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Delia Ephron on surviving cancer and the defiance of falling in love in your 70s

Delia Ephron, wearing a white collared shirt
Elena Seibert

Falling in love at 72 — over email — sounds like the plotline of a romantic comedy. But that's exactly what happened to writer Delia Ephron. Along with her late sister Nora Ephron, Delia co-wrote the '90s classic You've Got Mail. Against all odds, Delia found herself in a familiar cinematic situation.

Delia met Peter Rutter, a psychiatrist and Jungian psychotherapist, through an op-ed she wrote about the recent death of her husband, screenwriter Jerry Kass. She and Kass had been married over 30 years. "I wrote a funny piece about it for the New York Times about losing my mind over my husband's death and Verizon. So six months later, I got an email from Peter through my website," she says.

Peter read the op-ed, felt there were many confluences between Delia's story and his own, and got in touch. That's how the relationship started. "I wrote him back. I hoped it was charming. And we started to write, and almost within minutes we fell in love. It was like he was like we were waiting to meet each other."

Delia was still grieving the recent death of her husband and her sister Nora, who died in 2012. Nora had a particularly virulent kind of leukemia that runs in families. Just a few months after Delia and Peter fell in love, Delia was diagnosed with the same cancer.

"Four months after I fell in love, I got leukemia. He proposed that weekend,
she says. "On Monday, we went and got a license and we bought a ring, and on Tuesday, I checked into the hospital for my first chemo." Their ceremony was performed at the hospital, as they stared down an uncertain future.

The treatment and bone marrow transplant nearly killed her — but not only did she survive, the cancer is very unlikely to come back. Her marriage to Peter survived the ordeal too. "We were all in," she says.

Delia Ephron's new memoir is called Left on Tenth: A Second Chance at Life.


Interview highlights

the cover of Delia Ephron's new book, Left on Tenth
/ Little, Brown and Company
/
Little, Brown and Company

On falling in love at age 72

I think because I had so much loss and pain, the experience of being in love, it like the sun was shining on me. I think that romantic feeling, that passion that you get, which was exactly the same as when I was in my 20s, when I couldn't tell a good guy from a bad guy.

But when I had gotten smart in my 30s and was good about figuring out who was someone to date and everything, it was the time of my life. It took all the pain that I had been feeling, all that loss and it just erased it for a while. It was incredible.

But the thing is, if you fall in love in your 70s, death is right there in front of you. You can reach out and touch it. So there is a kind of defiance if you fall in love. It's a defiance of that, as well as a sense of madness. Am I really doing this? I mean, this could be all over tomorrow from just the fact that we're old. It's a different thing. ... In many ways it's easier to fall in love in your 70s because you know who you are. You're not trying to have a career, trying to have children or trying to find all these other things you want besides a mate, maybe this particular kind of house or that particular earning money – all these things that you're trying to juggle.

On initially feeling uneasy about entering a new relationship after Jerry's death

Jerry's all over the house. His pictures, things that he wrote are framed on the walls, something he bought when he was in Morocco is on the shelf. He's everywhere around me. And also we grew up together. We spent our adult lives together, so he's in my heart all the time.

And so you have to make room. You have to allow yourself to feel the passion of it, the joy of it, to let another person in, and in the very beginning, I got really frightened. Right after [Peter and I] met and I was so attracted to him, I called up my friend Jessie the next morning and I said, "I can't do this. I cannot start another relationship." I said to her, "He's going to die and then I'm going to be alone again." But it wasn't just that – it was the guilt that I would have something again and [Jerry] couldn't.

On being open for love, despite her fear and grief

One of the odd things about writing this book was that it was kind of a treasure hunt in a way. I look back at everything we wrote because it was our love story; I included those letters and I re-experienced the connection we made and the things that we expressed to each other. ... The truth is, falling in love isn't something you have that much control over. If you fall in love, it's because you're open to it. I was open to it. Peter was open to it. There we were, and we do feel so lucky.

On comparing herself to Nora in life and death

When I was in the hospital [with Nora], it was like staring my own death in the face. I was thinking, this could be you. It was always there during all that time of her illness, and I was a match for her. If she'd wanted to have a bone marrow transplant as I did, she could use me as a match. ...

But one of the things about being sisters is that she was the first born. I was second. I have two younger sisters, Hallie and Amy. There are four of us. We're all writers. That was the family business and we all went into it and we were all published writers. But Nora came first ... She was going around the track so fast no one could keep up with her. And I was, of course, trying to do everything she did. But I couldn't keep up. ... Writing is your fingerprint. Nobody else can do that [and see] exactly what you see in the world. And that was when I really began to understand who I was separate from her. But when I got the same disease, there was no way in my head that I could think I wasn't going to die too. And my doctors, they just got it, they understood it. They said to me, "You are not your sister." And what they meant was, under a microscope, my leukemia was different from her leukemia, that's what they meant. That was actually the truth, and I tried to just keep in my head, "You were not your sister, you're not your sister." But it felt like betrayal.

On why Nora kept her illness a secret and why Delia kept her illness and marriage a secret, too, for a little while

I could not possibly explain how I got married in four months without revealing that I was sick. They sort of went together because otherwise it didn't really make sense. So I kept that a secret. Secrets don't suit me, but I was not famous like Nora. I mean, if you're famous and you tell people that you're sick, you can't leave the house without somebody coming up to you on a street corner and saying something to you about it. Nora ... she always needed to be strong, but she couldn't live the life she wanted if she let it out, if she told people. ... They couldn't insure her. There were a million reasons why Nora would keep it a secret. And then also temperament — and I just don't have that temperament. If I went to dinner with a close girlfriend, I needed to be able to talk about it, what I was going through.

On how cancer has changed her

I can't believe I'm here, on some level. I think I try to be nicer to everyone. When I was that person on the street with a walker and in a wheelchair, I realized that I had never had the kind of compassion and understanding that I have now for people who many of us who will be there.

I think that being in love at this age is very comforting and very magical, and yet I have friends who absolutely do not want it. It's not something they're interested in, but for me, it's like it's sustenance that we can have the fun we have together. We have a lot of fun. ... My life has expanded because Peter's in it. He's interested in the stars, so we went to the total eclipse. I've had adventures and that's been marvelous.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Natalie Escobar and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for web.

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