Humorist Art Buchwald was supposed to be dead by now. His doctors told him in January that his kidneys were failing, but he chose not to endure dialysis and moved into a Washington hospice to await death. To his surprise, it hasn't come yet. TIME's Elaine Shannon visited Buchwald, 80, at the hospice, where they chatted about his forthcoming book, whom he wants to meet in heaven (Judas Iscariot) and his failure to get on Richard Nixon's enemies list.
You're going to Martha's Vineyard on July 1. What are you going to do there? I'm going to live. Back in February I lost my leg--that had nothing to do with my kidney. After I lost my leg, I was very depressed. I'd taken dialysis about 12 times, and I said, "I'm not going to do it anymore." Because of my decision to be in a hospice, all my friends came here to see me. I've had everybody--the French ambassador, Ethel Kennedy, Ben Bradlee--come to say goodbye. You had to take a ticket like in a shopping center because there were so many people coming in. But as time went on, they kept saying, "Wait a minute. Why are you still here?" They didn't say it in a mean way. They were delighted that I was going to be with them for a while. Now I have a new leg. I have a life. I have a book I hope to finish soon. It's called Too Soon to Say Goodbye. I didn't know dying was this much fun.
What do you have to say to your doctors about the limits of medicine? I have nothing to say to them, and they have nothing to say to me. The kidney is working, obviously. They didn't expect it to, because when you have a real kidney problem and don't take dialysis, you're going to die. And I chose not to.
I was thinking of the famous line "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." My line is "Dying is easy. Parking is hard." Once I made up my mind, I was at peace with myself, and it became kind of funny. That's what my book's about.
Have there been times in your life when humor didn't seem like enough to get you through? Yeah. You wouldn't be a decent person if you didn't feel that way. John F. Kennedy's assassination was a big blow to me. There were times in World War II when I was very frightened. I was in the Marine Corps. I was 18, 19 years old. You'd be a fool if you weren't scared. There have been a lot of parts of my life that I didn't turn into a joke.
And more recently? Yes--I lost my wife. I lost my wife.
Do you have any religious belief? Yes. I believe there is a God, but he's not the one all the religions claim. The Christian religion, the Jewish religion, the Muslim religion--if you believe in their God, other people will say you're an infidel. There's a God out there, but not the one that causes all the trouble in the world. The people who fight all the wars now--not just Iraq but all over--believe that their God told them to.
Which presidency have you found to be the richest vein for a humorist? Nixon. But one of the things I have to live with is that I never made Nixon's enemies list. All my buddies made fun of me. My buddies made it, and I didn't. And my standing as a serious journalist in this town went way down. Once, I ran into one of the big shots and complained, and that person said, "You weren't important enough." That was a body blow.