Amy Bloom, IN LOVE: A Memoir of Love and Loss

Amy Bloom, IN LOVE: A Memoir of Love and Loss

In a hybrid podcast-virtual book club episode, Zibby joins New York Times bestselling author Amy Bloom to discuss In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss, which tells the beautiful and heartbreaking story of her husband’s journey with Alzheimer’s and his decision to pursue a painless and dignified assisted suicide. Amy answers audience questions about the book itself (its structure, humor, and candid honesty) and about experiencing her husband’s rapid decline and death and finding the bravery to put it all on paper (at his request!).


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Amy. Thank you for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss.

Amy Bloom: Happy to be here.

Zibby: This is a special podcast because we are doing this as a hybrid, also, book club for Zibby’s Virtual Book Club. We will have a conversation but also bring in questions from the book club group as well. Amy, for those who have not read your absolutely beautiful book, which, by the way, I completely loved and adored, could you explain a little about what your book’s about and even why you decided to take this time of your life and turn it into a book?

Amy: I don’t know that I would say it was anything as internally directed as, take this time in my life and turn it into a book. I’m not a memoir writer. I had no aspirations to be a memoir writer. I barely read memoirs. However, several years ago, my husband was diagnosed as having Alzheimer’s, having probably had it for the preceding three years. During that time, he made the decision, which did not surprise me, that he did not want to go through the next ten years of the slow, sometimes not so slow decline of Alzheimer’s and asked for my help in doing some research about how he might find a painless way to end his life when he felt it was time. Among the other things he asked me to do is he asked me to write about it because he felt this was a subject that people tended not to talk about, tended not to plan about, and certainly tended not to look at the details of. He felt that it was important. I would say that for Brian, the right to choose in all points of one’s life was always very important to him. This is a guy who had been a football player at Yale and since he was nineteen years old had worked as an escort at the Planned Parenthood clinic up the street in New Haven and continued to do that for the next forty years.

Zibby: Wow. It was absolutely beautiful, the way you wrote about it and the way you tracked the decline, the decisions that were made at the end, and all the individual moments of it. I think that was the most powerful, were just the small moments at home, the interactions between the two of you. The research, yes, and all of what came next, but just the moments, the flashback, the moments were so poignant, I found. Ashley Rice here would like to ask you a question about structure.

Ashley Rice: I was wondering about the structure of your book. It seemed the chapters were very short. I wondered if that was intentional based on the way people with dementia and Alzheimer’s kind of have a shorter thought wave.

Amy: That’s an interesting question. It is really based on the fact that you don’t have to have dementia in the modern world to have a short attention span. I thought that — really, two things. Yes, it was intentional, but the intent was really to, in some ways, make the narrative bearable. I really did feel that thirty pages at a time of someone’s decline from dementia or his exploring ways to end his life was just hard to take. Shorter allowed me to move back and forth through the past and the present. That was very much intentional. I always saw the book as basically braiding together the more distant past, the near past, and the present.

Ashley: Thank you. It was a very beautiful book.

Amy: Thank you.

Zibby: Meghan Riordan Jarvis.

Meghan Riordan Jarvis: Hi. Thank you so much for the book. I gave your book to a bunch of folks, mostly because I defined it as a love story that doesn’t get written, that can’t specifically be written, except maybe only by you. I wanted to ask about writing from the wound versus writing about the wound. What already was mentioned and was mentioned before you came on the call, the tightness. The word I kept thinking was crisp, the crispness of the writing, not just what’s in the chapter, but also what’s not in the chapter. All the noise of what must have been around you is not there, which creates all this intimacy. I wanted to know about your process, the emotional process. Were you writing knowing you were writing the story that your husband had asked you to write? Was it that wrapping your head around the narrative so that it made sense to you? Does my question make sense?

Amy: I do understand. Maybe it was a little easier for me — it didn’t feel that way at the time — because I’m writer. That’s my gig. I would take Brian to his appointments or do whatever we were doing. I might make a few notes in my office. After his death at the end of January of 2020, two things happened. One is the pandemic fell down upon us. My younger daughter, her wife, and their baby moved in with me for six months, which was not what I thought I needed, but it turns out somebody had a better idea. It was great. There’s an image in a poem about a dead log in the forest that has fallen over and then the life that comes back in the dead log, and the grass and the flowers. That’s really how it felt. We would trade places so that my daughter and daughter-in-law could work in the morning. They were in Brooklyn. They had no childcare. They had a very lively three-year-old. They were working full time. I would do baby care in the morning and then lunch. Then after lunch, they would take over. I would come to my office. It turns out you can type and cry at the same time. That was what I did. It was not cathartic for me in the sense that it wasn’t like journaling. I knew I was writing to be read. I had a very funny interview with somebody who had said to me, “Did your husband ask you to write this book?” I said, “No, he told me.” He told me.

Meghan: There’s something — I don’t exactly know how to say this. I do write memoir. I love memoir. I only read memoir. I care about the characters. I think the reason I gave the book is I loved you both in the book. There was so much intimacy constructed between you that even though we’re complete strangers, you invited me — I won’t speak for anyone else — into not just the pain of the story, but the exquisite love of the story. It really left me breathless. I’m very grateful to have read it.

Amy: Thank you so much. You shape it as you go along. I did find myself thinking, I want people to be able to see Brian. I didn’t feel like I was going to be able to hide much of myself. There was probably the good and the bad. I really wanted people to be able to see Brian and see a person who was making this decision and how people come to it, so there you go.

Zibby: Sydney Barkus Dallas has a related question.

Sydney Barkus Dallas: Hi. Thank you for joining us today. I wanted to ask, did you vacillate when you were writing? How did you work with your inner editor? Were there parts that you said, no, I’m not going to put that in, and then you came back and said, I will? Were there things that, whether it was too intimate or too revealing or if you just thought it was superfluous — was it suddenly seeming like you were over-romanticizing Brian? Was there anything in your internal process where you really got hung up?

Amy: I have a pretty good relationship with my internal editor, but I also have a relationship with my external editor. At one point, I had turned in the first draft. My editor, we are very close. We have worked together for a very long time. She was like, “I don’t feel like you’re saying anything about the development of his symptoms. What was that like?” I must have said to her three times, “I think it’s fine the way it is. I don’t think you need any more information about that. People know about Alzheimer’s. They understand the kind of things that happen.” She was like, “I really think you should let us see some of that.” Each time, I was like, “No, I don’t think it’s necessary.” Then finally, I recognized that, of course, it was necessary and useful to people. Also, I won’t say it was unbearable because I wrote it, but it was hard to write. That was actually harder to write than almost anything else, was the growing list of symptoms, the signs of decline. For most people, Alzheimer’s really is a diagnosis that you only understand in hindsight. To look at the preceding three years, and maybe even a little more, and begin to ask myself questions about it, which are also fairly pointless, was really hard. That was my big struggle. I’ve left out more of some of Brian’s more annoying qualities because I did really want people to love him and see him. I certainly didn’t romanticize myself. I don’t think I romanticized it too much. It was a happy marriage.

Sydney: From the outside looking in, it comes across as extraordinarily real. It’s only real to you. We accept it on faith. It’s powerful. Thank you.

Amy: Thank you.

Zibby: Daphne has a quick follow-up question to one thing you’ve already mentioned.

Daphne: When I read this beautiful book, my first response before you came on was that my guess was that you wrote it because it was your way of managing it, but now I’m understanding that you wrote it because Brian asked you to. My question is, would you have written it if he had not asked you to write it?

Amy: Absolutely not. I think memoir is a great genre. I can’t say I’ve never read a memoir. I think I’ve read three in my life. I thought they were all terrific. Not something that I ever found — to me, I was no more going to write a memoir than I was going to write a collection of limericks. It was like, not me. Brian had a really strong wish about this. I know that for him, part of what made it easier for him to leave this life that he enjoyed so much was knowing that I was going to write about it and that this story was going to get shared. I know that that mattered to him because he told me that.

Daphne: Thank you.

Zibby: Diane Fiend has another question.

Diane Fiend: Thank you so much for writing this book and for being here with us today. I was so moved by it. I also had this loud call in my heart about your feeling about him leaving at the time that he did. It was a burning question. I couldn’t wait to ask this question. If it was up to you totally and he left it up to you one hundred percent, would you have wanted him to leave at that point, or would you have wanted him to stay longer?

Amy: If it was up to me, he wouldn’t have had Alzheimer’s.

Diane: I mean given the reality of the situation.

Amy: Given the reality of the situation and given Brian’s wish to have a painless and peaceful and legal death, our choices were actually incredibly limited. People would say things like, but there are all these right-to-die states in America. What people tend not to understand is that if you have dementia, none of those ten states are available to you because you also have to have cognitive function. You have to be able to display judgement and discernment. If you are terminally ill and close to the end with dementia, you are not somebody who’s going to have that kind of judgement. For me, truly, what I wished is that he didn’t have Alzheimer’s. I also wanted very much for him to have the kind of end of life that he chose. If somebody had said, “We have magic. We can tell you that he can go another two years and still be himself and still feel at ease in the world and have his relationships and his own sense of self and dignity,” of course, I would’ve preferred that. There was nobody who could tell us that at all. Partially because he had early-onset Alzheimer’s, it’s not a slow-moving river. It’s a fairly rapid-moving river. One struggles with the wish to keep your beloved with you as long as possible, but also a wish to — he felt so strongly about his wish to continue to be himself. We had seen Alzheimer’s close up in our family, also early-onset. He was also a fairly combative and aggressive guy, and so when he said, “I prefer to die on my feet than live on my knees,” I not only knew that he meant it, he had meant it his whole life. Yes, I would’ve liked to have kept him in this world with me as long as possible. As it turned out, possible was not going to be that long.

Diane: Can I ask one other quick question? Why did he want you to write this book?

Amy: Two reasons. One is, to put it in the nicest possible way, he had a fairly strong sense of self, so there’s that. He certainly thought it was worth writing about. Also, he really cared about the subject. He had always cared about the subject of right to choose your life, whether it was for Planned Parenthood, whether it was for end of life, whether for people who were disabled. Just the right to choose was very, very important to him. I think that’s why he wanted me to write about it. As he said, “I could hurry up and try to write about it, but people aren’t going to read it. You write about it. People will read it.”

Diane: Thank you. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Alisa Marks.

Alisa Marks: Hi. Thank you so much for joining us today. The book is beautiful. When I tried to explain to people why they should read it and that it was a book about dying but it was actually warm and, at times, very funny — it made you feel very full and, at times, even joyous. My question is, as part of the process, did you intentionally infuse humor to lighten it a little bit? Is that just part of your relationship? It’s remarkable to me that you could have a book — I kept telling people, it’s about her husband facing his end of life, but it’s so lovely. You will feel down, but you won’t feel down. It was a very hard thing to explain to people. I’m curious, in your process, how you were able to balance that.

Amy: I think mostly, it’s my nature. It’s possible I’ve sat at slightly more deathbeds than some other people. One of my really formative experiences when I was quite a bit younger was the man who had been sort of my surrogate father and a great mentor to me was in the hospital for the last time. I was driving down from Connecticut to sit by his bedside in the hospital. His other really close friend, who was a man his own age — these were guys in their — probably about eighty. I think I was about forty. I would come in. There would be Wagner playing and this old man sitting there talking about the war, whatever it was, nothing that made me feel particularly welcome. He would see me. He would sigh. I would sigh. I don’t mean my friend. I mean the other friend. Then he’d say, “I’ll go get a cup of coffee. You guys visit.” I would then change the room freshener, change the music, bring him a cup of chamomile tea instead of the hospital coffee. This would go on for days. We would take turns. It made me laugh every time. I thought, we are still fighting about who’s his bestie even as he’s leaving this world. I think it’s mostly my nature. I think this is a terrible and beautiful world. Things are just grievously painful and also pretty funny.

Alisa: Thank you. It made the book just feel so much more close and personal because life is full of both sadness and comedy kind of all mixed in one. You just had the perfect balance in there for that. Your relationship was so real from that. Thank you.

Amy: Thank you. I’m glad.

Zibby: Francine.

Francine: Thank you so much for coming to be with us today and hearing from you. I loved your book. I will say that reading it kind of hit me in the face because my husband has shown some memory loss. You mentioned that your husband had shown some three years prior to being diagnosed. Is that accurate?

Amy: Yes. Part of what is so difficult, it seems to me, around dementia is, who’s to say? If you think it’s your spouse, how do you get your spouse to go and get a mini mental exam?

Francine: Right. I’m fine.

Amy: I’m fine. I’m driving. What are you talking about? Everybody forgets where they put their keys. What are you doing? Why are you trying to do this? There were so many times when — after Brian had decided that what he wanted to do was go to Dignitas, which is an accompanied-suicide place in Switzerland where it’s legal and painless, we had to find his birth certificate. I’m thinking, oh, my goodness, how are we going to do that? Brian goes, “I know where it is.” He goes upstairs, goes to his office, and gets his birth certificate, at which point I’m like, this is the man who’s going to end his life because of his loss of self? On the other hand, that same day, he was going to work on a stained-glass project, which is about five minutes from our house. We live in a very small town. He left. He came back about two minutes later. He said, “I don’t know where it is.” He had been going there for about three years. There are all these peaks and valleys of memory and cognition.

I will say, by the time our application was accepted in Switzerland, he had, for example, forgotten the names of all of our grandchildren. Loved them. Called everybody darling. Could not summon up their names. It’s this series of pockets and ditches and obstacles that were overcome a few days ago but no longer overcome and then will never be overcome again. It was that kind of process. I don’t know that I would have done anything differently when the first signs were occurring. In the book, I write that I had written a script for a TV show I was working on. Brian was always a big reader of my work and really hoped that we would move to LA. He left it on the floor on his bedside. I didn’t want to be like, have you read my work? Is it great? After a couple of weeks, I said, “Honey, did you read the script?” He said, “It’s too hard to follow.” He said with no chagrin, no embarrassment, just, I don’t know what’s wrong with it, but it’s — this is a guy who had probably, I would say in his lifetime, had probably read forty television scripts. He was like, “It’s too hard to follow. I don’t understand the formatting.”

Francine: You did a beautiful job of making us love him and you. I thought it was a beautiful love story. I like the humor. I cried a lot in it. Thank you so much. Thank you for answering my question. As I said, it kind of smacked me in the face of, whoa. It changed my way of looking at things around here.

Amy: I realize you didn’t ask me, but anything I can do to persuade you to get your spouse to go to his primary care physician and suggest that maybe this is just something to check out would be a gift to both of you.

Francine: Thank you. I would’ve asked, but now that you volunteered, thank you. I appreciate that. I will. I won’t have any hesitation about that. Thank you so much. Thank you.

Zibby: We have time for a couple more questions. A.M. Richard.

A.M. Richard: Hi. Nice to meet you. I really enjoyed your book. I do want to say how amazing it was to me that you just did everything that Brian wanted you to do even though that might have not been your choice. You could’ve said, well, they haven’t called me back. We can’t find anything. You could’ve probably made up a million different excuses and just put it off, put it off, put it off. You were diligent about doing everything he asked even when you would stop and cry to yourself and struggled through that. How amazing that was to me that you did it for him. Just as the book’s called, In Love, that love you have for him to do that even though it hurt so deeply, that is just so admirable. I really admired that. I just wanted to say that.

Amy: Thank you. I don’t think that in the rest of my life anybody would describe me as a milk-toast or a very dutiful wife. I don’t even think I aspired to be a dutiful wife. I also felt that he was so clear about what he wanted. I did respect him. I also understood the choice. I think if I had had, for example, a deeply moral or spiritual objection to his choice, I would’ve struggled even more. I did understand it. We had seen what the end of life looked like with dementia. It was just heartbreaking in our family. I thought, I can do this. I certainly can’t do it without crying all the time, but I can do it, so I will.

Zibby: Two more questions. Eileen and then Olivia.

Eileen: Thank you very much for being here this afternoon. I really loved the book. I thought it was brave in so many ways, brave in everything that you went through and brave in writing it and telling the story in the way that you did. The question that I have is not so much about the content of the book but about the fact that you said that you don’t like memoir. You don’t like reading them. You don’t like writing them. I was wondering if there’s anything that you did differently having read a few memoirs that wanted you to make this different than other memoirs.

Amy: No. There are a lot of great memoirs out there. It’s not that I am uninterested in the genre because I think it’s terrible. It’s not unlike the way I feel about science fiction. I have read two science fiction writers, Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin. I feel that I am lucky to have read them and improved by reading them, but it’s not a genre I’m drawn to. It was really very much the same thing. I thought, let me try to do a good job. Since it wasn’t my wish in life to be a memoir writer, it was, let me do a good job with this one thing that, god willing, I will never do again.

Eileen: Thank you.

Zibby: Now Olivia Cohen.

Olivia Cohen: Hi. I am a great fan of your work. I always have been, beginning with Away. I was excited to be able to read this new book, especially since it was such a departure from the things that you’ve done before. What I would like to ask is, where did you find the bravery to be so vulnerable? In your other books, you are behind the characters. In this book, you are the character. The person you love most is the character. Your story, which is deeply personal, is what you are offering to the world. Where did you find that bravery?

Amy: I suppose the good news is that when you are in the middle of it, you don’t notice so much. When you’re climbing the mountain, you don’t want to look down. I just thought, I’m going to put one foot in front of the other. I’m going to write about all the things that happened. I’m going to do my best to tell the truth. I’m going to work very hard on not thinking about how much is revealed. By the way, I actually also do it with my fiction. I just try very hard not to think about how much people will see or that they will see — I once gave a reading. My sister was in the audience, my big sister, who’s a ferocious divorce lawyer. It was an early story of mine about two sisters, one of whom was a schizophrenia and who dies at the end of the story. A woman in the audience stood up. She was lovely. She said, “I just wanted to tell you I really understand what you have gone through because I too have a mentally ill sister,” at which point my sister leaps us and goes, “I’m fine. You misunderstood the story.” I’m like, you’re not helping. For me, writing this, I just thought, people will see what they see. My job is to tell this story. My job is not to worry about how people judge me afterwards.

Oliva: I don’t think anyone judged you in any way but a positive judgement. I think that this story is extraordinary. The love story of it is extraordinary. The way you told it is one that draws people in in a way that you simply don’t see coming. It is really a masterpiece. Thank you for writing it. Thank you for being here today.

Amy: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

Zibby: Thank you for everything. I just have one quick question of my own, which is, what do you miss the most about Brian today?

Amy: I don’t think there’s a one thing. I miss his being here in the world. I miss his being here for the grandchildren. I miss his being here for my children. All of those things. I think I say in the book, I have a tree, Brian’s tree, which is in my yard and surrounded by perennial white flowers. That is something I’m really glad that I did. That was not his idea. That was my idea. It’s a way of having his presence. For me, not one thing, but I will say one of the things that I certainly learned from him was to move forward and to not be daunted.

Zibby: Wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing all of your time with us and for sharing In Love with the whole world and all of this time for our collective questions. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” and everybody in the audience, so to speak.

Amy: Thank you, everybody.

Zibby: Thank you for doing a live podcast for Zibby’s Virtual Book Club. Thank you all for coming.

Amy: Thank you so much.

Zibby: We’ll see you next month, everybody. Thank you, Amy.

Amy Bloom, IN LOVE: A Memoir of Love and Loss

IN LOVE:A Memoir of Love and Loss by Amy Bloom,

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