By Thomas Fields-Meyer
Updated June 12, 2006 12:00 PM
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A funny thing happened on the way to Art Buchwald’s death. In early February, after halting kidney dialysis and being told that he could die in just three weeks, the Pulitzer-winning columnist moved into a Washington, D.C., hospice and started planning his own memorial service—a tasteful synagogue affair to feature a lineup of his relatives and celebrity friends. Then he visited a nearby funeral home with son Joel, 52. “We selected a box for my ashes,” says Buchwald, 80. “I have a plot on Martha’s Vineyard, and we planned to send them up there.”

For more than three months Buchwald has not only been facing down the grim reaper, he has also been chronicling the process with surprising good humor in his syndicated newspaper column. Now it appears, however, that the reaper has granted him a reprieve. Buchwald’s unexpected longevity, which those close to him attribute to the outpouring of affection and good medical care he has received, has impressed his doctors and amused his fans. “The whole thing was to be prepared to die,” he says, stationed in the hospice sitting room in a pink recliner, where he holds court and greets a stream of famous visitors, including Donald Rumsfeld, Tom Brokaw and Maria Shriver. “Now it’s to continue living.”

And, in the process, to teach a few lessons about accepting mortality with grace and dignity. The National Hospice Foundation in April honored him for bringing attention to its work. “He’s shown so much bravery,” says Jon Radulovic, the group’s spokesman. Buchwald doesn’t see it that way. “I never realized,” he wrote in his column, “dying was so much fun.”

At first, it wasn’t. Plagued by years of kidney problems, diabetes, high blood pressure and other ailments, he was admitted to Georgetown University Hospital in December with circulatory problems that led to gangrene in his right foot. To save his life, doctors had to amputate the leg below the knee, and then Buchwald continued dialysis treatment three times a week for nearly five weeks. He was recuperating at another Washington facility when he paid a visit to an adjacent hospice. “I said, ‘Wait a minute, I’ve had a great 80 years,'” Buchwald recalls. “‘I’m not going to put up with [dialysis any more].'”

At first Buchwald’s family objected (he has three children, all in their 50s, with his late wife, Ann, who died in 1994). “We thought he shouldn’t make that decision coming off an amputation,” says Joel, who was concerned that a possible depression was obscuring his father’s judgment.

But once Buchwald entered the hospice on Feb. 6, “he came back to life,” says Joel. “He had taken control of whatever he could.” And he has been reflecting on his eight decades. Raised in a series of orphanages, he enlisted in the Marines at 17 before launching his journalism career after World War II in Paris. “Apparently my whole life has been about seeking fame and love,” he says. Lately, he’s had plenty of both. Buchwald now gleefully calls his recliner at the hospice “a listening post for all sorts of gossip.”

In his column, he’s been riffing on a range of subjects, from insurance companies to great death scenes in movies. Buchwald revealed the five people that he wants to meet in Heaven (see box), as well as the five he would avoid, including “the lady who hijacked my parking place at the shopping mall….”

His kidney function—while still far from healthy—has shown some improvement. “He’s done terrifically well,” says his internist, Michael Newman. So well, in fact, that former CBS correspondent Mike Wallace, a longtime friend, is suspicious. “I told him he’s a fake,” says Wallace with a chuckle. “He just wants a little publicity.”

Indeed, Random House recently signed Buchwald to write a book about his experience, and “the man who wouldn’t die” (his phrase) plans to check out of the hospice in July to take a vacation in his beloved Martha’s Vineyard. Will he make it? As he wrote in one of his columns, “To paraphrase Hamlet: ‘To be, or not to be—that is a very good question.'”