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.