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Authors: Christopher Buckley

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I
suppose one way or the other I’ve spent a good deal of my life, despite my protestations to the contrary, trying to measure
up to my father, so it was refreshing—or novel, anyway—to find myself now trying to measure up to my mother, by throwing her
a worthy memorial service.

There was a lot to do: designing the program, arranging with caterers, florists, the audiovisual guy, preparing a PowerPoint
presentation, lining up eulogists, making sure the invitations got out. I was a novice in this field of endeavor, but I now
feel that I could with confidence arrange a wedding or, for that matter, a state visit by the queen of England. (Did I mention
that the queen’s father and mother used to stay with us whenever they were in town?)

With the food and booze and the flowers, all I needed to say to Mum’s old friend Sean Driscoll of Glorious Food was: What
would Pat do? Sean got it; that was all the guidance he needed. The audiovisual subcontractor, a competent and agreeable man
named Tony, presented his estimate. I whistled silently at the $7,000 price at the bottom of the e-mail, but I thought,
Well, we’re only going to do this once.
A month later, my learning curve took a sharp turn upward when Tony presented his final bill and I realized that I hadn’t
read quite all the way to the bottom of his e-mail attachment. The $7,000 was for equipment. The
labor
cost came to an additional $13,000 on top of that. As I type this a year later, I’m able to chuckle—finally—at my ineptitude
at e-mail attachment reading. I can hear Mum’s ghost muttering,
Twenty
thousand
dollars? For a few television screens and a microphone? Have you
completely
taken leave of your senses?

That said, I think she would have approved of the reason I needed eight humongous plasma-screen TV monitors placed about the
Temple of Dendur. They were to display the opening and closing PowerPoint presentation (what we used to call in the old days
a “slide show”), consisting of a photo-montage set to Michael Feinstein’s “Isn’t It Romantic?” and “Where Do You Start?” Preparing
these photos had occupied several full days of standing over them spread across the living room floor, arranging them and
timing the music, the whole time sobbing. (This presented a deplorable spectacle for my son, Conor, and his fifteen-year-old
pals as they traipsed in and out of the room.
Dude, what’s with your dad? Is he like a total retard or something?
) But I couldn’t help it. She was so, so beautiful, Mum. Among those hundreds of photos, there wasn’t one bad one. She made
love to every camera that came her way. Well, it was probably good therapy in the end. By the morning of the memorial service,
I had—quite literally—cried myself dry.

Some people, no matter how dear and good their hearts, just aren’t adept at eulogies; still, they have to be asked to give
them. This presents the memorial service impresario with a conundrum: how to square his obligation to the bereaved with the
dramatic requirements of the service. And this can be tricky.

One of the people I asked to give one—a longtime friend of Mum’s—said he would be honored to do so, then phoned me a day or
two later to ask a bit sheep-ishly if I might provide “a few notes” to help him. I sensed this might be code for “Could you
write it for me?” I was happy to oblige.

I’d asked my daughter, Caitlin, if she might speak. Cat was nineteen and in the throes of approaching final exams, and very
pressed for time, so I volunteered to do some talking points for her. I sat down during a train ride to sketch these out and
found myself quickly and utterly stymied. I couldn’t think of a single warm and fuzzy grandmother anecdote. (The Skakel story,
warm and fuzzy as it was, might—I felt—not be quite appropriate to the occasion.) I phoned Cat from the train and with genuine
pain in my heart said,
Honey, you don’t have to do this. She loved you in her own way, but let’s face it—she was not a hands-on granny.
Dear, sweet Cat said,
No, no, Dad, I want to do it.
This somehow liberated me, and I was able to give her some ideas, the gist of which was that while “Nan” may not have been
a typical grandmother, she was never (God knows) dull. She had taught Cat such useful skills as never buttering your bread
in midair; taught her, age four, to air kiss, telling her that this would come in handy when she grew up and moved to New
York City. Cat’s eulogy ended up being the high point of the entire show. She ended it with blowing an air kiss to her Nan.
It was a total home run. I did little after the service other than kvell and accept compliments on behalf of my dazzling daughter.
Anna Wintour of
Vogue
was so impressed, she offered Cat a job. This was very generous of Ms. Wintour and presented Cat with an interesting dilemma
inasmuch as
The Devil Wears Prada
had just opened.

Neither Pup nor I trusted ourselves to get through a eulogy. He wrote one for the program. Mine took the form of the memorial
service itself, along with my weepy PowerPoint show.

The key to eulogist wrangling—bear this in mind when you find yourself doing it—is
Draconian enforcement of the time limit!
In fact, to heck with Draco: Imagine yourself as the Time-Limit Nazi. This may seem an obvious point, but you’ve probably
attended one or two funerals and memorial services where the fine-hammered steel of woe was turned to Brillo by incontinent
eulogists. This species can be easily spotted: They almost never prepare ahead of time, preferring instead to “go with the
moment” or to “speak from the heart.” They will then prattle on—from the heart—for at least twenty minutes, causing those
in attendance to forget all about the deceased and start praying that a dislodged gargoyle will fall from above and smite
the speaker.
*

A twenty-minute eulogy, unless composed by a) William Shakespeare, b) Winston Churchill, or c) Mark Twain, is sixteen minutes
too long. Technical note: It is better to tell a eulogist to speak for four minutes, not five minutes. “Five minutes” to the
modern ear sounds like “around five minutes,” whereas “four minutes” means “four minutes.” Just before the service began,
I said to my eulogists (including Henry Kissinger), “I have snipers positioned up there”—pointing to the temple—“with orders
to shoot to kill anyone who goes over four minutes.” I smiled as I said this, but smiled in a certain way. And it worked.
They were all splendid, moving, and brief. No one went beyond his or her allotted time—except for the Catholic padre (Pup
had insisted on him) who gave the opening benediction. It was brilliant, subtle, amusing, intellectually elegant, and seven
minutes long.

So it all went very well and was worthy of Pat Buckley. And it had taken a month to arrange. When on that May morning I walked
into the sunlit Temple of Dendur—a two-thousand-year-old Nubian temple to the goddess Isis, enclosed within a vast, stippled
glass atrium and reflecting pool—and saw the huge spray of pink apple blossoms, the chairs smartly lined up, my programs,
Tony’s $20,000 worth of TV screens and technical people, saw the dozens of Sean Driscoll’s smartly attired catering staff,
I took it all in and gave myself a little pat on the back and thought,
Yes, Mum would approve
.

Pup arrived as I was having this quiet little moment of self-congratulation. I winked at him and spread my arms as if to say,
So—whaddya think?
He looked about the room and grimaced. “It’s awfully
bright
, isn’t it?” He was used to seeing it at night, during Mum’s Costume Institute galas. I suppressed the urge to hurl him into
the reflecting pool. After it was over, I looked over and saw him lurching on unsteady legs to embrace Henry Kissinger. Poor
Pup, poor desolate man—his face was flushed, livid, scarlet with grief. This is the eulogy from the program that he couldn’t
bring himself to deliver a cappella in the shadow of the old Egyptian goddess:

By any standard, at near six feet tall, she was extraordinary. She shared a suite with my sister Trish and two other students
at Vassar, and on that spring evening in 1949 I was the blind date she had never met. When I walked into the drawing room
the four girls shared, I found her hard pressed. She was mostly ready for the prom but was now vexed by attendant responsibilities.
I offered to paint her fingernails, and she immediately extended her hand, using the other one on the telephone. The day before,
she had given the sad news to her roommates that she would not be returning to Vassar for junior and senior years. She was
needed at home, in Vancouver, to help her mother care for a dying family member. My own parents had gone to their place in
South Carolina for the winter and the house in Sharon, Connecticut, was closed. But I would dart over from Yale for an occasional
weekend in the huge empty house, and Trish brought her there once, and we laughed all weekend long, and Trish promised to
visit her in Vancouver during the summer.

I had a summer job in Calgary working for my father in the oil business, and from there happily flew over to Vancouver to
join Trish and Pat for a weekend. Her father’s vast house occupied an entire city block, but did not dampen our spirits. On
the contrary, the tempo of our congeniality heightened, and on the third day I asked if she would marry me. She rushed upstairs
to tell her mother, and I waited at the bottom of the huge staircase hoping to get the temper of her proud mother’s reaction
(her father was out of town), and soon I heard peals of laughter. I waited apprehensively for Pat to advise me what that was
all about. The laughter, she revealed, was generated by her mother’s taking the occasion to recall that eight times in the
past, Pat had reported her betrothal.

One year later, in the company of about a thousand guests, we exchanged vows. Two months after that, we rented a modest house
in the neighborhood of New Haven. Pat resolved to learn how to cook. Her taste was advanced and her ambitions exigent, so
she commuted to New York City and learned cooking from experts, becoming one herself. Meanwhile, I taught a class in Spanish
to undergraduates and wrote
God and Man at Yale.

Primarily to avoid exposure to further duty as an infantry officer, I joined the CIA and we went to live in Mexico City, buying
and decorating a lovely house at San Angel Inn. Pat was radiant and hyperactive in maintaining the house and its little garden.
She resolutely failed to learn the language, even though, until the end, the staff was Spanish-speaking, but intercommunication
was electrically effective.

Her solicitude was such that she opposed any venture by me which she thought might adversely affect me. She opposed the founding
of
National Review
, my signing up with a lecture agency, my non-fiction books and then my fiction books, my contract to write a weekly column,
the projected winter in Switzerland, my decision to run for mayor of New York. Yet once these enterprises were undertaken,
she participated enthusiastically. It was she who located the exquisite house, every inch of which she decorated, that we
shared for 55 years. We had only one child, Christopher, of whom she was understandably proud. And it was she—all but uniquely
she—who brought here the legion of guests, of all ages, professions, and interests, whose company made up her lively life.

Her infirmities dated back to a skiing accident in 1965. She went through four hip replacements over the years. She went into
the hospital a fortnight ago, but there was no thought of any terminal problem. Yet following an infection, on the seventh
day, she died, in the arms of her son.

Friends from everywhere were quick to record their grief. One of them
*
was especially expressive. “Allow a mere acquaintance of your wife to sense the magnitude of your loss. As surely as she
physically towered over her surroundings, she must have mentally, spiritually, and luminously surpassed ordinary mortals.
She certainly was in every sense of the term une grande dame, a distinction she wore as lightly as a T-shirt—not that one
can imagine her in anything so plebeian. The only consolation one may offer is that the greatness of a loss is the measure
of its antecedent gain. And perhaps also that Pat’s memory will be second only to her presence. For as long as you live, people
will share with you happy reminiscences that, in their profusion, you may have forgotten or not even known.

“I am a confirmed nonbeliever, but for once I would like to be mistaken, and hope that, for you, this is not good-bye, but
hasta luego.”

No alternative thought would make continuing in life, for me, tolerable.

—WFB

CHAPTER
7
You Need to Get Here as Quickly as You Can

BOOK: Losing Mum and Pup
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