Heaven Waited

Thursday, January 25th, 2007

I’m still waiting for Art Buchwald’s next column.

If I had any decent sources in heaven I’d ask them to get me an interview with him, just to check in, see how the first week went and find out when he’s going to start writing again. But he was the one with all the great sources — at the White House, the CIA, the Kremlin, wherever.

The official story is that Art died on Jan. 17 at age 81, of kidney failure. The unofficial story is that he was supposed to die a year ago but didn’t, and became, in his own modest estimation, “the man who wouldn’t die.” In early 2006 he’d had a leg amputated following serious infection, and was suffering from acute kidney disease. The doctors recommended dialysis — for the rest of his life. Art said no way and checked into a hospice instead. There, something went horribly wrong.

He was supposed to die quietly in a week or two. Instead, he lived, he prospered, he became the center of national attention, he resumed writing his twice-weekly column of political satire — taking on, among much else, the death beat (“Dying isn’t hard. Getting paid by Medicare is.”) — and eventually flunked out of hospice and went home. And, oh yeah, while he was home he wrote a book. And he never stopped giving interviews and basking in the national spotlight and, presumably, downing milkshakes and Big Macs (“Most people . . . have to watch their diets. They can’t believe I can eat anything I want.”).

And did I mention he started up the column again, the one that had been his lifeblood for the last half century or so? This is where I come in. I was his editor for the final six and a half of those years, and therefore had a front row seat, of sorts, for Art’s miracle year.

Funny thing about miracles. Even when you know one’s occurring right in front of your nose, you start taking it for granted. So gradually I got used to the idea of Art’s wielding his delicate shiv again — on Bush, the war, the national debt, the nation’s seasonal foibles.

There he was just last month, for instance, inviting us into his holiday-festooned living room, where he allegedly sat with his family opening Christmas cards from the likes of Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell (“Apparently it was sent after he left the State Department, because he paid for his own postage”), and quietly bringing the war home: “We’ll sing songs. We’ll have mistletoe, and it will be just the way it was before the president announced we may not win the war as easily as everyone thought. Maybe our boys won’t get home for Christmas, but at least we’ll have their cards.”

So as I sit at my computer waiting for Art’s deadpan take on, say, the president’s State of the Union message, and as awareness dawns that it’s not going to come, the miracle of the past year — when his kidneys defied medical prognosis, when he was the man who wouldn’t die, when he made us laugh about both the here and now and the hereafter —hits me with sudden grief. Oh my. I’m going to miss him. He was a national treasure.

“People in the audience responded to him so amazingly — they just wanted to hold him. You could feel it,” Cathy Crary, his assistant, told me the other day, describing a reading he gave last month from “Too Soon To Say Goodbye.” Because of the size of the crowd, the venue had to be moved from Washington’s Politics and Prose Bookstore to a nearby church. “Every single person in the audience came up to talk to him,” Cathy said. “They just didn’t want to let go.”

So I think about this, and I think about the idea of healing, and then I start laughing — sorry, I can’t help it. I’m remembering how I was called into service as Art’s straight man a month after 9/11, when he ruminated in a column on the place of humor in the wake of this tragedy. “I told Bob Koehler, my editor, ‘I have permission to make people laugh, but I have no idea what they will laugh at.’”

I should point out that, technically, this was a fictitious Bob Koehler who responded, “You are suffering from an irony crisis,” cautioned him against flying jokes and suggested that he could have a go at Osama’s beard. “I” also counseled: “The only way we’re going to beat the terrorists is to go back to normal times.”

I’ll counsel that again, but of course I mean Buchwald normal.

“It’s open seating on the plane,” he wrote last March. “I know heaven is a wonderful place, but on the way there you have to sit three across. . . .The loudspeaker says, ‘Heaven is at the last gate, with intermediate stops in Dallas, Chicago and Albuquerque. The plane has just arrived.’

“I go up to the desk and ask, ‘Am I entitled to frequent flyer miles?’

“The agent says, ‘You won’t need any because you’re not coming back.’

“Now this is the part of the dream I love. (Remember, this is my dream.) The loudspeaker says, ‘Because of inclement weather, the flight to heaven has been canceled today. You can come back tomorrow and we’ll put you on standby.’”

Turns out he was on standby for 10 months. Did you get the window seat, Art?