Meaning of Death

The Art of Dying

An afternoon with Art Buchwald and Dave Barry

Ridley Pearson

24 January 2007
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Last summer, I learned how to die. Not that I want to practice everything I learn (how often do you actually use that high school trig?). In fact, I wouldn’t mind waiting a while on that one, but it was interesting to sit at the feet of a master.

The opportunity was a rare one. I co-write books for young readers with Dave Barry, the Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper columnist. Say what you will about the death of the newspaper, journalists are a clubby bunch. Sports writers know each other like they’ve shared locker rooms; the entertainment writers share beverages before major award ceremonies; war reporters share hotels; columnists share their perspectives on life.

I think that explains how Dave Barry knew Art Buchwald. They admired each other’s writing, they corresponded, they developed a long-distance friendship. Until last summer, I’d seen Art Buchwald just once: He was riding in the back seat of Dave’s car as Dave left a parking garage in Miami. Dave happened to see me, stopped the car and put the back window down, and there was Art. A jolly face. A handshake through the window. Tail lights. I’d met Art Buchwald.

This past July, Dave and I were doing a reading for one of our children’s books in an unusual place: Martha’s Vineyard. It’s not exactly on the authors circuit. But there we were. We landed by small plane, ate lunch at a beautiful little hotel, and had time on our hands.

“Want to come with me to visit a friend?” Dave asked.

“Sure,” I said.

“It’s Art Buchwald.”

“Oh, I met him once.”

We walked down gorgeously lit lanes in mottled afternoon sunlight, two fiftysomething guys looking out of place in our book-tour clothes. We passed picturesque Capes and white-painted cottages, finally arriving at a driveway across from a small town library, the location somehow so appropriate. We knocked and were admitted into a charming house, by a woman with a sweet face and high voice.

Art was on the sun porch, holding court over a late lunch with two gentlemen who left within minutes of our arrival. Art was in a wheelchair, his right leg cut off just below the knee. There was some kind of socket there, like something was missing. Later he would fumble with a prosthetic, finding it difficult to attach.

His eyes lit up upon seeing Dave. Sparkled like a 17-year-old on the way to the prom. He shook our hands, and directed us across the porch, and we sat on a comfortable couch, while Art ordered – he didn’t ask, he ordered – Dave to help him with his chair and his leg. Dave took to it like he’d cared for this man for months. And of course he had.

I was learning things here.

Dave lifted and adjusted Art’s sawed-off leg onto a pillow, which rested on an ottoman. Art was already talking, like he was picking up a conversation with Dave midsentence. And maybe they were. Journalists.

We stayed the better part of an hour, sitting on that porch. I don’t remember saying anything. It struck me at some point that I was in a pinch-me moment: in the company of two journalism legends, two of the most widely read columnists in the world. The dividend: Both are incredibly funny and self-deprecating. Art proved himself genuinely interested in everything Dave was working on, including our children’s books; he knew of, and had read, recent columns by Dave, and they talked about friends they had in common.

At some point Dave got Art talking about his health, and here was when the two of us sat rapt. Art explained that the larger world had all but declared him dead six months earlier. There had been some newspaper reports of some setbacks, and no one had expected him to live beyond a couple of weeks. I seem to remember that Art had declined some treatments prescribed for him, despite the doctors giving him only weeks if he chose not to take them. And he lived. And then he lived a little longer.

They cut off his leg at some point, and Art talked about it like it was a punch line he was building up to. He had Dave and me guffawing over his waking up to discover he had lost his leg and, with it, his independence. He had tears of laughter gushing from our eyes as he described the doctors astonishment at his recovery and sending him home – to die. And again, he didn’t die.

Watching this wonderful old man – for he looked like an old man in that wheelchair, despite the laughs – I came to realize he’d chosen to live. He’d made a decision not to fear death, and not to cave in to the public’s perception he was dead already. But to live.

He wrote a book (“Too Soon to Say Goodbye”). With all that he was going through, he sat down each day and wrote a book. Journalists. The subject was an easy one: the untimely call of his demise. Living beyond expectations. Listening not to the doctors, but to one’s own heart.

I was learning something here.

He joked about maybe not making his own publication date. “I told them to hurry up and get it out. You never know ….”

They got it out. It was published last fall to good reviews and strong sales. As Dave put it, “Art won’t be doing a book tour.” But for all I know, he probably did some radio by phone. He was determined that people should read this book.

Dave and I dried our eyes. Some of the tears lingered from the laughter, but not all. He and Dave hugged a goodbye, and I think both men knew they wouldn’t see each other again. Their friendship spanned over 20 years, and in this sunlit screened-in porch, at least a chapter of that friendship came to a close.

We were pretty quiet on the walk back to the hotel. Sounds of summer. A warm wind. Each of us would spontaneously burst out laughing, without explanation; we both knew the other guy was reliving something Art had said. Reliving – the Art of dying.

Art had relived his life. He’d risen from his own ashes for long enough for one last flight between the pages. He’d said his goodbyes, he’d shared even more laughter.

And he left two guys walking down a peaceful street reflecting not on death, but on life and what it should mean to each of us, every single day. Like today. And tomorrow.

I learned something here.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Art Buchwald died Jan. 17. He was 81 years old.