A Memoir of Love and Loss
By Amy Bloom
224 pages. Random house. $27.
Amy Bloom and Brian Ameche were a beautiful couple. I don’t know this because there is a photo of them in Bloom’s new memoir, “In Love,” about his Alzheimer’s and their search for a painless and dignified way to end his life. There isn’t.
I know this because I was so moved by Bloom’s bittersweet, truthful book that I looked them up and read whatever I could find.
She is a novelist and psychotherapist who taught at Yale and now Wesleyan. He was an architect who played football at Yale. His father was Alan Ameche, “The Horse”, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1954 and played with the Baltimore Colts.
I’m not sure why I hadn’t read Bloom’s fiction until now. Perhaps her soft, general titles – “Come to Me”, “Love Invents Us”, “Lucky Us” – were a deterrent. The title of these memoirs is similar.
Not reading her: my loss. Bloom has one of those warm, sensible, tolerant misanthropic New York voices, in the manner of Laurie Colwin and Sloane Crosley and Allegra Goodman and Nora Ephron, and the ability to deepen her tone at will. I am not, like these writers, Jewish. But when I read them, I feel like I’ve found my people.
Bloom and Ameche met in late middle age; each was in an unhappy relationship. They blew up their lives and moved in together.
They lived in what sounds like tremendous happiness just outside of New Haven, Conn., for about ten years until Brian, in his mid-60s, started forgetting things. He would get lost on his way to places. His personality changed; he was getting further and further away. He stopped reading. His handwriting was not the same.
The couple saw neurologists and the news was not good. Brian almost certainly had Alzheimer’s disease, he was told, and he’d probably had it for several years. “It took Brian less than a week to decide,” Bloom writes, “that the ‘long goodbye’ to Alzheimer’s disease wasn’t for him.”
(Aside: Ameche did the clock sign test. You may know about this test, but I don’t. Bloom prints it: Draw a clock face and place all the numbers on it. Now set the time to 10 past 11†
She writes, “If you don’t pass the clock sign test, you probably have some sort of cognitive impairment.” I’m sure I won’t be the only one drawing this clock on the margins of “In Love” soon.)
In her novel Summerwater, English author Sarah Moss joked about how easy it is to commit suicide in America. Just find an agent, she wrote, and start acting crazy.
Bloom and her husband discovered that it is not at all easy to end life in America, in a rational and pain-free way. Even in states with so-called “right to die” laws, unless the surviving spouse intends to cuff, the obstacles are nearly insurmountable.
Humans may be the only mammals with foreknowledge of their own ends, but unlike even pets, we don’t have the right to a merciful death.
“People who want to end their lives and shorten their period of great suffering and loss – those people are out of luck in the United States of America,” Bloom writes.
Her book reminds us that so many of us harbor end-of-life fantasies. We know what these conversations are like, ours over 50, late at night, over wine. We all gently push each other off boats, etc.
Indeed, an old friend told Brian, “I can just shoot you myself, in a year or two, in a field.” They hugged.
One of Ameche’s brothers made the same offer. He was reminded that he might go to jail. He joked: “I’d be fine in jail. I don’t go out much anyway.” Bloom writes, “I never liked the man again.”
Bloom and Ameche discovered a Swiss nonprofit called Dignitas that has been in business for more than two decades. It is “the only place in the world,” she writes, “for painless, peaceful and legal suicide.”
The screening was labor intensive. Many letters and forms from psychologists and others were needed. Bloom likens the process to trying to get a kid to Harvard, only knowing that if you do, they’ll kill him.
Interviews in Zurich were a last hurdle. From Brian, Dignitas wanted to feel the most “discernment.”
Bloom tells this story with grace and tact. Scenes from their trip to Zurich are shuffled with scenes from their courtship and marriage.
Not long after they met, Ameche gave her a short speech that is as good as anything I’ve ever seen in a romantic comedy.
“You should be with a guy who doesn’t mind you being smarter than him, who doesn’t mind you being the main event most of the time,” he said. “You need to be with a man who supports you no matter how hard you work and who brings you a cup of coffee late at night. I don’t know if I can be that guy’ – he burst into tears – ‘but I’d like a chance.’
The next paragraph reads in its entirety: “We are married.”
Their lives were littered with the small luxuries of the progressives and wealthy. They are the kind of people who know the local lady who makes her own Thai barbecue sauce; they notice when Rachel Maddow changes her lip gloss; Bloom once had a second refrigerator solely for spices.
One sign that Brian was changing: his taste was beginning to falter. This was funny until it wasn’t anymore. He began buying Bloom jewelry, she writes, “so far from my taste that, if he were any other man, I would think he kept a 1970s bohemian in Westville and gave me the enameled brass earrings and bracelet that he accidentally bought for her.”
There are many tears in this memoir. A non-atypical line is, “I cry as if my face is broken.”
This book reminded me of Calvin Trillin’s “Remembering Denny” in its format, tone and emphasis on Yale. Brian was so tall and handsome in college that his nickname was Thor. He had a great laugh; people liked to be around him.
Part of what makes this book moving is Bloom’s toughness. She’s a mama bear, in the right way. She doesn’t go overboard in explaining her moral reasoning. She doesn’t have to. Her title is her explanation.
She understood implicitly when her husband said, “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.”