Growing Up Buckley

By Christopher Buckley, New York Times Magazine - April 26, 2009

Christopher, age 4, and his parents, Pat and William F. Buckley, Stamford, Conn., 1956.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY Published: April 22, 2009

Roman Holiday Pat and Christopher at the Colosseum, about 1962.

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.


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 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.

Christopher Buckley is the author of 14 books. “Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir,” from which this article is adapted, will be published next month.

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Before battling on health care reform, the Senate should authorize F.D.A. regulation of tobacco products.

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