him now all the more, and actually laugh (inwardly, anyway) at that “I’d do the same for you.” Oh, yeah? Ho, ho, ho.
When I was 11, I spent three weeks in a hospital without a visit from him. True, he was on a trip to South Africa at the time, and in 1962, South Africa was a long way off. Still, when finally the doctors told Mum that I might not make it, she flashed word to him: come home, and that he did, briskly, catching the next flight and changing planes — as he related proudly — in Nairobi, Cairo, Athens, Rome, Paris, London and . . . Reykjavik! His absence from my sickbed was not any failure of love. It was, perhaps, just how it was in those days: the mothers took care of the children. By the time he arrived back, I was out of danger, and he brought with him spectacular presents: a leopard-skin rug, which he christened “King Kaiser” and whose head would serve as a gnaw-bone to generations of Cavalier King Charles puppies; also a splendid ceremonial Wilkinson sword of the type, he said, carried by the guards at Buckingham Palace.
In addition to his unwillingness to alter his plan, his impatience was the stuff of legend — another common trait among the Great that could sometimes be, well, maddening. Ten minutes into my college graduation ceremony, he got bored and rounded up the family and friends in attendance and whisked them off to lunch at what we now call an “undisclosed location,” leaving me to spend my graduation day wandering the campus in search of my family. I ended up having my graduation lunch alone, at the Yankee Doodle diner. When I confronted him back home, grinding my back molars, he merely said airily, “I just assumed you had other plans.” Pup — on my graduation day?
By the beginning of August, I had convalesced him — if the verb can be used transitively — back to some semblance of health. I’d been with him night and day since mid-June. Lucy reported that my 15-year-old son, Conor, had been reduced to looking me up on YouTube. I ached to be with him, yet I feared leaving Pup, sensing that every time I left might be the last I saw him. But I had to get away and comforted myself knowing he’d be well looked after by the devoted Danny and household staff.
I woke early, bursting to go. Pup was still asleep, amid a heap of crushed reading matter and the chugging oxygen machine. I kissed him and tiptoed out and made it to our summer rental cabin in Blue Hill, Me., in less than eight hours, where Conor and the faithful hound Jake were waiting for me in the little studio house by the water. It felt like heaven. That night, to the smell of pinewoods and the cry of loons, I e-mailed him.
Dear Pup, I don’t know when you’ll get this but I just wanted to say how much being with you these past weeks, despite the circumstances, has meant to me. I love you very much. Your devoted Christo
He replied the next day:
O Christo, that note on TOP of everything you have done for me! XXXXp
I KNOW YOU WANT YOUR ASHES IN THE CROSS
Between August and February, Pup’s deterioration continued apace, though he managed to get started on yet another book, a memoir of his friendship with Ronald Reagan. During those months, I spent as much time with him as I could. I had planned to come up to Stamford from Washington the following day when my phone rang at 9:30 the morning of Feb. 27, Conor’s 16th birthday. It was Julian, Pup’s cook.
“Hello, Christopher. I’m sorry to disturb you, but there’s been an emergency.”
He’d found Pup on the floor of his garage study. The ambulance had been called. It wasn’t clear if he was still alive.
I don’t know the technical definition of shock, but after hanging up with Julian, I found myself wandering around the house aimlessly thinking that I should go on with what I had been doing when he called, namely my income taxes. Maybe if I do that, I thought, then this won’t have happened.
My thinking was as incoherent as the verb tenses in that last sentence. I waited five minutes and called the house. Julia, the maid, answered. She was sobbing, a wailing sound. “Oh, Christobal, Christobal. Venga. Venga.” (Come. Come.) So I knew: Pup was gone.
I walked about the house, conducting a kind of conversation with myself. O.K., so that’s that. Now what? Do the taxes? No, we’re not going to do the taxes now. Jesus. Get a grip. O.K., so what do we do, then? I leaned my forehead against a wall and took some deep breaths.
The next morning I drove from Washington to my parents’ home in Stamford. There’s something to be said for a long, solitary drive — it concentrates the mind. Death presents you with a to-do list, and at the top of the list was the most urgent detail, namely the disposal of the last remains.
Some years before, Pup commissioned a large bronze crucifix from the Connecticut sculptor Jimmy Knowles. It’s a beautiful piece of modern art. He placed it in the middle of the lawn in Stamford, to a distinct grumbling by Mum, who viewed her garden as off-limits to my father’s artistic (and in this case overtly religious) intrusions. Mum’s ashes were now inside the cross, in a heavy brass canister that looked as if it had been designed as a container for enriched plutonium. Pup’s instructions were that he, too, should be cremated and join her in the cross. The idea of Mum, who wasn’t very religious, encased for all eternity inside Pup’s crucifix had afforded her and me a few grim giggles over the years.
“Just sprinkle me in the garden or send me out with the trash,” she told me. “I most certainly do not wish to be inside that object.” But Mum died first, so that was that.
Pup expected me to keep the Stamford house, but beautiful as it was and fond though (most of) my memories were of it, it’s expensive, and after paying all the death taxes, I doubted I’d be able to maintain it. But not wanting to hurt his feelings, I went along with the fiction that I would keep it. This, however, left me with a conundrum: what to do with the cross. One evening during his convalescence I tiptoed into this minefield over our martinis.
“Say, Pup, I know you want your ashes in the cross. . . .”
“I absolutely want them in the cross,” he said, in a pre-emptive, “Firing Line” tone of voice.
“Right. Right. I was only thinking, what if, you know, the house, if I, well, you never know . . . if I ever had to sell it. . . .”
“Your point being?”
“Well, I mean, a new owner . . . surely . . . might, uh. . . .”
“Why wouldn’t a new owner want the cross?”
“Well,” I said, taking a deep swig of my frosty see-through, “they might be, I don’t know, Jewish, or whatever. They might not want an enormous crucifix in their garden.”
“It’s a work of art,” he said.
“It is. It is absolutely that. (Clearing of throat.) Still. . . .”
“I wouldn’t worry about it.” How well I knew this formulation. “I wouldn’t worry about it” was W.F.B.-speak for “The conversation is over.”
Thus I was left with the impression I had committed lèse-majesté by suggesting that a future owner — Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Amish, Zoroastrian — might be anything less than honored to have William F. Buckley Jr.’s last remains in his garden, encased in an enormous bronze symbol of the crucified Christ. Certainly it would present the real estate broker with an interesting covenant clause. Now, um, Mr. and Mrs. Birnbaum, you do understand that Mr. and Mrs. Buckley’s ashes are to remain in the crucifix, in the garden, in, um, perpetuity?
Shipmates Christopher Buckley and his father, William F. Buckley, aboard the elder Buckley’s boat in 1986.
THERE’S A MR. X, APPARENTLY
One day, as I sat in Pup’s study planning the memorial service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the phone rang. A gentle, sandpapery voice came on the line.
“I’m looking for Christopher Buckley.”
“Yes, this is he.”
“Oh, Chris, it’s George McGovern calling.”
Pup and George McGovern were political opposites, but they became fast friends a decade earlier after engaging in a series of public debates. I remembered Pup grinning one day over lunch, announcing: “Say, have I told you about my new best friend? George McGovern! He turns out to be the single nicest human being I’ve ever met.”
I recall my jaw dropping. When McGovern ran for president in 1972, Pup had written and spoken some pretty tough things about him (though never ad hominem). As I winched my lower mandible back into place, I reflected that this relationship wasn’t at all improbable. Some of Pup’s great friendships were with card-carrying members of the vast left-wing conspiracy: John Kenneth Galbraith, Murray Kempton, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the A.C.L.U. head Ira Glasser and Allard K. Lowenstein, among many others. But there were piquant twists to the friendship with McGovern.
Pup’s boss at the C.I.A. in Mexico in 1951 was E. Howard Hunt. Howard was — you may have heard something about this — indicted in 1972 after locks were jimmied open at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate, in an effort, among other things, to sabotage George McGovern’s presidential campaign. Pup left the C.I.A.’s employ in 1952, but he remained friends with Hunt and was godfather to — and, indeed, trustee for — the Hunts’ children.
As Watergate unfolded, I found myself home from college some weekends, in the basement sauna with Pup after dinner, listening to him as he confided his latest hush-hush phone call from Howard. It was dramatic, even spooky, stuff. The calls would come at prearranged times, from phone booths. One night, Pup looked truly world-weary. Howard’s wife, Dorothy, had just been killed in a commercial-airline crash while on a mission for him, reportedly delivering hush money to Watergate operatives.
“It turns out that there’s a safety-deposit box.”
I was 21, an aspiring staff reporter on The Yale Daily News. Watergate was a very big story. No: the biggest story since the Fall of Rome. Oh, how my little mouth salivated. Not that I could repeat a single word of any of this.
“A safety-deposit box?”
“There’s a Mr. X, apparently. The way it works is this: I don’t know his identity, but he knows mine. Howard has given him instructions: if he’s killed — ”
“ — if something happens. . . . In that event, Mr. X will contact me. He has the key to the safety-deposit box. He and I are to open it together.”
Pup looked at me heavily. “Decide what to do with the contents.”
“Don’t swear, Big Shot.”
“What sort of contents are we talking about?”
This next moment, I remember vividly. Pup was staring at the floor of the sauna, hunched over. His shoulders sagged. He let out a sigh.
“I don’t know, exactly, but it could theoretically involve information that could lead to the impeachment of the president of the United States.”
This conversation took place in December 1972. In the post-Clinton era, the word “impeachment” has lost much of its shock value, but back then, before the revelation of the Oval Office tapes, or the revelations of the White House counsel John Dean, the phrase “impeachment of the president of the United States” packed a very big wallop. I was speechless. Pup was, to be sure, a journalist, but he took no pleasure in possessing this odious stick of dynamite. His countenance was pure Gethsemane: Let this cup pass from me. He would later publicly recuse himself, in the pages of his own magazine, from comment on Watergate, pleading conflict of interest based on his status as trustee for the Hunt children.
And now George McGovern, whose campaign was the target of Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy and the other “plumbers,” was on the phone from South Dakota, to condole someone he had never met and to say that he was planning to come to the memorial service, adding with what sounded like a grin, “if I can make my way through this 15-foot-high snowdrift outside my house.” I put down the phone and wept.
HOW DID IT TURN OUT, PUP?
I think about them every day. Orphanhood proceeds, tanned — as Leon Wieseltier hoped — and otherwise. It comes in waves. One moment you’re doing fine, living your life, even perhaps feeling some sort of primal sense of liberation — I can stay out as late as I want, and I don’t have to make my bed! Then in the next instant, boom, there it is. It has various ways of presenting, as doctors say of disease.
Sometimes it comes in the form of a black hole inside you, sucking the rest of you into it; at other times it is a sense of disconnection, as if you had been holding your mother’s hand in a crowd and suddenly she let go.
The summer after Pup died, I got a midnight call with the news that my friend Rust Hills, the editor and writer, had died. Rust was a great admirer of Montaigne. I thumbed through my copy of the “Essays” and found this: “The ceaseless labor of your life is to build the house of death.” It’s probably too downbeat a sentiment by American smiley-face standards to make it onto a refrigerator magnet, but . . . pas mal. You want to be able, when the end comes, to look the Reaper right in the eye and say, “Oh, puh-leeze.” I’m sure that’s how Mum did it. She’d have added, “And what, pray, is that preposterous costume supposed to indicate?”
“Perhaps the best cure for the fear of death,”Hazlitt wrote, “is to reflect that life has a beginning as well as an end. There was a time when we were not: this gives us no concern — why then should it trouble us that a time will come when we shall cease to be?”
Any English major can quote a good game. Ask me how I feel when my doctor says with a frown, “I’d like to do one more P.S.A. test.”
Recently, I was driving behind a belchy city bus and suddenly found myself thinking, not for the first time, about whether Pup is in heaven. He spent so much of his life on his knees in church, so much of his life doing the right thing by so many people, a thousand acts of generosity. I hesitate to put it this way, but I’m dying of curiosity: how did it turn out, Pup? Were you right, after all? Is there a heaven? Is Mum there with you? Grumbling, almost certainly, about the “inedible food,” and saying, “Bill, you’ve got to speak to that absurd St. Peter creature about getting Christopher in — I mean, it’s all too ridiculous for words.”
Christopher Buckley is the author of 14 books. “Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir,” from which this article is adapted, will be published next month.