WASHINGTON – Art Buchwald is living dying to the fullest.
Weeks after he was expected to die from his decision to forgo dialysis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist is holding court in a hospice salon to a procession of family, friends and acquaintances.
It’s a kind of “group therapy,” he says, but one they seem to need more than he does.
“It’s a funny thing,” he says of these final days, “but it’s a good life.”
Buchwald has found funny things everywhere in his 80 years; now the political satirist is getting the same charge out of his drawn-out ending.
Buchwald says he’s not afraid of death, isn’t depressed and is, in fact, having the time of his life. He spends his days writing columns from his room at the hospice as well as reminiscing with visitors.
“It’s a great way to say goodbye,” Buchwald said in an interview.
“They sit here and we have group therapy,” he said. “We talk about everything.”
The French ambassador brought a medal from his country; Buchwald wrote his first columns from Paris, about nightlife in the City of Light. The Marine Corps commandant also visited; Buchwald was a Marine during World War II, dropping out of high school at age 17 and joining the corps underaged. He get visits several times a day from his three children and his grandchildren; his wife, Ann, died in 1994.
“I’m going out the way very few people do,” Buchwald said.
Vascular problems led doctors to amputate his right leg below the knee in January. Buchwald said losing it was “very traumatic” and that it probably influenced the decision to reject dialysis for his kidney failure. That would have meant being hooked up to a machine three times a week, five hours each time, he said.
“I just decided â€˜To hell with it,”‘ said Buchwald, seemingly at peace with his imminent fate. “I haven’t been afraid to die. I’d had a wonderful life. I’m 80 years old, so I’m not afraid.”
Getting to that point wasn’t easy, though.
“Your loved ones don’t like the idea,” he said. “Your friends don’t like the idea. No one likes the idea, but once I made it, everyone knew it was my choice. They’ve gone along with it.
“It was purely a decision about â€˜Did I want to stay around or did I want to go?”‘ Buchwald said. “It’s one of the few things where you have choice.”
That choice has caused something of a stir and earned Buchwald some new fans, judging from the hundreds of letters he said he’s received since checking in to the hospice Feb. 7. The contents of some of those letters are the subject of his next column on Thursday. Tribune Media Services distributes his column twice weekly to newspapers including The Washington Post.
Buchwald said he’s finding that “for some reason, people are very interested in someone who didn’t take dialysis” and are grateful he’s so open about it.
“I don’t know what’s coming next and neither does anyone else,” Buchwald said by telephone. “It’s something that we do have to face but the thing is that a lot of people don’t want to face it. And there’s denial. If somebody says it, like me, everybody feels a little better that they can discuss it.”
Buchwald said his humor sprouted from a difficult childhood in his native New York.
The youngest of four children, he and his sisters were sent to foster homes after mental illness claimed their mother. Their father, who sold drapery, couldn’t afford them.
Humor was his “salvation,” he wrote in “Leaving Home,” a 1995 memoir of his early years.
After the war, Buchwald was managing editor of the humor magazine at the University of Southern California and a columnist for the student newspaper. He dropped out in 1948 and went to Paris, where he became a correspondent for Variety and wrote columns for the New York Herald Tribune.
He returned to the U.S. in 1962 and started a career writing columns that made fun of Washington’s power brokers and other subjects. At one point, the column appeared in more than 500 newspapers worldwide.
In 1982, Buchwald won journalism’s highest honor, a Pulitzer, for outstanding commentary.
Buchwald, who has suffered from depression, said he feels quite the opposite these days.
“The thing is, when you make your choice, then a lot of the stress is gone,” he said. “Everything is great because you accept that you are the one who made the choice. So I don’t get depressed.”
He said he enjoys the freedom he now has to eat whatever he wants, and visitors bring him plenty of food. “They think because you’re dying you should have food,” he said.
When alone and not writing, Buchwald passes time reading newspapers and news magazines and watching television and rented movies.
Waiting for the end, Buchwald said people shouldn’t be too concerned about where they will end up in death. What they should really be asking, he said, is “Why was I here in the first place?”
Why does Buchwald think he’s here?
“Apparently to make people laugh,” he said, “which is as good a reason as any.”
On the Net:
Buchwald’s Tuesday column: