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Delia Ephron recounts a concentrated period of loss, love and illness in new memoir

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Love and loss are levelers. No one can avoid loss, and we all crave love even as it can make losses harder to bear. Delia Ephron has written a memoir that takes us through a short time in her life in which she was rocked by the loss of several loved ones, welcomed a new love into her life, and then was struck by a disease that lurked within her family line. Her book is "Left On Tenth." And Delia Ephron, the author of many screenplays including "You've Got Mail," essays, novels and a play with her late sister, Nora, joins us now from Manhattan. Thanks so much for being with us.

DELIA EPHRON: Thank you. I'm delighted to be with you.

SIMON: I find it daunting to try and explain what you went through in that short period. Great writer of dialogue that you are, Delia Ephron, how do you - have you perfected a concise line to explain what happened?

EPHRON: Life gave me a story so big that I simply had to write it. But one of the things about this story is that it contains so much luck - good and bad - that it made me wonder about things like miracles. It's also about friendship because I was carried through. So I really owe my existence now to love and medicine.

SIMON: Yeah. The book opens with an awful moment in which you had promised Jerry, your beloved - I guess we say first husband now - who was fatally ill, that he could die at home. But then there's almost a wrestling match for you to try and make that possible.

EPHRON: I was told that if I got all the documents - the DNR and the health care proxy - that if he fell or something, I could just call up the EMTs, and they would come over, and I would say, you know, please put my husband back in bed.

SIMON: Yeah. DNR is do not resuscitate.

EPHRON: Yeah, do not resuscitate. So I called 911, and five EMTs show up in my apartment. I'm thinking, all I want you to do is just pick up my husband and put him back in bed. And they said, no. They were going to take him to the hospital. And he was so ill. He had pneumonia. I knew that he had, at most, 48 hours, maybe less. So it was madness. And finally, I just started crying.

And he died later on at about 3 in the morning. And I went into the room. I just said, I think he's dead - I mean, just so bluntly, like they had beaten me into bluntness, you know? But it left me with a lot of trauma, and I felt a lot of guilt. And I think people do feel guilty after their mates die, that they haven't done every possible thing they could do. I mean, how could you really?

SIMON: Yeah. You wound up writing an essay about how difficult it was for Verizon to change their phone service - your phone service after your husband's death.

EPHRON: Yes.

SIMON: Which - the effect of that essay, which ran in The New York Times, was to introduce you to the man, Peter, who would be your second husband. I'm sorry. It's like "You've Got Mail."

EPHRON: It was like I fell into my own romantic comedy. I simply couldn't believe it. I got this email from Peter, and it was like - it was two months after I'd been invited to speak at a conference of Jungians. And I said to myself, what's a Jungian? I better meet one and find out. And Peter writes me, I'm a Jungian analyst, a psychiatrist. I thought, this is so spooky.

Also, my sister had fixed us up 54 years before. I did not remember him at all. But he did come blessed by my sister. So we started to write, and it was - well, all the emails are in the book. It was an amazing connection between us. And when I started to write the book, I looked at them, and I thought, well, I have to include them.

SIMON: Hmm. What's it like to be told almost as soon as you had regained some emotional footing in life that your own health was now in jeopardy?

EPHRON: I was dealing with so much grief, and falling in love was like this beautiful magic that descended. There's nothing like falling in love. And then to walk into that hospital for a routine checkup and just - I remember I just said to the PA who was looking at my - I said, I come every six months. My blood's always fine. And he said, it's not fine. And, you know, everything started spinning. And I knew that day I had leukemia.

SIMON: Your sister Nora, at one point contending with the same disease, had refused a bone marrow transplant. You made another choice although you were told the odds were just 20%.

EPHRON: First of all, I had a - I did have the opportunity to have a different kind of transplant that didn't exist even when Nora was sick. Neither of us had a match, OK? And what you want with a bone marrow transplant, you want a perfect match. And neither Nora nor I had one. But I had the opportunity to have this thing called a haplo-cord transplant, which is a donation from two donors.

One is an adult donor, and one is from the stem cells of a cord blood that a mother donates when she gives birth. And those are the stem cells that ultimately take over your marrow. And they're very adaptable in a way that the adult marrow might not be. So if you don't have a match, it's rather fantastic. And it didn't exist five years ago. It didn't exist for Nora. I mean, I don't know if she would have done that. We were very different, and...

SIMON: But still, 20% is...

EPHRON: It was low. Well, first of all, Dr. Roboz, my amazing leukemia doctor, called me up, and she said, you're not a statistic. I mean, she believed I should do it. And she then said to me, don't be scared of the treatment. Be scared of leukemia. So she just shifted the focus of my fear in a very brilliant way.

SIMON: Your blood type is different (laughter).

EPHRON: Yes. Isn't that amazing?

SIMON: It is.

EPHRON: I didn't even realize that (laughter).

SIMON: That's because of the transplants, right?

EPHRON: Right. It just (laughter) - I mean, one day Peter was looking at some record of something. He said, oh, my gosh. You have Type A blood. I've always had Type O blood. I mean, it was - of course, you only have one blood type. You're born with it. And now I have a completely different one.

SIMON: So what else is different about Delia Ephron now, do you think?

EPHRON: Part of what was so hard about being so sick was that - I think writing is a calling, and it's a place where I'm happiest. And I thought I had lost it when I was trying to get well. I just thought, oh, I'm never going to write again, you know? And now I have that happiness again in my life. I'm able to - you know, I was able to write this book.

And I do want to say, because there is so much trauma associated with trying to get well from a terribly serious illness, that if you can do anything with it - if you can write it, draw it, paint it, dance it, do something with it - it will help you get not totally through - I think there's always residual - but it will really help you heal.

SIMON: I feel the need to ask this question after all you've been through and survived. What's really important in life?

EPHRON: Well, love. No question about it.

SIMON: Delia Ephron, her memoir, "Left On Tenth." Thank you so much for being with us.

EPHRON: Thank you. It has been a pleasure, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF SANTO AND JOHNNY'S "Y LA AMO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.