When doctors told Art Buchwald that his kidneys were kaput, the renowned humorist declined dialysis and checked into a Washington, D.C., hospice to live out his final days. Months later, “The Man Who Wouldn’t Die” was still there, feeling good, holding court in a nonstop “salon” for his family and dozens of famous friends, and confronting things you usually don’t talk about before you die; he even jokes about them.
Here Buchwald shares not only his remarkable experience—as dozens of old pals from Ethel Kennedy to John Glenn to the Queen of Swaziland join the party—but also his whole wonderful life: his first love, an early brush with death in a foxhole on Eniwetok Atoll, his fourteen champagne years in Paris, fame as a columnist syndicated in hundreds of newspapers, and his incarnation as hospice superstar. Buchwald also shares his sorrows: coping with an absent mother, childhood in a foster home, and separation from his wife, Ann.
He plans his funeral (with a priest, a rabbi, and Billy Graham, to cover all the bases) and strategizes how to land a big obituary in The New York Times (“Make sure no head of state or Nobel Prize winner dies on the same day”). He describes how he and a few of his famous friends finagled cut-rate burial plots on Martha’s Vineyard and how he acquired a Picasso drawing without really trying.
What we have here is a national treasure, the complete Buchwald, uncertain of where the next days or weeks may take him but unfazed by the inevitable, living life to the fullest, with frankness, dignity, and humor.
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Random House|
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
On Standby for Heaven
I am in a hospice and I have this recurring dream. I am at Dulles airport and I have a reservation to go to heaven. I go into the terminal and look at the list of flights. Heaven is at the last gate.
I don’t know if they have reading material on the plane, so I stop at the magazine stand and pick up Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Playboy. I also buy a package of gum and some M&M’s. Then I head toward security.
I have bought my ticket, which says, “When you go to heaven, you need only one bag, but do not include a cigarette lighter or sharp scissors.” I stand in line for hours. I didn’t realize how many people were on the same flight.
I run into several friends, and I am surprised to see them. They hadn’t mentioned they were going too. In my dream several of them are younger than I am, and I know two who were smokers.
I finally get to the security gate, holding on to my bag for dear life.
The agent says, “You don’t have to bring your computer with you. They have them up there.”
I say to the agent, “I want to hold on to my bag because I don’t want you people to lose it.”
Then they make me take off my jacket, my belt, and my shoes.
When I ask why, the agent says, “You don’t want to wear shoes in heaven. They scratch up the floor.”
They send me through another gate because I have a pacemaker. Then they make me stick out my arms and they scan my legs with a wand.
I finally get to the departure gate. Dulles is crowded. In my dream, there are no seats in the waiting area, so I go to Starbucks to kill time. I am not sure if you get lunch on the plane to heaven. For all I know, they give you a bagel and cream cheese and a soft drink. I am warned by an attendant that I can’t get out of my seat on the flight.
This is kind of silly, because who would hijack a plane to heaven?
It’s open seating on the plane. I know heaven is a wonderful place, but on the way there you have to sit three across. As with all flights, there are emergency exits in case the pilot changes his mind. There are also life jackets under each seat. In my dream the flight attendants are very beautiful, and they hand out blankets and pillows.
I enter the waiting area. The loudspeaker says, “Heaven is at the last gate. There will be intermediate stops in Dallas, Chicago, and Albuquerque. The plane has just arrived.”
I go up to the desk and ask, “Am I entitled to frequent flyer miles?”
The agent says, “You won’t need any, because you’re not coming back.”
Now, this is the part I love. (Remember, this is my dream.) The loudspeaker says, “Because of inclement weather, today’s flight to heaven has been canceled. You can come back tomorrow and we’ll put you on standby.”
The Man Who Would Not Die
By all rights this book never should have been written. By all rights, I should be dead.
And thereby hangs the tale.
I am writing this book from a hospice. But being in the hospice didn’t work out exactly the way I had expected. By all rights I should have finished my time here in mid-March 2006—at least, that’s when Medicare stopped paying.
What happened to get me to the hospice was this: I was riding the elevator up to my room at the acute care facility when I saw a sign that said there was also a hospice in the building. At that point, all I knew about hospices was that they cared for terminally ill patients. I arranged a tour of the hospice and everything looked very good to me.
At that moment, I decided I wanted to come here. I had lost a leg at Georgetown University Hospital. I missed my leg, but when they told me I would also have to take dialysis for the rest of my life, I decided—too much.
My decision coincided with my appearance on Diane Rehm’s radio talk show, which has over a million listeners. I talked with her from the hospice about my decision not to take dialysis. It is one thing to choose to go into a hospice; it’s another thing to get on the air and tell everybody about it.
The listener response was very much in my favor. Later, I received more than 150 letters, and most of them said I was doing the right thing. This, of course, made me feel good. I wrote back to them: “As Frank Sinatra would say, ‘I did it my way.’”
When I entered the hospice I was under the impression it would be a two- or three-week stay. But I was wrong. Every day I sit in a beautiful living room where I can have anything I want; I can even send out to McDonald’s for milkshakes and hamburgers. Most people have to watch their diets. No one can believe that I can eat anything I want.
I have a constant flow of visitors. Many of them have famous names, and my family is impressed with who shows up. (I suspect I would not be getting the same attention if I were on dialysis.) I hold court in the big living room. We sit here for hours talking about the past, and since it’s my show, we talk about anything that comes to my mind. It’s a wonderful place, and if for some reason somebody forgets to come see me, there’s always television and movies on DVD.
I keep checking with the nurses and doctors about when I’m supposed to take the big sleep. No one has an answer. One doctor says, “It’s up to you.” And I say, “That’s a typical doctor’s answer.”
I receive plates and baskets of delicious food: home-cooked meals, treats from the delicatessen, frozen yogurt from Häagen-Dazs.
Everybody wants to please me. Food seems to be very important, not only to my guests, but also to me. If they bring food, they get even better treatment from me. One day I told a friend I had dreamed the night before of a corned beef sandwich. The next day I got ten.
When my friend Ira Harris heard that another friend, Herb Siegel, had sent me a cheesecake, he said Herb didn’t know anything about cheesecake because he’s from New York, and he would send me a Chicago cheesecake. To prove his point, Ira sent several giant cheesecakes. (I’m not sure I still like cheesecake.)
Also, I have received dozens of flower arrangements. People don’t send roses when you are on dialysis.
I don’t know if this is true or not, but I think some people, not many, are starting to wonder why I’m still around. In fact, a few are sending me get-well cards. They must have been purchased by my friends’ secretaries. These are the hard ones to answer.
So far things are going my way. I am known in the hospice as “The Man Who Would Not Die.” How long they allow me to stay here is another problem. I don’t know where I’d go now, or if people would still want to see me if I weren’t in a hospice. But in case you’re wondering, I’m having a swell time—the best time of my life.
Dying isn’t hard. Getting paid by Medicare is.