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Book review: On My Own

Friday April 15, 2016

Content Warning: Personal account of Voluntary Stop Eating and Drinking (VSED) and losing a spouse to Parkinson's

On My Own, by Diane Rehm. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016. 162 pp.     

Diane Rehm, the anchor of National Public Radio’s The Diane Rehm Show, was married for fifty-four years to John Rehm. In June, 2014, at age eighty-three, John decided to end a life made impossible by Parkinson’s.  He could no longer clean, feed, or dress himself, move without assistance, do any kind of meaningful work, or enjoy much of anything about his daily existence. He knew that no cure for Parkinson’s could come in time to help him. He knew that his life could grow only more impossible, that he would grow only more dependent on others, that his daily care would grow only more expensive in the weeks and months ahead. After discussing his decision with his wife, his son, and his daughter, he, asked his doctor to give him lethal drugs. His doctor refused because the laws in the state of Maryland, which had not provided any meaningful death-with-dignity options, forbade physician-assisted death. The doctor said he cold keep John comfortable if he decided to end his own life by refusing, food, water, and medicines. John Rehm acted on that information, and ten days later, he died.

John’s nickname was Scoop. Diane starts her book, with Scoop’s death. It was a death that made her feel a complex array of conflicting emotions: relief, sadness, loneliness, freedom, fear, frustration, nostalgia, guilt, love, resentment, anger. These emotions all gain full expression in her book, which can be read as a kind of grief diary. It is a realistic book that many who have Parkinson’s or who love someone with Parkinson’s will want to read. Some may find it depressing to learn in so much honest detail about what this disease can do to people, and to the families of people, with the disease. It is not always a pretty story, but it is a lovely one.

Diane Rehm 2

In her short chapter entitled “November 23, 2014,” Diane addresses some questions to her husband on what would have been is eighty-fourth birthday if he had not died six months earlier:

How are you? Has the journey been what you’d hoped it might be? Is that new world as peaceful and as filled with light as we here on earth want to imagine? Can you “feel”? Are you strong? Does it matter? Can you see me? Can you understand how I have been longing to speak with you? (p. 106)

 

Scoop, of course, cannot answer his widow’s questions directly, but here is an imaginative response that he might have given:

           

My Dearest Diane:

            I will not answer all of those questions. You’ll know the answers soon enough, when you make the journey. But I have read your book and I want to thank you for writing so eloquently about our romantic but sometimes lonely marriage, and your own life pre-me, with-me, and post-me. I appreciate your willingness to share with the world so much about the shifting joys and distresses of our long-running marriage. I especially appreciate your public call for laws that provide for greater self-determination in dealing with terminal illnesses. The world generally lets us live the lives we want to live, marry the people we want to marry, have the children as we want to have, divorce when we want to divorce, retire when we want to retire. We get to make all of those huge life-altering decisions on our own. Why does the world refuse to let us exit life when the time comes? Why does the world insist that we live on well past the time when we are capable of doing anything meaningful, learning anything worth knowing?

            I want to talk about three subjects you raise in your book: silence, guilt, and erasure.

            Silence. You speak about my long silences, about my punishing you by shutting you out of my life. I did that and I am sorry. Much of that silence was the result of a damaged ego brought on by your wonderful success. You say that I was your teacher, the man who encouraged you, who provided the college education you never had. Do you remember My Fair Lady, that musical we saw many years ago? You were Eliza Doolittle to my Henry Higgins. Professor Higgins surely felt great pride in seeing his fair lady succeed in her brave new world, but he must also have felt a measure of envious amazement as Eliza outgrew him. As your radio career took off and my legal business declined, as your salary went up and mine went down, I felt both proud of your accomplishments and resentful of them. I would not have wanted you to fail, but it stung me to have your big successes make my little successes look like failures. When my Parkinson’s diagnosis came shortly after the automobile accidents that forced me to give up driving, I began to feel even more useless and even more dependent on you for almost everything. All that shut me up. Forgive me, please.

            Guilt. You say in your book that you have at times felt guilty about our decision that I should move to an assisted living facility away from home. Please don’t feel guilty. No one wants to have to move to such a place, but I preferred that to having you quit the work you loved so you could stay home and take care of me. I knew how much your NPR show meant to you and to your millions of listeners world-wide. I knew how much we both depended on your income. Can you understand that the very last thing people with Parkinson’s want is to be a burden to those we love? We want to do all we can to pull our own weight. When we can no longer do that, and when we must reluctantly let others do for us what we used to do for them, it is far less ourselves we feel sorry for than them. It is easier for us to see ourselves being sucked down by our disease than to see our disease suck down others. That makes us feel guilty. But hey! Let’s both agree to stop feeling guilty. Deal?

            Erasure. In the chapter that you wrote on what would have been my eighty-fourth birthday, you say that you work hard to remember me as I used to be:

                 I’m reaching back in time, reaching back to before John grew weak, when he was still able to lift the twenty-five-pound bird from the oven. In fact many of my memories of him have begun to shift from after he became ill to before. I want to remember him as he was when he was younger and stronger, not necessarily in his twenties or thirties but in his forties and fifties, before any back problems or operations, before any slowing down or shuffling. I want to remember him as he swung a pickax to break up the driveway in front of our house on Worthington Drive. I want to see him as he hauled a wheelbarrow full of tree trimmings at the farm or when he lifted large pieces of rock to repair the stone wall. I want to feel his arms as he carried me up the stairs at our first dwelling in Georgetown. (p. 108)

I understand why you want to remember me as I once was rather than as I became, but I ask you please not to erase the man that I became. I was once stronger, louder, and more manly, but the true measure of my manhood came later, after I was diagnosed. I am not proud of the way I handled all that, but my Parkinson’s years were an important part of me and of us. I urge you not to erase them by leapfrogging back to my glory days. My final years were my glory days.

Thank you. I love you.

Scoop

                                                                               —Peter G. Beidler

Interested in reading On My Own? Check it out of our Lending Library by calling us at 877.980.7500 or order your own copy on Amazon.com.

Peter G. BeidlerPeter G. Beidler
Peter G. Beidler

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