Within the span of 12 months between 2007 and 2008, Christopher Buckley had to cope with the death of his father, William F. Buckley, the father of the modern conservative movement, and his mother, Patricia Taylor Buckley, one of New York's most glamorous socialites. The relationship between the three of them was as close as it was complicated.
In "Losing Mum & Pup," Buckley describes their final year together and how it felt to become an orphan at the age of 55. To all those coping with a parent's death, he offers solace and warmth.
Read an excerpt of the book below and head to the "GMA" Library for more good reads.
By "material like this," I mean losing both your parents within a year. If that sounds callous or cavalier, it's not meant to be. My sins are manifold and blushful, but callousness and arrogance are not among them (at least, I hope not). The cliché is that a writer's life is his capital, and I find myself, as the funereal dust settles and the flowers dry, wanting—needing, perhaps more accurately—to try to make sense of it and put the year to rest, as I did my parents. Invariably, one seeks to move on. A book is labor, and as Pup taught me from a very early age—so early, indeed, that I didn't have the foggiest idea what he was talking about—"Industry is the enemy of melancholy." Now I get it. There's this, too: My parents were not—with all respect to every other set of son-and-daughter-loving, wonderful parents in the wide, wide world—your average mom and dad. They were William F. Buckley Jr. and Patricia Taylor Buckley, both of them—and I hereby promise that this will be the only time I deploy this particular cliché—larger-than-life people. A gross understatement in their case. I wonder, having typed that: Is it name-dropping when they're your own parents?
But larger than life they both were, and then some. Larger than death, too, to judge from the public outpouring and from the tears of the people who loved them and mourn them and miss them, none more than their son, even if at times I was tempted to pack them off to earlier graves. Larger-than-life people create larger-than-life dramas.
To the extent this story has a larger-than-personal dimension, it is an account of becoming an orphan. I realize that "orphan" sounds like an overdramatic term for becoming parentless at age fifty-five; but I was struck by the number of times the word occurred in the eight hundred condolence letters I received after my father died. I hadn't thought of myself as an "orphan" until about the sixth or seventh letter: 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. At length a certain froideur encroached as the thought formed, So, you're an orphan now. I was jolted happily out of my thousand-yard stare a month later by an e-mail from my old pal Leon Wieseltier, to whom I'd written to say that I was finally headed off to Arizona for some R&R: "May your orphanhood be tanned." Orphanhood was a condition I had associated with news stories of disasters; a theme I had examined intellectually in literature at college and beyond. It's one of the biggies, running through most of Melville, among others, and right down the middle of the great American novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
I'm an only child, albeit encompassed and generously loved by an abundance of relatives, forty-nine first cousins on the Buckley side alone. Still, I have no sibling with whom to share my orphanhood, so perhaps the experience is more acutely felt. Only children often have more intense, or at least more tightly focused, relationships with their parents than children of larger families. This was, at any rate, my experience.
I don't know that I have anything particularly useful, much less profound, to impart about the business of losing one's parents, other than this account of how it went in my case. I doubt you'll be stunned to hear that it has a somewhat dampening effect on one's general felicity and inclination to humor. I recall, on entering the vestibule of Leo P. Gallagher & Son Funeral Home the first time after Mum died, seeing a table stacked with pamphlets with titles like Losing a Loved One or The Grieving Process, illustrated with flowers and celestial sunbeams. As a satirist, which is to say someone who makes raspberries at the cosmos, my inclination is to parody: Okay, They're Dead: Deal with It or Why It's Going to Cost You $7,000 to Cremate Mummy. But standing there with my grief-stricken father, the banal suddenly didn't seem quite so silly or in need of a kick in the rear end, and (believe me) I'm a veteran chortler over Oscar Wilde's line "It would require a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell." Right after JFK was shot, Mary McGrory said to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, "We'll never laugh again," to which Moynihan responded, "Mary, we'll laugh again, but we'll never be young again."
It occurs to me that Moynihan's reply brushes up against the nut of the orphanhood thing (as my former boss George H. W. Bush might put it)—namely, the accompanying realization that you're next. With the death of the second parent, one steps—or is not-so-gently nudged—across the threshold into the Green Room to the river Styx.
One of my early memories, age five, is of being in bed with my parents and being awoken in the middle of the night by the ringing of the phone. A great commotion of grown-ups followed: Mum going down to make coffee, Pup hunched over the phone, speaking in grave, urgent tones. Of course, I found it all exciting and eventful and hoped it would involve—with any luck—a reprieve from school that day. "What is it?" I asked Mum. "Pup's father has died, darling." Apart from being in the car when she drove over the family cocker spaniel, this was my first brush with death. Then, an even half century later, the phone rang again with the news that my father had died.
In the Zen koan, the noble lord sends word throughout the land, offering a huge reward to anyone who can distill for him in poetry the definition of happiness. (This was in the days before Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?) A monk duly shuffled in and handed the nobleman a poem that read, in its entirety: Grandfather dies Father dies Son dies.
His Lordship, having had in mind something a bit more, shall we say, upbeat, unsheathes his sword and is about to lop off the head of the impertinent divine. The monk says (in words to this effect), Dude, chill! This is the definition of perfect happiness—that no father should outlive his son. At this, His Lordship nods—or, more probably, after the fashion of Kurosawa's sixteenth-century warlords, grunts emphatically—and hands the monk a sack of gold. I'm sure the story reads more inspiringly in the original medieval Japanese, brush-painted on a silk scroll, but it's a nifty story, even as I now confront the fact that I have moved to the bottom line. My son, William Conor Buckley, whose namesake grandfather died on the morning of his sixteenth birthday, now himself moves one step closer to the Stygian Green Room, but if the old Zen monk's formula holds, he won't beat me to the river. Or so I, a heathen, fervently pray.
Many of those kind letters I received echoed another apparently universal aspect about parental mortality—namely, that no matter how much you prepare for the moment, when it comes, it comes at you hot, hard, and unrehearsed. Both my parents had been ill and suffering, so when the end came to each, it was technically a blessing. And yet there you stand in room 2 of the Stamford Hospital critical care unit, having just calmly given the order to remove the breathing tube, sobbing uncontrollably—sobbing, as distinct from crying or weeping—even though you spent eight hours in a car driving toward this scene, knowing pretty much what to expect. Then, ten months later, cradling the phone and wandering foggily and aimlessly about the house, wondering, almost like an actor trying to figure out how to play the scene: Okay, you've just gotten word that your father is dead. You . . . let's see . . . punch the wall, shout, "Why? Why?"—not quite knowing what to do, or say, or what gesture is called for. Something, surely? Before getting the call, I'd been on the way to my little study out back to do my income taxes. (Death and taxes, all in the same day. One reverts to childhood: Go hide. Maybe they won't find you. In the end, I just leaned my forehead against the inside of the front door, took in a few breaths, then walked upstairs to man the phones, which I knew would soon start to ring.
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 Times and they had his (preprepared) 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 hope 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.
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 Traveller, 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 ass 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. It should 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, screaming," 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. Right, 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? I 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. PATRICIA TAYLOR BUCKLEY
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.
*TK is journalist shorthand for information "to come."
†On Election Day, when my father ran for mayor of New York.
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. 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 bold-face 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 excellent."
Copyright © 2009 by Christopher Taylor Buckley All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.