Read Losing Mum and Pup Online

Authors: Christopher Buckley

Losing Mum and Pup (2 page)

BOOK: Losing Mum and Pup
12.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

One thing I did learn that morning of February 27, 2008: In the Internet age, word travels fast. He died at 9:30. I called
a friend at the
and they had his (pre-prepared) obit up by 11:04. The president of the United States called me… it must have been before
11:30, anyway. Cyberspace doesn’t give you a whole lot of time for collecting your thoughts. One well-meaning but a bit impetuous
caller—it couldn’t have been later than 11:15—demanded, repeatedly, to know what were the funeral arrangements, adding that
he hoped it wouldn’t complicate his trip to California. I was a tad brusque with the gentleman. My father was still lying
warm on the floor of his study, awaiting the medical examiner, and I was being pressed for funeral plans. Perhaps one of the
lessons of this book is: Don’t feel too guilty for being a bit curt in these situations.

I do have one or two very concrete hopes for this book, which I’d like to get on the record, perhaps self-correctively, as
I set out to write it. I
to avoid any hint of self-pity, any sense that I’ve been dealt some unusually cruel hand. As I type this, 158 earthquake
rescue workers in China have just been buried alive in a landslide; meanwhile, in benighted Myanmar, hundreds of thousands
are perishing horribly at the hands of ghastly tyrants; my best friend’s son—my own godson—is in harm’s way with the U.S.
Army in Iraq; his brother is soon en route there. I have—
touch wood!
as Mum used to say—health and wealth. I say a secular grace before meals and count my myriad blessings.
My cup runneth over
, as Pup used to say. I can’t say this past year has been a laugh riot. I’ve quoted Queen Elizabeth’s
annus horribilis
line once or twice. But if at any point you hear a whimpering of
oh, poor little me
, just chuck the book right into the wastebasket—or better yet, take it back and exchange it for a fresh paperback copy of
Running with Scissors

My other hope is that the book will be, despite its not exactly upbeat subject matter, a celebration—as we insist, in our
smiley-faced times, on denominating funeral and memorial services—of two extraordinary people, my Mum and Pup; and that it
will be worthy of them, even if some parts of it would no doubt appall them. For public people, they could be rather private.
But then one advantage to orphanhood, however bittersweet, is that for better or worse it’s your call now.

April Is the Cruelest Month

pril 14, 2007, began well enough. I was at Washington and Lee University in very rural Lexington, Virginia. It has a beautiful
campus, and the occasion was an egotist’s wet dream. The previous afternoon, I had driven into town underneath a enormous
banner slung across the main street: CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY’S WASHINGTON—T
. Hot diggity dog. A two-day program of talks and seminars by professors of journalism and political science, all about my
novels, ending with a lecture by Tom Wolfe, on the topic of same. It doesn’t get any better than that. Tom Wolfe has been
my beau ideal and hero since 1970, when at age seventeen I came upon his
Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
and stayed up all night, silent upon a peak in Darien, inhaling his nitrous-injected prose. So, sweeping all modesty aside,
I found being invited to this event at W and L—the Maestro’s own alma mater—very cool indeed.

The night before, after my talk, there had been a reception at the president’s house. I asked my host if this had in fact
been Robert E. Lee’s house when he was president of Washington College, as it was then called. The answer was yes, and furthermore,
it was in this very room, the dining room, that he had died. He was stricken at mealtime and, unable to be moved, had spent
his final days there.

I looked about the room reverently. Death was on my mind. It was April 13, just four days after the anniversary of the surrender
at Appomattox, not so far from here; it was, as well, the eve of the anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln,
Lee’s old foe.
On the walk to dinner after the reception, I was shown the stable where Lee’s horse, Traveller, had spent his last days.
I’d asked to see it because I had once owned a small wooden sailboat that I’d named
, after him. My Buckley grandmother, a proud native of New Orleans (born 1895), stoutly maintained that we are related to
Robert E. Lee, but my uncle Reid, the family historian, has laid that pretty fiction firmly to rest. The Buckleys are related
to Robert E. Lee in roughly the same sense that every human being on the planet is related to that procreative hominid lady
who lived in Africa a hundred thousand years ago. Reid did, on the other hand, establish that Mimi’s grandfather was decorated
for bravery fighting for Lee at Shiloh, as well as on subsequent other killing fields. Relatives of Robert E. Lee are as numerous
as crew members of JFK’s torpedo boat PT-109.

There was a screening after the dinner of
Thank You for Smoking
, a movie adapted from one of the aforementioned Washington novels. Having seen it more times than there are relatives of
Robert E. Lee, I ducked out early and walked back to the little guesthouse up the hill. My cell phone showed no bars, and
I was anxious to see if there were any messages. My mother was dying 450 miles north of here, and I felt isolated, all the
more so for the deep, cicada-loud country night.

This was Friday. (The 13th, it occurs.) On Tuesday, she had gone into the hospital to have a stent installed in her thigh
in hopes of preventing further amputations. Thursday, the wound went septic. She lapsed into a coma from which the doctors
said she would not emerge. Over the phone on Friday morning, Pup had said to me,
Go to Virginia. Honor the commitment. There’s no point in coming up.
Then he’d said,
Why don’t we agree that the next call you get from me will be when she’s dead

I didn’t know what to say to that. Pup’s fatalism could sometimes border on sangfroid. He had over the course of his life
given (literally) thousands of speeches, and he had a paladin code of conduct that the show must go on. My inclination was
to speed to the side of my mother, whether she was sensate or not. But the Wolfe event had been laid on months ago; hundreds
of people had been paid money and come long distances. Still, I demurred, if only for practical reasons: I imagined myself
mounting the podium to make the audience laugh (my one talent) moments after getting a phone call informing me that my mother
had just died. But Pup was adamant.
She’s in a coma, Big Shot. She wouldn’t know you’re there. Go.
So I put down the phone and cried and went to Virginia.

Now, Saturday morning, I sat in the audience and listened to Tom Wolfe say nice things about my work. I’d known him for about
thirty years. I blush to admit that I had importuned him for blurbs for my early books, which he had quite correctly declined
to provide. (Oh, Youth: What an utter
you can be!) Many years later, Tom indicated, more than generously, his approval, which was all the sweeter for its having
been long in the coming.

There was a lunch, but I had to skip that because a car was waiting to get me to Baltimore, five hours away, for the next
gig, the annual fund-raiser at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. I was the speaker. That too had been arranged months in advance
and had been heavily promoted. I said grateful good-byes to my hosts and to the Man in White, drove out under the CHRISTOPHER
BUCKLEY’S WASHINGTON banner, and, seeing bars on my cell phone, phoned my wife, Lucy, in Washington.

She told me the death watch had begun. Pup had announced he would not return to the hospital. Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Pitts had
come down from Sharon to be with him, but they had now gone back. Jimmy’s wife, Ann, had been paralyzed from the neck down
in an awful car accident, and he didn’t like to leave her for long. Pitts, who is to the Buckley family what Gibraltar is
to the Mediterranean, had told Lucy,
I think Christo better get back.
So I hung up with Lucy and called the lady at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

“Oh, yes, Mr. Buckley,” she said merrily, “we’re so looking forward to seeing you.”

I blurted, “My mother isn’t expected to live out the night.” I choked up halfway through. I can’t account for where such stilted
language came from. They’re words that you might hear in a hospital soap opera. I don’t talk like that. It leaves me wondering
if, in such situations, one subconsciously plagiarizes from remembered dialogue left in the brain’s attic.

There was a pause. She said, “Of course. I’m so sorry.”

I felt awful screwing things up so for the library. But as cancellation excuses go, a dying mother is pretty unassailable.
be, at any rate. But then I remember a story told me by a friend, the sister of a hugely successful movie producer: Her brother
was summoned, along with other family members, to the bed of their dying mother. He was at the time shooting a big-budget
movie that you have almost certainly seen. No sooner had he arrived in the hospital room in New York than the two studio heads
phoned him—“screaming, I mean,
,” she said—at him to fly back to the set. You’d recognize their names. Still wanna be in showbiz?

There was a storm moving in from the west, rain coming down harder and harder.
I thought,
the objective correlative: the outward aspect mirroring the inner aspect.
(Once an English major, always an English major.) I phoned Lucy back. The airports were shutting down. There was no point
in trying to fly. I could make Washington in four hours and catch an Acela train to Stamford, but that wouldn’t get me in
until late. At this point the driver, whose card gave his name as Shuja Qureshi, overhearing my fraught negotiations, piped
up in an Indian accent: “Sir?
can drive you to Stam-ford, Conneck-ti-cut.” Okay, I said. Let’s go. He stabbed the buttons on his dash-mounted GPS and reported
that it would take eight hours. I sat back, mind reeling.
Industry is the enemy of melancholy
. So I opened my laptop and composed an obituary that could be sent out to the newspapers to help them with the details.


At the Stamford (Conn.) Hospital, of a [[TK]], following a long illness. [[TK time]]

Born Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, July 1, 1926. Father: Austin Cotterell Taylor. Mother: Kathleen Elliott Taylor.
Her father was a self-made industrialist whose racehorses Indian Broom and Wychcee competed against Seabiscuit. Mr. Taylor
died in 1965.

Her mother, a civic leader in Vancouver, died in 1972. Mrs. Buckley’s maternal grandfather was chief of police of Winnipeg,
Manitoba. Mrs. Buckley’s brother, financier Austin G. E. Taylor of Vancouver, died in 1996. Her sister Kathleen Finucane,
of Vancouver, died in March.

Patricia Aldyen Austin Taylor was educated at Crofton House School, Vancouver. She attended Vassar College, where she met
her future husband through her roommate Patricia Buckley. She and her roommate’s older brother, William F. Buckley Jr., were
married in Vancouver on July 6, 1950, in what was then the largest wedding in the city’s history.

Mrs. Buckley went from the life of a debutante to a vacuum cleaner–wielding wife of a junior faculty member of Yale. She and
Mr. Buckley lived in Hamden, Connecticut, while he wrote his first book,
God and Man at Yale,
while working as a junior instructor in the Spanish Department. After Mr. Buckley served a brief stint in Mexico City with
the Central Intelligence Agency—his superior was E. Howard Hunt, later of Watergate break-in fame—he and his wife settled
in Stamford, Connecticut, their home ever since. Their only child, Christopher Taylor Buckley, was born in 1952.

BOOK: Losing Mum and Pup
12.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Trinity Bound by Carrie Ann Ryan
A Wild Swan by Michael Cunningham
War Games by Karl Hansen
Rake's Honour by Beverley Oakley
A Day to Pick Your Own Cotton by Michael Phillips
Heart on Fire by Brandy L Rivers
Circle of Shadows by Curry, Edna
Without Mercy by Belinda Boring