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In twelve months between 2007 and 2008, Christopher Buckley coped with the passing 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 and colorful socialites. He was their only child and their relationship was close and complicated. Writes Buckley: "They were not - with respect to every other set of loving, wonderful parents in the world - your typical mom and dad."
As Buckley tells the story of their final year together, he takes readers on a surprisingly entertaining tour through hospitals, funeral homes, and memorial services, capturing the heartbreaking and disorienting feeling of becoming a 55-year-old orphan. Buckley maintains his sense of humor by recalling the words of Oscar Wilde: "To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness."
Just as Calvin Trillin and Joan Didion gave readers solace and insight into the experience of losing a spouse, Christopher Buckley offers consolation, wit, and warmth to those coping with the death of a parent, while telling a unique personal story of life with legends.
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Christopher Buckley is the author of fourteen books, including Supreme Courtship, Boomsday, and Thank You For Smoking. He is editor-at-large of ForbesLife magazine, and was awarded the Thurber Prize for American Humor and the Washington Irving Medal for Literary Excellence. He lives on the Acela train between Washington, D.C. and New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I’m not sure how this book will turn out. I mostly write novels, and I’ve found, having written half a dozen, that if you’re lucky, the ending turns out a surprise and you wind up with something you hadn’t anticipated in the outline. I suppose it’s a process of outsmarting yourself (not especially hard in my case). Perhaps I’m outsmarting myself by writing this book at all. I’d pretty much resolved not to write a book about my famous parents. But I’m a writer, for better or worse, and when the universe hands you material like this, not writing about it seems either a waste or a conscious act of evasion.
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:
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.
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