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Losing Mum and Pup
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As Buckley tells the story of their final year together, he takes readers on a surprisingly entertaining tour through hospitals, funeral homes, and memorial services, capturing the heartbreaking and disorienting feeling of becoming a 55-year-old orphan. Buckley maintains his sense of humor by recalling the words of Oscar Wilde: “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness.”
Just as Calvin Trillin and Joan Didion gave readers solace and insight into the experience of losing a spouse, Christopher Buckley offers consolation, wit, and warmth to those coping with the death of a parent, while telling a unique personal story of life with legends.
Copyright © 2009 by Christopher Taylor Buckley
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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First eBook Edition: May 2009
ALSO BY Christopher Buckley
Florence of Arabia
No Way to Treat a First Lady
Washington Schlepped Here: Walking in the Nation's Capital
Little Green Men
God Is My Broker
Thank You for Smoking
The White House Mess
Steaming to Bamboola: The World
of a Tramp Freighter
April Is the Cruelest Month
April 14, 2007, began well enough. I was at Washington and Lee University in very rural Lexington, Virginia. It has a beautiful campus, and the occasion was an egotist's wet dream. The previous afternoon, I had driven into town underneath a enormous banner slung across the main street: CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY'S WASHINGTON—THE TOM WOLFE LECTURE SERIES. Hot diggity dog. A two-day program of talks and seminars by professors of journalism and political science, all about my novels, ending with a lecture by Tom Wolfe, on the topic of same. It doesn't get any better than that. Tom Wolfe has been my beau ideal and hero since 1970, when at age seventeen I came upon his Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and stayed up all night, silent upon a peak in Darien, inhaling his nitrous-injected prose. So, sweeping all modesty aside, I found being invited to this event at W and L—the Maestro's own alma mater—very cool indeed.
The night before, after my talk, there had been a reception at the president's house. I asked my host if this had in fact been Robert E. Lee's house when he was president of Washington College, as it was then called. The answer was yes, and furthermore, it was in this very room, the dining room, that he had died. He was stricken at mealtime and, unable to be moved, had spent his final days there.
I looked about the room reverently. Death was on my mind. It was April 13, just four days after the anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox, not so far from here; it was, as well, the eve of the anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Lee's old foe. * On the walk to dinner after the reception, I was shown the stable where Lee's horse, Traveller, had spent his last days. I'd asked to see it because I had once owned a small wooden sailboat that I'd named Traveller, after him. My Buckley grandmother, a proud native of New Orleans (born 1895), stoutly maintained that we are related to Robert E. Lee, but my uncle Reid, the family historian, has laid that pretty fiction firmly to rest. The Buckleys are related to Robert E. Lee in roughly the same sense that every human being on the planet is related to that procreative hominid lady who lived in Africa a hundred thousand years ago. Reid did, on the other hand, establish that Mimi's grandfather was decorated for bravery fighting for Lee at Shiloh, as well as on subsequent other killing fields. Relatives of Robert E. Lee are as numerous as crew members of JFK's torpedo boat PT-109. *
There was a screening after the dinner of Thank You for Smoking, a movie adapted from one of the aforementioned Washington novels. Having seen it more times than there are relatives of Robert E. Lee, I ducked out early and walked back to the little guesthouse up the hill. My cell phone showed no bars, and I was anxious to see if there were any messages. My mother was dying 450 miles north of here, and I felt isolated, all the more so for the deep, cicada-loud country night.
This was Friday. (The 13th, it occurs.) On Tuesday, she had gone into the hospital to have a stent installed in her thigh in hopes of preventing further amputations. Thursday, the wound went septic. She lapsed into a coma from which the doctors said she would not emerge. Over the phone on Friday morning, Pup had said to me, Go to Virginia. Honor the commitment. There's no point in coming up. Then he'd said, Why don't we agree that the next call you get from me will be when she's dead.
I didn't know what to say to that. Pup's fatalism could sometimes border on sangfroid. He had over the course of his life given (literally) thousands of speeches, and he had a paladin code of conduct that the show must go on. My inclination was to speed to the side of my mother, whether she was sensate or not. But the Wolfe event had been laid on months ago; hundreds of people had been paid money and come long distances. Still, I demurred, if only for practical reasons: I imagined myself mounting the podium to make the audience laugh (my one talent) moments after getting a phone call informing me that my mother had just died. But Pup was adamant. She's in a coma, Big Shot. She wouldn't know you're there. Go. So I put down the phone and cried and went to Virginia.
Now, Saturday morning, I sat in the audience and listened to Tom Wolfe say nice things about my work. I'd known him for about thirty years. I blush to admit that I had importuned him for blurbs for my early books, which he had quite correctly declined to provide. (Oh, Youth: What an utter ass you can be!) Many years later, Tom indicated, more than generously, his approval, which was all the sweeter for its having been long in the coming.
There was a lunch, but I had to skip that because a car was waiting to get me to Baltimore, five hours away, for the next gig, the annual fund-raiser at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. I was the speaker. That too had been arranged months in advance and had been heavily promoted. I said grateful good-byes to my hosts and to the Man in White, drove out under the CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY'S WASHINGTON banner, and, seeing bars on my cell phone, phoned my wife, Lucy, in Washington.
She told me the death watch had begun. Pup had announced he would not return to the hospital. Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Pitts had come down from Sharon to be with him, but they had now gone back. Jimmy's wife, Ann, had been paralyzed from the neck down in an awful car accident, and he didn't like to leave her for long. Pitts, who is to the Buckley family what Gibraltar is to the Mediterranean, had told Lucy, I think Christo better get back. So I hung up with Lucy and called the lady at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.
"Oh, yes, Mr. Buckley," she said merrily, "we're so looking forward to seeing you."
I blurted, "My mother isn't expected to live out the night." I choked up halfway through. I can't account for where such stilted language came from. They're words that you might hear in a hospital soap opera. I don't talk like that. It leaves me wondering if, in such situations, one subconsciously plagiarizes from remembered dialogue left in the brain's attic.
There was a pause. She said, "Of course. I'm so sorry."
I felt awful screwing things up so for the library. But as cancellation excuses go, a dying mother is pretty unassailable. It should be, at any rate. But then I remember a story told me by a friend, the sister of a hugely successful movie producer: Her brother was summoned, along with other family members, to the bed of their dying mother. He was at the time shooting a big-budget movie that you have almost certainly seen. No sooner had he arrived in the hospital room in New York than the two studio heads phoned him—"screaming, I mean, screaming," she said—at him to fly back to the set. You'd recognize their names. Still wanna be in showbiz?
There was a storm moving in from the west, rain coming down harder and harder. Right, I thought, the objective correlative: the outward aspect mirroring the inner aspect. (Once an English major, always an English major.) I phoned Lucy back. The airports were shutting down. There was no point in trying to fly. I could make Washington in four hours and catch an Acela train to Stamford, but that wouldn't get me in until late. At this point the driver, whose card gave his name as Shuja Qureshi, overhearing my fraught negotiations, piped up in an Indian accent: "Sir? I can drive you to Stam-ford, Conneck-ti-cut." Okay, I said. Let's go. He stabbed the buttons on his dash-mounted GPS and reported that it would take eight hours. I sat back, mind reeling. Industry is the enemy of melancholy. So I opened my laptop and composed an obituary that could be sent out to the newspapers to help them with the details.
PATRICIA TAYLOR BUCKLEY
At the Stamford (Conn.) Hospital, of a [[TK]], following a long illness. [[TK time]] *
Born Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, July 1, 1926. Father: Austin Cotterell Taylor. Mother: Kathleen Elliott Taylor. Her father was a self-made industrialist whose racehorses Indian Broom and Wychcee competed against Seabiscuit. Mr. Taylor died in 1965. † Her mother, a civic leader in Vancouver, died in 1972. Mrs. Buckley's maternal grandfather was chief of police of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Mrs. Buckley's brother, financier Austin G. E. Taylor of Vancouver, died in 1996. Her sister Kathleen Finucane, of Vancouver, died in March.
Patricia Aldyen Austin Taylor was educated at Crofton House School, Vancouver. She attended Vassar College, where she met her future husband through her roommate Patricia Buckley. She and her roommate's older brother, William F. Buckley Jr., were married in Vancouver on July 6, 1950, in what was then the largest wedding in the city's history.
Mrs. Buckley went from the life of a debutante to a vacuum cleaner–wielding wife of a junior faculty member of Yale. She and Mr. Buckley lived in Hamden, Connecticut, while he wrote his first book, God and Man at Yale, while working as a junior instructor in the Spanish Department. After Mr. Buckley served a brief stint in Mexico City with the Central Intelligence Agency—his superior was E. Howard Hunt, later of Watergate break-in fame—he and his wife settled in Stamford, Connecticut, their home ever since. Their only child, Christopher Taylor Buckley, was born in 1952.
Mrs. Buckley became a leading member of New York society and was active in numerous charities and civic causes. She raised money for various hospitals, including St. Vincent's. She served on many boards and was an honorary director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For many years, she chaired the annual dinner of the Museum's Costume Institute.
Pat Buckley moved easily amidst notables from the worlds of politics, literature, the arts, philanthropy, fashion, and society. Her friends included Henry and Nancy Kissinger, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Jerome Zipkin, Betsy Bloomingdale, Nan Kempner, Clare Boothe Luce, Bill Blass, Tammany leader Carmine DeSapio, Abe Rosenthal and Shirley Lord, Mrs. Gary "Rocky" Cooper, David Niven, John Kenneth Galbraith, Sir Harry Evans and Tina Brown, (British director) Peter Glenville, Princess Grace of Monaco, Don Juan de Borbon (father of the present King of Spain), publisher John Fairchild, Richard Avedon, Dominick Dunne, Bob Colacello, Sir Alistair Horne, Aileen Mehle, Richard and Shirley Clurman, John and Drue Heinz, Reinaldo and Carolina Herrera, Tom Wolfe, Taki and Alexandra Theadoracopulos, Clay Felker, Ahmet and Mica Ertegun, C.Z. Guest, Kenneth J. Lane, Valentino, Halston, Walter Cronkite, Mike Wallace, David Halberstam, Vladimir Nabokov, Roger Moore, Truman Capote, Rosalyn Tureck, Alicia de Larrocha, James Clavell, King Constantine of Greece, Malcolm Forbes Sr., Brooke Astor, Anne Slater, Mortimer's owner Glen Birnbaum, among others.
Rereading this now, I'm amused by that "among others." Who could I possibly have left out of this boldface cornucopia?
She was known for her exacting taste in everything from clothes to decorating and food. She maintained a notably slender figure—Women's Wear Daily often referred to her as the "chic and stunning Mrs. Buckley"— and to her "belle poitrine." She was an early booster of—and walking advertisement for—American designers, particularly Bill Blass. A regular on the Best Dressed List, she was inducted into its Hall of Fame in the 1990s. She favored costume jewelry made by her gin rummy pal Kenneth J. Lane. In his memoir, Mr. Blass noted that he and Mrs. Buckley would occasionally play hooky from their hectic schedules in order to see as many movies as they could back-to-back in one day, "an operation that required near-military planning."
Despite her elegant figure, Mrs. Buckley was a famous foodie (a term she herself would never have used). Unable to boil a three-minute egg at the time she married, she dutifully took cooking classes with James Beard. In the 1970s, she became a champion of Glorious Food, the now famous catering firm started by Sean Driscoll. She refined her skills as a giver of fancy benefit dinners for up to 1,000 people by improvising "Pat's Pot Pie," a chicken pot pie that eliminated the time-consuming need for serving vegetables and sauces separately. It was an innovation hailed by her famously impatient husband.
Over the years, Mrs. Buckley acted as a kind of den mother to the conservative movement, giving dinners to the editors of her husband's magazine, National Review, every other Monday, starting in the mid-1960s. At her husband's 80th birthday celebration in 2005 at the Pierre Hotel in New York, her son, Christopher, noted in a toast that "No one ever left my mother's house less than well and truly stuffed."
Though she was often in the limelight, Mrs. Buckley tended to shy from it, content to leave center stage to her husband. She often said, "I'm just a simple country girl from the woods of British Columbia," though by any account she was anything but simple and had long since left the woods of her native British Columbia.
She is survived by her husband of 57 years, William F. Buckley Jr. of Stamford, CT; her son, Christopher Taylor Buckley, of Washington, D.C.; granddaughter, Caitlin Gregg Buckley, and grandson, William Conor Buckley.
Shuja and I stopped at a McDonald's. We sat across from each other, eating our Big Macs and fries. Grease is the enemy of melancholy. I would put on quite a few extra pounds in the days ahead, justifying it as perfectly okay under the circumstances. Your mother died. Go ahead, eat all you want.
"What is the matter with your mother?" Shuja said between bites.
"She's dying," I said.
It just came out. It was the second time I couldn't account for my words. He nodded and gave a sympathetic tilt of the head and took another bite of his Big Mac. I felt embarrassed for him.
"I really like McDonald's," I said, trying to change the subject.
"Oh, yes…" Shuja brightened. "McDonald's is excellent."
She's Already in Heaven
We pulled into Stamford eight hours later, just after nine o'clock. Danny, my best friend since age thirteen, was waiting for me. He became, over the years, a sort of second son to my father. He reported that Pup had gone to bed. He was not in good health (emphysema, diabetes, sleep apnea) and normally went upstairs after dinner by about eight-fifteen, aboard his new stairway rail chair. He would then, typically, take the first of numerous sleeping pills. (Pup's self-medication would be a big theme in the coming year.) Tonight, before he went upstairs, he had said to Danny, several times, Why is Christo going to the hospital? She's in a coma. She won't know he's there. Danny—kindly, patient, good Danny—said to him, Bill, he wants to say good-bye to his mother.
He drove me to Stamford Hospital. He told me that although Pup had declared that he wouldn't go there, he had, twice, each time driving himself. I winced at hearing this, since I'd given covert but imperative instructions to Danny and the staff that they must not, under any circumstances, let Pup get behind the wheel of a car. A moving vehicle was now, in his hands, a potential weapon of mass destruction far more minatory than anything in the arsenal of Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong-il. But gone to the hospital he had, and for that I was glad; glad, too, not to have been there when he said good-bye to her. His grief would only have been a distraction. This is perhaps cruel, but it's true: acute grief is best one-on-one.
Danny left me at the door to the critical care unit. The nurse buzzed me in. I entered her room. The chic and stunning Mrs. Buckley lay on her bed, shrunken, eyes open and unseeing, a thick plastic respirator tube protruding from her mouth, making a loud, rhythmic, bellows-noise as it injected and drew air from her lungs. 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 had amputated three mummified toes on her left foot. She'd stubbed them the previous November and, having fallen and broken so many bones in her body over the years, she had, in the fashion of Victorian ladies, simply taken to her bed to die. Six months of lying there, on top of sixty-five years of smoking, does not a robust cardio-aerobic regime make. The toes, deprived of circulation, had gone dry-gangrenous. Odd, I reflect now: She had always maintained an exquisite figure— a truly striking figure—and yet I can't remember a single instance of her ever breaking a sweat.
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. Mum was nominally Anglican, dutifully attending church on Easter and Christmas. She would, even more dutifully, have the local pastor, a sweet old bore, over for lunch once or twice a year. On these occasions, she would instruct her New York houseguests—uniformly consisting of witty, fun, elegant, and gay gentlemen: "Now don't leave me alone with him!"
I don't think I ever once heard Mum utter a religious or spiritual sentiment, a considerable feat considering that she was married for fifty-seven years to one of the most prominent Catholics in the country. But she observed the proprieties with old-world de rigueur. When Pup taped a 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 effect is that of the Magdalene, as dressed by Bill Blass.
I don't to this day know if Dr. Joe D'Amico is religious, but I didn't mind his phraseology. She's already in heaven is a gentle way of saying, She's gone and she's not coming back. (My parents loved the joke about the tactless army sergeant instructed to break the news gently to Private Jones: All right, men, I want everyone with a living mother to take one step forward—NOT SO FAST, JONES!) Death is an occasion of hushed tones and nursery talk. In the scene in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited in which Lord Marchmain lies dying, his Italian mistress, Cara, trying to get him to accept last rites, strokes his forehead and speaks to him softly: "Alex, you remember the priest from Melstead. You were very naughty with him when he came to see you. You hurt his feelings very much. Now he's here again…."
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. The line in Moby-Dick had lodged long ago in my mind: "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'd grabbed it off my bookshelf on the way to Virginia, figuring that a little fine-hammered steel would probably be a good thing to have on this trip. I'm agnostic now, but I haven't quite reached the point of reading aloud from Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion at the deathbed of a loved one.
I was reading the ancient text aloud to my unhearing mother when after a few moments I became aware that someone had entered the room and was standing by the foot of the bed. He introduced himself to me as Dr. Soand-So and, shaking his head with what seemed genuine perplexity, said, I just don't understand how this could have happened. He then launched into an interminable—five, six minutes, seven minutes?—and detailed account of how the stent operation had gone wrong. I wasn't taking notes at the time and so can't recapitulate it, but it was highly technical. He went on and on—using abstruse medical terms, as if he were explaining it all to a colleague. All I could do was nod and repeat, Thank you… thank you… I really appreciate all you did for her… But he wouldn't leave, would not be deterred from explaining every minute vascular aspect of the surgery, until, toward minute eight or nine it dawned on me: He's apologizing for killing her. I muttered, It's all right, and it was: This wasn't a young woman with her whole life in front of her. Whatever had gone wrong in the OR, it was a blessing. Putting in the stent was an attempt to stave off further amputation. The thought of my elegant, beautiful Mum enduring some death of a hundred cuts was too much to contemplate. She'd once said to me, only half-kidding, "I've got the best legs in the business." And she did—she did. But now I just wanted this doctor to go away and leave us alone.
Finally, having exhausted himself lexicographically, he began to make his exit. I thanked him one last time. As I write this, the Times is reporting on the front page that more and more doctors are apologizing for their mistakes, and—what do you know—it's cut down on the filing of malpractice suits. Perhaps, after all, the most beautiful words in the language are I'm sorry.
We were alone again, briefly, until another doctor arrived to remove the respirator. He said, "You might not want to be here for this." No, I didn't. I went out into the corridor and hovered. I should have walked to the end of it. The sound as a respirator is removed isn't one you want to hear. But it was quiet and peaceful in the room when I returned, just the pings and beeps emanating from the monitor. I stroked her hair and said, the words surprising me, coming out of nowhere, "I forgive you."
It sounded—even to me, at the time—like a terribly presumptuous statement, but it needed to be said. She never would have asked for forgiveness herself, even in extremis. She was far too proud. Only once or twice, when she had been truly awful, had she apologized to me. Generally, she was defiant—almost magnificently so—when her demons slipped their leash. Lucy, wise Lucy, had the 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. For my sake more than for hers. Well, if she was already in heaven, it was all moot anyway. Right?
- On Sale
- May 6, 2009
- Page Count
- 272 pages