The 'Art' of Saying Goodbye – January 2007
Art's legacy to nurses
It's not easy for someone facing death to discuss dying, give advice, or spout off clever anecdotes. It's a personal time in one's life that usually isn't shared with the world. This wasn't the case with Art Buchwald, the Pulitzer Prize-winning political satirist who died of renal failure on January 17, 2007.
A month before his passing, Mr. Buchwald agreed to an interview at his son's Washington home. This was to be his last interview.
Up close and personal
Art Buchwald, at age eighty-one, is an imposing presence. Just under six feet tall, with a skirt of silver hair, bristly eyebrows, and a day's stubble, he projects a concentrated self-assurance. He's dressed in a gray crewneck sweater and blue shorts, reclining in a green velvet chair chewing on some peanut brittle. His black-rimmed glasses rest on the bridge of his nose. A library of books and folded newspapers surround him.
The den, his favorite room, is a sacred place where he works, naps, reads, and eats. Buchwald isn't a picture of health: his skin-tone is yellowed, he sleeps most of the day, and his prosthesis for a right below-the-knee amputation rests nearby on his wheelchair. It's the holiday season, but Buchwald isn't celebrating. He has his good days and bad days. Today is a bad day-he isn't feeling well. His doctor cautioned him against eating protein, but Buchwald doesn't like to comply with diet restrictions. Although he has a history of diabetes, stroke, pacemaker, heart disease, depression, and chronic renal insufficiency-nothing interferes with his writing and his candidness concerning end-of-life decisions.
Buchwald's love and respect for nurses is evident by the way his mouth softens and his eyes twinkle when he talks about his five month stay at the Community Hospice of Washington. "My humor made life easier for the nurses who cared for me," Buchwald said. "Being a hospice nurse is like entering the priesthood-it's a calling."
Hospice nurses gained a special place in Buchwald's heart by caring for him the same way they care for all their patients-giving people the opportunity to die with dignity and comfort. Buchwald remembers the hospice spirit and describes it as, "a sacred place where people talk about death openly."
Buchwald always had a gift of using humor to get people to open up about difficult subjects. Several years before Buchwald and Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes TV fame publicly spoke about their struggles with depression. By bringing depression out in the open, they were eroding the stigma attached to this illness. Their message seemed to be, "This is what depression is like. We aren't ashamed."
The subject of depression comes up in our conversation. "When I had a depression, I was sick and felt awful. Then I got better," says Buchwald. "I'm 81-years old and have experienced lots of ups and downs." Buchwald credits his friends for keeping his morale up during trying times.
His mood changes when the topic is "favorite nurses" and he smiles one of those half-cocked grins. Jackie is the first name he mentions, "She was like the mother I never had-lots of love with a no-nonsense approach," said Buchwald. "When it was time for a shave, she'd say, 'you need to look good, so I'm not ashamed of you.'"
According to Buchwald, if you stay in a hospice long enough, you become a poster boy. He's been a poster boy for the Marine Corps, adoption, stroke, depression, and kidneys. He's now a poster boy for nurses.
The legendary Buchwald, a mensch by any standards, taught people everywhere to live life to the fullest, with dignity, and humor. He left his mark on the world-reminding us that the big question we still have to ask is not where we are going, but what we were doing here in the first place. "It's what you do on Earth and the good deeds you do on Earth that are important."