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Left on Tenth
A Second Chance at Life: A Memoir
By Delia Ephron
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The beloved writer of romantic comedies like You've Got Mail tells her own late-in-life love story in her New York Times bestselling "resplendent memoir," complete with a tragic second act and joyous resolution (Adriana Trigiani, bestselling author of The Good Left Undone).Delia Ephron had struggled through several years of heartbreak. She’d lost her sister, Nora, and then her husband, Jerry, both to cancer. Several months after Jerry’s death, she decided to make one small change in her life—she shut down his landline, which crashed her internet. She ended up in Verizon hell.
She channeled her grief the best way she knew: by writing a New York Times op-ed. The piece caught the attention of Peter, a Bay Area psychiatrist, who emailed her to commiserate. Recently widowed himself, he reminded her that they had shared a few dates fifty-four years before, set up by Nora. Delia did not remember him, but after several weeks of exchanging emails and sixties folk songs, he flew east to see her. They were crazy, utterly, in love.
But this was not a rom-com: four months later she was diagnosed with AML, a fierce leukemia.
In Left on Tenth, Delia Ephron enchants as she seesaws us between tears and laughter, navigating the suicidal lows of enduring cutting-edge treatment and the giddy highs of a second chance at love. With Peter and her close girlfriends by her side, with startling clarity, warmth, and honesty about facing death, Ephron invites us to join her team of warriors and become believers ourselves.
A "Most Anticipated Book of 2022" by TIME, Bustle, Parade, Publishers Weekly, Boston.com
A "Best Memoir of 2022" by Marie Claire
A "Best Memoir of April" by Vanity Fair
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If you are in Manhattan traveling downtown in a car on Fifth Avenue or Seventh Avenue and you want to turn onto Tenth Street, you have to turn left. It's a one-way street, west to east. Left on Tenth is my way home. I was left on Tenth when my husband died, and after that, life took many left turns, some perilous, some wondrous. This book is about all of them.
I knew my husband was dying in June. He'd been living with a terminal diagnosis for six years but suddenly his cancer turned aggressive.
The last time we saw the oncologist, he sent us home with a DNR (do not resuscitate) order and told me to put it on the refrigerator. "That's where they look," he said. He meant the EMTs.
I wanted Jerry to die at home. He wanted that too, but we didn't discuss it much. I was passionate about it, thought of it as a gift I could give him, to die in his own bed. The bedroom is sunny and the walls are painted a minty green. On days when he felt good enough, I figured, my husband, who was a writer too, could sit at his desk and write. If he needed to nap, which he did now almost all the time, he could nap on the couch where he always liked to nap.
We loved living on Tenth Street, a shady, pretty block in Greenwich Village. I couldn't bear to put him through his final exit somewhere else that was clearly only a place to die.
We redid our wills and updated our health-care proxies.
I began to rehearse being alone. I'd go to coffee with a friend or to some event and on the way home, I'd tell myself, Imagine you are coming home and Jerry isn't there. He isn't there to share, to listen, to rant, to laugh, to comfort.
Preparing for some unknown, for life without him, I also noticed that I needed to feel alive. I needed to walk fast on the street, get out, engage with friends. Dying was not where I wanted to be. I don't mean I didn't want to be with Jerry, but I felt, almost in a primal way, the need to feel alive. So there was a war going on inside—the need to be with Jerry, with his dying, and the need to be separate, an almost how-alive-can-I-feel.
I had met Jerry in my early thirties when I was finding my voice as a writer. My book How to Eat Like a Child came out the first year we were together. I remember hearing him in the next room laughing as he read it.
Jerry, a playwright and screenwriter, was in New York City doing the musical Ballroom, based on his television movie The Queen of the Stardust Ballroom. We fell for each other head-spinningly fast when a mutual friend brought him by my apartment. I felt I'd been looking for Jerry my whole life and he felt the same. He had a cropped beard and great hair, golden brown. His brown eyes were soulful, and his voice was smooth, a beautiful tenor. Arguments and difficulties over the years—the kind that all relationships have in their own specific ways—really only deepened our bond. We knew that we belonged together and the fact that we'd found each other was the luckiest thing.
Before Jerry, I wasn't someone who knew much about love. I was raised in Beverly Hills, the daughter of screenwriters. My parents were a team. They wrote films you might see now on Turner Classic Movies: Desk Set with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Daddy Long Legs with Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron, No Business like Show Business, in which Marilyn Monroe sang, "We're having a heat wave." I'd been raised with expectations—all four sisters were expected to be writers—but my mother was cold to me and a drinker. She died in her fifties of cirrhosis. My dad was more loving but troubled and needy, a manic-depressive as well as a drinker.
Jerry was completely on my side. I'd never experienced that. I hadn't believed it was possible. He truly loved me and nurtured my talent. He guided me as I tried to master variations of the impossible: first my humor books, then essays, then screenplays, then novels. I could never have found my way without him.
Writers are writers first. Before anything else. It's a calling. Jerry and I both knew that and honored that in each other. I was wildly attracted to him and loved talking to him. He had a phenomenal understanding of human nature. He observed things I didn't, and I observed things he didn't, and talking with him about what people did and why was endlessly interesting.
Now he wasn't going to be here to love me or to talk to me. To have conversations with me about everything. Stuff. What was on his mind. What happened on the street. Why something made him or me happy or drove one of us crazy. He wouldn't be here to hang out musing about nothing while eating chocolate chip cake. To discuss all my writing problems or all of his. What a character should do, what another might be feeling, where to go from here. Jerry knew drama, could write it and teach it. He taught me.
He was raised in the Bronx in a big, extended shtetl Jewish world full of aunts, uncles, cousins, and vulgarity. Lively, yet full of phenomenal ignorance. Jerry had musical gifts. At a very young age, he could play any tune by ear on the piano. "He can play, why give him lessons?" his parents said. His grandparents made gin in the bathtub. His father sold costume jewelry. The little money they had, they gambled. His dad broke Jerry's piggy bank and stole his pennies. There were very few books in their apartment. It was a great world to write about, and Jerry did, but there was no one at home to nourish a writer's dreams.
Jerry was eccentric. We took tap-dancing lessons. Loved theater. Agreed on most things, liked to go to foreign places and do nothing much more than walk around and sit in cafés. Confiding in him was always comforting.
He was my true home. My first safe place.
At some point in September, Jerry was less able to walk around the corner, too dizzy to do the simple things like put Honey's bowl of water on the floor. Honey was our beloved little white Havanese dog. I talked to our internist and activated hospice care. We were assigned a social worker, a nurse, and a spiritual counselor. The only worship in our house was writing, but given that Jerry was dying and I was losing my soul mate of thirty-seven years, maybe one of us might want some spiritual help.
My recall is cloudy because I was anxious all the time, but I believe that, at the first intake session for home hospice care, I was told that if Jerry fell—and he already had once—I should call 911, but when the EMTs arrived, I could show them the DNR and health-care proxy. These gave me the right to refuse medical treatment for him. I should ask them only to lift him and put him back in bed.
I know I was given that instruction at least twice and maybe more by both a hospice person on the phone and a member of the team assigned to us.
Jerry was still able to walk if I held on to him, so after the first visit from the hospice nurse, we went to Pain Quotidien on a nearby corner, and while eating something like avocado toast, Jerry said, "Hospice. I don't know. I guess I feel okay about it. I don't feel anything."
"Sometimes it takes a while for you to know what you feel," I said.
That afternoon I came home to find Lauren, our sweet dog walker, and Jerry sobbing.
"What is it?" I asked as Lauren scooted by me out the door.
Lauren said she'd asked Jerry how he was, and he said, "I'm in hospice," and he broke down, and she broke down.
I almost started to laugh. This was so Jerry, to realize he was upset in an encounter with Lauren. But it wasn't funny. It wasn't funny at all.
I just stood there. I didn't put my arms around him. I don't know why. I just stood there.
This failure, this—well, really, this moment of abandonment—has plagued me, kept me up nights, made me feel that in spite of everything I tried to do for Jerry, I didn't succeed. I don't know why I failed him there. Was it my own fear and sadness about his death? Was I scared? Was it being unprepared for that moment, although I had no preparation for any of these moments? Why didn't I embrace him? Am I a cold person? Is being cold a safer place?
My husband's prostate cancer had spread to his bones. If I wrapped him in my arms, I risked hurting him, but every night when we fell asleep, he laced his fingers through mine. He didn't talk much about actually dying, and maybe this was my fault, because afterward it felt like everything was my fault. Maybe I avoided it, I don't know. Once we told each other that we were glad we'd spent our lives together. And Jerry said he wasn't frightened.
But I knew how much he missed me when I was out or at my desk writing. "I need you near," he said, not in a demanding way, more with a certain amount of surprise.
He said the only thing he worried about was my being alone.
Jerry's last meal was Sunday, October 18, 2015. Zabar's tuna salad on a bagel. He sat at the kitchen table. We didn't know it was his last meal. We didn't know he would wake up Monday without an appetite, our first sign that his body was crashing. Zabar's, the wonderful market on the Upper West Side, makes great tuna salad, maybe the greatest. I guess it's not a bad last meal. A friend, knowing Jerry loved it, had dropped off some. I could get sidetracked detailing all the kindnesses friends as well as people we barely knew in our building showed us, leaving soup, homemade scones, and pasta.
Monday morning he got up, started shaking, and got back in bed. By Wednesday he was completely bedridden and foggy, and I was crying. I cried in a cab on the way to get a blow-dry. Do I need to explain why I was getting a blow-dry? I can't, except to say it's an addiction and I did not leave Jerry alone. These cell phones mean you cry and carry on in the most public spaces. I sobbed hysterically up Eighth Avenue while on the phone with my friend Lisa.
That afternoon while Jerry slept, I decided it was a good idea to pay his bills, something I'd never done. Insanity. I couldn't keep anything straight. (We had separate accounts and paid for different things, although both our names were on all accounts in case something happened to one of us. Which, now, something had.) I went into the bedroom and asked him for his ATM code. He reeled off his credit card number. I kept saying, "No, you know, the ATM where you go to a bank to get cash." He kept giving me the same twelve numbers. I wondered whether I'd ever seen anyone punch twelve numbers into the ATM. I started crying again. I left the room unable to believe I'd bothered him about an ATM code, feeling like a hateful person, then came back and apologized. He didn't know what I was talking about, didn't even remember. I clasped his hands. "Please forgive me for everything I have ever done to you."
"Everything?" he said.
The next time he tried to go to the bathroom, he managed to get only to the edge of the bed, where he collapsed, somehow on his back with his feet on the floor. He was drugged and not exactly uncomfortable, and being nearly dysfunctional myself, I was wondering if he could stay that way for a while—maybe until the night nurse showed up—when the buzzer rang, and it was Lisa.
Lisa was looking as she always does, simple and chic in jeans, a white T-shirt, and a blazer, her thick shoulder-length wavy gray hair in a lovely tumble. No makeup. Never makeup. She is a friend who's like a sister. Our backgrounds are similar. She is one of three sisters; I'm one of four. We're both middle children, which means we are always hoping/imagining we can make other people get along. She is immensely empathetic. We both had behind-the-scenes show-business childhoods and powerful mothers who fought for a place in a man's world. Hers produced films, mine wrote them.
Lisa suggested we use a chair to get Jerry's feet off the floor; then his feet would be level with his back. So we did that, and right after I went down to the doorman and managed to catch the building staff before they left for the day. They came in and, two on each side, lifted Jerry back into the bed. Jerry woke up then and brightened at the sight of Lisa. She sat on the bed with him, holding his hand, talking and laughing for an hour. They talked about our wedding, which Lisa was at, thirty-three years ago. They talked about Hamilton, the last play Jerry saw before becoming homebound.
"I'm so glad Lisa is here," he said.
Several times that day I had called my internist crying, and she decided to come down at five thirty to evaluate Jerry.
I left the room while she examined him. Shortly after, she told Lisa and me that she had detected pneumonia in one of his lungs. It came as a total shock. He and Lisa had just had a wonderful conversation. How could he have pneumonia? The next forty-eight hours, she said, would be critical. She ordered oxygen. His fogginess could be because his oxygen level was low.
At eight o'clock, the night nurse showed up, our first round-the-clock aide, and Lisa left. We live in a duplex and I asked the nurse to make herself comfortable downstairs and I would let her know if I needed her. I hung out with Jerry, stroking his head while he dozed on the bed, then I went into my office to visit my novel. Tinkering with my writing was always comforting.
I don't know how I suddenly realized he had gotten out of bed and was careening toward the bathroom. I shouted for the nurse. She came upstairs, and we caught him as he fell, breaking his fall but unable to stop it. He was on the floor. It was ten at night. As I had been instructed, I called 911.
I told them that my husband had fallen. He was on the floor. I'm pretty certain I said that the hospice had said to call them and get them to put him back in bed. Then I phoned Joel, one of our close friends, and asked him to come over. Jerry, meanwhile, seemed to be sleeping on the floor; he was snoring, and the nurse's aide and I were waiting. I called 911 again after a half hour, or what seemed like a half hour, and suddenly the EMTs were pounding on the door.
You can enter our duplex on the first or second floor. They came in on the first and Jerry was in the bedroom on the second. They charged up the stairs, angry at me because they couldn't figure out which apartment they were going to. I said, "How can you yell at me when my husband is on the floor?" The next thing I knew there were five EMTs in my apartment. It was startling. Later, Joel told me a few of them were paramedics. They were checking on Jerry, giving him oxygen.
I said, "I just want you to lift my husband and put him back in bed." I showed them the DNR and health-care proxy.
They said no, that Jerry was now under the jurisdiction of the fire department and he was going to the hospital. I protested. I waved the forms. I had asked my lawyer to make sure we were covered every which way. I was staring at the health-care proxy, paralyzed by the legal language, when Joel located the paragraph that clearly stated that I had the right to refuse medical care.
Meanwhile, Jerry was still on the floor.
"Well," one said, "in this case, we will take him to the hospital and you can show them the documents and bring him right back home again."
"That makes no sense," I said.
"Which hospital do you want to go to?"
I got my doctor on the phone to try and stop them. They refused to talk to her. She's not in charge, they told me. Now the person in charge is the fire department doctor. "Can he talk to my doctor?"
No, they said.
Around that time I realized there were two policemen in the apartment. Two cops just standing there. Five EMTs and two policemen. It sort of flitted through my brain that this was not a proper allocation of resources. They surely had something better to do in New York City.
Now the hospice nurse showed up. I got mad at her. "Why did you tell me to call 911 to put him back in bed?" She started arguing with the EMTs. I think she might have said to me, "Sometimes this happens."
My doctor on the phone suggested sending Jerry to Sloan Kettering because it had his records. I remembered that it had taken a while for Jerry to get admitted to Sloan in June. The patients on gurneys waiting to be treated or admitted in the emergency department stretched nearly to the outside door. The nurse suggested the hospice center at Bellevue. She called. They have a bed, she said. Jerry was still on the floor.
I started to cry. I swear I don't know if I was crying because I was so upset and so frustrated and so helpless and so sad or because I knew instinctively it was the only move left. I just started bawling and wailing. "I have spent months trying to keep my husband at home, doing everything I was supposed to, getting all the documents, everything so he could die here in his home with me, in his bed, and now you're telling me that he can't."
They got nicer.
I wonder about that. I wonder if they needed to bully me to tears, but they definitely got nicer. One said I had a sweet dog—this from the first EMT, the one who had been really mean. I realized that Honey had shrunk into a ball in a corner. Another noticed a series of photos of Jerry and me tap dancing together and complimented them. The woman, who I guess was the chief paramedic, said she would talk to the fire department doctor. It was up to him. In the meantime, they were going through all of Jerry's meds, asking me questions I couldn't answer. My brain was fried.
My husband was still on the floor and I wasn't even with him. I was across the room, then I was in another room where the medical files were. I feel awful about that.
Finally they put me on the phone with the fire department doctor. He couldn't have been nicer. "Of course we would never interfere with your plans," he said, or words to that effect. "Of course we'll put him back in bed."
So they did. They all lifted him up and put him back in the bed. He snored loudly in what I assumed was a drugged sleep. I hope he slept through all of this, but I don't know.
The woman paramedic told me his vitals were weak. She said, "If anything happens later, please feel free to call us." I thought she was insane. It seemed to me that the other EMTs looked horrified, or maybe I imagined that. The two policemen who had stood there for forty minutes shook my hand and left.
All the EMTs left, the hospice nurse left, my friend Joel left.
I was worried that my husband might lurch out of bed again. I asked the nurse's aide to sit on the bedroom couch. I went downstairs to sleep. This was the first night I didn't sleep with Jerry. I couldn't sleep with the nurse staring at me. I think it was eleven thirty or so, I'm not sure. I called a friend in LA and told him the whole story about the EMTs. I called Jon, my wise and empathetic close doctor friend, and told him the whole story. Then I went to sleep on the couch in Jerry's office.
Sometime after three a.m., I woke up bone-tired. I lay there for a few minutes unable to move, then went upstairs. The nurse's aide appeared to be napping on the bedroom couch. Jerry wasn't breathing.
"I think he's dead," I said.
It seems so weird I said that just like that. Like I'd been beaten into bluntness.
The aide was shocked. She said she'd just been up with him and had fixed him up and straightened the bed, which had been wet and sweaty.
As we both stared at Jerry, he gasped. And that was it. He was gone.
I called Joel again, and my brother-in-law Nick, and my internist. They all came over. While I lay on the bed next to Jerry and they all sat around, we chatted about random things. Even though it was startlingly clear that he was gone, that the body was only a shell, it was comforting to lie on the bed next to Jerry. I told them about the EMTs.
A hospice nurse came by to certify Jerry's death: October 22, 2015, at 3:45 a.m. I told him about the EMTs.
Over the next weeks, to all my friends and family who took incredible care of me, I told the story about the EMTs. I told anyone who would listen.
What I remember about the days after was how alien it was. With Jerry gone, I was dislocated, living in an unknown land. Traumatized by the events of his last night and tired from having been up nearly all that night, I couldn't recover. I was exhausted to the point of dizziness and at the same time charged on adrenaline. The apartment was full of friends and relatives. I remember coming downstairs from a failed nap and seeing a crowd in the living room, all of them chatting like it was a party. I felt as if I'd walked into the wrong house.
My dear friend Heather, who lives in Brooklyn, showed up at the door with her roller bag, moved in, and began organizing. I didn't ask her, it wasn't planned; she knew what I needed. She ordered food, ordered me to take naps, arranged everything. It was a phenomenal kindness. My sister Amy, who flew in from California, was helpful too, protective and concerned, and so was my sister Hallie, arriving later from Milton, Massachusetts. There were four of us sisters originally—Nora, the oldest, who is gone now, then me, Hallie, and Amy, who is the youngest. We were/are all writers.
In spite of knowing Jerry's death was coming, I had no idea what his memorial should be. But it quickly took shape in my mind. Jerry began as a playwright, and the closest thing to a synagogue or a church in our life was a theater, so I e-mailed someone I knew who was producing a play off-Broadway and arranged to hold the memorial at a small Greenwich Village theater the next Monday afternoon. Jerry had told me that he wanted his students to speak. There were four lovely, brilliant screenwriters whom he had nurtured and who'd remained close to him. Susannah, Phil, Alex, and Brian. I asked them and they agreed. I asked our very good friend Bob who had also edited Jerry's novel to speak. It's weird, planning a memorial. I've been to ones where they say anyone can speak, but I didn't think of Jerry's that way. I wanted it to have shape. A few people asked me if they could speak. I told them no. It sounds awful, but Jerry had never said anything about wanting those people to speak. I had strong feelings about how he would want to be remembered. I knew Jerry wanted to be known as a writer and a teacher. He had been heartbroken that his most recent play wasn't getting produced. We'd had a reading of it about six months before he died, and it was one of his happiest days. In addition to the speakers, I asked some actors who were our friends to read short bits of his play and his autobiographical novel.
I was happy with the service. It brought Jerry to life.
I never cried again. After sobbing my way through the EMTs, I was numb.
I was also seventy-one years old.
I had spent the past ten years dealing with death, which is I guess what happens when you reach a certain age.
My beloved sister Nora was sick for six years before she died in 2012. And her illness had been a six-year secret, an overwhelmingly difficult secret to keep. Secrets can eat you up. At least, that is true for me. Concealing something that big made every time I said I was fine a lie. My husband had been sick for ten years.
And it was possible I was sick.
My sister had had myelodysplastic syndrome, a disease of the bone marrow. Your marrow produces your body's blood supply. Myelodysplastic syndrome leads almost inevitably to fierce acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). Because AML can run in families and because the blood work done at one of my annual checkups showed that my red blood cells were getting larger—something that could mean nothing—my internist had sent me to an oncologist for a bone marrow biopsy in 2008.
This is not anyone's favorite test. They stick a needle in your hip bone, suck out stuff from your marrow, and test it. The results were that I didn't have myelodysplastic syndrome, although I had signs that I could get it. The doctor said that didn't mean I would get it.
Living through my sister's treatment, worrying about her, worrying about me, panicked about myself, guilty that I was worrying more about myself than her, plus worrying about Jerry and going through his treatment was a lot. I'd been living in a continual state of high anxiety.
Nora's doctors told her, after several years keeping her stabilized, that they couldn't do that forever and that she could have a bone marrow transplant, the only thing that might cure her. They discovered that she and I were a bone marrow match.
For what felt like an eternity but was maybe only six months, I waited for her and her doctors to decide what to do about it.
A bone marrow transplant, wiping out the sick marrow and transfusing in healthy marrow, is the only way to cure myelodysplastic syndrome or AML. It often doesn't work. The body tries to reject the new marrow in all sorts of awful ways, a condition called graft-versus-host disease. Symptoms are terrible rashes, fevers, migraines, pneumonia, stomach problems, and heart problems, to name a few. But the transplant is more likely to succeed if you have a perfect match.
I was worried—no, terrified
- “[This] is less the story of a woman losing a husband than it is that of a woman falling in love again at age 72…Ephron’s story is inspiring for all of us out there whose romantic lives or longings will never be the stuff of a big-box-office romantic comedy…If there’s such a thing as a feel-good memoir, this is it.”—Joyce Maynard, The New York Times Book Review
- "Delia Ephron is the voice of our times and a master craftsman of the written word. If you are looking for a book that tells you the truth about love, marriage, friendship, family, creativity, loss, redemption and your internet provider, look no further. Ephron soars on the page, and takes us with her. A resplendent memoir, Delia style."—Adriana Trigiani, bestselling author of The Good Left Undone
- “The funny, poignant, and sometimes magical memoir is an open-eyed look at later life and what Ephron calls the left turns that can be perilous or wondrous.”—Anita Snow, The Associated Press
- "Delia Ephron’s stunning Left on Tenth will make you believe in love again, and also in miracles. And it’s so very, very funny."—Sarah Dunn, author of The Arrangements
“Delia masterfully and hilariously reminds us that there is always more life to be found just around the corner. A powerful, beautiful, life affirming testament to hope and meaning in the darkest hour. Somehow it felt like the answers to all of the big questions were immediately lurking in the text, and like any decent existentialist and searcher, I couldn’t put it down and finished it in one sitting.”
—Natasha Lyonne, writer, director, actor
- “Oh, huge-hearted Delia Ephron! I loved this book. It’s a memoir about grief and illness, but it’s also basically a love letter to her people, and it’s a gorgeous one. Because here is someone who chooses joy over and over again—who chooses friendship and love, like a fountain of gratitude that turns despair into a glittery, rainbow-scattering spray of light. Her lucky friends! Forgive yourself for wishing you were one of them.”—Catherine Newman, author of Catastrophic Happiness: Finding Joy in Childhood's Messy Years
- “Ephron’s memoir is a heart-wrenching tale of second chances at life and love.”—TIME Magazine
“A fun and rewarding read.”
- "[A] straight-out-of-a-movie memoir.”—Parade
- “Radiant…readers will be swept away by this triumphant story.”—Publishers Weekly
“Only someone with a heart of stone could resist the charms of Delia Ephron's tender, moving story of late-life love and illness. Ephron writes with singular transparency of her treatment for leukemia—the same disease that killed her sister seven years earlier—and the unbearable terror and pain she suffered. But Ephron is at heart a writer naturally drawn to light who finds joy and humor even in life's darkest corners. This wonderful memoir is an ode to the enduring power of love and friendship.”
—Joanna Rakoff, bestselling author of My Salinger Year
- "She knows how to grip a reader with plot twists and punchy prose.”—The Forward
- On Sale
- Jan 31, 2023
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Back Bay Books