Following the 2016 elections, Diane Rehm bid farewell to the millions of fans of her daily morning talk show. But "retirement" was never on her mind, and Diane continues to bring her unique mix of curiosity, honesty, and intimacy to the podcast world in weekly conversations you can hear through www.drshow.org or iTunes. In her most recent book On My Own, Diane speaks about the death of her husband of fifty-four years, and of her struggle to reconstruct her life without him. Ryder Ziebarth (ryderziebarth.com), contributor to the Nantucket Book Festival, asked Diane to tell us more about this.
Q. Diane, the Nantucket Book Festival is thrilled you are joining us this year to talk about your deeply poignant memoir about the death of your husband, John, titled On My Own. Writing about trauma is often thought to be cathartic. Can you tell us if that was your experience after writing this book about your husband’s decline into Parkinson’s disease and his subsequent decision to end his own life?
A. No. And I must add, it was never meant to be cathartic. It was meant to tell the story of a beloved husband who made a courageous decision for himself. He believed he should have control over the end of his life, and he did. My writing about it was meant to highlight that courage and to make a case for all of us to have choice in our lives, from beginning to end.
Q. You write in your book about the resentment you feel toward a health care system that withholds the right to choose death over life for the terminally ill in all but six states in the U.S. Can you tell us about your experience with your husband’s decision to finally end his own life?
A. The fact that the only way John believed he could die with dignity was to starve himself and deprive himself of all medications and water was an insult to the very idea of freedom of choice. It was his life, after all. He knew he was dying. He knew the end was near. He had spoken extensively with me, with his children, and with our doctor. He simply decided that he was ready for the next journey, and since his doctor was forbidden by law to take any action of any kind, John Rehm chose to end his life over an agonizing ten days.
Q. In the book, you wrote about “capital G-Guilt” when you told the reader about putting John into assisted living. Does the guilt diminish over time, or does it persist in some ways?
A. Guilt is a feeling I will always carry, believing that somehow, had I been able to care for him at home, he would have died more peacefully, and in his own bed. However, I do also believe that there was no possibility of caring for him in his condition within our condo.
Q. In your memoir, you write that you talk to John daily, and that you “hear “him answer you clearly. My own mother, after losing my father in 2014, says she does the same. Do you talk to him about things you couldn’t in the last months or years of your marriage when he was ill? Q. Have you received any clarity about your relationship through these “conversations,” or sought, or received forgiveness from either your husband, or yourself?
A. I definitely do still talk with him, especially when I’m in our condo and see a beautiful sunset, which he always loved to watch with me. Also, seeing a new moon. Our condo is on the 14th floor with a gorgeous view of the heavens. As for forgiveness, I think we both confessed those feelings to one another when he was still alive.
Q. How has the rupture of losing a partner of 54 years changed you? Did writing the story of his illness and death, and holding your marriage up to the light in the process, help you to reevaluate your past with him? Has it changed your thoughts about your own mortality? Or your views on marriage?
A. I am 80 years old. I live with many memories of our 54 years together. I find myself concentrating on the many good and happy years we had together and with our children. We had so much fun doing so many things together. Our children are our greatest success. They are caring, loving, and, to my mind, successful human beings and wonderful parents. As for my own mortality, I realize it’s inevitable. However, I hold no fear and will I hope face it as openly and strongly as John did when my time comes.
Q. You have been “on your own” now since 2014—about three years, and in that time, you have stopped hosting The Diane Rehm Show on NPR (we miss you!) and have begun some exciting new ventures. Can you tell us what you are up to now?
A. Thank you for ‘missing me.’ However, I am now doing a weekly podcast called ‘On My Mind.’ It is loaded every Friday at noon, and I am having great fun with it. Doing a podcasr with two wonderful producers, Sandra Baker and Becca Kaufman, allows me the freedom I did not have with the deadline of the daily morning show. And: I do not have to get up at 5:00 AM! I’m also speaking out around the country regarding death with dignity. And also working with the development group here at WAMU in Washington. I’m actually busier than ever!!! I have no intention of ‘retiring.’ In fact, I never even use the word. Rather, as you suggest, I have moved on to ‘exciting new ventures!
Thank you so much for taking with me, Diane, about your powerful memoir, On My Own, which serves as a loving guide to help prepare for the many difficulties, intricacies and emotions that can sometimes accompany the passing of a loved one.
Thank you for all your good questions!
- Ryder Ziebarth