book reviews, healthcare, love, marriage

A review of Amy Bloom’s beautiful love story, In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss…

Amy Bloom is not the most conventional person, but I do notice that we have a few things in common. Like me, she is educated as a social worker. Unlike me, she actually practiced social work as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who does psychotherapy. Like me, Amy Bloom is a writer. Unlike me, she’s written books that actually got published and have landed her on best seller lists. I have not read any of Bloom’s other books, but maybe I will, now that I’ve finished her beautiful love story about losing her husband, In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss.

Although I like to write book reviews, it’s not so often anymore that I read them written by others. I tend to buy and read books based on recommendations in news stories or certain groups I follow. I like true stories, though, so when I saw Amy Bloom’s latest book, a true story, reviewed in both The New York Times and the Washington Post, I took notice. I’m pretty sure it was The New York Times‘ review that I read first, and I downloaded the book as soon as I read the review. I was that certain I was going to like the book. And now that I’ve finished reading Bloom’s heartbreaking story about saying goodbye to her husband, Brian Ameche, I know that my instincts were right.

Amy Bloom and her late husband, Brian Ameche, came together after both had been in unhappy relationships. Bloom’s first marriage produced three children, while Ameche never had children of his own. Bloom is Jewish, while Ameche had been raised Catholic and later attended a Unitarian Universalist Church for awhile. The two met in 2005 and started out as friends. Bloom hadn’t even been all that impressed with Brian at first. But then she realized that he reminded her of the best father figure she’d ever had, a ninth grade teacher who managed to inspire scores of people. In 2007, the couple wed, and Ameche soon went from never having had children to being a “grandpa” to four granddaughters.

As Bloom writes it, she and Brian had a pretty comfortable lifestyle with many friends, dinners out, and travels. But then Brian, who had been a football player at Yale in his younger years, started having problems at work. He had been an architect and spent his working life creating beautiful, useful buildings. But his work soon became unreliable and he couldn’t finish projects on time. He bought bizarre gifts and clothing, including a $500 sweatshirt. His handwriting changed, as did his habits, which became more odd as the days passed. Soon, all he wanted to talk about were his glory days playing football at Yale.

A neurologist broke the devastating news that Brian had early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. After talking to the doctor, the couple went out and bought “Goodbye, I Love You” stationery, so Brian could write notes to his loved ones before his mind became too addled. And then he told his wife that the long goodbye was not for him. He wanted to depart this life before Alzheimer’s stripped him of his dignity and self-determination.

Unfortunately, in the United States, the concept of a “right to die” is still emerging. Although there are states where euthanasia is possible, they all have rules that would have made it difficult in Brian’s case. Most states, for example, require that the patient be a resident, and have doctors certify that death will occur within six months. There are strict rules about how much “help” a person who wishes to die on their own terms can receive from other people. Violating those rules could land Amy or anyone else who helped Brian in legal jeopardy. Then there were the ways that people tend to commit suicide when they aren’t considering a medical intervention. Again… they were potentially risky, messy, or dangerous, and there was always the chance that the method would fail and Brian would be left alive, but helpless.

Amy Bloom eventually found an answer in a Swiss organization called Dignitas, located in a suburb of Zurich, Switzerland. There, Brian could die peacefully, provided the couple paid the organization’s fee (about $10,000), and Brian passed all of the requirements that would secure approval. For instance, Brian had to prove that he wasn’t suffering from clinical depression, and that had to be verified by a physician. He had to be interviewed extensively and convince Dignitas staff that he was serious about his desire to die and there wasn’t any coercion, financial gain, or intimidation behind his request.

In Love is the story about how Amy and Brian came to their decision to end Brian’s life on Brian’s terms. As I read this lovingly composed book, I got a sense that I would enjoy knowing Amy and Brian. It almost made me wish we were in the States, living in Connecticut. Amy seems to me to be a very intriguing person. She even consults a tarot card reader as she makes the decision when to go to Switzerland. I don’t have any experience with tarot cards myself, but my husband, Bill, is interested in them. I found it eerie when Amy wrote that her trusted reader told her that Brian’s decision to end his life was fine, but they must take the first date open to them. The reader, who was very insightful, said that she saw difficulties ahead if they didn’t take care of business immediately. As Amy Bloom was coming home from Zurich after watching her husband die, the very first COVID-19 cases were being discovered in the United States. Brian died January 30, 2020. Less than two months later, the world would lock down.

I found this book interesting for a lot of reasons. Personally, I think that people should have the ability to end their lives humanely if they want to do that. I don’t think it’s wrong for people who wish to be euthanized to be carefully interviewed and screened, but I absolutely believe that there are times when it is appropriate to allow people to commit suicide. I have felt this way since I was a teenager… Once, I even got compared to Hitler by my high school speech teacher because I misspoke, as teens do, and put my thoughts in a way that didn’t translate the way they should have. I just don’t believe that people should have to linger when death is inevitable, and waiting for it to come “naturally” will be painful, undignified, and exorbitantly expensive. We all have to die someday, and while I don’t condone suicide for “selfish” or manipulative reasons, I do think sometimes it is appropriate to choose one’s own exit, so to speak.

I also found this book interesting because, besides having a few things in common with Amy Bloom, I enjoyed reading about her trip to Zurich. Bill and I went there last year for the first time, even though we’ve lived a relatively short distance from there for years. I had always heard Zurich was a “boring” city, but we didn’t find it that way at all, probably because Bill is now studying Carl Jung, and Jung lived in Zurich. So does Tina Turner. 😉 I did get a charge when Bloom wrote about visiting Marc Chagall’s famous windows in the Frauenkirche. Bill and I have been there, too. Also, I thought it was touching when Brian tells his wife that she must write his story… and she obliges, with this very sensitive and loving memoir.

Anyway, I’m glad I read Amy Bloom’s beautiful tribute to the love she shared with her husband. She was there when he needed her, and they spared each other the long, cruel, undignified goodbye that comes as Alzheimer’s Disease inevitably progresses. Maybe Brian Ameche’s exit wasn’t for everyone, but I think there will be some people who are helped by reading In Love. And some people will just be very moved by it, as I was.

Highly recommended.

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dogs, musings

After the thrill is gone, he’s gone to a better place…

I always pay attention to the music that plays when Bill and I are on our way to or from a euthanasia appointment. It may seem weird that I do this, but music makes up part of my psyche. It’s important to me. So I listen carefully just before and after I lose a pet.

In 2012, when we lost our dog, MacGregor, we were on our way to North Carolina State University Veterinary School to attend his death. On the way there, the song “Far Side Banks of Jordan” by Alison Krauss and the Cox Family came on my iPod. That song goes like this…

I believe my steps are growin’ wearier each day
Still I’ve got another journey on my mind
Lures of this old world have ceased to make me wanna stay
And my one regret is leavin’ you behind

But if it proves to be his will that I am first to go
And somehow I’ve a feelin’ it will be
When it comes your time to travel likewise, don’t feel lost
For I will be the first one that you’ll see

And I’ll be waiting on the far side banks of Jordan
I’ll be sitting drawing pictures in the sand
And when I see you coming, I will rise up with the shout
And come running through the shallow waters, reaching for your hand

Through this life we’ve labored hard to earn our meager fare
It’s brought us trembling hands and failing eyes
So I’ll just rest here on this shore and turn my eyes away
Until you come, then we’ll see paradise

And I’ll be waiting on the far side banks of Jordan
I’ll be sitting drawing pictures in the sand
And when I see you coming, I will rise up with the shout
And come running through the shallow waters, reaching for your hand

I’ll be waiting on the far side banks of Jordan
I’ll be sitting drawing pictures in the sand
And when I see you coming, I will rise up with the shout
And come running through the shallow waters, reaching for your hand, hmm

It seemed like MacGregor was telepathically comforting us, even though logic tells me it was a coincidence.

You’d have to know MacGregor to know how significant this song seemed as we drove to his euthanasia appointment. He was very much a country dog– mostly beagle and basset hound. He was afraid of strangers, but if he knew you, he was the most awesome, hilarious, funny dog. And he was a very devoted friend.

After MacGregor died, we listened to music on the way home to Zane. About twenty minutes after we set his spirit free, this song by Rhonda Vincent came on the iPod.

It was a gathering of some 300 people
In the little church the crowd began to swell
Quite a send off for a simple country farmer
For many loved and knew the old man well

And as his bride of 60 years came forward
She bravely walked to where his body lay
A hush fell over all that stood around her
She smiled through tears as she began to say

I will see you again
For this isn’t the end
You’re my forever friend
And I will see you again

Ever since a simple carpenter from Nazareth
Walked the mountains and the shores of Galilee
Ever since he died and rose again on Easter
Death doesn’t have the same old victory

Tonight I’ll lay my head upon his pillow
And cry until the breaking of the day
But even in the pain of separation
There’s a hope inside my heart that lets me say

I will see you again
For this isn’t the end
You’re my forever friend
And I will see you again

Jesus, He made a way
There is coming a day
So I will hold on ’til then
And I will see you again

I will hold on ’til then
And I will see you…again

I’m not a very religious person, but this was playing on the way back from seeing MacGregor’s entry into the next world… I found it very comforting.

Yesterday, when we lost Zane, I played the iPod again. On the way to appointment, there was a song by Folk Uke. It was definitely not a religious song. However, on the surface, it seemed kind of appropriate. It was called “Try to Say Goodbye”. Folk Uke is a very irreverent band, and this was not a comforting song.

If you knew Zane, this might seem appropriate… He was kind of a wise ass, even as he always tried so hard to be good.

On the way back from the appointment, I noticed the Eagles were playing… and it was this song, of all things…

All day, I got condolences from people paying respects in the wake of Zane’s death. Some were very heartfelt, loving, and kind. Some were pretty tone deaf and borderline offensive. I mostly tried to give people the benefit of the doubt. A lot of folks just plain aren’t good at comforting others. They don’t know what to say, but feel like they should say something. Most of the time, they offer thoughts and prayers, condolences, or just plain write “sorry”. These thoughts are probably better received offline, because about 80% of communication is non-verbal. But in today’s Internet connected world, we’ve lost the ability to communicate non-verbally. If you’re typing on a computer, you miss out on seeing the other person’s facial expressions and body language, which offers so much more of a clue as to what they really mean and whether or not they really mean it. So those words are not particularly comforting. They show that someone has tried to make an effort to be kind and sympathetic, which I do recognize. But are they meaningful, wise, or soothing? Not really, if I’m honest.

Well… I mostly cut people some slack. I appreciate that people were trying to be kind. We are taught that when someone experiences the painful loss of a loved one, we should be sympathetic. If one manages empathy, that’s even better. But a lot of people just don’t get the concept of empathy. Many people don’t have the sensitivity or the time for that, or they don’t know the person well enough to know how to respond. I get that. I really do. It means something when a person makes a sincere effort, even if the effort is a bit bumbling.

However, I think the comment that kind of cut me to the quick was one that came from a family member who typed, “He’s gone to a better place.” I do think I know what she was trying to convey, although more than once, she’s claimed to be an atheist. If she’s an atheist, then no, she probably doesn’t believe he’s “gone to a better place.” Either way, “a better place” is separated from me. She’s basically said my dog is “better off dead”, which is a really shitty thing to say… although I don’t think that’s what she meant.

It’s kind of akin to Donald Trump’s massive gaffe a couple of years ago, when he tried and failed to comfort a young soldier’s wife whose husband was killed in Nigeria. Trump said something along the lines of, “He died doing exactly what he wanted to do.” Basically, it sounds like that means he’d rather be sweating in Nigeria dodging bullets than being at home with his loving wife and their children. What Trump probably meant to convey was that the soldier had willingly signed up for the military because he wanted to defend the country and be of service. However, people join the military for all kinds of reasons. Maybe he believed in the mission in which he gave his life. Maybe he didn’t. He died with honor, though, doing what he agreed to do. And he was many thousands of miles away from his wife and babies when he did it. I’d like to hope he would not have preferred being in Nigeria over being with his family. But we don’t know. Trump didn’t know, either. His words were not comforting or particularly kind. They were thoughtless and insensitive.

As to my relative and her choice of words… well, I am not surprised. She isn’t known for being particularly empathetic. This particular relative, on the day we buried our grandmother, mused aloud if maybe I wasn’t my father’s biological daughter. She cited the fact that I have blonde hair, blue eyes, and a lack of freckles, while Dad was dark haired, dark eyed, and freckled. Also, my dad and I didn’t get along very well, although we did love each other. Fortunately, 23 and Me has put that particular question to rest.

It stung when I read my relative’s words, though, although I do understand that she was trying to be comforting. It would have been better if she’d said, “his suffering is over now” or “you were kind to help ease his way” or something like that. Telling me that my dog has “gone to a better place” sounds like it means that he’s better off dead, away from me and Bill, than at home with his loving family. And when those words come from someone who claims she doesn’t believe in God or the hereafter, they are especially hollow and meaningless.

Zane loved us. It was very clear that he did. Although he didn’t fight death, I doubt he really would have preferred dying over being with us. Is he at the Rainbow Bridge? I’d like to think there is such a place, although logic tells me there probably isn’t. But I do know that he’s no longer sick, exhausted, in pain, or suffering. He doesn’t have trouble breathing. He’s not bleeding internally. He doesn’t feel the frustration of not being able to do what he’s always been able to do. He was a dog who loved to run and play. He had a wonderful sense of humor, and he loved to snuggle in bed with us. In the last weeks, he stopped being able to do those things. He no longer has to live with the frustration of not being able to enjoy soft beds (because they made breathing too difficult), long walks (because he didn’t have the energy), good food (because cancer killed his appetite), or sitting in my lap (because he no longer had the strength, stamina, or coordination to jump up into it). Even if he’s not at the Rainbow Bridge, he’s no longer conscious of the things he could no longer enjoy. That’s a blessing.

This experience has reminded me to be more careful about what I say or write to people who have experienced the loss of a loved one. It’s better to be helpful than harmful. If I can’t be helpful and kind, it’s better not to say anything at all. Even though I love to write, I don’t always have the right words… And I don’t always have to say anything. A lot of people didn’t notice/didn’t comment on Zane’s death yesterday. Although it would have been nice if more of my family members had cared enough to comment, I think it’s better that people keep silent if they don’t have the right words. I’m no longer very close to my family, mainly due to my vehement rejection of Trump and my love for swearing and raucous humor. So they don’t follow me and they don’t know… As for my friends, the ones who really know and truly care about me had the right words. They were enough to make me feel loved. While I do appreciate the condolences left by people who don’t know me so well, I was reminded that when it comes to words of comfort, sometimes less is more.

Incidentally, I think Arran is grieving a bit. This morning, he was lying in Zane’s usual spot, looking forlorn. This is going to be an adjustment for all of us.

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