Remembering James Merrill

Buechner and his Grandmother Naya remember James (Jimmy) Merrill.

He died on February 6, 1995, and on the day before, from a hospital in Arizona, he apparently made three phone calls-one to his mother, one to his former psychiatrist, Dr. Detre, and one to me. He was having some difficulty breathing, but otherwise sounded entirely himself. He said he was glad that whatever was happening to him was happening far from home where he wouldn't be "smothered with concern," as he put it. He said that he was in no serious pain and that when they had given him some Welch's grape juice sorbet earlier in the day, it had tasted so good to him he had asked for another. He asked me to stay in touch with his mother and sent his love to my wife. I told him I would say some powerful prayers for him, and he said, "That is exactly what I want you to do." He called me "my dearest friend," which I couldn't remember his ever having done before, and when I phoned the next morning to find out how things were going with him, I was told that he had died a few hours earlier. It was only then that I realized that the purpose of his call had of course been to say good-bye, and ever since then the ground I stand on has felt less sure and solid beneath my feet.

"The poor lad," Naya says. "I remember how he used to come spend weekend passes with us in Tryon when he was in basic training at Camp Croft during the war. He sometimes played Mozart for us on that awful upright that came with the dark little cabin we were renting that year, his glasses perpetually sliding down the bridge of his nose. We talked about Proust and Elinor Wylie, and your Uncle George Wick listened to him as though he was a visitor from Mars and plied him with daiquiris till he couldn't see straight. Was there ever anybody en ce bas monde who was less cut out to be a GI?"

"He wrote me about a terrible march he was on once during infantry training," I tell her. "It was blistering hot, and they were all loaded down with full field packs and steel helmets and bayonets fixed to their M-1 rifles. There was a grubby-faced little girl standing barefoot by the side of the red-clay road to watch, and he said that as he passed by in front of her, she handed him a peach and he burst into tears."