Read Losing Mum and Pup Online

Authors: Christopher Buckley

Losing Mum and Pup (3 page)

BOOK: Losing Mum and Pup
11.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Mrs. Buckley became a leading member of New York society and was active in numerous charities and civic causes. She raised
money for various hospitals, including St. Vincent’s. She served on many boards and was an honorary director of the Metropolitan
Museum of Art. For many years, she chaired the annual dinner of the Museum’s Costume Institute.

Pat Buckley moved easily amidst notables from the worlds of politics, literature, the arts, philanthropy, fashion, and society.
Her friends included Henry and Nancy Kissinger, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Jerome Zipkin, Betsy Bloomingdale, Nan Kempner, Clare
Boothe Luce, Bill Blass, Tammany leader Carmine DeSapio, Abe Rosenthal and Shirley Lord, Mrs. Gary “Rocky” Cooper, David Niven,
John Kenneth Galbraith, Sir Harry Evans and Tina Brown, (British director) Peter Glenville, Princess Grace of Monaco, Don
Juan de Borbon (father of the present King of Spain), publisher John Fairchild, Richard Avedon, Dominick Dunne, Bob Colacello,
Sir Alistair Horne, Aileen Mehle, Richard and Shirley Clurman, John and Drue Heinz, Reinaldo and Carolina Herrera, Tom Wolfe,
Taki and Alexandra Theadoracopulos, Clay Felker, Ahmet and Mica Ertegun, C.Z. Guest, Kenneth J. Lane, Valentino, Halston,
Walter Cronkite, Mike Wallace, David Halberstam, Vladimir Nabokov, Roger Moore, Truman Capote, Rosalyn Tureck, Alicia de Larrocha,
James Clavell, King Constantine of Greece, Malcolm Forbes Sr., Brooke Astor, Anne Slater, Mortimer’s owner Glen Birnbaum,
among others.

Rereading this now, I’m amused by that “among others.” Who could I possibly have left out of this boldface cornucopia?

She was known for her exacting taste in everything from clothes to decorating and food. She maintained a notably slender figure—
Women’s Wear Daily
often referred to her as the “chic and stunning Mrs. Buckley”— and to her “belle poitrine.” She was an early booster of—and
walking advertisement for—American designers, particularly Bill Blass. A regular on the Best Dressed List, she was inducted
into its Hall of Fame in the 1990s. She favored costume jewelry made by her gin rummy pal Kenneth J. Lane. In his memoir,
Mr. Blass noted that he and Mrs. Buckley would occasionally play hooky from their hectic schedules in order to see as many
movies as they could back-to-back in one day, “an operation that required near-military planning.”

Despite her elegant figure, Mrs. Buckley was a famous foodie (a term she herself would never have used). Unable to boil a
three-minute egg at the time she married, she dutifully took cooking classes with James Beard. In the 1970s, she became a
champion of Glorious Food, the now famous catering firm started by Sean Driscoll. She refined her skills as a giver of fancy
benefit dinners for up to 1,000 people by improvising “Pat’s Pot Pie,” a chicken pot pie that eliminated the time-consuming
need for serving vegetables and sauces separately. It was an innovation hailed by her famously impatient husband.

Over the years, Mrs. Buckley acted as a kind of den mother to the conservative movement, giving dinners to the editors of
her husband’s magazine,
National Review,
every other Monday, starting in the mid-1960s. At her husband’s 80th birthday celebration in 2005 at the Pierre Hotel in New
York, her son, Christopher, noted in a toast that “No one ever left my mother’s house less than well and truly stuffed.”

Though she was often in the limelight, Mrs. Buckley tended to shy from it, content to leave center stage to her husband. She
often said, “I’m just a simple country girl from the woods of British Columbia,” though by any account she was anything but
simple and had long since left the woods of her native British Columbia.

She is survived by her husband of 57 years, William F. Buckley Jr. of Stamford, CT; her son, Christopher Taylor Buckley, of
Washington, D.C.; granddaughter, Caitlin Gregg Buckley, and grandson, William Conor Buckley.

Shuja and I stopped at a McDonald’s. We sat across from each other, eating our Big Macs and fries.
Grease is the enemy of melancholy.
I would put on quite a few extra pounds in the days ahead, justifying it as perfectly okay under the circumstances.
Your mother died. Go ahead, eat all you want.

“What is the matter with your mother?” Shuja said between bites.

“She’s dying,” I said.

It just came out. It was the second time I couldn’t account for my words. He nodded and gave a sympathetic tilt of the head
and took another bite of his Big Mac. I felt embarrassed for him.

“I really like McDonald’s,” I said, trying to change the subject.

“Oh, yes…” Shuja brightened. “McDonald’s is

She’s Already in Heaven

e pulled into Stamford eight hours later, just after nine o’clock. Danny, my best friend since age thirteen, was waiting for
me. He became, over the years, a sort of second son to my father. He reported that Pup had gone to bed. He was not in good
health (emphysema, diabetes, sleep apnea) and normally went upstairs after dinner by about eight-fifteen, aboard his new stairway
rail chair. He would then, typically, take the first of numerous sleeping pills. (Pup’s self-medication would be a big theme
in the coming year.) Tonight, before he went upstairs, he had said to Danny, several times,
Why is Christo going to the hospital? She’s in a coma. She won’t know he’s there.
Danny—kindly, patient, good Danny—said to him,
Bill, he wants to say good-bye to his mother

He drove me to Stamford Hospital. He told me that although Pup had declared that he wouldn’t go there, he had, twice, each
time driving himself. I winced at hearing this, since I’d given covert but imperative instructions to Danny and the staff
that they must not, under any circumstances, let Pup get behind the wheel of a car. A moving vehicle was now, in his hands,
a potential weapon of mass destruction far more minatory than anything in the arsenal of Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong-il. But
gone to the hospital he had, and for that I was glad; glad, too, not to have been there when he said good-bye to her. His
grief would only have been a distraction. This is perhaps cruel, but it’s true: acute grief is best one-on-one.

Danny left me at the door to the critical care unit. The nurse buzzed me in. I entered her room. The chic and stunning Mrs.
Buckley lay on her bed, shrunken, eyes open and unseeing, a thick plastic respirator tube protruding from her mouth, making
a loud, rhythmic, bellows-noise as it injected and drew air from her lungs. 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 had amputated three mummified toes on her left foot. She’d stubbed them the previous November and, having
fallen and broken so many bones in her body over the years, she had, in the fashion of Victorian ladies, simply taken to her
bed to die. Six months of lying there, on top of sixty-five years of smoking, does not a robust cardio-aerobic regime make.
The toes, deprived of circulation, had gone dry-gangrenous. Odd, I reflect now: She had always maintained an exquisite figure—
a truly striking figure—and yet I can’t remember a single instance of her ever breaking a sweat.

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. Mum was nominally
Anglican, dutifully attending church on Easter and Christmas. She would, even more dutifully, have the local pastor, a sweet
old bore, over for lunch once or twice a year. On these occasions, she would instruct her New York houseguests—uniformly consisting
of witty, fun, elegant, and gay gentlemen: “Now don’t leave me alone with him!”

I don’t think I ever once heard Mum utter a religious or spiritual sentiment, a considerable feat considering that she was
married for fifty-seven years to one of the most prominent Catholics in the country. But she observed the proprieties with
old-world de rigueur. When Pup taped a
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 effect is that of the Magdalene, as dressed by Bill Blass.

I don’t to this day know if Dr. Joe D’Amico is religious, but I didn’t mind his phraseology.
She’s already in heaven
is a gentle way of saying,
She’s gone and she’s not coming back
. (My parents loved the joke about the tactless army sergeant instructed to break the news gently to Private Jones:
All right, men, I want everyone with a living mother to take one step forward—NOT SO FAST, JONES!
) Death is an occasion of hushed tones and nursery talk. In the scene in Evelyn Waugh’s
Brideshead Revisited
in which Lord Marchmain lies dying, his Italian mistress, Cara, trying to get him to accept last rites, strokes his forehead
and speaks to him softly: “Alex, you remember the priest from Melstead. You were very naughty with him when he came to see
you. You hurt his feelings very much. Now he’s here again….”

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. The line in
had lodged long ago in my mind: “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’d grabbed it off my bookshelf on the way to Virginia, figuring that
a little fine-hammered steel would probably be a good thing to have on this trip. I’m agnostic now, but I haven’t quite reached
the point of reading aloud from Richard Dawkins’s
The God Delusion
at the deathbed of a loved one.

I was reading the ancient text aloud to my unhearing mother when after a few moments I became aware that someone had entered
the room and was standing by the foot of the bed. He introduced himself to me as Dr. Soand-So and, shaking his head with what
seemed genuine perplexity, said,
I just don’t understand how this could have happened
. He then launched into an interminable—five, six minutes, seven minutes?—and detailed account of how the stent operation
had gone wrong. I wasn’t taking notes at the time and so can’t recapitulate it, but it was highly technical. He went on and
on—using abstruse medical terms, as if he were explaining it all to a colleague. All I could do was nod and repeat,
Thank you… thank you… I really appreciate all you did for her…
But he wouldn’t leave, would not be deterred from explaining every minute vascular aspect of the surgery, until, toward minute
eight or nine it dawned on me:
He’s apologizing for killing her.
I muttered,
It’s all right,
and it was: This wasn’t a young woman with her whole life in front of her. Whatever had gone wrong in the OR, it was a blessing.
Putting in the stent was an attempt to stave off further amputation. The thought of my elegant, beautiful Mum enduring some
death of a hundred cuts was too much to contemplate. She’d once said to me, only half-kidding, “I’ve got the best legs in
the business.” And she did—she
. But now I just wanted this doctor to go away and leave us alone.

Finally, having exhausted himself lexicographically, he began to make his exit. I thanked him one last time. As I write this,
is reporting on the front page that more and more doctors are apologizing for their mistakes, and—what do you know—it’s cut
down on the filing of malpractice suits. Perhaps, after all, the most beautiful words in the language are
I’m sorry.

BOOK: Losing Mum and Pup
11.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

The Chicago Way by Michael Harvey
JPod by Douglas Coupland
Some Like It Scot by Donna Kauffman
Melting the Ice Witch by Mell Eight
Midnight by Wilson, Jacqueline
Disharmony by Leah Giarratano