Saturday, April 08, 2006

Art Buchwald: Laughing at Death and Forcing the Rest of us to Smile -- and Think

Art Buchwald is getting on my nerves. He's turning a death sentence into non-stop festivities, with a parade of old friends like CBS newsman Mike Wallace (87) stopping by to laugh, reminisce, eat, and make merry.

Here I am trying to get people excited about life and the joys of living a long, long life and this joker decides to pack it in at a mere 80. Just because he's had a stroke, had a leg amputated from vascular disease, and has a failing kidney, he declines blood-cleansing dialysis and decides to let nature take its course. While I'm arguing that life is precious and joyful, he's telling the world that death is a blast and he's having "the time of his life."

Also, he's interfering with my plans for this blog. A few days ago, my state of Massachusetts sent to the governor a bill providing for near-universal health care. Given the failure of previous national and state attempts at universal health care, no state has dared to go so far.

The Massachusetts plan, a compromise fashioned from months of hard negotiations, could prove to be historic. It was instantly hailed as a possible path for other states and even received respectful attention from the White House. For a summary of the Massachusetts plan, see here.

Remarkably, the plan manages to give enough goodies to liberals, conservatives, medical providers, and various big boys to get them on board, while providing for the unlobbied powerless -- the poor. This post was to be a sober discussion of this as well as issues that have arisen in the last few days that could kill the Massachusetts health plan as dead as the immigration bill.

But no, what has taken over this post? A man who decides to die before his time and who has turned his hospice into a world salon. French officials come to give him an award and to kiss him on both cheeks. He got his start in France in 1949 and wrote his column from there for 14 years.

The Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps comes by to thank him for his service in World War II. He had run away at 17 to join the marines after enduring, along with this three older sisters, a series of foster homes. His mother died when he was a baby and his struggling father put him and his sisters in foster care.

He cavorts on all the big TV talk shows, all without stepping out of his salon. In between guests and media engagements and three grown sons and five grandchildren popping in and out, he eats what he wants and sleeps when he wants and doesn't do a lick of exercise.

And here I am preaching a balanced diet and watching calories while he wolfs down calorie-laden junk and then boasts to the world about it. The things he says about exercise are too awful to repeat.

And what about those of us with certain sensitivities concerning the awesomeness and mystery surrounding death? He's a guy laughing and joking at a wake, when what is expected are respect, hushed tones, and teary eyes.

We are also overwhelmingly people of faith. Art Buchwald says he believes in God but in the same breath says that he does not know if there is a heaven or hell and has no idea what is in store for him after he dies. He says that what counts are the good deeds we do on earth.

He's been in the hospice since February and, if anything, he is thriving and partying harder than ever and loving every minute of it. If he keeps putting death "on hold," he wonders if he'll get evicted. That is wonders, not worries.

He acts like he doesn't have a worry in the world. It's as if he's going through a second childhood, soaking up all the love he missed as a waif in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in New York and in foster homes. Is this a proper lifestyle for a dying adult man or a mockery of death and centuries-old social and religious mores? What are we to make of it?

Oh, oh. He's written a column. I reproduce it here so you can read in his own words what I am talking about. My post on the Massachusetts health plan will follow, assuming that Art Buchwald does not bump it again with some kind of outrageous stunt.

You know what's most annoying of all about Art Buchwald? It's not that he's made me smile. It's not that he's captivated me by this totally unexpected exit by a guy I've been reading all my life. It's not that I have to admire his amazing courage, this from a man who has suffered severe bouts of depression.

It's that he has got me thinking about what, beneath the funniness, he's really telling us.

Here is Art Buchwald's latest column, written from his hospice in Washington, D.C.:

The longer I stay in hospice, the more mail I get. Here are some of the questions people ask:

QUESTION: Why are you in a hospice?

ANSWER: To die with dignity, when I'm supposed to die. When I came here, I was supposed to say goodbye to the world in two or three weeks. But I'm still here after nine weeks.

QUESTION: What went wrong?

ANSWER: Nobody knows - even the doctors. It's fun to see a doctor who doesn't know what's wrong with you.

QUESTION: I've seen you on television and you seem to be very happy. Aren't you supposed to be sad?

ANSWER: I'm happy because I'm still here. I have been able to say goodbye to all my friends and to strangers. And everyone knows where I am. Two weeks into my stay here, Diane Rehm interviewed me about death. She made me into a celebrity - the only person who got famous for dying. When I announced I wasn't going to take dialysis, people decided I was a hero. You accept every compliment you can get when you're in a hospice. After Diane Rehm, television producers and editors thought there was a story there: "Man refuses to take dialysis." George Stephanopoulos had me on his Sunday show. And then, hallelujah, Sharon Waxman wrote a long piece about me in the Sunday New York Times. As you know, you never existed unless you get into the New York Times. Usually you have to settle for an obituary, but this was a feature. After that, the Jim Lehrer "NewsHour" interviewed me. I was on CNN and the front page of USA Today, and then Tom Brokaw asked me to be on the Today Show. I have to be honest; I've enjoyed every moment of it.

QUESTION: What do you do in the hospice? Answer: I spend my time on the telephone and socializing with my friends who come here every day at every hour. My mantra is, "I've put death on hold." They not only visit me, and are very kind, but they also bring me food - cheesecakes, shrimp, candy, cookies, and takeout from restaurants. I accept it all, even though I think there's a lot of guilt involved with people who are worrying that I'm not going to get enough to eat. The more I was interviewed, the more friends showed up afterwards. And people in town would greet each other by saying, "Have you been to the hospice yet?" A visit to the hospice is now a pilgrimage. I think they come here because it's a shrine and I can cure them of their illnesses, like Lourdes.

QUESTION: Do you have plans yet for your memorial service?

ANSWER: Yes I've chosen my speakers. I showed the list to a lady friend, and she said, "You have no women speaking for you." I told her all my girlfriends are all going to be pallbearers. When I mentioned it to one lady friend, she became excited and asked, "What should I wear?" When you are in a hospice, people are very curious about you, about themselves, and about how to deal with denial. I've had over 2,000 letters, which I would never have received if I'd had a heart attack. So for just choosing a way to say goodbye, I now have a chance to relive every walk of my life and all the memories. I don't want you to think I'm recommending a hospice - unless you can be assured you're going to be on television and in the New York Times. You don't want to leave this world without anybody knowing you've been here. This is not a plea for more mail, but I've been asked these questions many times, and I believe since the writers expressed an interest, I owe them a reply. To quote Hamlet, "To be or not to be - that is a very good question."

So long and keep moving (except for you, Art; keep breaking the rules and making us smile and think.)