So many of her 2.4 million listeners and the thousands more who have read her new book, On My Own, marvel at the strength of NPR radio talk show icon Diane Rehm.
After all, she’s risen above her own challenges. Her voice, her instrument, was diagnosed 20 years ago with the neurological disorder spasmodic dysphonia. She and her devoted listeners have heard how the spasms that play pinball with her vocal cords have given her the distinctive timbre of someone who swirls glass and gravel in her 5 a.m. coffee.
But none of her previous obstacles has tugged at the heart as Rehm, 79, does in her poignant memoir, On My Own (Knopf, $23.95, out Tuesday), which recounts her husband John’s decision to end his life in June 2014. His physician in the nation’s capital, where Rehm’s show has been based on WAMU since 1979, was sympathetic but legally barred from assisting. John Rehm had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease nine years earlier and after declining in an assisted living facility, his only recourse to die with dignity was to refuse food, liquids and medication.
He lingered for 10 days.
His wife Diane, mother of his two children and a grandmother to four, backed his decision. You imagine she has the strength of Zeus.
Yes. And no.
“If we hadn’t talked about it previously I don’t think I would have had the strength,” Rehm says of the conversation she had with her husband of 54 years. Had this not happened — one of Rehm’s hopes in writing the book is for readers to have That Talk with their loved ones — she might have faltered. “I think I might have argued with it.”
She imagines the argument they could have had had they waited too long to make their end-of-life decisions known. “But you know, even though you can’t move or use your hands I will be here for you. I’ll take care of you. You have every comfort.”
But that would have been wrong. Cruel, even. “I could or would have argued with him had we not had those previous conversations. I knew exactly what he wanted and where his decision was coming from,” Rehm says.
This is why On My Own is so important to her and why she opened herself to the public so fully, knowing many will disagree with her decision to honor her husband’s wish. She’s joined with Compassion & Choices, a nonprofit organization that works to improve care and expand choices at the end of life, and has clashed with NPR and WAMU brass who stressed Rehm is to moderate the news, not make the news.
I hope this book will encourage families to speak more openly with each other while they are still healthy.
Diane Rehm on writing and releasing ‘On My Own’ which deals with the right to die with assistance.
If more states follow the lead of Oregon, Washington, Vermont and California, which have state laws that allow for doctor-assisted euthanasia, Rehm feels her sharing will have been worthy. Assisted suicide is illegal in Florida.
“What I hope this book will do is encourage families to speak more openly with each other while they are healthy about their desires — what it is they want, what they don’t want, how long they plan to endure all those things that people are so reluctant to talk about.
“I think that California tends to be a tipping point,” she added. “When it creates a law that allows physicians to provide medication to those who wish to die I think that could be the tipping point for the other states that have legislation before them. At least the debate has begun.”
In writing On My Own, Rehm’s third book following Finding My Voice and Toward Commitment, a 2002 memoir she wrote with her husband, Rehm returned to her writing comfort zone, difficult subject notwithstanding. The frank Toward Commitment was more programmed, she said, owing to her husband’s style as a lawyer who liked to map out his schedule in organized, strict fashion.
Though she had a deadline, inspiration still guided her approach with this most personal of stories. “A thought would come to me and I would jot it down. And then, after I got home late in the afternoon, I would look at that thought — whether it was the pillow in the middle of the bed or walking [the couple’s dog] Maxie in the park — whatever it was, I just felt that is what I want to write.”
Up until now, and for all the years that John and I slept in separate rooms and then in separate residences, I’ve slept on ‘my’ side of the bed. I couldn’t manage to bring myself to sleep anywhere else. ‘His’ side was his, with a pillow there for him. There was an emptiness, of course, on his side of the bed, but it never occurred to me to shift and assume possession of the entire bed. …The bed has always been such a powerful symbol — of beauty, of love, of hostility, of anger, and of peace.
“I simply go with the thoughts and I try not to censor myself as I’m typing into my computer,” Rehm says. “I’d rather get it all out and then go back and think, Well, now is that exactly what I had wanted to say? Maybe make some corrections. But honestly, sometimes the best way is to just let it fly.”
Rehm, honored by President Obama with the 2013 National Humanities Medal, has used that same approach since the creation of The Diane Rehm Show during the Carter administration. The program airs locally from 10 to 11 a.m. Monday through Thursday and until noon on Friday on Miami Herald news partner WLRN 91.3-FM.
“You have to be forthright and courageous enough to ask what you don’t know,” she says of the style that has served her well in the public arena, aside from the occasional hiccup, for so long. “You have to allow yourself to appear vulnerable, to be ignorant, to be uninformed because you want to be informed. I think that is what listeners have appreciated over the years. That, like them, I can be as uninformed as the rest of humanity, but I’m just asking the kind of questions that they would ask if they were sitting in my chair.”
For Rehm, that part of her life will end, too, after the 2016 presidential election. She’s not retiring. Heavens no. “I’m trying to soften the blow. I’m simply stepping away from the microphone because it’s time to make room for another person with different ideas, with a different approach,” she says.
Rehm will stay with WAMU to fundraise for the station, and most importantly she will be free to continue to speak out and support the right to die with dignity movement and raise awareness of Parkinson’s.
Says Rehm: “I’m going to stay active, which is the antithesis of retirement.’’