Jerry’s death is where the story begins, with an extended, chaotic scene featuring a late-night fall, a do-not-resuscitate order and an argument with a crew of EMTs, followed by a few hours of uneasy calm. Ultimately, Jerry slips away before dawn, quietly losing consciousness while no one is watching.
We know from the start, then, that although this may be the same woman who co-wrote such classic rom-com fare as “You’ve Got Mail,” we can trust her not to romanticize life’s big moments. Monumental though they may be, they are often messy, confusing, and oddly timed – and Ephron is going to be straight with us about it.
Ephron lost Jerry just three years after the death of her older sister and creative collaborator, filmmaker and writer Nora Ephron. Delia memorialized Nora in her 2013 essay collection, “Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc.).” “Left on Tenth” represents not only her next chapter in grief, but a tougher reckoning with mortality. A year after Jerry’s death, Ephron developed acute myeloid leukemia (AML), the same disease that killed her sister.
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In a plot twist worthy of a movie, Ephron’s illness overlaps with a new love. She had just started dating a psychiatrist named Peter, who reached out to her by email after reading a touching and hilarious op-ed about her attempts to cancel Jerry’s Verizon service. In another coincidence, it turns out Peter and Delia already knew each other, although she’d forgotten. They had gone on a few dates in college, set up by none other than Nora. After a whirlwind romance and several long talks about “what it meant to start something intense and meaningful at this age… when death is right there in front of us,” they decide to marry in the hospital as she begins treatment for AML.
But Ephron is not sugarcoating this story, remember? Things get dark.
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At her lowest point, depressed and exhausted after a stem cell transplant, Ephron feels “deep in my bones a despair, an isolation from everyone, a wish to be dead.” Sometimes people refer to dying as being called home, but for her, that phrasing does not work. She does not believe in life after death; staying alive here in the physical realm, then, is the only way she can still ask. No wonder she fights so hard to come back from the brink and to hang onto her earthly home – to return to that apartment on Tenth, now occupied by this new man she loves, and to myriad loving friendships she refers to as “little homes. ”
Breaking sentences and phrases into speaking rhythms, Ephron encourages us not to see her prose on the page so much as to hear a story told in her voice. Her writing frequently yields such charming Ephron-isms as this, when she meets her new doctor for the first time: “My first thought when she walked into the small clinic room was She could be my sister. She was definitely from the same food group. Dark hair, brown eyes, slender, Jewish. ” The same food group!
As she invites readers into her memories, Ephron shares snippets of emails and text messages, creating a sense of intimacy, as if we are simply the newest members of her circle of friends and loved ones. Should I hear one day that someone I know has AML, I might blurt out, “My friend Delia had that,” before remembering, wait a minute, I’ve never met Delia Ephron.
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The past half-decade or so has seen the publication of several magnificent memoirs by the dying – Paul Kalanithi’s “When Breath Becomes Air,” Nina Riggs’s “The Bright Hour,” and Julie Yip-Williams’s “The Unwinding of the Miracle,” to name a few. In comparison to those books, it could be tempting to say Ephron’s has a happier ending.
Well, yes. Ephron made it to the other side of her illness, a vantage point from which she could look back and craft her story with a perspective those writers did not live to have. But she also never loses sight of the fact that while a book’s ending might be considered happy or sad depending on where the plot stops, all of us human beings are headed for the same ending sooner or later.
When a doctor explains the low success rate of an aggressive treatment, Ephron responds in objection, “Peter and I just fell in love.” This is one of the heartbreaking scenes that links her story to the stories of those late writers. What is true in that moment remains excruciatingly true always: that even the colossal power of love does not ultimately earn anyone a reprieve.
But although death saturates this book, it is far from a downer. To the emphatic contrary, it is a joy. As much as Ephron honors the true depths of fear, sickness, and sorrow, she also celebrates with humor and awe the great fortune of small thrills: a tarte Tatin eaten in her favorite cafe; a stroll through a market with her beloved; a funny email from a friend; her hair growing back post-chemo, wild and uncontrollable.
That’s the singular, lovely magic of this particular memoir by this particular writer about this particular slice of her life. When she examines “life and death in close focus, side by side,” she reminds us that darkness makes the light look even brighter.
Mary Laura Philpott is the author, most recently, of “Bomb Shelter: Love, Time, and Other Explosives.”
Little, Brown. 304 pp. $ 29.99
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