By: Joe Strupp
Art Buchwald’s only son, Joel, said caring for his ailing father for the past year had been a series of ups and downs, but he welcomed the chance to be with him and said during his final months he “had a great time.”
“It had been a rollercoaster for the last year,” the younger Buchwald told E&P Friday, just a day after word of his father’s death from kidney failure was reported. “Everything changed every time we talked about [his illness.] You never knew what was going to happen.”
Joel Buchwald, a 53-year-old former television journalist, has spent more than a decade out of journalism, focused on caring for his mother, who died in 1994 of lung cancer, and his father, who first suffered a stroke seven years ago.
“He moved in with us after his stroke and never left,” says the younger Buchwald, who is married with two young children. “We ended up building a wing on the back of the house for him.”
The elder Buchwald’s health problems reached a serious point in November 2005, his son recalls, when he received a diagnosis of kidney failure. When an aneurysm in the back of his leg ruptured in December 2005, the leg was eventually amputated. By late January, it was clear he might have just weeks to live and he made the controversial choice of going off dialysis and entering a hospice, planning to die there.
“When he first said he wanted to end his life, I said it was too soon, I was opposed to it,” Joel Buchwald said. “I said, ‘if that is what you want to do down the road, I will back you.’ But he stuck to his guns and by February we came around to backing him, to understanding.”
Buchwald said the decision never caused a major dispute between his father and the children, but said he wanted him to give it more thought instead of deciding so quickly after his amputation. “It was a matter of timing, it being too soon,” his son said. “The prognosis was that he had a couple of weeks left to live and he wanted to leave on his own terms.”
Art Buchwald lived in the hospice until June 2006, then moved to his home on Martha’s Vineyard for the summer, Joel Buchwald recalls. “He had a great time, one of the best summers he ever had,” his son said. “People stopped in and there was a constant flow of people.”
In September, Buchwald moved back to his son’s home in Washington, D.C., where he lived until his death late Wednesday. Joel Buchwald says he and his wife, Tamara, were at his father’s bedside when he died, his wife holding Buchwald’s hand.
“You didn’t think about the consequences,” Joel Buchwald said about life during the last months. He said his father’s longtime friend Ben Bradlee, former Washington Post editor, visited almost daily in recent weeks and had been to the house this past week. “Ethel Kennedy was also visiting on a regular basis,” he added.
Tamara Buchwald said her father-in-law was as involved in the family events as anyone during his time in the house. “We never made a decision without him,” she said. “It had been really great.” She also said having his wit and insight on a daily basis was special. “I have been reading stories about him saying funny things,” she said about the press coverage of his death. “I got to hear those every day.”
Saying they had “a great relationship,” Buchwald said taking the time to care for his parents allowed him to learn things about them, and life, that he did not expect. “You learn a lot about someone, those old-fashioned words like character, love, patience and tolerance,” he explained. “It is not about you anymore, it is about someone else. All of those elements came back into play with my father.”
One of three adopted children, Buchwald says the time spent with his father in his final years and months was special following a childhood in which his dad worked many hours, especially when the family lived in Paris. “He was very busy with his career, kids were treated differently then,” he recalls. “You didn’t take kids everywhere. It was a different way.”
Art Buchwald will be cremated and his ashes interned on Martha’s Vineyard, next to his wife, his son said. A funeral is expected to be held in March.