On June 23, 2014, John Rehm, the late husband of revered radio host Diane Rehm, died after a near decade-long battle with Parkinson's disease and a lengthy, 10-day decision to end his life on his own terms: by electing to deprive himself of food, fluids, and medications.
Throughout their 54-year marriage, John and Diane had never shied away from the conversation about death, and both had expected — and declared — to be medically put to sleep at the point they could no longer function or care for themselves. But physician-assisted suicide, as it is commonly known, is illegal in Maryland, where John lived his last days. Only a handful of states — Oregon, Washington, Vermont, and most recently California — have legalized the practice, prompting a national conversation and, for Diane Rehm, a new personal and professional narrative of dying with dignity.
The 10 days she spent by John's side were "surely the longest of my life," she writes in On My Own. "I rage at a system that would not allow John to be helped toward his own death."
The book, Rehm's new memoir about widowhood and the right-to-die movement, was released Tuesday, February 2, and brings her to Phoenix on Thursday, February 18, for a conversation and reading as part of a national book tour. A poignant and personal look at loss and grief, Rehm wrote in real time, never once skirting subjects like survivor's guilt, an emotionally trying marriage, and, ultimately, decisions about her own death. Rehm is no stranger to the candid memoir: Her first foray into autobiography, Finding My Voice, was published in 1999, and Toward Commitment: A Dialogue About Marriage, which she wrote with John, made its way onto bookshelves in 2002.
On My Own, however, invites listeners into uncharted territory: The death of a long-term partner and facing one's own mortality. Those who tune into WAMU's "The Diane Rehm Show," distributed by National Public Radio, are not strangers to Rehm's work with foundations like Compassion & Choices, an end-of-life charity organization whose relationship with Rehm got her in hot water with NPR executives. Nor are they unaware of her stance on the subject, raised during multiple panels on the topic. The thoughtful questions that line the book's pages will resonate with listeners, who will relish the emotional insight that can come only from the experience itself. Indeed, the candor with which she handles such a morbid topic is refreshing, if not slightly surprising, and forces the necessary conversation we must all have — at the very least with ourselves.
Though the book details that first year alone, time marches on, and Rehm will resume her on-air position at the end of this book tour — once again interviewing change-makers and powerful people, fielding calls from listeners toward the end of the hour. Midway through the year will mark two years since John passed. Rehm will celebrate her 80th birthday in late September, and seven weeks later the country will elect its next president. At the end of the year, Rehm will effectively retire from the radio show she has hosted for nearly half her life, after keeping her promise to see this election through.
That doesn't mean she'll be slowing down. Rather, Rehm will lend her distinctive voice (one shaped, but never shuttered, by spasmodic dysphonia) to a new cause. In recent interviews she has maintained that she will stay involved with WAMU in some capacity, but it becomes more clear throughout both On My Own and in following her public persona that Rehm's voice will remain at the forefront of the right-to-die movement. A voice listeners will recognize after more than 35 years on the air: At times a voice of reason among a fray of dissenting opinions, while at others a no-holds-barred interview focusing on tough questions. One warbled, perhaps on occasion, but never wavering.
New Times reached Rehm in the Washington D.C. condominium she shared with her late husband, where she was listening to "All Things Considered" and finishing a busy day of press interviews. We asked her about her involvement with the dying with dignity movement, her impending retirement from radio, her interviews with presidential candidates, and her proudest accomplishment and that voice, that famous voice, responded in kind, never faltering.
On My Own is a deeply intimate recollection — at times I had to put it down because it felt too much like I was reading your diary or was there as you dealt with John's death in real time. Was writing this book a way to grapple with and address your grief? How did you start writing?
It was the night John was dying. I was sitting there — well, not sitting there, I was trying to sleep — on those two chairs next to him and I couldn't sleep. So I got up at about 2 o’clock in the morning, opened my iPad, and just started writing about what I was seeing. I don't know why I kept writing, I just wanted my thoughts down. And after John died, I just kept on writing and then called Robert Gottlieb [former editor-in-chief of Knopf Publishers] and started talking to him about what I was feeling and whether he thought this might make a worthwhile book. And his words of wisdom were, “Well, if going through a year after your husband dies, if you can talk about that process as well as your feelings — which are so strong — about the right to die," then yes, he said, "I think that that would make a worthwhile book if you can perhaps help others who are wrestling with these issues."
And all of us wrestle with these issues. I mean, dying is something we’d rather not talk about. But the population is growing older, and it’s time we started talking about these things more openly and not pretend that it’s never going to happen to us or someone we love. We just can’t keep pretending.
Especially because death is the one guarantee we have in life, so—
You’re absolutely right. And so, as you know from having read the book, John and I talked about this a lot when we were younger and when the kids were here at home. Even as they were young adults, we talked about our own wishes: Not to go into a nursing home, not to endure a long, drawn-out illness, not to lose our ability to care for ourselves and, you know, they knew — and we both knew — that we didn’t want that. And frankly when John agreed to go into assisted living I was somewhat surprised because we had always said we didn't want to do that. But clearly he was still ready to keep on living. And I think at moments during that time he even thought, "Well, someday maybe I can go home again." But that wasn’t the way it went.
You have been very transparent, both on the show and obviously throughout this book, about your own approach to how you would like to live out the rest of your life and your own choices when it comes to that time. Are you afraid, realistically, that you might have to make a choice like John did? Or do you think that there will be an advancement within the medical community sooner, that more states will have this kind of legislation?
That is such a great question, and you know as well as I do that there are some 26 states plus the District of Columbia currently debating these issues. So, who knows how long it might take, but as in so many other things, I frankly think California could be a tipping point.
That was my next question: Do you think that decision will really affect how this goes nationally?
Well, did you happen to read the signing letter that Governor Jerry Brown wrote when he approved the legislation in California?
It's such a beautiful letter, and in the last paragraph — I'm paraphrasing here — he says something like, "I don't know what I will do when the time comes. I don't know what path I will choose, but what I do know is that I would not wish to have someone else make that choice for me."
I thought that was so powerful, and I do have a sense that the conversation has now begun. Brittany Maynard had such courage by moving from California to Oregon. She made her own personal choice and now her mother is out there really trying to educate people about her daughter's choice and to advocate before legislatures for the right to die.
I am not in that position. I am simply talking about my husband's choice for himself and eventually my choice for myself. I am not advocating for you and your choice — that’s the difference. I am not advocating for anyone other than myself — at this point. Because I am still before the microphone, I am still a journalist, and I will not take an advocacy position while I remain in this position.
I'm glad you mention that, because I know when you were involved a little more heavily with Compassion & Choices that that presented a big issue for the NPR brass—
Quite right, quite right.
Do you think that truly presents an ethical dilemma for you as a journalist? I like to think that it's possible to separate the journalist from the person — or maybe that difference disappears once somebody is at your level of recognition?
I don't think it does disappear. I think that line is very clear. It’s clear for me now, and it will be clear as long as I am on the air. I will not advocate; I will treat each issue fairly, including the issue of the right to die. If I do another program on this issue, which I may or may not before I get off the air — unless it becomes another big national issue, and then I quite rightly would focus on it — I would always have all sides represented. [I'd] state my own personal position honestly and frankly but allow each side to have equal time without taking an advocacy position myself.
So, at this point, even with your book coming out, there are no plans to have another panel on that subject?
Not right now. I know I'm going to be traveling the country and speaking with many, many fine journalists and talking about the issue, but I will not be advocating for anyone else but myself and my personal views. My personal views are mine: They represent no organization, they represent no affiliation with any organization.
You mention that you’re stepping away from the microphone. Do you think that John’s death and your subsequent strong feelings about these end-of-life options influenced your decision? If he hadn’t died, would you have renewed your contract?
No, I think I was ready. You know, when I turned 30 and when I turned 40 and 50 and 60 and 70, I just thought, "I've still got lots of time, lots of time." And now, next September, when I turn 80, that feels like a really big one. I will have had the privilege of this microphone for, by then, 37 years. I think it's time for someone new to move into that spot: To bring fresh ideas, a fresh voice, fresh approaches to things — to ideas — that I have dealt with again and again and again. But I really do want to see it through this election, and then I really am absolutely ready to step away from the microphone.
I told my boss this when he came in. J.J. Yore [manager of WAMU-FM 88.5 in Washington, D.C.] came in about a year and a half ago. He's a wonderful, wonderful new manager, and I told him that I was ready to step down at the end of 2016.
How much of a hand will you have in helping to choose the next host? Do you listen to the show when, on days like today, someone else is sitting in the chair?
I do listen to the show as much as I can. As far as how much of a hand I will have, I’m really not sure. I think that you have an idea of what the program has been, and what the program has been may or may not influence what it becomes going forward. So, my views will, I’m sure, be welcomed [but] I'm not sure that they will be part of the deciding voice.
Since this is your final year, are there topics you haven't covered with a panel that you would like to — or ones you'd like to revisit?
If he were still alive, I'd sure like to have Mister Rogers back on the program.
Was he one of your favorite guests?
[gushes] One of my absolute favorites. He was just extraordinary. He was so kind. He was in Pittsburgh, he was playing the piano. I was in Washington, and at one point I asked him whether he ever got sad. And he said oh yes, he did. And I asked him what he did when he got sad. He said, "Well, I play the piano — and I think I'll be playing the piano a lot today." And I said, "Well, why are you sad?" and I'll never forget, he said, "Because my stomach hurts." Honestly, I did not have the courage to ask him why his stomach was hurting, but he was dead just about three months later. I think mine was one of the last live interviews he ever did.
I loved that man. I used to watch him with my kids. His teaching of kindness and fairness and honesty and truthfulness, I mean, what better lessons for both children and adults?
He was amazing, and one of my absolute all-time favorites.
Do you have any other favorite guests you would like to have return to the program one more time this year?
Oh, sure! I would love to talk to Hillary Clinton, I'd love to talk to Bernie Sanders. I haven't yet talked to Donald Trump, I haven’t talked to [Ted] Cruz, I haven't talked to [Marco] Rubio. I'd love to talk to them all before the elections — we'll see.
What's one question you would love to ask Donald Trump right now?
I'd love to ask him why he wants to be president and what he really believes are presidential limitations. What does he really believe, as president, where the executive is only one-third of a tripartite government, what he truly believes he as president can accomplish.
Last summer "The Diane Rehm Show" hosted Sen. Bernie Sanders ["The 2016 Presidential Race: A Conversation With Democratic Candidate And Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders," June 10, 2015]. During the one-on-one interview, Rehm questioned Sanders about an unfounded rumor that he holds dual citizenship with Israel. The claim allegedly came from a Facebook posting. Sanders is not an Israeli citizen, and the awkward conversation that followed was covered on multiple media outlets, occasionally described as a "controversy." Rehm publicly apologized following its airing.
You mentioned Bernie Sanders, and so I have to ask about that controversial interview last year: You have described that moment as being a couple of your toughest professional days—
Oh, the toughest. I have never made such a horrendous mistake in my years of broadcasting. I'll never forgive myself for that one, because he is such a wonderful man, and for me to have not 20 times checked that before I asked it was just the dumbest thing that any novice journalist could have done — and here I’m supposed to be this "seasoned professional!" I'll never get over the embarrassment of having asked him that.
Has that changed your approach to interviews going forward at all?
Check, check, check! Boy, anything that I have doubts about — and I promise you, I had doubts about that one.
Those [social media questions] are filtered through the producers who are sitting with the engineer and the phone person, so she only puts up the tweets and the Facebook postings that she believes are worth asking. But that [question], but that one was all over the place and was part of a script that was given to me, and I said, now wait a minute. Are you sure? Are you sure? And I was assured. So, it was tough.
I think it's, I can't even imagine, but I think that knowing that it could happen to someone of your stature is maybe a little bit of a relief and an eye-opening to young journalists.
Absolutely. And if there's a lesson, boy, there it is: Check, check, triple check. If it smells funny, something’s wrong. And I knew it smelled funny and I went ahead with it. Bad, bad decision.
Has there ever been a conversation on your program that completely changed your mind about a topic? How do you keep your own biases in check?
I always go in with questions, so for me what happens is that I feel more educated one way or another, but [I don't] profoundly change a thought about something. I mean, take fracking for example. Fracking is not my favorite thing because I think it does destroy parts of the earth and because I do understand that the many earthquakes in Oklahoma are being caused, in part, by fracking. At the same time, though I personally do not believe in fracking, I know that it has provided a lot of gas. It has made us more independent. I know it has provided lots of jobs. It doesn't make me happy, but I understand it better because we’ve done so many programs on it.
How do you prepare for these interviews and panels? What do you and your producers read every day?
They bear the burden. [The producers] are the ones who are doing all the research and bringing me all the material, putting it into a form of relevant questions as well as what they glean are the answers. That provides me with an education before I walk into that studio. Then, the key is learning to let that go and to listen, carefully, to what each guest has to say. You know, they keep calling these "talk shows," but I swear to God it really is, if you're really thoughtful, it's a listening show. And the host has to be as good a listener, if not a better listener, than a talker. And I think that's what I’ve become: A good listener.
I think that could be why so many people almost rely on the show, as you mention in the book, and need to hear it every day. When you were writing about the show throughout On My Own it seemed like both a blessing, something that forced you out of bed every day even during your grief, and a burden, in that when you were in the studio you were thinking about John. How does being on a platform with so much reach affect you?
I am just one person. I am just now a widow. I am a widow who lives alone with her dog. I am a person who is fortunate enough to work with wonderful people who help me to prepare each day for a program. The hard part of my day is getting up at 5 a.m. The hardest part of that getting-up-at-5 a.m. was when my husband was in that assisted living for a year and a half, and when he was here at home getting sicker and sicker every day. That's when it really became hard, because I thought every minute I should have been with him. And for the last three weeks of his life, I was there every single day. It meant to me that I missed being with those listeners, but I knew I was in the right place. I knew I had to do what I did. And those listeners are so great — they're the best listeners in all of radio! They are so smart, they are so good, they are so uplifting when they call, and I feel like the luckiest woman in the world to have had this platform for so many years. But, as I said to you earlier, it’s time. It’s really time.
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You've interviewed past and sitting presidents and politicians, celebrities, and powerful people. You've won numerous awards, including a Peabody and a National Humanities Medal, and millions of people tune in every day. What would you say is your most significant accomplishment?
My most significant accomplishment is a marriage of 54 years and two beautiful children. And now, four grandchildren. That's my most significant accomplishment, without a single hesitation or doubt.
In collaboration with Changing Hands Bookstore, KJZZ Weekend Edition host Mark Brodie hosts a conversation with Diane Rehm at 7 p.m. on Thursday, February 18, at Dobson High School, 1501 West Guadalupe Road in Mesa. Will call at 6 p.m., doors open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $28 for one seat and one hardcover copy of On My Own, or $30 for two seats and hardcover. Copies will be pre-signed and distributed to ticket holders at the event. Ticket packages can be purchased online through www.changinghands.com. This is not a signing event.
"The Diane Rehm Show" airs weekdays from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. locally on KJZZ 91.5 FM or www.kjzz.org, and can be streamed online at www.thedianerehmshow.com. The show reaches an average weekly audience of 2.4 million across streaming and live platforms.