at Amy Bloom Lover advertises itself on its cover as “A Memoir of Love and Loss”. Of course, that would describe so many personal stories of the pain of losing beloved parents, partners, children, and friends (and the joy of sometimes finding new love, too). But Bloom’s memoirs are certainly not trivial.
As in his novels and short stories — come to me, A blind man can see how much I love you, love invents us, makes us lucky, Where the God of love hangs out – Bloom’s subject is, once again, love in a broad sense. But the question eclipsing this memoir is how far you would go for the one you love. Would you be willing to help your loved one end their life when they receive a hopeless diagnosis?
That’s what Brian Ameche, Bloom’s husband of 12 years, asks her after being diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s disease in his mid-60s. His diagnosis follows about three years of marked cognitive slippage and problems with balance and proprioception. He told her categorically, “I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.” Over the next few months, his decision to end his life before he becomes less and less himself is unwavering.
By writing openly and heartbreakingly about euthanasia, Bloom breaks new ground. Be ready to be shaken. Arm yourself with handkerchiefs and don’t even think about reading this book in public.
Not everyone will agree with Brian’s decision or Bloom’s agreement to support his wishes. Bloom understands that euthanasia is a controversial subject and she approaches it with the seriousness it deserves. At various times, she worries “that a better wife, certainly a different wife, would have said no, would have insisted on keeping her husband in this world until his body gave out.” In Brian’s most acute moments, she fears they are acting too soon. She also attacks, rightly, a system that helps animals out of their misery, but not human beings.
A big man with strong appetites, Brian played football at Yale and designed senior housing, apartment buildings and corporate offices during his four decades of architectural practice. He is a fishing and reading enthusiast. Although he has no children himself, he is a doting and playful grandfather to the four young daughters of Bloom’s three adult children from his first marriage. He is the eldest son of a large close Italian family. Her 84-year-old mother, who has lost close friends to Alzheimer’s disease, supports her decision.
Bloom makes it clear that he – and she – would lose a lot by ending her life.
Painfully aware that he is no longer able to handle such arrangements on his own, he asks her to research her assisted suicide options. He doesn’t want to do it alone.
Bloom quickly discovers that there aren’t many choices. Although several states have enacted right to die with the assistance of a physician laws, they involve “intentionally tapped the needle” requirements: you must be a local resident who is mentally capable and can be medically certified that you only have six months to live. Additionally, you must be able to “express your wish to die, usually three times, twice orally and once in writing, to two local physicians.”
Brian’s best option turns out to be Dignitas, a non-profit organization in Switzerland that is “the only place in the world for painless, peaceful and legal suicide.”
But there are hurdles to overcome before Dignitas accepts Brian as a client, including medical and dental records and an autobiographical statement. (Brian actually brings up a possible connection between his football game and dementia in this personal story.)
In multiple interviews with Dignitas staff, Brian must prove that he is persuasive enough to show “discernment and determination”. The couple know that if they wait too long, they won’t be able to pass this test. They were shockingly delayed when they learned that Brian’s neurologist had written on the MRI report that the reason for the test was a “major depressive episode”. Depression is a deal breaker for Dignitas, which does not want to help clinically depressed people commit suicide. Brian and Bloom must prove that the neurologist’s note is simply wrong.
Bloom, reflecting on his role in all of this, writes: “Seems like I’m doing the right thing in supporting Brian in his decision, but it would be better and easier if he could make all the arrangements himself and I could just be a conscientious duckling, following in his wake. Of course, if he could make all the arrangements himself, he wouldn’t have Alzheimer’s…”
Lover begins on Sunday, January 26, 2020, when the couple fly to Zurich on a “not-quite-normal version” of the trips they loved. Next, Bloom looks back on the first suspicions of Brian’s illness, his diagnosis, and his frantic, tearful, months-long efforts to engineer the end he wants. She also remembers how they fell in love and left their partners, seizing their chance at happiness. By the time we look back on their stupendous week in Zurich, we’ve learned a lot about this couple.
Lover is a disturbing profile in courage. It certainly took uncommon courage and compassion for Bloom to live this story, and even more courage for her to accede to Brian’s request to write about it. She sheds buckets of tears over the events depicted in this devastating and fiercely well-written memoir, and readers will too.