Friday, January 19, 2007

Columnist Buchwald: Dead, on his own terms

Art Buchwald is dead. And his only concern, as he slipped into unconsciousness was, “I just don’t want to die the same day Castro dies”. So says the satirist’s long-time friend at Washington Post, Ben Bradlee. Buchwald died of kidney failure, Jan.20, at his son’s place in Washington D C. He was 81.

I thought the old man was gone well over a year back when his syndicated column stopped appearing in The Hindu. Buchwald was then very much alive and kicking , though with only his left leg. The right one had been amputated below the knee. His kidneys were failing. Refusing dialysis the 80-year-old celebrity satirist opted, instead, to enter a Washington hospice, to 'go gently into the night when all else fails'. This was in February last.

He didn’t go. What’s more, he lived long enough to write a book – Too Soon to Say Goodbye. Those entering a hospice do not usually last longer than two or three weeks. But Art Buchwald stayed on, and on, for so many weeks that he came to be known around the Washington hospice as The Man Who Wouldn’t Die. He left the place in July last to spend summer at Martha’s Vineyard..

Buchwald had his reasons for quitting the hospice. "It didn't work out the way I had expected," he said, "besides, I've gotten so well that Medicare won't pay for me any more". I had my suspicion as to why Buchwald went to the hospice in the first place. So that he could do a book on his near-death experience. Hospices don't usually get written about, because they are associated with death. Buchwald says he spent time at the hospice discussing his funeral with family - details such as where to hold it, how elaborate it should be; and who would speak on the occasion. The columnist reportedly convinced his long-time friend Carly Simon to sing at his funeral.

Another reason, befitting Buchwald's 'unmatched sense of the absurd', could have been the proximity of the hospice to McDonalds, from where he had a steady supply of burger 'n' fries. Besides junk food, said daughter Jennifer, her dad's other enduring loves were, being at the center-stage, spending time with friends, and writing. Buchwald's decision to discontinue dialysis, after he had it a dozen times, put him right there at the center-stage, turning him into a story.

As for spending time with friends Buchwald had so many visitors during his stay at the hospice that on some days it was standing room only. He was believed to have toyed with the idea of putting a tariff on it, $ 25 a visit. His only worry at leaving the hospice, they said, was whether people would still want to see him when he was no longer in the 'death-house'.

Art Buchwald’s only regret, presumably, was that death claimed him before he got around to complete his ultimate work - a pornographic one. In a foreword to one of his books Art Buchwald had observed, "It is absolutely essential that anyone today who claims to be a writer must produce a pornographic book". It was, he reckoned, a status symbol, comparable with that of the Hemingway era, when, in order to be a writer, you had to bag a lion.

"If I ever hope to be taken seriously as a writer, I must get down to work on my book" So he wrote in 1968. But then Art Buchwald could not proceeded beyond the first paragraph. His problem was , "every time I start a paragraph: - ‘Harry looked at the two girls in his bed and shook his head. How could he ever satisfy both of them and still make the seven ten for Scarsdale’ - I say to myself, Is this something the Supreme Court would want to read?"

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