Anita Hannig’s “The Day I Die” and Amy Bloom’s “In Love”
(The following appeared first as a blog for End of Life Choices California, an excellent nonprofit on whose board I’m proud to serve. It’s reprinted with pleasure, especially after Hannig told me that our blog resulted in more visits to her website than did her interview with Diane Rehm; I love being mentioned in the same sentence with Diane Rehm.)
Anita Hannig’s The Day I Die: The untold story of assisted dying in America has taken a well-deserved place as the definitive book on Medical Aid in Dying. Want information on how it works? On the history of the assisted dying movement? On the future of legal death with dignity laws? Hannig covers it all, in a book that reads like a personal, informal conversation with the author.
Hannig spoke recently with this reporter about The Day I Die – which is filled with stories of her own experience as a hospice volunteer, and accompanying other volunteers and professionals – and about the work we do at End of Life Choices CA.
“Volunteers are the lifeblood of assisted dying,” Hannig says. “They provide firstline support for families and patients, and it’s hard to overestimate the role they play. In my research, I witnessed how much families and their loved ones leaned on volunteers for their technical expertise but also – and equally importantly – for their human touch and care. In a time of great vulnerability and uncertainty, volunteers help patients navigate the ins and outs of qualifying for the law and accompanying them each step of the way afterward. The emotional labor volunteers put into their work is nothing short of admirable. I have profound respect for their work.”
Hannig, an associate professor of anthropology at Brandeis University, invested five years of study and hands-on involvement in writing The Day I Die. Along the way she accumulated a wealth of stories – poignant, humorous, heart-tugging, enlightening – that she shares in the book.
Looking ahead, Hannig says she wants to be optimistic about the future of the law, “but in the current political (or perhaps judicial) climate I am not sure such optimism is warranted. In the long term, however, I do think that we as a society will gradually move into a direction of granting more rights and freedoms to the dying. My hope is that assisted dying will eventually become legal in all fifty states.”
For now, Hannig says “there are still some misunderstandings about all the different steps someone needs to complete to qualify for assisted dying. Most people think it’s more straightforward than it actually is. Or they wait too long to start the process. Many are still under the impression that there’s a “magic pill,” when in reality the protocol of the medications is quite nuanced and complex. My book talks about the fascinating pharmacology of dying in more detail.”
The Day I Die, in fact, talks about the fascinating work of assisted dying in all its important, often difficult, always rewarding details. It’s a book to read, to keep and to give to those you love.
Amy Bloom’s In Love is a book for anyone facing Alzheimer’s, anyone who knows someone with Alzheimer’s – or anyone who’s ever been in love.
It is, despite the somber underlying theme, a love story.
Bloom writes unblinkingly of her husband’s decision to end his life before Alzheimer’s can pull him into years of oblivion, and her own decision to support him in this quest.
In just the first few pages it’s easy for the reader also to fall in love with Brian Ameche. Bloom writes with warmth and honesty about their love affair, begun while each was committed to someone else and eventually legitimized into a more or less conventional marriage. The handsome Italian architect/ex-Yale football player from a sprawling Catholic family and the celebrated Jewish writer/ teacher/ psychotherapist who share, at least, a dedicated atheism, create a life together bursting with joy. Until his diagnosis.
Brian, who has probably had Alzheimer’s for a few years, finally exhibits enough symptoms – confusion, forgetfulness, erratic behavior – that it can’t be ignored. And he is immediately, defiantly certain that he wants to end his life while he has the wits to do so.
In the U.S., there’s no legal, nonviolent way to accomplish this goal. Even in the 11 states or jurisdictions where Medical Aid in Dying is legal, one has to have a terminal diagnosis and be mentally competent; Alzheimer’s is a disqualifier.
Ameche and Bloom finally settle on Dignitas, a Swiss nonprofit that helps people with terminal illness – including Alzheimer’s – end their lives peacefully. But Dignitas, in addition to the costs of getting to Zurich, has its own strict regulations: certifications of Ameche’s diagnosis, medical information and proof that he’s not just depressed, time-consuming hoops that must be jumped through. The couple set about making it happen, while keeping their plans from all but a necessary few. Toward the end they accomplish the final details – notes to friends and relatives that will be delivered after Ameche’s death, discussions about his wishes, plans for a few celebratory days in Zurich – which do include a celebratory moment or two – and for a friend to be there to fly home afterward with Bloom.
Bloom skillfully weaves glimpses of their romance and marriage, the good and the bad, into the story of their struggle to meet Dignitas qualifications and complete the journey. It’s a remarkable journey, remarkably well told.
(For anyone addicted to audio books, as this writer increasingly is, this one is a special treat: Bloom reads her own words. It’s as if she were telling the reader the tale.)