Too Soon to Say Goodbye
by Art Buchwald
Published by Random House
181 pages, 2006
Reviewed by Mary Ward Menke
Impending death, whether ours or someone else's, is a time when even the most lighthearted among us finds it hard to laugh. Thankfully, Art Buchwald was not one of us.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning humor columnist made his living skewering the Washington establishment with his wry wit. Diagnosed with kidney failure in 2005, he reacted in pure Buchwald fashion: "I got mad at my kidneys because I had treated them very well. And this was the gratitude they gave me?" He agreed to undergo dialysis, with one caveat: it would have to wait until after the summer. His kidneys, however, had other ideas. Buchwald began suffering terrible pain in his foot. The pain was caused by blood clots which could not be dissolved and he ended up having his foot and part of his leg amputated. Against his family's wishes, Buchwald opted not to continue dialysis and entered the Washington Home and Hospice in February 2006, fully expecting to die within a few weeks.
Once more, those stubborn kidneys had other plans. They began functioning again. A few weeks turned into five months, after which Buchwald returned to his home on Martha's Vineyard. While in hospice, he appeared on Diane Rehm's radio show where he talked about hospice and what it's like to die, leading to more radio, TV and newspaper interviews. The "media star for death" enjoyed all the attention because "it gave me something to do besides watch Wheel of Fortune."
After two weeks, he started writing his column again and then decided to write what he knew (or at least assumed) would be the last of more than 30 books. Too Soon to Say Goodbye (subtitle: I don't know where I'm going. I don't even know why I'm here!) is a sometimes poignant, more often humorous look at the experience of dying, told as only Art Buchwald could.
Buchwald was well-aware of the challenge of writing a book about dying: death may be inevitable, but nobody wants to talk about it. He starts by explaining that the purpose of hospice is to make death easier for the dying person and their family and allow the individual to die with dignity. And then his sardonic self takes over: "The average stay (at the Washington hospice) before you go to heaven is a few days to two weeks. If you are going downhill, Medicare pays for it. If your condition stays the same as when you arrived, Medicare will not pick up the tab," Buchwald said, summing up the situation thusly: "Dying isn't hard. Getting paid by Medicare is."
When he wasn't using the hospice as his office, he entertained celebrities in the dayroom. Walter Cronkite, Ethel Kennedy, Jack Valenti, Ben Bradlee, Tom Brokaw and Mike Wallace are among those who visited regularly. While other hospice visitors may struggle with what to talk about, Buchwald was more than happy to help his guests with topic selection. He told Brokaw, author of The Greatest Generation, that he could now write The Greatest Kidney, and offered to send him pictures. He cut a deal with Walter Cronkite, with whom he'd been friends for many years. The two had always agreed that while it would be self-serving to display all their awards from organizations like the ACLU, the Kidney Foundation and Hadassah on their own walls, there was nothing wrong with Walter displaying Buchwald's awards and vice-versa. "When Walter came to visit me at the hospice, I said, 'I received a wonderful sculpture from the Hospice Foundation, and I'll trade you.' Walter said, 'How about an ashtray from the Anti-Defamation League?' I like Walter, so I said, 'It's a deal.'"
Too Soon to Say Goodbye also includes brief vignettes about his childhood in foster care, his marriage and his career. His regrets include not knowing his mother. She was diagnosed with manic depression and placed in a mental institution shortly after he was born, and he and his two sisters grew up in foster homes. Their "Sunday father," a drapery maker who couldn't afford his children, visited them on Sundays. Buchwald's mother died when he was 35 years old; he had never even seen her.
He reminisced about his sometimes stormy 40-year marriage to Ann McGarry. He met the Irish Catholic girl from Pennsylvania in Paris when he was writing for the European edition of the Herald Tribune and she was living with a French family in the Bastille area:
It was a happy marriage, if you don't count the unhappiness. But at the end Ann had a heart attack and then lung cancer. She coped by turning her anger against me, to the point where I felt it best for both of us if I left home. Still we remained very close.
Buchwald chose to be buried next to Ann on Martha's Vineyard, "even now," he writes, "I hurt when I think about her. In an odd way, my days here in the hospice are somehow connected with her death. I think of her on Martha's Vineyard and dream that I'll be with her soon."
That dream became a reality on January 18, 2007 when Art Buchwald died at home, surrounded by his family. The final chapter in the book contains eulogies written by Buchwald's children and friends at his request, before the book was published late last year. He also videotaped his online obituary ("Hi. I'm Art Buchwald, and I just died.") for the New York Times last summer. Art Buchwald said goodbye to all of us -- friends, family and his legion of fans -- and he did it his way. | March 2007
Mary Ward Menke is a contributing editor to January Magazine and the owner of WordAbilities, LLC, providing writing and editing services to businesses and individuals. Her work has been published in The Toastmaster, Dog Fancy and Science of Mind magazines, in the Suburban Journals (a weekly St. Louis community newspaper) and on STLtoday.com.