For decades, Diane Rehm has conducted thoughtful, thorough interviews with the top newsmakers of the day, including presidents and foreign leaders. Rehm’s show on NPR is heard by millions. Rehm will be at Arizona State University to meet with journalism students and will talk on Arizona Horizon about her new book “On My Own,” which covers the death of her husband John Rehm and her efforts to rebuild her life afterward.
Ted Simons: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon," we'll visit with NPR radio host Diane Rehm. We'll talk about her career and her new book, which deals with life after the death of a long-time spouse. Diane Rehm, next on "Arizona Horizon."
Video: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Arizona PBS, members of your PBS station. Thank you.
Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon," I'm Ted Simons. For decades, Diane Rehm has hosted a nationally broadcast radio show on NPR, where she interviews the top newsmakers of the day before an audience of millions. Diane Rehm is in town to talk about her new book "On My Own," which focuses on her efforts to rebuild her life after the death of her husband of 54 years. We welcome Diane Rehm to "Arizona Horizon." Good to see you here.
Diane Rehm: Thank you.
Ted Simons: It's great to meet you, great to talk with you. Congratulations on this book which I understand New York Times best-seller we can call it now?
Diane Rehm: You can!
Ted Simons: Excellent. Congratulations. What do you know about Arizona? Have you visited here much?
Diane Rehm: I have been out here a couple of times. But just for very short stays.
Ted Simons: So --
Diane Rehm: Not much.
Ted Simons: What is the perception of Arizona?
Diane Rehm: Flat with mountains in the distance. Warm. Beautiful, in part. Other long highways. You know, I haven't seen that much of it.
Ted Simons: Well welcome, it's good to have you here. Let's get to this book. This was a very interesting read and many times as I read this I wondered was it difficult for you to write?
Diane Rehm: You know, I began writing this book the night John was dying. He was in an assisted living facility, suffering from Parkinson's disease. He could no longer care for himself. He had made the decision 10 days prior to stop eating, drinking water, taking medication. He felt he was falling into degradation. He did not wish to go further. And so that night, I had my iPad with me and I was trying to sleep on two chairs with my little dog on my stomach and got up, pulled out my iPad and just began writing what I was feeling, what I was thinking about John's decision to die, about his right to die, about my sadness at losing my husband of 54 years, and what choice means to each of us and that's what I started writing about.
Ted Simons: And you obviously finished writing this, it covers so much ground on your life, your lives together, your life after your husband passed. Was it difficult for you later after it was done to read?
Diane Rehm: You know that's such an interesting question. I have not gone back to read it since publication. I did proof read it when the galleys came in. I did proof read it for typographical errors and you always catch those. But I had not reread a finished copy.
Ted Simons: Isn't that interesting? Let's talk about your husband. Who was he? You describe him as a terrific host and yet a loner, gentle and caring yet very emotional at times and distant. Who was this man? Very complicated.
Diane Rehm: Well, he was born in Paris. His father was editor for the New York Herald Tribune's Paris edition. His mother was a fashion model in Paris. That's how the two met. And John's father had three colleagues whose wives were pregnant about the same time and John was the only boy among those colleagues born. So he became the scoop. And I regard that even today as very sexist! But nevertheless he spent his first six years in Paris, French was his first language, he didn't learn to speak English until he came here at seven. He was alone. A lot. And I think those early years really imprinted on him, his preferred way of being.
Ted Simons: Interesting you say a preferred way of being because early in the book and this stopped me when I read this, there was a stunning admission from your husband to you and again, you had time to talk because it took so long, it took the time it took for him to pass, you had time to bond, to talk about things, revisit things. He basically said he was intentionally silent and withdrawn to you as a way to wound you. I was just stunned A. that he would admit that, B. that you decided write about that. Why did you include that in here?
Diane Rehm: Number one, Ted, and I'm sure you know this as well as anyone, there are no perfect marriages. At least I've never come across one. I have many married friends, many single friends. There are no perfect marriages. And I think that I wanted to write about that admission on John's part because we had stayed together for 54 years in spite of the wounding that each of us did to the other. For example, he said he had been deliberately emotionally abusive to me, those were his words and he stunned me when he said that even though I knew, I knew that this man had used his silences, had used his distancing, to separate himself from me, and I followed that with a question I had for him. I said do you think perhaps you should never have gotten married? And he said perhaps. He said I always knew I was a loner. I always knew I was comfortable reading, listening to music, reading poetry, being by myself.
Ted Simons: Are you glad you found that out?
Diane Rehm: I'm glad he had the courage to say that to me, because it was something I had always suspected, but for him to say that, to use those very words, I thought took a lot of courage and I'm glad he did.
Ted Simons: That's so interesting. You would not have known that perhaps if he had been allowed to die sooner and I know that much of the book deals with the choice for leaving this world, opportunities, just the decisions therein. Again, you would not have known that if maybe his choice had been allowed. How do you feel about that?
Diane Rehm: He said that to me prior to having made the decision to die. So it was in the last months of his life that he said that to me. It took John 10 days to die once he made the decision to refuse water, food, medication, a decision he made because his assisted living facility was in Maryland. He asked his doctor in that facility to help him die. And the doctor said very plainly and very honestly, with the doctor in the room, my son in the room, my daughter who is also a physician on the phone from Boston and I, he said I am ready to die. I want you to help me. And the doctor, a very, very sympathetic man, said John, I'm sorry, I can neither legally, morally or ethically help you to die. The only way you can do that is to cease drinking, eating, and refusing medication. And the next day, John decided that that's what he would do.
Ted Simons: When the doctor said that, did something inside of you say this is just plain wrong?
Diane Rehm: Oh, absolutely. John said I feel betrayed! And I totally understood his feeling as much as I wanted John to stay alive for me! Because he had been such an important part of my life, I had to respect his decision. There were moments, Ted, during those 10 days when honestly, I wanted to put a little teaspoon of applesauce or a few drops of water in his mouth and say to him we love you, we want you to stay alive! But I couldn't do that.
Ted Simons: So that's really something because I think people, they constantly look at, is the person making the right decision, are they in their right mind, all the things about the person but they forget about the family, and what the family has to go through. The person will be gone. The family has to remember this, has to deal with this in a real time that the person may not even be experiencing. That's a huge factor, isn't it?
Diane Rehm: It's a huge factor. His daughter, my daughter, our daughter, the physician said on the phone from Boston where she practices, Dad! We can keep you comfortable! And John said I don't want comfort. I am ready to die. He could no longer use his hands. He could no longer feed himself. He could no longer stand or walk or bathe himself. And he said if I stay alive, I will fall further into indignity. I am finished with life.
Ted Simons: And according to the book, the Parkinson's had been coming on for a while.
Diane Rehm: Oh, my goodness, yes. He was diagnosed in 2005 with Parkinson's, and he -- we moved from our home because there were stairs and because we were afraid for John and moved into a condo in 2008 and he had been diagnosed in 2005 and by 2012 he could no longer care for himself.
Ted Simons: And you described this as the long glide.
Diane Rehm: Oh, boy.
Ted Simons: You were doing a show during all of this and I mean during all of this.
Diane Rehm: All of it.
Ted Simons: How?
Diane Rehm: With determination, with sometimes flagging energy. Certainly with flagging attention. But nevertheless doing it, my work helped keep me going. My day would begin at 5:00 in the morning. I would walk the dog, and then feed the dog and go to work and leave work and go to John, to his assisted living facility. Go home, feed the dog, walk the dog, do everything that had to be done. It is a long process.
Ted Simons: You write during this time that you felt alone, that you felt loneliness. Obviously, you have felt this after this passing but the loneliness you felt as the long glide continued, did it help prepare you for once he was truly gone?
Diane Rehm: I don't think so. I think what happens is that the mood and the life and the reality begin to shift and shift in a very, very specific way. I went to get into my bed, into our bed, one night about 10 days after his memorial service, and I was about to get into the bed on my side of the bed as I always have.
Ted Simons: Sure.
Diane Rehm: And I thought you know, it's time. It's time to move to the center of the bed, to realize that you are alone! And to recognize that this bed is now your bed without John. I moved the pillows to the center of the bed and I was awake all night long.
Ted Simons: I bet you were. You also write about a new found appreciation for silence throughout and after all of this. That's something people don't think about. I mean, you were with someone for 54 years. I don't care how emotionally distant they are, they're still making noise and they're not making noise anymore.
Diane Rehm: I would pick up the phone, call him every morning. I would call him as soon as I got off the air. I would go over there and see him after I had finished my work. Stay privately until dinnertime and then head home. So what happened was really a transition. Now, I am so involved, I was involved with writing the book; I was on the phone with the editor an awful lot. I was on the phone with producers doing the program, trying to keep my life together so that finally when silence came, just my dog Maxie and me, what relief!
Ted Simons: Isn't that interesting? By the way, your dog is a little savior in this book. That's a good little dog.
Diane Rehm: He is! Except he bites.
Ted Simons: I'll remember that if I ever run into your dog. Do you feel like -- we've all lost loved ones, most of us have lost loved ones, some in a familiar scenario to yours, others in a more sudden fashion. It always feels like they're there. You don't know how, you can't explain it, you can't write it down or, you know, draw a picture, for you does it feel like he is still there or does it feel like he has said go on? You go do what you need to do, don't worry about me too much, don't think about me too much?
Diane Rehm: Ted, he's here right now! He's here with me always. I talk to him every single morning. I'll be recording my intros, my billboards, and then I'll wait for the engineer to play them back to me. We have a huge glass window facing onto Connecticut Avenue which you probably recall. I look to the clouds and there is John.
Ted Simons: Yes.
Diane Rehm: And we have a conversation.
Ted Simons: It feels good.
Diane Rehm: Every day.
Ted Simons: It doesn't necessarily feel that bad or does it feel bad?
Diane Rehm: Oh, no. It feels wonderful. He is with me. I assure you.
Ted Simons: And I think you wrote, your description of heaven or someone's description of heaven, there's no bodily presence, only spiritual.
Diane Rehm: Right.
Ted Simons: That makes sense for heaven doesn't it?
Diane Rehm: It really does. And Susan Stamberg said her idea of heaven was not people sitting around playing cards together but she almost wishes that she believed in the reality.
Ted Simons: I thought that was interesting, as well. It's almost a sense of loss that you have not decided to go that particular direction.
Diane Rehm: Exactly.
Ted Simons: The impact on all of this. You've decided at the end, is it the end of this year that you're going to retire?
Diane Rehm: At the end of 2016, I'm stepping away from the microphone but not using the retire word.
Ted Simons: I knew the minute I said that word, I would get in trouble.
Diane Rehm: I'm not doing that!
Ted Simons: But the impact of all of us on you making that decision?
Diane Rehm: No, I had made the decision prior to John's death because I am 79 years old. I'll be 80 in September and I had decided that 37 years of holding that two hours at the microphone was a gracious blessing, and that it was time to offer that to someone new, someone younger, someone fresher, someone to take listeners on to the next phase.
Ted Simons: But are you concerned? You've just had a major -- and you can't count how many times you've done stories on the psychological and emotional impact of losing a job, losing a spouse, moving to another town, all these things are big. That's one right there. This may be your decision but this is life-changing. You don't have to wake up at 5:00 in the morning anymore for starters.
Diane Rehm: That's right.
Ted Simons: Are you a little worried about that? How are you going to react?
Diane Rehm: My goal is to speak to as many people as possible about the idea of talking with their families, talking with their spouses about death and dying, realizing that death and dying are part of life, and that we need to understand the reality will come to us all, and that there are choices to be made for those who want to live as long as possible with palliative care, with being kept comfortable, that is their choice. For those who wish at some point because of pain and suffering, because of degradation of life, who wish to end that life, they, too, should have that choice. And I will be speaking out around the country about this. I will also be working on behalf of Alzheimer's, doing a play around the country which we've already done in Washington, L.A., Indianapolis, North Carolina, we will continue to do that and I will be also working on behalf of Parkinson's.
Ted Simons: You're going to stay very busy then.
Diane Rehm: I'm going to stay busy.
Ted Simons: Your friend Roger Mudd, people will remember him from CBS news, he used the word retire, he said retirement, retirement was a different kind of existence, you can be the most popular person in the world, but once you fade a little bit from the immediate interaction, it's altogether different.
Diane Rehm: You know, I have so many invitations awaiting me at home and each time I open one of those, I think this could be the last time I receive this invitation. So in a sense, I'm already preparing myself for exactly what Roger is talking about. He did go sort of cold turkey.
Ted Simons: Yes, he did.
Diane Rehm: And I think that I am not doing that. I'm going to be so active you'll get so tired of hearing what I'm doing! And how busy I will keep myself. As long as my health is good, which thank God, it is.
Ted Simons: We've got about a minute left. When you look back on your life with a spouse, on your career doing the Diane Rehm Show at American University, when you look back and you look at yourself when you were younger, when you first got married, when you first start out, does it feel like you? Or does it feel like a different person?
Diane Rehm: Oh, most definitely a different person from that young woman who with John Rehm created the greatest accomplishment of our lives! Our two children, David and Jennifer. They make me so proud and are the loves of our lives. But we both changed a lot.
Ted Simons: Well, this is a fascinating book. It took a lot of courage to write this, especially the way you wrote this, congratulations on the book and on a remarkable career. Thank you so much for joining us.
Diane Rehm: My pleasure, thank you.
Ted Simons: And that is it for now. I'm Ted Simons, thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.
Video: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the friends of Arizona PBS, members of your PBS station, thank you.