When Dudley Clendinen had to look death in the face, he decided to start a public conversation about it. The supportive response, he says, has been "phenomenal."
"I've had so many I've stopped counting," the Tampa native says, "more than 350 notes, messages, phone calls, Facebook messages. And that doesn't count the hundreds of letters that are piling up on my dining room table."
Given Clendinen's gracious Southern upbringing, that worries him. "It's such a great generosity for someone I don't know, or someone I do know, to write something personal, especially to write it in longhand, on paper, in the old-fashioned graceful way, and to lick a stamp and put it in the mail. At this point, I probably cannot write them all back by hand, so I'm not sure what to do about it."
What evoked all those responses was "The Good Short Life," a column by Clendinen originally published in the New York Times, which appears today in Perspective. It's a frank, fearless, witty and heartbreaking essay about how he is living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease — and about how he plans to die.
When Clendinen speaks by phone from his home in Baltimore, the disease's toll is evident in his voice, once a beautiful instrument, a mellow Southern-softened baritone with a raconteur's range. Now he slurs and hems, pausing between words to gather energy.
The essay, he says, has brought him closer to many people he already knew, including a wide circle of friends in the Tampa Bay area, some of whom he visited recently. "I have some very amazing friends, very loving. It's brought us all closer together."
Clendinen was born into Tampa society, and into storytelling. His father, James, was the longtime editorial page editor of the Tampa Tribune, and his mother, Bobbie, edited the newspaper's food, society and women's pages. He followed in their footsteps as a reporter and editor for the St. Petersburg Times, New York Times, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other publications.
His first book, Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America, co-written with Adam Nagourney, was published in 1999. The second, A Place Called Canterbury: Tales From the New Old Age, in 2008, was an insightful, surprisingly funny and deeply poignant account of life in the retirement center on Bayshore Boulevard where his mother lived for the last 13 years of her life, including the several years she spent unresponsive after a stroke.
"For 15 years I was around people who were dying, or existing," Clendinen says. "It was a real education to be at close range. It taught me things you don't know until you've had this experience, made me realize how the system works."
That experience was a factor in his decision to choose when to die. Citing such examples as the Terri Schiavo case and the actions of Jack Kevorkian, he says, "I think we've had a lot of instruction on this.
"I suspect the country as a whole is more thoughtful. They're more likely to see the need for people to make their own choices in these situations."
Clendinen has heard from strangers as well as from friends. "It's the kind of thing that leaves me wondering, what's so interesting about all this? What is it people are responding to in this essay?
"I'm two people in this. I'm the person who has Lou (his nickname for ALS), who's living with it and dying with it. And I'm the writer. I don't get emotional when I write it, but I do get emotional when I read it."
He says that the responses he's had from both friends and strangers have indicated there is "something they're gaining from the conversation. Talking helps.
"Death is like anything else, except it's more interesting. It's a great drama. It's a great comedy, too. Some things about it are very funny."
A close friend he calls "very wise" told him that she thought there might be another reason for the response. "She said, you know, people are not used to reading a man being so open and honest about what he feels and what he's going to do."
Whatever the reasons for the outpouring, he says, "I never saw anything like this in 40 years of writing."
For several months, Clendinen has been doing weekly radio shows about his illness for Maryland Morning on the Baltimore NPR station. Since the column, he says, the show's archive (mdmorn.wordpress.com/2011/02/21/221111/) has had hundreds of hits. "There's a magazine that wants me to write dispatches, and Charlie Rose wants me to come on again, which would be fun."
His column also inspired one by conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks, which branched out from Clendinen's personal decision to address the issue of expensive end-of-life medical care. (See 5P.)
Clendinen laughs. "Tens of thousands of people are pissed off at David Brooks. They're all saying, that bastard." (One blog headline reads "David Brooks asks you to please die.")
"But I'm very glad he picked up the ball," Clendinen says. "A large part of the deficit is attributable to the Medicare budget, and I agree with him that it's a gargantuan waste to prolong treatments when death is obvious and inevitable.
"I know what he means, but I'm not sure he made the most graceful argument."
Clendinen says he has also had inquiries from several publishers about writing another book. "The question is, could I do it? Do I have the time?"
He says, "I really like the idea of doing something that would involve Whitney as my assistant and a contributor." His 30-year-old daughter is a graduate student in psychology who is currently "off having an adventure" in Central America. "This has been hard on her. It's great that she's having fun.
"But I told her, I think you should come home. We have a book to write."
A book contract would mean he and Whitney "would be able to do something positive and creative together. I could leave her something to be proud of."
The offers he's had would also mean "I could pay my debts, which is important to me. It's tempting.
"This might be the best book deal — dollar for word — a dying man has had since Ulysses S. Grant. And I don't have to write nearly as much."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.