Every day I pass adverts saying “I live with dementia” outside the Victoria Centre. These are from the Dementia Association and feature youngish or middle-aged people who live with dementia because a family member has dementia. The posters came to mind when I chanced upon this book in BUK, the new bookshop in Arnold.
It’s obvious what this memoir is about. The American writer Amy Bloom’s husband, Brian, develops Alzheimer’s and after his condition worsens, but while he is still capable of making a decision, he will go to Switzerland, to Dignitas, to end his life at a time of his own choosing. In America there are states where it is possible to take this action, but, generally, you have to be in the last six months of your life and a state resident. There are other rules, but there is no way he could predict how long he would live and for how long he could make a conscious decision. On his behalf Bloom tries to find alternatives, but they are either dangerous or unreliable or she is stymied in her search. Pharmacies, for example, would not honour the prescriptions she managed to obtain.
So Switzerland it would be… but that too is fraught. Dignitas’s rules are that you can go to them if you are in “unendurable and uncontrollable pain” or have a terminal illness – in their case there is no timescale for your demise to take into account – or very old age. And if you can get to Switzerland and pay $10,000 dollars. But you need medical reports, birth certificates, references, psychological reports, interviews. And if you are depressed you are ruled out, as being chronically depressed does not fit their criteria. Brian’s medical reports included that he had suffered from depression so he had to get new reports focussing on his dementia… but Dignitas was slow and the time when he was capable of making his own decision was running out.
As we wait for this to be resolved, Bloom goes back to the years of increasing concern that there might be a problem. By the way, sports fans, her husband had been an ace American football player – we now know this and other sports involving head injuries and “heading” increases the likelihood of dementia. We read about the early years of coping with the problem and the steady restrictions on Brian’s life as his memory failed. Forgetting where to turn, getting lost, drifting away from the world, having to leave his beloved book group, anxiety, tears. And more tears.
We learn about the man. His Catholic background (Bloom is Jewish); the buildings he designed; his Saturday mornings escorting women to Planned Parenthood in the face of “screaming protestors”. And we learn about the author. She is not always nice, she is often angry, is often stressed out – sometimes when Brian sails blythely on, unaware of the chaos he is creating. Sometimes we learn more about the author than we might want to. But at all times we know the title reflects their lives together – every day of their lives, as she wrote, as they pledged on their late marriage. They were together, what?, something like thirteen years.
And then we get to Zurich. The detail of what happens is there, at Dignitas, and it is all over in four pages. It feels sudden. Bloom flew back immediately, a friend having come out to help her get home. And we start to move forward, with a memorial meeting in the library across from her house.
Some people might find this a difficult book to read, for obvious reasons. And, yes, I did find something in my eye a couple of times.
If you are near Arnold why not pick In Love up from BUK, as I did, or you can find a copy at Five Leaves a day after this review appears.