Delia Ephron’s second chance at life after loss

There’s nothing like an open heart. And Delia Ephron has laid it all bare in her memoir of a most tumultuous time.

Now here she is in front of me, on screen in the study of her New York apartment that feels almost familiar by now. What happened next, is what I want to know. How is she, and how are they?

But let’s rewind a bit and get back to that later. Delia Ephron; yes, she’s one of them. She and her screenwriter sister and sometime collaborator Nora, who died in 2012, are two of four writer daughters of Hollywood screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron (the others are Hallie and Amy). Delia is a writer of many hues, a novelist (Syracuse), screenwriter (You’ve Got Mail, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), playwright. And now memoirist: Left on Tenth (named for the turn onto her Greenwich Village street), covers a brief rollercoaster from age 72. With the pace of a film script, deep honesty, wit, self-awareness and raw emotion, it’s a beautifully written story of struggle and joy. Subtitled A Second Chance at Life, it is essentially hopeful.

At the start she’s grieving after the 2015 death of writer Jerome Kass, her husband of 37 years, “my true home, my first safe space”. Through serendipity and a series of confluences – the word figures much in the memoir – she reconnects via email with Peter Rutter. They dated in college, though she’s no memory of him at all. Also 72 and recently widowed, he’s now an outdoorsy Jungian psychiatrist in California. There’s rapid simpatico via email and phone. Maybe this echoes You’ve Got Mail’s initial setup, but here there are no coy games. Their intense emails and conversations are immediate, open-hearted and deeply romantic, as each realizes they’ve found their bashert (in Yiddish, “destined soul mate”).

We were getting as loopy, as obsessed with each other as anyone falling under the spell of romance

Within days she’s writing: “I don’t understand this connection, which clearly exists, I mean, I’m a little gobsmacked and I am scared, actually plain scared, and scared of missing Jerry more by talking to you… I ‘m sure you know exactly what I mean and will miss your wife more by talking to me. There is some way I understand this going forward, the fierceness necessary, and yet there is something about death that makes me more interested in life than ever. Paradox is everything, but truly I can’t believe I am emailing a stranger something this personal.”

Peter: “Although we are still strangers in some sense, despite our past either mythic or real connection, there seems to be some mutual recognition of the other as a potential close ally.”

They are in love before even meeting. “We were both 72 and age meant nothing. We were getting as loopy, as obsessed with each other as anyone falling under the spell of romance.”

Left on Tenth by Delia Ephron

The night before their first meeting, Peter: “From our grief we have found each other. We will do right by those who helped bring us here. Precious one.”

That first time, “seeing him in person was almost deranging”. Also that first time, “we made out on the living-room couch like teenagers. We had great chemistry”.

Looking back now, she observes, “I think if you have had a happy marriage, it makes it easier for you to have another. You’re more confident about marriage. And I think I was able to judge men better, because I had a lot of good years with Jerry. Peter’s a special man. I’m very lucky”.

At the time, her memoir describes how “we really talked… About what it meant to start something intense and meaningful at this age. To fall in love now, when death is right there in front of us. When we can reach out and touch it”.

I think healing has always been his life’s work. He is enormously compassionate

But there was a more immediate shadow than age. Five months after that first email, Ephron is diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, the leukemia that killed Nora. The second-time-round love story becomes one of facing life-threatening cancer.

There’s brutal chemo, drug trials, remission, relapse, deep depression and, near death, an experimental stemcell haplo-cord transplant, using blood from both an adult donor and umbilical cord: the combination makes transplant possible without a perfect match.

Through it all Peter is by her side, literally. “I think healing has always been his life’s work. He is enormously compassionate. He’s written two amazing books about sexual harassment, in the 80s when actually nobody was paying attention to that subject. He’s a very substantive man.” Without Peter on the path with her: “Oh, I don’t think I would be here. It was medicine and love. First, he was there every minute, in a way that was just heroic. And also, I understood it”, being a doctor.

Her own doctor’s words reverberate. “Don’t be scared of the treatment, be scared of leukemia.”

There are “moments of undefended terror” and there is medical detail, not just understandable but riveting and tense, despite our knowing the outcome (she lived to tell the tale).

There are many other heroes in her story, including Casey McClaine, the (initially) anonymous donor who registered through bethematch.organd saved her life, and a large cast of Ephron’s incredible friends, neighbors, doctors.

When you’re “horribly sick”, she says now, “you find out things about yourself. I realized, oh, friendship. I got that right in life.” She talks about choosing “who you want to go on a journey like this … who will make it better for me and who I’m very safe with”.

In the depths she thought she’d never write again. “I mean, honestly, life handed me the most extraordinary story, and I’m a writer, and part of the healing was to write this. I knew I had the ingredients. It was exciting on a completely other level, in addition to being personally exciting that I could tell my story, that I could help people, that it could affect you.” Though “I don’t think it made all the trauma go away”.

She describes it as “an amazing treasure hunt.” In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, she requested her hospital records, “which turned out to be 6,000 pages”. A friend went through her computer from her, extracting “everything I had written from the time that Jerry died. I had made notes about his death, and there were all the email exchanges between Peter and me when we fell in love. She put it in six gigantic loose-leaf binders. I have one here”. She hefts up this large bulging binder: “And I started to write from that.”

Delia Ephron with her second husband Peter Rutter.  Photographer: Elena Seibert

Delia Ephron with her second husband Peter Rutter. Photographer: Elena Seibert

Her memories from the worst stages were distorted. Her friends de ella and Peter “told me these things, which if I had known when I was really sick, I think I would have been, well, better not to know it, really. Like my time in the ICU [Intensive Care Unit]. And cursing at everybody, which is not like me.” Piecing it together was “really interesting from the point of view of being a writer. It’s kind of a calling. It’s what you do when you feel your best and when you feel your worst. I got to make something out of that experience, and make sense of it.” Though now, “because I’ve been talking so much about it, it’s gotten me more anxious. Just sort of declaring, Oh, I’m fine. I’m fine. I realized this week that all this publicity is starting to make me anxious again”.

It’s gutsy, emotionally connecting, and it’s real life, but the memoir would make an obvious movie script. “I’m trying to decide if and what I want to do with it next. A play or film. Both ways would actually be very different.” Memories of those worlds are around her in the study. She points out a poster for Love, Loss and What I Wore, her de ella and Nora’s off-Broadway play based on Ilene Beckerman’s book. “Can you see this? The poster signed by every actor who was in it in New York. And there were, I think, 120.” She points to a sign, The Shop around the Corner, from the shop in You’ve got Mail. “I took that off the set.” And a poster for Saturday Night, “Jerry’s play, produced off-Broadway when he was young.”

So what did happen next? The memoir ends in February 2020, two years posttransplant and her doctor’s verdict that it’s worked: “Now your chances of getting leukemia again are the same as mine and I’ve never had it.”

“And the next month, the world shut down,” she says ruefully. “The thing about Covid is, it took adventure, it took everything but fear out of our lives pretty much.”

“We went out to California, because it was getting kind of crazy in New York, just going out on the street even.” And a hilarious after-story: “We bought a van, a Winnebago. I mean, really, I’m in a van. I swear, my girlfriends were hysterical. Either people started laughing, or they said that it would be good for you. Like I was some New York creature that couldn’t possibly exist on the road. Which by the way was perfectly true.” They drove cross-country, then spent lockdown at her brother-in-law’s in California, ordering takeout and starting her memoir de ella in isolation, while the van sat in the driveway. “Peter sold it when we were out there.” She laughs. “But it was an adventure.”

To conclude, two parochialisms: there’s a reference in her memoir to a stopover en route to Wales to see friends. “But it is raining in Dublin where we change plans,” she writes, “and the long walk in the cold under an awning to wherever the hell we are going – another terminal, the connecting flight to Bristol is daunting. I suppose I should have ordered a wheelchair, but I preferred to worry myself into a state and then be proud I could do the trek.”

And: both Delia and Nora, eleven common names in Ireland, seem unlikely for Jewish New Yorkers. Her mother de ella Phoebe “always had theories for everything”, one being “to give your children unusual names”. “She expected her daughters to have careers. I think that might have played into giving us names that you would remember. I’m not sure. I don’t fully understand my mother, that’s for sure.”

Left on Tenth by Delia Ephron is published by Doubleday

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