‘On My Own’ by Diane Rehm

More from this show

Rehm’s latest work, “On My Own,” gives an inside look at the death of her husband of fifty-four years.

This emotional and deeply personal autobiography touches on her husband’s drawn-out death caused by Parkinson’s disease, the heartbreak of watching him slowly deteriorate and how she is coping with life now that he is gone.

Books & Co. 1901

VOICEOVER: Books & Co. is made possible by the department of English at Arizona State University and by… the friends of Arizona PBS. Members of Arizona PBS who give additional gifts to support original programs. Thank you.

ALBERTO RIOS: Welcome to Books & Co. I'm your host Alberto Rios. We're joined by "New York Times" best-selling author Diane Rehm, talking about her newest book, "On My Own." Published by Alfred Knopf. Welcome, Diane.

DIANE REHM: Thank you.

ALBERTO RIOS: This is quite a bit. It's a tender business. It's hard to know where to begin to ask questions about this. It's a meditation on sadness, but an affirmation every step of the way that the human spirit need not be defeated by it.

DIANE REHM: Affirmation of life and the individual's right to choose within that life when it's no longer valuable, when it's no longer worth living.

ALBERTO RIOS: This is a powerful encounter you had with the heart of that situation, which is so differently defined in so many parts of this country right now.

DIANE REHM: Well, and you know, as well, it should be. I think every one of us, whether we would like to live forever with palliative care, forever, or whether we would like to say, I have fought the good fight. I am ready to go. Each of us should have that choice, and it should not be foisted on us by people we don't know and have never met.

ALBERTO RIOS: You so poignantly offer up your own life story to that point of view.

DIANE REHM: Well, I talk about my husband, my husband of 54 years, John Rehm, who in 2005 was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Now, I'm sure you know as I know that Parkinson's is not a curable disease. For many it can stay fairly quiet and slow moving. For John, after 2005, and between 2005 and 2012, I'll say, it was complicated by a very, very bad back. So he decided to have a back operation. After he had the back operation, he seemed to get around fairly well for about one year. And then the back and Parkinson's really became so awful for him, so uncomfortable and finally, forced us to make the decision to move him into assisted living, and that was where he died.

ALBERTO RIOS: That is the book. That is what you're talking about in some detail and we come along with it, we suffer it in some ways. We can't live it quite the same, but you take us on a journey that we know is going to have a difficult end. That takes a toll on the reader as for doubt it does on the writer, and I think we're in it together.

DIANE REHM: I'm glad you said that, because I began writing this book on the very night that I thought John was dying, and I had stayed that night at the assisted living residence, sleeping on two chairs with my little dog Maxie on my stomach, and I really couldn't sleep very well, so at 2 a.m., I had my IPad with me, and I remember looking at my watch, and I just began typing. I was trying to put words to what I was feeling and what I was seeing in this man that has been my partner, my husband, the father of our children, for 54 years. And I started that writing and after John died, right after the memorial service, I got right back to work and began writing a little more about what I was feeling, what I was thinking, and I called my editor at Knopf and told him what I was doing. He asked me to write a paragraph about what I hoped the book would be, and I said to him, I hope most of all it will be a help to others who have gone through the same experience and I hope it will urge people to speak with their loved ones about what they want. Do they want to be kept alive as long as possible, or would they prefer to make their own choice, to say it's my time, I'm ready.

ALBERTO RIOS: So easy to say, so difficult to do, to have those conversations. We know that.


ALBERTO RIOS: it's interesting to me to hear how you are describing your relationship to the page, to typing. It's what you were feeling, what you were thinking. It's not that you were writing a book per se.

DIANE REHM: Heavens, no.

ALBERTO RIOS: As I read the book, this is a book written in short chapters. It moves quickly and fluidly through them. The way you're describing it feels more like, perhaps, a poem rather than a novel or story or prose the way we normally think about it. In poetry we often talk about integrity of the line. Where is the best line in the poem? Better be the line I'm reading, right? When you write this it's something like a tone poem or emotional poem. I'm moving through it and each heartbeat in it as we go through has something on its own, doesn't keep me there too long, but just enough, and I think of it as lines.

DIANE REHM: You've touched my heart with those comments, truly. I wrote it as I felt it, and I'll give you an example. That night I think it was about ten days after John's memorial service, I went to get into what had been our big four-poster bed for so many years, and I was about to get in, and I -- as I always did, on to my side of the bed. And I thought, well, Diane, it's not just your side any longer. Why don't you see what it feels like to put the pillow in the middle of the bed? And you know, I did that with great hesitation. It felt to me a little bit of a dishonoring, a little bit of a violation, and yet as someone who needed to move on as I know I had to do, I went ahead, and I put the pillows in the middle of the bed, and you know what? I did not sleep a wink that night. But I had now succeeded in sleeping in the middle of the bed.

ALBERTO RIOS: Now, that feels like an allegory for this book. There were two of you telling the team of Rehm as you – the team of Rehm story. Now only you, so the bed becomes the story. It is your life story now. You have to tell it by yourself. And I don't know that – if we're including other people we want them to be there. They have been there. Where are they? And yet now we are the narrator where so often we were the listener.

DIANE REHM: And at the same time, I wanted to get other people's ideas, other people's experiences, and so I talked with Susan Stamberg, who certainly NPR listeners and people all over the world know Susan. After she lost her beloved husband, Lou, she felt lost and yet she knew the only thing she could do was work. And she said she ran from Greece as did Eleanor Clift, in exactly the same way. Both working women, both using words as a means to try to keep grief at bay. One never truly keeps grief at bay. I have found myself in the middle of conversations on the air when all of a sudden I am thinking about my beloved husband, not concentrating as sharply as I had, but then I have to bring myself back very quickly because you know as well as I when you're conducting an interview, you really have to be right there.

ALBERTO RIOS: You do. And we have been talking about this in these complex, difficult, sad terms, but there's humor in this book as well. One of my favorite parts is nothing to do with anything except you were having a dinner for some people afterwards and you said it was your favorite fast dinner, Popeye's food. It's mine too!

DIANE REHM: Oh, my gosh.

ALBERTO RIOS: I couldn't help thinking, Popeye! I'm laughing. Popeye had that spinach stuff and he could take it and make everything better.

DIANE REHM: it's true. He did. I didn't think about that.

ALBERTO RIOS: We don't have that option, but we have the next best thing, spinach with his name on it. Chicken with his name on it, right?

DIANE REHM: Exactly.

ALBERTO RIOS: We want something like that. I think we are always in search of that. Sometimes it takes us a long while to realize we've had it all along, but then we change.

DIANE REHM: But you know, we don't necessarily know that we have had it all along. That was part of the learning process about I would say a year before John went into assisted living, he, the man who taught me how to balance a checkbook, came to me and said, sweetheart, I'm having a little problem balancing my checkbook. Can you figure it out for me? I was shocked. He had never, ever in his or our lives asked me for such a favor, and of course I was able to figure it out pretty quickly, and I said, here you go, and he said, thank you, and that was the end of it until the next month, and the next month he came to me again, but this time he said, you know what? I'm having such trouble keeping the checkbook straight, I think it's time you took over all the finances. And so we spent that year. He taught me in that year everything I needed to know about our finances. He went over our savings, our IRA, our – absolutely everything.

ALBERTO RIOS: Ones and zeros in that context nothing to do with computers.

ALBERTO RIOS: You're watching Books & Company. I'm your host Alberto Rios and we're joined by "New York Times" best-selling author Diane Rehm, talking about her new book, "On My Own." That's a heck of a title, "On My Own."

DIANE REHM: Thank you.

ALBERTO RIOS: It is the book -- I don't know how I feel about that. That book cannot be turned into a line, yet there we are. It's a little bit magical. You referenced Joan Didion's year of magical thinking along with some other things. You call on all the things that have helped inform you and very generously weaved them into this story. I don't know how we get along if we don't have outside sources.

DIANE REHM: Quite right. One of those outside sources for me was a dear, dear friend, Roger Mudd, former NBC, PBS news man. His wife died fairly suddenly after a heart attack, and when she went into the hospital in those first few days, Roger was thinking, well, when she comes home I'll need to get her a Walker and we'll need to make this change and that change. But after three weeks, he realized she was likely going to die. Now, Roger has been retired for a number of years, so he did not have the option of running as Eleanor Clift and Susan Sanberg and I had, and instead what he wanted to do was to stay in that beautiful old farmhouse of theirs, because he said, that's where E.J., his wife, is, and I want to be there with her. He even said that sad moments, he holds on to, because they remind him of how wonderful their lives together were. So everybody approaches death and loss differently.

ALBERTO RIOS: Quite differently. You mentioned Isabel Allende. She takes everything as it comes. She is actually in so many ways humorous on this subject. She says that as Americans we just don't want to say dying, that somebody has died. She's very direct about that. But --

DIANE REHM: She had the ultimate loss.

ALBERTO RIOSL She sure did.

DIANE REHM: She lost her daughter.

ALBERTO RIOS: She sure did.

DIANE REHM: I talked with Isabel after her daughter died, and as she talked about her, though she may have been able to write with some humor, the tears continued to flow. It was a terrible loss for her.

ALBERTO RIOS: A terrible loss for her, terrible loss for you. And that is my question. How do we keep going? We have different small remedies. I'm going to get up, I'm going to eat breakfast, I'm going to do this, but I think it's a good question, one I can't answer. But I think that's what this book is all about. How do we keep going?

DIANE REHM: We keep going by taking each step at a time. One way I keep going is thinking about how much my little dog needs me.

ALBERTO RIOS: Plays a starring role in the book.

DIANE REHM: He really does. Actually, Maxie has a book all about him, which did not, by the way, make the "New York Times" best seller list. But Maxie is an all black, long-haired eight pound Chihuahua. And he is adorable, and the problem is that he loves me so much and he's so protective that there are times if strangers come in and see this adorable dog and go to pet him, he will bite fingers. So we have to be careful.

ALBERTO RIOS: We'll wait for Maxie's second book. You never know. Fingers I have known.


ALBERTO RIOS: When we go and think about these books, there are a number of people who have written memoirs about loss and so on, it comes at a cost. It comes at a cost to you, it's a sharing, a reaching out to us as readers, and we enter into kind of a social contract of understanding and of living. So I know your husband was, you know, referred to by you as Scoop, for example.


ALBERTO RIOS: That is -- I have no business knowing that on some level, but I'm glad that I do.

DIANE REHM: I'm glad you do too. It was very important to him. His father was sports editor of the Paris Herald. His mother was in Paris as a fashion model. The two met and married, and when his mother was pregnant with John Rehm, there were three other news men whose wives were also pregnant at the same time. And John Rehm was the only boy born to that group. How sexist is that?

ALBERTO RIOS: Good. We understand that you have a radio show.


ALBERTO RIOS: You've had it for some time.

DIANE REHM: 37 years.

ALBERTO RIOS: I think that you are thinking about retiring. I don't think that's news.

DIANE REHM: I think indeed I have decided not to retire but to step away from the microphone at the end of 2016, after the national election occurs at the end of the year. You know, when someone, when I have had the privilege of having that microphone and that audience for 37 years, I think it's time a younger person gets to step up and step in, bring fresh ideas, bring fresh thoughts, a new way, perhaps, of doing things. Of course I'll miss it, but at the same time, I am so, so ready to step out and talk to people about my belief in my right to die and if they choose their right to die.

ALBERTO RIOS: And that's what I was going to ask you. I know you have a very clear sense of what you want to do after the show. It seems like it's not that you got in trouble, but it seems like you got called into the office about perhaps talking about this on your show?

DIANE REHM: Not talking about it on the show. The organization compassion in choices, which brought about the first law in the country, in the state of Oregon, campaigned heavily in California, which has most recently become the sixth state to allow aid in dying, held several dinners for their top supporters in Washington. They invited me to come and speak about my own experience. I was not there to campaign for them. I was not there to tell people to go out and promote this. I was there to speak of my own experience. The NPR hierarchy was not pleased with that, and they came to WAMU, my own manager and several others were there at the meeting. I had one more dinner scheduled, and I had committed to, so I said I would like to continue, finish out my commitment, and then I'll stop. And since then I have done at least one other program on the right to die, always with all sides represented. I would never do a program pushing one side or the other.

ALBERTO RIOS: Anyone who has listened to you knows that.

DIANE REHM: Exactly. Frankly, I think they got a little overwrought there.

ALBERTO RIOS: A little bit. Well, I want to thank you for talking with us today. I want to thank you for writing that book. I don't know that that's the end of it. You've got perhaps more to say after this sinks in, and I think this is the first big leap and it's big, but I'll be curious if five years from now you have another book about this very same subject and more to say.

DIANE REHM: Thank you so very much.

ALBERTO RIOS: You're welcome. Thank you for joining us today.

DIANE REHM: My pleasure.

ALBERTO RIOS: I would like to thank our viewers also, you've been watching Books & Co. I'm your host Alberto Rios. We have been joined by Diane Rehm, "New York Times" best-selling author, addressing her most recent book, "On My Own." Please join us next time. We'll be bringing you another good book. Thank you, Diane.

DIANE REHM: Thank you so much.

VOICEOVER: Books & Co. is made possible by the department of English at Arizona State University and by -- the friends of Arizona PBS, members of Arizona PBS who give additional gifts to support original programs. Thank you.

Learn more about Diane Rehm.
Illustration of columns of a capitol building with text reading: Arizona PBS AZ Votes 2024

Arizona PBS presents candidate debates

An armed forces bugler playing the trumpet in front of the United States Capitol building.
airs May 26

National Memorial Day Concert 2024

Graphic for the AZPBS kids LEARN! Writing Contest with a child sitting in a chair writing on a table and text reading: The Ultimate Field Trip
May 26

Submit your entry for the 2024 Writing Contest

Rachel Khong
May 29

Join us for PBS Books Readers Club!

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters

STAY in touch
with azpbs.org!

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters: