dudley clendinen

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Dudley Clendinen Signing Off As ALS Takes His Voice

Dudley Clendinen and his daughter Whitney in 2007

What can you do but cry and laugh a bit and bow your head in homage to a spirit so big and bright that it turns nerve degeneration and fast-encroaching death into a literary and radio event worth celebrating?

This morning was Dudley Clendenin’s final broadcast. Dudley is an author, former reporter and editorial writer for The New York Times, and an all-around dashing and widely beloved southern gentleman. Since late 2010, he has also been a patient diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, which leads to progressive weakness, paralysis and death.

But instead of curling up and despairing, Dudley has spoken out, writing an acclaimed op-ed piece and sharing his thoughts and experiences on Baltimore’s WYPR show “Maryland Morning” in an extraordinary series called “Living with Lou: Dudley Clendinen on a Good Short Life.

It is brave radio, because Dudley’s voice was sure to deteriorate as the disease progressed, and indeed, he is very hard to understand now. (WYPR provides transcripts of the last two shows.)

But it is riveting radio, as well: Even as my eyes filled with tears, I found myself on the edge of my seat, eager to hear what this lyrical and loving man would teach me as he faced that place where we all must go. I laughed when he said he’d like to borrow his epitaph from the title of an Ogden Nash collection, “I wouldn’t have missed it.”

But the tears overflowed when he said, in his near-incomprehensible rumble, that he felt grateful because “Everyone has to die but not many of us are asked to talk about it.” Continue reading

‘Life Gets So Quirky And Interesting When You’re Dying’

Dudley Clendinen and his daughter Whitney in 2007

I wrote last month here about the notable WYPR radio series featuring Dudley Clendinen, author and longtime writer — and former Boston bureau chief — for The New York Times. Now the latest installment is out here, and continues to amaze me. Dudley talks, in a voice now slurred but still deep and rich, about writing people long, entertaining letters informing them of his incurable illness — ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, which he has nicknamed “Lou.” In this latest 12-minute installment, he discusses trying to make his terminal diagnosis easier for his loved ones.

It’s not just that Dudley remains the consummate wordsmith he always was. To me, it’s that, in his compulsion to share his thoughts and feelings so eloquently, he’s becoming a model for how to face death. Why were “Tuesdays With Morrie” or ” The Last Lecture” such huge bestsellers? My guess is that it’s not just because they shared life lessons from people nearing the end. It’s that we’re all headed there eventually, and we desperately need death lessons on how it’s done. Here are a few of Dudley’s latest:

“Most of us aren’t good with doom. And when we have a friend who’s doomed, it casts a pall on the meetings. And I thought, ‘Well, I don’t want my friends having to walk across the street — metaphorically — every time they see me coming, because this is just another thing. We all have something.'”

So he’s written nearly 100 letters to people.

I think it’s a big dump — to unload on someone, in a single conversation when they’re not expecting it, that you have a disease that’s going to kill you in a very ugly way in two or three years, and half that time may not be pretty. That’s really not fair to do to someone. Because the disease is, after all, not about me; it’s about my friends, it’s about my family, it’s about my daughter. In other words, it’s not my event primarily, because I’m here and then I’ll be gone, but my passing is going to stay with the people who love me — they’re going to grieve about it from the time they hear of the disease until I die…It’s kind of like a wedding or a funeral: You know it doesn’t belong to the people who are in the service.”

So I’ve been writing long, kind of entertaining — I hope — letters…to try to defang it and make people realize that I’m comfortable, so they don’t have to be uncomfortable. I want to defang it. And when I talk about it, I risk being a bore because I want them to know it’s just conversation. And it’s pretty damned interesting because life gets so quirky and interesting when you’re dying. I’m the lucky one. I get to eat what I want, I get to see who I want, I get to go where I want, I get to pay the bills I want and not pay the bills I don’t want, I get to wear the clothes I want, and no one can say, ‘Why are you being so odd today?’ This can be fun for me. It’s not so fun for you.

[To quote the great Janis Joplin] ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.’ When you have Lou, that’s kind of the way you are.