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Diane Rehm On Marriage, Death With Dignity, And Life On Her Own

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Public radio talk show host Diane Rehm started writing her book, On My Own, one night as she began her life on her own. Her husband of 54 years, John Rehm, was on his 10th day of refusing food, water, and medication. He had been suffering with Parkinson's disease for years. KMUW's Beth Golay spoke to Diane Rehm from her studio at WAMU in Washington.

“I was in his room at the assisted living facility trying to catch a few winks of sleep, and at 2:00 a.m. I kind of gave it up," Diane explains. "And I just got up and I had my iPad with me and I just started writing. I was writing about what I was feeling.”

After writing for more than 5 hours through the night, Diane was glad to have a break the next morning when her husband’s caregiver came in. She decided to go home, feed her dog, wash up and have a quick bite to eat before returning. But before she could get back, she received a call.

“And by the time I got back to the assisted living facility he had died. And some of the nurses and people there at Brighton Gardens told me--and I've heard this since--that many times people wait until their loved ones are out of the room, and then they pass," she says. "And who knows? I mean, I hated not being there when he died, but I missed it by about 20 minutes.”

After John’s Rehm’s death, Diane decided to run as fast and as far as she could from grief the only way she knew how.

“So after his memorial service I came back to work and sort of plunged myself into not only work here at the radio station, but really began thinking hard about writing a book that I thought might be useful not only to myself but to other people," Diane says. "A book that talks about what it is to lose someone who has been so important in my life for so many years.”

In the book, Diane shares some deep reflections on her long marriage to John, and she recalls both the good times--and the bad.

“I also did not want to glorify that 54 years of marriage because there is no marriage I know or have seen that I would regard as perfect. And certainly our marriage was not perfect. We had wonderful highs and some terrible lows," Diane says. "It would have been less than honest if I had not put all that into the book.”

Diane recalls meeting John for the first time when they were both working at the Department of State, he as an attorney, she as a secretary. And in the beginning, she found a part of him quite offensive.

I found myself hearing this booming voice of his and thinking to myself, 'Didn't his mother teach him better manners?'" Diane says. "And he would speak in ways that, you know, perhaps were as intimidating to me as anything else and the loudness just sort of exacerbated that problem.”

Diane was able to eventually overlook her dislike of John’s voice. He frequently stopped by her desk to see what books she was reading, and to talk about sports.

“We had our first date because we had been talking about that year's World Series and had made a bet on which team would win. I won the bet and he took me out to dinner. So that's how it all began," Diane says. "And I shall never forget that voice of his which, thankfully, at the restaurant he took me to--he spoke softly.”

Since John’s death, Diane has become a proponent of the right-to-die movement. She says she thinks that doctors are taught in medical school to focus on a patient’s health, and not sufficiently on listening if and when that patient says they’ve had enough.

“I don't believe what John did was an act of suicide. I believe that by virtue of stopping his eating and drinking and all medications he was relinquishing his life," Diane explains. "He felt himself falling into greater and greater indignity and he did not want any further part of it.”

She hopes her book will spur conversations between family members about death and dying before decisions must be made immediately.

“It all starts with the family, doctors, patients, talk[ing] to one another and about what it is they want. It's too difficult a decision to be left to others to make for you," Diane says. "You need to let people know what you want. And the only way you can do that is to be straight-forward about it.”

Now that Diane Rehm is on her own, she will step away from the microphone and from the daily regimen of her radio show after the 2016 elections. She does not intend to retire, though, and will stay on at the station in Washington, D.C., part-time. Plus, she’ll continue to speak out around the country on death with dignity and the right to die. And she will continue to remember her love for John Rehm.

“You know, when you have Parkinson's disease, it's a disease that affects every muscle in your body, including the vocal muscles," she says. "And his voice became weaker and weaker and weaker. And I found myself so, so missing that very loud booming voice that I had first known.”

Beth Golay is KMUW's Digital Content Marketing Manager and the host of the KMUW ?Marginalia podcast. She is on Twitter @BethGolay.