I don’t look like a person who is on his way out. I don’t look that way at all, In fact, the first thing everyone says to me when they walk into the living room is, "You’ve never looked better!”
Were I stuck in a room out of sight I wouldn’t get that attention or notoriety. When people first come into the hospice they are very wary and careful. They don’t quite know how to act or talk. They don’t know if there’s hospice etiquette. Then, once they feel comfortable, they say “Jesus Christ, there’s no parking.”
The thing that they say makes them the happiest is that we can still laugh together. There are things to laugh about in the hospice, as there are in every situation. When my lawyer, Bob Barnett, came to visit, I told him, “If you can get me seven million dollars for my book like you got for Hillary Clinton, I’ll start dialysis.”
There were people who showed up that I couldn’t have cared less about. They decided if they came to see me they were doing a good deed, and they would be able to tell other people that they had seen me.
There were others that crashed the gate. They brought me gifts, toys, soup, coffee cake, and anything else that would make them feel welcome. I couldn’t turn them away.
One lady, Pam Gregory, brought me computer printouts of every single item that came up about me in a Google search. Some of the gifts were crazy. My doctor gave me a stuffed iguana. My three-year-old grandson brought a brightly colored stuffed grouper fish all the way from the Virgin Islands. Other people gave me paintings and sculpture. I was tempted to open an account with eBay.
Photographs were also a very popular gift, particularly if they were pictures from some time in my past. I pasted many of them on the walls in my hospice room. Several were of lady friends, and each one thought her photo should have the prime location on my wall.
There were jokes among the hospice help about who was my favorite girlfriend. Because of the situation I had put myself in, the women really couldn’t show jealousy, at least not to me. The ladies still kept coming back and their photos kept filling up the walls.
People couldn’t believe I was having so much fun. The word spread that if you want a good time, go to the Washington Hospice.
The longer I stay in my hospice, and the more media coverage I get, the more mail I receive. Here are some of the questions people ask:
QUESTION: Why are you in a hospice?
ANSWER: To die with dignity when I’m supposed to die. When I came here I was supposed to say goodbye to the world in two or three weeks. But I’m still here after nine weeks.
QUESTION: What went wrong?
ANSWER: Nobody knows—not even the doctors. It’s fun to see a doctor who doesn’t know what’s wrong with you. Or why you’re still around.
QUESTION: I’ve seen you on television and you seem to be very happy. Aren’t you supposed to be sad?
ANSWER: I’m happy because I’m still here. I never knew how many perks were involved with dying. I have to be honest: I’ve enjoyed every moment of it.
QUESTION: What do you do in the hospice?
ANSWER: I spend my time on the telephone and socializing with my friends who come here every day at every hour. My mantra is “I’ve put death on hold.” They not only visit me and are very kind, but they also bring me food—cheesecake, shrimp, candy, cookies, and takeout from restaurants. I accept it all, even though I think there’s a lot of guilt involved with people who are worrying that I’m not going to get enough to eat. The more I’ve been interviewed, the more friends show up to visit me. And people in town greet each other now by saying, “Have you been to the hospice yet?”
QUESTION: Do you have plans yet for your memorial service?
ANSWER: Yes, I’ve chosen my speakers. I showed the list to a lady friend, and she said, “You have no women speaking for you.” I told her all my girlfriends are going to be pallbearers. When I mentioned it to one lady friend she became excited and asked, “What should I wear?”
QUESTION: Would you recommend living in a hospice to others?
ANSWER: Not unless you can be assured you’re going to be on television and in The New York Times. You don’t want to leave this world without anybody knowing you’ve been here.
I was having such a good time with all this attention, I couldn’t tell people any bad stories about dying. Instead, all of them were upbeat, and people told me they loved talking to someone who wasn’t afraid to discuss death. Many letters said the same thing: People just wouldn’t discuss death because of the unknown and fear associated with it.
Some people wrote that they believed in a hereafter, and that they would see their loved ones again in heaven. Other people insisted that the day you die it is all over. In both cases, I figured the funeral homes were the winners. I’ve always been an upbeat person. It’s the thing that has kept me going all my life. To the many people who wrote me, I mostly answered like this: “Thanks for your letter. I’m writing as fast as I can. Love, Art.”