An ending that didn't end
"Too Soon to Say Goodbye," by Art Buchwald. Random House. 2006. 179 pages. $17.95
Art Buchwald's 35th book, "Too Soon to Say Goodbye" is more than a collection of satire and the humorous one-liners for which he is famous. It is his revealing and unflinching account of his time in the 14-bed Washington Home and Hospice ("...harder to get into than M.I.T.), details of the amputation of his leg, kidney failure, his refusal to go on daily dialysis, and the impact of being the recipient of a medical miracle. He lives.
As indicated by the photo of the Pulitzer-winning columnist on the book jacket grinning so engagingly you can almost hear him chuckling, the book is as seemingly spontaneous as a chat with the author on the back porch of his Vineyard Haven home. Buchwald's unsentimental descriptions of people, events, recollections are candid and unembellished, one minute poignant, and amusing the next. Most readers will feel like an intimate after reading his straightforward account of what shaped him, what is significant to him, and what moves him. And just as with his conversations, "Too Soon to Say Goodbye" (the title of the tribute song Carly Simon composed for him), is affecting, fun, and impossible to interrupt.
Buchwald describes his plans to have his ashes buried on the Vineyard, next to his ex-wife Ann's grave. "I think of her on Martha's Vineyard, and dream that I'll be with her soon," he writes. Later, he describes his intention to have a simple private burial ceremony in what was once the Look family cemetery on West Chop. Simple - with just a chorus of friends singing "Danny Boy," a fly-over by the Navy's Blue Angles squadron, and members of the Vineyard Haven Yacht club, with sails dropped, observing a moment of silence.
Resisting a smile is difficult as you read Buchwald's description of the different cinematic death scenes that starred Bogart, Bronson, Sinatra, and Montgomery Clift, explaining the pros and cons of each. "I have always depended on movies to write my personal script," he writes.
It is a strange exercise to read, even in jest, of someone's plans for his own funeral: the preferences, expenditures, and the program. About last wills and testaments, Buchwald writes: It's the last power trip you can take."
He quotes his staunch supporter, son Joel: "The actual visit to the funeral home wasn't too bad; a little surreal, but given the past few months this was like adding another car to the circus train heading down the tracks of life."
And what a life it is. Buchwald's mother died at 65, after having been institutionalized for 35 years without ever meeting him. He spent most of his childhood in Queens, New York, in foster care, dropped out of high school, and lied about his age to join the Marines when he was 17. After serving in the Pacific Theater until 1945, and a short stint at the University of Southern California, he bought a one-way ticket to Paris, eventually writing a commentary column for the International New York Herald Tribune. From there to his syndicated column, authoring more than 30 books, and gaining celebrity status with all the associations and perks associated with it.
The subhead of the Index in back of the book reads: "You don't have to read the book to find out if you're in it." He writes of receiving 3,000 letters after being interviewed by Diane Rhem on public radio, being visited at hospice by the French ambassador, political dignitaries, iconic entertainers, even the Queen of Swaziland - to mention but a few.
Just as he remembers his first love (Flossie Starling) and his close friends (the remarks of those asked to eulogize him are included in the book's epilogue), he happily declares he does not forgive those who have wronged him. But mostly, he loves: loves to flirt (no surprise to his legion of flattered women on the Vineyard), loves a good time, and most of all, loves his family: his daughters Connie and Jennifer and son Joel. Their spouses and his grandchildren complete the circle.
The words change, but not the straightforward delivery, when Buchwald writes of his depression, and admits he once harbored thoughts of throwing himself from the 16th floor of the Plaza Hotel in New York City: "You are ashamed of yourself. You loose all self-respect. You feel worthless."
"Too Soon to Say Goodbye," serves up a double whammy of insight and humor. Buchwald, smiling in print all the while, maintains his critical eye. He's on to people's motives, knows why this and that one come to call. He even confesses to his technique for getting visitors who linger to leave: "I start yawning and if I'm lucky they say, 'I think I'd better go.'"
Goodbyes are what have brought him the most recent recognition. "I have become the poster boy for death," he notes. And now that, for some inexplicable reason, his kidneys are functioning again, he has the chance to bid us all well. "The beauty of not dying, but expecting to," he writes, "is that it gives you a chance to say goodbye to everybody."