“A few days passed, and young Hans Castorp had now spent seven months up here, whereas Joachim, who already had five months to his credit when his cousin first arrived, could now look back on twelve months, one round year — round in the cosmic sense, as well, for in the time since the small, sturdy locomotive had dropped him off up here, the earth had returned to its starting point, having completed one orbit around the sun.”
—Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain
This is one of my favorite passages from this extraordinary novel. I feel it’s appropriate to the occasion, as we have now all completed five orbits around the sun since Bill Buckley died on February 27, 2008. Things are unequivocally different for us all.
Four years ago, on the first anniversary of Bill’s death, Christopher Buckley wrote a remembrance in which he stated, “Jews observe a formal period of one year’s mourning for a parent, called an avelut. We aren’t Jewish, but I get, and like, the idea, even though I don’t suppose the mourning ever really ends, until one’s own time comes.” I wrote to Christo to reiterate my condolences. He replied: “Dear Larry, Thanks so much. Yes, hard to believe that almost a year ago you were about to put on a concert at Wallacks Point. I have his appointments diary beside me as I type, and the last entry in it, in his impenetrable handwriting, is PERELMAN—CONCERT for the evening of February 27, 2008.”
Although I had given up the piano as a vocation, Bill’s enthusiasm for my playing kept me from letting it deteriorate even as I pursued another career. Knowing that the last event in his diary was the concert that never was, but to which he had been looking forward eagerly, has a special meaning for me.
On this, the fifth anniversary of Bill’s death, I am observing a Yahrzeit (a Jewish tradition of commemorating the dead) because I feel the absence of Bill in a particularly profound way. Five years ago I wrote about my friendship with Bill and the dinner I had with him on what ended up being the night before he died. I ended that piece at the point when he went upstairs to bed. In fact, I too spent that night at Bill’s house so that I could practice the next day for the concert.
I wrote the following not long afterward, but saved it for publication until I felt a comfortable period had passed. Now is the time I’ve decided to share it.
* * *
February 27, 2008. The Buckley residence, Wallacks Point, Stamford, Connecticut. I was waking up from a deep sleep and looked at my BlackBerry. “Ugh. 6:30 a.m. Footsteps in the hallway? It must be Bill going downstairs.” My birthday had been two days earlier, and I was still recovering from a night out with friends, not to mention the dinner with Bill the previous evening. I thought about getting up, but instead returned to my slumber. This guest room is the one Christo usually occupied on his visits home, and it had been used by many friends and luminaries during their visits to the Buckleys. Staying at Wallacks Point was always a special treat, and the house evoked a Victorian charm through the interiors chosen by Pat. She had been gone not quite a year, and Bill’s health had deteriorated very noticeably since April 2007. Nevertheless, he was still himself in most ways, and for those like me who viewed the glass as half full, it was still our Bill who was with us. And we were thankful to have him still.
I finally got up at 8:30, showered, threw on a pair of jeans, a T-shirt, and a sweater, and headed downstairs to the kitchen. Tonight I was to give my second performance of Bill’s favorite work by Beethoven, the Diabelli Variations; last week I had given the “premiere” (as he called it) for a small group that included three of his siblings, a niece from Washington, D.C., a cousin from Texas, and my mom, who was in from St. Paul. Bill simply called the work “The Diabelli,” but he would pronounce it in his ironic manner, which could have been code for “You’ve gotta be insane to even attempt playing Beethoven’s magnum opus, but good luck!” A dozen friends were invited for the performance, with dinner to follow. Bill had asked me to come to Wallacks Point a day early, to have dinner with him and to stay the night so that I could practice on the day of the concert.
I walked into the kitchen and found Julian, the Buckleys’ cook, and the two maids in conversation; the staff was like family, having worked for the Buckleys for decades. When I said “Good morning” they laughed a bit, given that 9:00 a.m. was quite late in a house where Bill was now known to ring for breakfast at 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. I asked where Bill was, and Julian said he was out in the study. This corroborated that it was in fact Bill whom I had heard at 6:30. Eighty-two years old and writing a book about the Reagan he knew. Ladies and gentlemen, that’s book number 55! Incredible. Bill’s study was a converted garage; he needed an epic amount of space. It was in some respects the conservative movement’s Sistine Chapel. Lined with hundreds of books (including multiple copies of the 54 books he had published so far), the study was the ultimate work space, consisting of desks and tables strewn with papers, manuscripts, computers, typewriters, and assorted gadgetry from decades of curiosity spanning his Renaissance-man worlds, including those of sailing, music, and religion.