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?