Christopher Buckley's Cover Story for The New York Times Magazine

April 27th, 2009

Growing Up Buckley
By CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY
New York Times Magazine

Lady Bracknell: Are your parents living?
Jack: I have lost both my parents.
Lady Bracknell: To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a
misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.

OSCAR WILDE, “THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST”

To the extent that this story has a dimension beyond the purely personal, I suppose it’s an account of becoming an orphan. My mother and father died within 11 months of each other in 2007 and 2008. I do realize that “orphan” sounds like an overdramatic term for becoming parentless at age 55, but I was struck by the number of times the word occurred in the 800 or more condolence letters I received after my father died. I hadn’t, until about the seventh or eighth reference, thought of myself as an “orphan.” Now you’re an orphan. . . . I know the pain myself of being an orphan. . . . You must feel so lonely, being an orphan. . . . When I became an orphan it felt like the earth dropping out from under me. . . . A certain chill began to encroach, until I was jolted out of my thousand-yard stare by an e-mail message from my old pal Leon Wieseltier, to whom I’d written that I was headed off to Arizona for some R and R: “May your orphanhood be tanned.”

One realization does dawn upon the death of the second parent, namely that you’ve now moved into the green room to the River Styx. You’re next. Another thing about parental mortality: No matter how much you’ve prepared for the moment, when it comes, it comes at you hot, hard and unrehearsed.

I FORGIVE YOU

The nurse buzzed me into the Critical Care Unit. The chic and stunning Mrs. William F. Buckley — the society columnists used to call her that — lay on her bed, shrunken, open-eyed, unseeing, a thick plastic respirator tube protruding from her mouth, making a loud, rhythmic bellows noise as it pumped and withdrew air from her lungs. I’d driven eight hours through a storm to get here and knew pretty much what to expect, but I lost it and began to sob. The nurse kindly left.

I drew up a chair and held what I could of her hand, which was cold and bony and edematous with fluid. The nurse returned shortly and said that Dr. D’Amico was on the phone. Joe D’Amico was her orthopedist, a kindly, attentive and warm man. The week before, he amputated three dry-gangrenous, mummified toes on her left foot. She stubbed them the previous November and, having fallen and broken so many bones in her body over the years, she, in the fashion of Victorian ladies, took to her bed to die. Sixty-five years of smoking cigarettes, with attendant problems of circulation, had taken their toll. A few days before, an operation to install a stent — to forestall additional amputations — went wrong, and a mortal infection set in.

Joe came on the line. He said how sorry he was, that she was a wonderful lady. He said: “What you’re seeing there isn’t her. She’s already in heaven.”

Joe and I had never discussed religion. I doubt, for that matter, that he and she had ever discussed it. I don’t think I ever once heard Mum utter a religious or spiritual sentiment, a considerable feat considering that she was married for 57 years to one of the most prominent Catholics in the country. But she rigorously observed the proprieties. When Pup taped an episode of “Firing Line” in the Sistine Chapel with Princess Grace, Malcolm Muggeridge, Charlton Heston and David Niven, Mum was included in the post-taping audience with Pope John Paul II. There’s a photo of the occasion: she has on more black lace than a Goya duchess. The total effect is that of Mary Magdalene dressed by Bill Blass.

I stammered out my thanks to Joe for everything he’d done for her. He asked, “Do you want to leave the respirator in or let nature take its course?” I said, “Let’s remove the respirator.”

I’d brought with me a pocket copy of the book of Ecclesiastes. A line in “Moby-Dick” lodged in my mind long ago: “The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe.” I grabbed it off my bookshelf on the way here, figuring that a little fine-hammered steel would probably be a good thing to have on this trip. I’m no longer a believer, but I haven’t quite reached the point of reading aloud from Christopher Hitchens’s “God Is Not Great” at deathbeds of loved ones.

Soon after, a doctor came in to remove the respirator. It was quiet and peaceful in the room, just pings and blips from the monitor. I stroked her hair and said, the words coming out of nowhere, surprising me, “I forgive you.”

It sounded, even at the time, like a terribly presumptuous statement. But it needed to be said. She would never have asked for forgiveness herself, even in extremis. She was far too proud. Only once or twice, when she had been truly awful, did she apologize. Generally, she was defiant — almost magnificently so — when her demons slipped their leash. My wise wife, Lucy, has a rule: don’t go to bed angry. Now, watching Mum go to bed for the last time, I didn’t want any anger left between us, so out came the unrehearsed words.

After removing the tube, the doctor said, “It usually goes quickly.” I sat beside her, watching the monitor, with its numbers and colored lines and chirps that tracked her breathing and heartbeat and other diminishing vital signs. Her heart rate slowed, then quickened, then slowed. After a time, I realized that I had become fixated on the monitor. I could hear her saying to me, a half-century earlier, “Are you just going to sit there and watch television all day?” It would be some spectacularly sunny Saturday morning, and I’d be glued to the telly (her word for it), watching Johnny Weissmuller nod as the remarkably intelligible chimp Tamba explained to him that the missionaries were being held hostage 3.4 miles north-northwest of the abandoned mine by evil Belgian ivory hunters. Some months later, I read that monitor-fixation is routine at deathbeds. Even at the end, we have become compulsive TV watchers.

Just before 2 o’clock in the morning, April 15, 2007, the respiratory line indicated that her breathing had stopped. Still her heart continued to beat, according to the faint but distinct blips. I rushed to find the nurse. “It’s normal,” she said. “It takes a little while.” She examined the monitor, held Mum’s wrist and nodded. It was over.

THAT SOUNDED LIKE A FUN DINNER

That night I wrote up an obituary about Mum and sent it out. Then I drove home to Stamford, Conn., where Pup was sound asleep, and went to bed in the room I grew up in. Pup woke me at about 8:30, calling from his garage study. I had e-mailed him the obituary before going to sleep. He said how glad he was to have it. He had always been encouraging and complimentary about my writing, and just as often critical. Pup was generous but a tough grader. In recent years, he had found it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to compliment something I had written unless it was about him. (I say this with amusement now, but at the time it wasn’t really all that amusing.) Of my last book, a novel published two weeks before Mum died and which reviewers were (for the most part) describing as my best to date, he had confined his comments in an e-mail P.S.: “This one didn’t work for me. Sorry.”

I went to his study. Pup was red-eyed, puffy-faced, out of breath, in rough shape. He was gradually suffocating from emphysema and had just lost his wife of more than five decades. We embraced.

That afternoon, Pup was going to Mass. I said I’d come. Normally, I didn’t. Normally, when in Connecticut on a Sunday, I would discreetly make myself scarce around this time, when he would gather up the Hispanic staff and drive to St. Mary’s Church, where a complaisant priest would say a private Latin Mass for him. Today, however, I reckoned, was not a day to skip church, so I went with them. Pup wept throughout the Mass. Afterward he told a friend who was there that he was “so pleased” that I had attended.

Pup and I had engaged in our own Hundred Years’ War over the matter of faith. Our Sturmiest und Drangiest times were over religion. Pup had the most delicious, reliable, wicked, vibrant sense of humor of anyone I knew, yet his inner Savonarola was released at the merest hint of (to use his term) impiety. Finally exhausted, I adopted — whether hypocritically or cowardly or wisely — a Potemkin stance of being back in the fold. My agnosticism, once defiant, had gone underground. I no longer had the desire to nail my theses to his church door. By now I knew we didn’t have much time left, and I didn’t want to spend it locking theological horns, making him heartsick with my intransigence.

A few days later, after Mum’s private funeral Mass, Pup and I busied ourselves one afternoon by going through her papers. She lost all interest in deskwork during the six or seven months of her invalidity. We found unpaid grocery bills, credit-card bills, undistributed cash for staff Christmas tips; uncashed checks; unopened letters, including, I saw to my disconcertment, a number from me. This was neither carelessness nor any failure of affection on her part, but rather fear, and realizing it made me wince in self-rebuke.

Mum’s serial misbehavior over the years had driven me, despairing, to write her scolding — occasionally scalding — letters. Now I saw that she had simply stopped opening all letters from me, against the possibility that they might contain another excoriation. I opened one of them and read:

Dear Mum, That really was an appalling scene at dinner last night. . . .

I wished that I could take back that letter, even though every word of it had been carefully weighed and justified. On reflection, it wasn’t fair of me. I’m a professional writer; she was not. It wasn’t a level playing field, however outrageous the provocations that had driven me, hot-faced, flushing and furious, to the keyboard. And they never — ever — did one bit of good, these pastoral letters of mine. Why, I wondered now, had I never accepted the futility of hurling myself against Fortress Mum?

My only consolation now was that I had finally stopped lobbing feckless, well-worded catapult-balls over Mum’s parapets. I didn’t even say anything to her about the Incident of July 2006. On that occasion, my daughter, Caitlin, Mum’s only granddaughter, went out to Stamford from New York for the night, taking with her her best friend, Kate Kennedy. I know, I know — but there is simply no way to tell this story without using real names.

Cat and Kate look like Irish twins. They have been soul mates since kindergarten. Kate is beautiful, vivacious, bright, witty and very naughty — a Kennedy through and through, nicknamed Kick after her great-aunt. The friendship between these two colleens is perhaps unusual given that their paternal grandfathers, Robert F. Kennedy and William F. Buckley Jr., were on opposite sides of the old political spectrum.

At any rate, here were two enchanting young ladies at a grandparental country manse on a summer night. An occasion for joy, affection, de­lighted conversation. You might . . . sigh . . . suppose. I was not — praise the gods — in attendance, inasmuch as Mum and I were not speaking at the time, owing to a previous disgrace of hers, a real beaut even by her standards. The general mood at the dinner table that night was not leavened by the continued — indeed, persistent — presence of a British aristocrat lady friend of Mum’s, who arrived for a visit 10 days before. Now, nearly a fortnight into her encampment, she showed no signs of leaving. Pup’s graciousness as a host was legendary, but it had limits. The poor man was reduced to japery. So, your ladyship, you must be getting jolly homesick for Merry Olde England by now, eh? Ho, ho, ho. . . . But her ladyship showed no sign of homesickness for Old Blighty. Indeed, she had fastened onto our house with the tenacity of a monomaniacal abalone.

Now, on Day 10 of Pup Held Hostage, his mood had congealed from sullenness to smoldering resentment. Meanwhile, Mum’s protracted, vinous afternoons of gin rummy with her ladyship had her by dinnertime in what might be called the spring-loaded position. In such moods, Mum was capable of wheeling on, say, Neil Armstrong to inform him that he knew nothing — nothing what-so-ever — about astrophysics or lunar landing. No hostess in history has ever set a better dinner table than my mother, but on such evenings, I would rather have supped with al Qaeda in a guano-strewn cave.

At some point, Mum turned to — on might be the more exact preposition — Kate, informing her that she (Mum) had been an alternate juror in the murder trial of Kate’s father’s first cousin Michael Skakel. Skakel, nephew of Ethel Kennedy, Kate’s grandmother, was (as you might be aware) the defendant in a sensational murder trial in Stamford several years before, for the 1975 murder of 15-year-old Martha Moxley. Having presented this astonishing and perfectly untrue credential, Mum then proceeded to launch into a protracted lecture on the villainy of Kate’s relative.

Leave aside the issue of Skakel’s culpability, for which he is, at any rate, currently serving a 20-years-to-life sentence. Over the years, I heard Mum utter whoppers that would make Pinocchio look button-nosed, but this one really took the prize, in several categories, the first being Manners. Why on earth would you inflict a jeremiad on an innocent 18-year-old girl, your own granddaughter’s best friend? The mind — as Mum herself used to put it — boggles.

This supper-table donnybrook I learned about over the phone, from breathless, reeling Cat and Kate once they reached the sanctuary of the pool after dinner, along with a much-needed bottle of wine. All I could say to poor Kate was a WASP variation on oy vey. By the time I put down the phone, my blood reached Fahrenheit 451, the temperature at which it starts spurting out your ears.

I breathed into a paper bag for a few days and then called Pup. “Well,” I said, “that sounded like a fun dinner. Sorry to miss it.” He feigned ignorance of the Skakel episode; perhaps he had excused himself early and gone upstairs to short-sheet her ladyship’s bed. He was, anyway, past caring at this, my 500th howl about Mum’s behavior. He tried to wave it away with a spuriously subjunctive, “But why would she say something like that if she weren’t a juror at the trial?” (Pup would have made a superb defense attorney) and changed the subject back to what kind of explosives work best for dislodging aristocratic British houseguests.

I remember the time I first caught Mum in some preposterous untruth, as she called it. It, too, featured British aristos. She grew up a debutante in a grand house in Vancouver, British Columbia, the kind of house that even has a name: Shannon. Grand, but Vancouver-grand, which is to say, provincial.

So one night, when I was 6 or so, sitting with the grown-ups at the dinner table, I heard Mum announce that “the king and queen always stayed with us when they were in Vancouver.” By “king and queen” she meant the parents of the current queen of England. My little antennae went twing? I’d never heard my grandparents refer to a royal visit, which is a pretty big deal. I looked at Mum and realized — twang! — that she was telling an untruth. A big untruth. And I remember thinking in that instant how thrilling and grown-up it must be to say something so completely untrue — as opposed to the little amateur fibs I was already practiced at, horrid little apprentice sinner that I was, like the ones about how you’d already said your prayers or washed under the fingernails. Yes, I was impressed. This was my introduction to a lifetime of mendacity. I, too, must learn to say these gorgeous untruths. Imaginary kings and queens will be my houseguests when I am older!

When Mum was in full prevarication, Pup would assume an expression somewhere between a Jack Benny stare and the stoic grimace of a 13th-century saint being burned at the stake. He knew very well that King George VI and Queen Elizabeth did not routinely decamp at Shannon. The funny thing was that he rarely challenged her when she was in the midst of one of her glorious confections. For that matter, no one did. They wouldn’t have dared. Mum had a regal way about her that did not brook contradiction. The only time she ever threatened to spank me was when I told her, in front of others, following one of her more absurd claims, “Oh, come off it!” Her fluent mendacity, combined with adamantine confidence, made her really indomitable. As awful as it often was, thinking back on it now, I’m filled with a sort of perverse pride in her. She was really, really good at it. She would have made a fantastic spy. Really, she would have made a fantastic anything. She was beautiful, theatrical, bright as a diamond, the wittiest woman I have ever known. (Whatever talent I possess as a “humorist” — dreadful word — I owe to her.) She could have done anything; instead, she devoted herself, heart, soul and body, to being Mrs. William F. Buckley Jr. (A full-time job.)

At any rate, I hadn’t written to rebuke her over the Cat and Kate dinner, so that was one letter from me Mum never had to not open. What, really, would have been the point of writing?

I forgive you. I was glad to have the chance to say that to her at the hospital, holding her hand, tears streaming down my face. I can hear her saying, Are you quite finished, or shall I fetch my Stradivarius?

Growing Up Buckley, Continued