‘A new, not quite normal version of something we love’: an extract from Amy Bloom’s ‘In Love’
Posted by Amy Bloom
In Love by Amy Bloom, shortlisted for this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize, is Bloom’s intimate account of losing her husband, Brian; first slowly to Alzheimer’s, and then to assisted death at Dignitas in Switzerland. The Rathbones Folio Prize judges called it ‘a memoir about facing the unthinkable, rich in wit, grace, elegance and fierce truthfulness’.
This trip to Zurich is a new, not quite normal version of something Brian and I love: traveling. Road trip, train ride, ferry ride, airplane anywhere. We like all travel and most shopping, and this trip to Zurich has all the accoutrements of our other trips and is also nothing like anything we’ve ever done. As we usually do, we take a car service to the airport so we can be fancy and also avoid the park-and-schlep, and even before Brian had Alzheimer’s, our combined lack of direction adds twenty minutes to all transportation transitions. We have a restaurant meal before our 6 p.m. departure. I buy a stick of lipstick and a small tube of hand cream; Brian buys some candy. We share gum. We share a bottle of water.
On the plane, we enjoy the settling in, the attention of the flight attendants, who already like us because Brian is mindful about his size and doesn’t swing his arm into someone else’s drink and he expresses appreciation to every single Swissair representative. We seem like people who will not be screaming for more booze or more peanuts at midnight. No one loves business class more than people who always fly coach.
We are smiling from the moment we board. I get to keeping our business-class pods orderly; we are gushingly polite to the attendants. It’s obvious that we like each other and are happy to be traveling together. As soon as we get our beverages (in glasses!), we toast my sister and brother-in-law, who are paying for our business-class trip to Zurich.
Dignitas’s office is in Zurich, and that’s where we’re headed. Dignitas is a Swiss nonprofit organization offering accompanied suicide. For the last twenty-two years, Dignitas has been the only place to go if you are an American citizen who wants to die and if you are not certifiably terminally ill with no more than six months to live. This is the current standard in the United States, even in the nine right-to-die states plus the District of Columbia, about which many older or chronically ill Americans harbor end-of-life fantasies and which I researched, at Brian’s direction, until we discovered that the only place in the world for painless, peaceful, and legal suicide is Dignitas, in the suburbs of Zurich.
In our Swissair pods, Brian and I toast each other, and we say, Here’s to you, a little hesitantly, instead of what we usually say, Cent’anni (“May we have a hundred years,” a very Italian toast). There is no Cent’anni for us; we won’t make it to our thirteenth wedding anniversary.
We lean closer to each other and then we pull back, each of us fussing with our shoes and carry-ons, each of us opening our little gift bags from the airline and pulling out the socks (yes) and the eye masks (never) and the tiny toothpastes and tiny toothbrushes, which we persist in believing will delight the grandchildren, which they never do.
It is all nearly normal, like so much that we’ve done these last few years, like the flight itself and everything that precedes it—the trip to the airport, the TSA (our petty but deep pleasure at having TSA PreCheck, noting the much longer, shoes-off lines to the left of us), the pretty good meal at JFK. It all seems normal, except that I still remember how different it was to be together, to be with Brian, three years ago, when I didn’t hold my breath from the time he went off to the newsstand until he came back. From the outside, or some kind of inside (the one where I too have no memory of how we used to live our actual life), it is nearly normal.
At JFK, we stood mid-Terminal 4 and agreed on the restaurant, nicer than Shake Shack (which I love and Brian does not) but not as nice as the Palm steakhouse, which seems insanely high-priced, but as I’m writing this, I remember that we did go to the Palm, after all, because . . . obviously.
Brian ordered everything he wanted—and, it seemed to me, everything that anyone can imagine ordering—at the Palm steakhouse at JFK, except vodka on the rocks, which he had been mentioning wanting from time to time for the last year or so.
At the Palm, Brian ordered onion rings and a rare rib eye with a side of hash browns and a Caesar salad and garlic toast and he would have ordered a shrimp cocktail, except that I whispered, like the circa-1953 stage Jewish wife I seem to have become, missing only my home perm and rickrack-trimmed apron: Really? Shrimp in a steak place, in an airport? Brian shrugged, to say: I’m not that excited about airport shrimp anyway and, also, what’s the worst that could happen? I could have a bite, and it’s meh, and then I wouldn’t eat it. Waste of money, so what? I could die from bad shrimp, and wouldn’t that save us all a lot of trouble? Or I could get food poisoning and have to miss the flight. At this, he folded the menu and looked at me the way he often did now, with resigned understanding, fatigue, a little worn humor.
I teared up all through dinner, with Brian occasionally patting my hand. I kept crying because I love him and his appetites and all the sensuality and good humor and heat-seeking that goes with them.
In Love by Amy Bloom (Granta) is shortlisted for the 2023 Rathbones Folio Prize. The winner is announced on Monday 27 March at the British Library.
Join Amy Bloom, alongside a stellar line-up of international Rathbones Folio Prize shortlistees, for an online event with 5x15 on Tuesday 21 March at 7 p.m. Find out more and book tickets here.