Diane Rehm, the treasured NPR host of The Diane Rehm Show (and friend to UsAgainstAlzheimer's), has written a deeply personal, profoundly moving, incredibly honest book about her life before and after her husband's death. Diane and John were married for 54 years. Admittedly, they were not all blissful -- what marriage is? They loved each other but perhaps were not suited for each other. John, a brilliant lawyer, taciturn and introspective by nature, was happy just to be alone. Diane, though she appreciates solitude, is a gregarious, inquisitive, people person through and through. They would fight -- and make up gloriously. But there were times when John would go without speaking to Diane for three weeks at a stretch.
In 2005, John was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Over nine years, John's condition spiraled downward. When he felt he could no longer lead a dignified life at home, John decided he wanted to move to an assisted living facility. Diane agonized over his decision and her reaction. Should she have insisted he stay at home? Was she a bad person for agreeing? She concluded that she simply wasn't cut out to be a caregiver. She admits with guilt and honesty that this decision plagues her to this day. Still, she visited John virtually every day, always bringing along their beloved long-haired Chihuahua, Maxi.
Eventually, John could no longer take care of himself in any way. When it was clear that he would never again be able to do the most basic personal care, he told Diane that it was time -- he wanted to leave this world. This was not a surprise to Diane. Both of John's parents had committed suicide, and John and Diane had discussed the issue over the years. They had pledged that when either no longer wanted to live, they would help each other end their respective lives.
This was easier said than done given Maryland's laws. John asked for his doctor's help, but the doctor refused. The only option was to refuse medicine, food and water. And that is what he did. John Rehm died 10 days later.
Distraught and exhausted, Diane returned to her eponymous NPR program with a heavy heart, at the same time grateful for the continuity and the support from her listeners across the country. While I'm mentioning listeners, let me just point out that our D.C. cab drivers are the best informed people you will ever meet. I have yet to ride with a cabbie who doesn't listen to The Diane Rehm Show. To a person they rhapsodize about how wonderful she is and how much they will miss her when she retires. They particularly love her soothing voice and how respectful she is of her guests. But I digress.
After John died, Diane was faced with the reality of a new normal -- in both mundane and profound ways. Who was she now? She was living for one but still thinking about two. The day John died is the day she started writing this book. And in the year that followed, Diane zeroed in on two causes that she would devote herself to: Compassion & Choices and UsAgainstAlzheimer's.
Compassion & Choices is an organization advocating for patient choice in end-of-life care. Diane is passionate about this cause and will undoubtedly be its spokesperson once she retires.
UsAgainstAlzheimer's is an organization dedicated to eradicating Alzheimer's. I wrote an off-Broadway play called "Surviving Grace" about a sitcom writer (which I was) and her mom, who is spiraling down into the unforgiving chasm of this hideous disease (which my mom did). Several years ago, I staged a reading of Act I and asked Diane to help with a rewrite for a Washington D.C. audience. She graciously agreed and, working together, we made it better. (Always the lady, Diane took out the curse words.)
The more we worked, the more it became obvious to me that Diane had to play Grace. Risky, perhaps, since Diane had never been on stage before. But my instinct paid off. Diane was a revelation -- brilliant and laser sharp with a comedic line; heart-rending with a dramatic line. To date, she has played Grace in Washington, San Diego, Raleigh, Indiana and Boston, and we're going to keep going. Watch out, Meryl Streep.
It's been nearly two years since John's death. Diane is often asked if she has reached closure. "Closure -- no," she responds. "Some part of me will grieve forever."
By the final page of On My Own, Diane realizes that she has become a more positive person -- that life is good and that petty issues are a waste of time. She closes by saying, "I can only hope that this is the message I convey to those around me." And, of course, she does.
Now stop reading this and run -- don't walk -- to get a copy of Diane Rehm's eloquent book. You won't regret it. And then bring your questions to our next Alzheimer's Talks on May 16 when Diane joins me to talk about her book and plans for the future. Sign up today to join us on Monday, May 16 at 2 p.m. Eastern.