How To Laugh at Death, By Art Buchwald

By Dov Burt Levy

Published April 21, 2006, issue of April 21, 2006.
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Art Buchwald is living and dying in a Washington, D.C., hospice. If you don’t know his story, you could be forgiven for thinking this is a very sad time for the 80-year-old Jewish columnist.

Just the opposite, Buchwald says. “I am,” he announces, “having the time of my life.” His family and friends, along with the political and artistic glitterati, are coming by to shmooze, reminisce and bring his favorite foods. He mentions that he likes corned beef sandwiches; the next day guests bring in 10.

He continues to write his column for the Washington Post and 50 other papers, but now the topics, still with his characteristic humor, are often about death, the hospice and making your own end-of-life decisions. Many people write to thank him for giving them alternatives to consider.

Here’s the story. Suffering from kidney disease, he entered a Washington, D.C., hospice in February after deciding that he didn’t want to prolong his life by having dialysis five hours a day, three days a week. He had already had his leg amputated for other reasons and he figured now: “I had two decisions. Continue dialysis, and that’s boring to do three times a week, and I don’t know where that’s going, or I can just enjoy life and see where it takes me.”

Life had already taken him at age 3 to two orphanages after his mother was institutionalized with mental illness from which she never recovered. Young Art ran away at age 17 in 1942 to join the Marines. After the war, he attended college and edited the campus magazine, but didn’t graduate because the school discovered his lack of a high school diploma.

So he went to Paris where a small job at the Herald Tribune morphed into a humor column, which in 1962 he took to Washington. During his heyday, he was writing three columns a week, syndicated in 700 papers.

His shtick was taking serious political and social issues and turning them into humor, which as we know, for whatever genetic, social or historic reasons, has always been a strong Jewish trait. Think Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl and a 100 others. In Buchwald’s day, he was better known than Al Franken and Jon Stewart are today.

Through it all, he never lost his sense of his place in the whole story, which most of the time was outside laughing in.

“Just when you think there’s nothing to write about, Nixon says, ‘I am not a crook,’” Buchwald once wrote. “Jimmy Carter says, ‘I have lusted after women in my heart.’ President Reagan says, ‘I have just taken a urinalysis test, and I am not on dope.’ You can’t make up anything anymore. The world itself is a satire. All you’re doing is recording it.”

When President Eisenhower’s press secretary, James Hagarty, took a Buchwald column seriously and called it “unadulterated rot,” Buchwald responded with indignation: “He’s wrong. I write adulterated rot.”

Buchwald has undoubtedly earned a place in my pantheon of personal heroes, men and women whose actions in the face of impending death seem to me both inspiring and heroic: Hubert Humphrey, tennis great Arthur Ashe, Professor Morrie Schwartz of “Tuesdays with Morrie,” Christopher and Dana Reeves, Lenny Zakim, to name a few.

Talk about dying with dignity. Their deaths may have come too early and been too hard, but not one of them ever lost his heart or soul or kindness, nor stopped performing good deeds in this world. Nor did they kvetch, complain, blame. Buchwald fits in well.

Should there ever — sometime, somewhere — be a meeting of these greats, along with all our friends and family members who have inspired us in life and in death, you can bet Buchwald will be there, too. And you can bet he’ll regale them all with how he beat the doctors’ forecasts of his survival by hundreds of percents, just as he regales us now when asked about the afterlife.

“I have no idea where I’m going but here’s the real question: What am I doing here in the first place?” Buchwald says, part humor columnist, part rabbi. “It’s what you do on earth and the good deeds you do on earth that are important.”

Shalom v’lehitraot, Art.

Dov Burt Levy is a columnist for the Jewish Journal North of Boston.






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