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

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.

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Other segments from the episode on April 13, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 13, 2022: Interview with Delia Ephron; Review of The First Lady

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Delia Ephron, writes that when she fell in love with her husband, Dr. Peter Rutter, when she was 72, she thought she'd fallen into her own romantic comedy. She writes them for a living. With her sister Nora Ephron, she wrote the film "You've Got Mail" and was a contributing writer to Nora's screenplay "Sleepless In Seattle." But the romantic comedy of Delia's own life was circumscribed by death. Nora met Peter, a psychiatrist and Jungian psychotherapist, through a New York Times op-ed she wrote relating to the recent death of her husband, screenwriter Jerry Kass. They'd been married over 30 years. 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. Delia was still recovering from the death of her husband and the death five years earlier of her sister Nora, who had a particularly virulent kind of leukemia that runs in families. Delia was diagnosed with it just a few months after she and Peter fell in love. The treatment nearly killed her.

There's enough bad news in this world, so I'll tell you right at the start that Delia not only survived, it's very unlikely she'll have a recurrence. Her marriage to Peter survived the ordeal, too. Delia Ephron's new memoir is called "Left On Tenth: A Second Chance At Life." She lives on 10th Street in Greenwich Village. Delia Ephron, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'm so glad you're well. I'm assuming you're well. How are you feeling?

DELIA EPHRON: Yes, I am. I feel just fine, thank you.

GROSS: Good. The last time we talked was in 2013, and we talked about the death of your sister Nora. And now I've just read about your near-death from the same illness. But before we get to that, let's start with the romantic comedy part. Your husband, Peter, found you through an op-ed that you'd written in The New York Times after your husband, Jerry, had died. And he had had prostate cancer. He had a terminal diagnosis for six years before his death. The cancer had spread to his bones. Jerry was a writer, too. He wrote the book for the Broadway musical "Ballroom," which was adapted from his teleplay for "Queen Of The Stardust Ballroom." So would you describe the op-ed that you wrote in The New York Times that got Peter's attention?

EPHRON: Oh, my goodness. I was just trying to disconnect my late husband's phone - Jerry's phone - and I got into such a battle with the phone company. And so I was on the phone with them for hours. And I'm getting disconnected, and I'm having to obey their prompts. And I'm, like, absolutely losing my mind. And, of course, I'm grieving at the same time. So, you know, I did what I do. 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. So he wrote and reminded me that we had had a - well, we're still arguing about whether it was two dates or three dates because I don't remember it at all - but that we'd had, let's say, two dates 54 years before, when I was 18 years old, and Nora had fixed us up. So that's - you know, that was kind of amazing. I mean, there were so many strange confluences. And 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 we were waiting to meet each other.

GROSS: So when he wrote you the first email, did you believe him? Did you believe that your sister Nora had set you up on a date together when you were 18? You had no memory of that.

EPHRON: Well, first of all, he writes a very lovely email, and I'm pretty good at reading things like that. So I completely believed it. And he told me the circumstances. He'd worked at Newsweek as an intern in the sports department, and she had been on the clip desk, which was absolutely true. And he knew I'd been to Conn College, which most people didn't know. I spent two years there before going to Barnard. I mean, everything was - and then I, of course, Googled him like crazy. And it turned out he had written two books on sexual harassment. So I thought, oh, my gosh. I mean - and he did not mention that. I mean, Peter spent a decade in the '80s defending abused women in court. So I Googled him, and he seemed like - a marvelous, substantive man is what he seemed like, a substantive man. So we started to communicate, and it was as if we'd been waiting to know each other. It was falling in love the way I had fallen in love with Jerry 32 years before.

GROSS: I want to talk to you about falling in love at age 72. You write, it's as if the universe had given us a gift to experience all the madness and thrill of falling in love at a time in our lives when that was supposed to be over. And then you write, too, that you enjoyed sex together. And then you write, I want to apologize for even mentioning sex. No one wants to hear about two 72-year-olds getting it on. In a movie, if you have two 72-year-olds simply kissing, you want the camera far away (laughter). So can you talk a little bit about what it's like to fall in love at the age of 72, you know, emotionally and physically?

EPHRON: First of all, I think because I'd had so much loss and pain, the experience of being in love was - it was like the sun was shining on me. And I think that romantic feeling, that passion that you get, which was exactly the same as it - not 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, you know, good about figuring out who was someone to date and everything. It was like then. It was like that time in my life when it was just so - it just took all the pain that I had been feeling, all that loss, and it just erased it for a while. It was incredible.

And - but the thing is, you know, if you fall in love in your 70s, I mean, death is right there in front of you. You can reach out and touch it. So there's 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, you know, tomorrow from just the fact that we're old. It's a different thing.

But, oh, I'll tell you one really - thing I think is so important. 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 or trying to have children or trying to find, you know, all these other things you want besides a mate - maybe this particular kind of house or that particular earning money - I mean, all these things that you're trying to juggle.

GROSS: But it's complicated in part because, like, your husband had died - what? - about a year earlier. And you felt uncomfortable getting into another relationship. You even felt a little guilty about it, like maybe you were betraying him. Can you talk about that a little bit?

EPHRON: I felt guilty after Jerry died. I just began to second-guess things. I write a lot about that, you know, that I - I mean, I went to this one doctor. And he said, what did your husband die of? And I said, oh, he died of prostate cancer. And he said, well, what kind of treatment did he have? And I said, well, he had radiation. He said, oh, that's why he died. The doctor said that. And so I thought, oh, my God, I didn't guide Jerry properly. He didn't have the right treatment. You know, and then my close friend, Jon (ph), who's a doctor, said to me, that's ridiculous. That's the same treatment I gave to my father, and he got cured. You know, it was like people would say things and it would trigger guilt, guilt that maybe I hadn't made every right move as a wife. And I suspect - you know, because I really did write about that because I think it's hard when you're the survivor to feel that you did everything. Well, it was for me.

GROSS: And what about feeling uneasy about entering into another relationship, that it was somehow betraying Jerry?

EPHRON: Yeah. I also felt that as well, that - and, you know, Jerry's all over the house. I mean, his pictures, things that he wrote are framed on the walls. And, you know, just something he bought when he was in Morocco is on the shelf. You know, it's just like he's everywhere around me. And also, we grew up together. You know, we've 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 we met. And I was so attracted to him. And I called up my friend Jessie the next morning. And I said, you know, I can't. I can't do this. I cannot start, you know, another relationship. And it wasn't just that - you know, I said to her, he's going to die, you know? And then I'm going to be alone again. And, you know - but it wasn't just that. It was the guilt that I would have something again, and he couldn't.

GROSS: Peter was in the same position. He lost his wife. So is that something you could talk about, that feeling of guilt? Did he share that, too?

EPHRON: He certainly - we wrote a lot of things to each other in the beginning, you know? And he wrote about that he felt he'd asked for permission, even though he said, how do you do that? He didn't even know how to explain it. One of the odd things about writing this book was that it was kind of a treasure hunt in a way, because, I mean, I looked back at everything we wrote because it was our love story. I included those letters. And I re-experienced, you know, the connection we made and the things that we expressed to each other.

And he talked about that, that he felt he'd asked her, you know, and - you know, but you can't. I mean, that's the thing. I mean, he did give himself permission. And the truth is, you know, falling in love isn't something you have that much control over. If you fall in love, it's 'cause you're open to it. I was open to it. Peter was open to it. There we were, you know? And we do feel so lucky.

GROSS: Yeah. You know, I've met people who cared for their spouses during a long illness who say they couldn't get involved in another relationship and risk going through that kind of pain again. And, I mean, how much did you worry about that?

EPHRON: Well, we sure talked about it. I said to Peter, you know, I give you total permission - if I get sick, I give you total permission to leave me. And he said, I could never do that. It was just like, that's who I am. You know, it was like, I could never do that. And I was, of course, being a little jokey. But nevertheless, it was, you know, a true thing.

And you have to, you know, tell people. I mean, I said to him, you know, I'm being checked for leukemia because Nora had leukemia. And, you know, something in my marrow isn't quite normal, but they don't know if it's going to mean anything or not. And he said he did not care. Everyone's different. I was open to it. I fell in love. And, I mean, life with Peter is - well, I wouldn't even be here if it weren't for Peter. I mean, there's no question about that - because four months after I fell in love, I got leukemia.

GROSS: And he did not leave you. I mean, he was so steadfast.

EPHRON: Oh, my goodness. No. In fact, he proposed (laughter). He proposed that weekend.

GROSS: After you were diagnosed?

EPHRON: Yeah. Yeah. He flew east that night. And we were having - we were in the kitchen. And I was making French toast. And I was just reeling. I mean, it's very - getting a diagnosis like that. And it's a fatal diagnosis when you get it. I mean, it really is. And Peter said - he's, like, sitting at the table, and he said, we should get married. And then he sort of heard himself. And I looked over. I mean, I was - I had my spatula in my hand. And he said - he just popped up out of his chair. He said, will you marry me? And I said, yes. And, you know, the next thing - you know, 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.

GROSS: You got married in the hospital by the hospital chaplain.

EPHRON: We did. I mean, my friend Jessie presided. She gave a lovely little ceremony. I just had a few friends there who knew that I was sick. And then - and the hospital chaplain, Reverend Cheryl Fox, she signed the papers and read the - she read the vows that Peter wrote.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Delia Ephron. Her new memoir is called "Left on Tenth: A Second Chance At Life." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Delia Ephron. Her new memoir is called "Left On Tenth: A Second Chance At Life." It's about two second chances. Her marriage to her husband, Peter Rutter, at the age of 72 after the death of her husband Jerry and a literal second chance at life after surviving a deadly form of leukemia that killed her sister, Nora Ephron.

So your husband, Peter, stuck by you. He handled so much of the medical information. You were afraid to find out too much about your condition, about your blood count numbers, about what the treatment was going to be. You were afraid that you'd panic. Can you tell us why you were afraid of panicking and what you thought the panic would lead to?

EPHRON: Well, I am a panicker. (Laughter) I just want to say that. Temperamentally, I can spin things bigger and crazier in a second. And, I mean, I think it comes from having had alcoholic parents and always thinking, if you're looking left, something's coming at you from the right that there was not any real stability in my home after I was about 11 years old. So I think that's where that temperament comes from. But when I got sick, I wasn't a different person temperamentally. I still knew that I needed not to have the details, that they would just make me upset. They would just panic me. And, I mean, you don't turn into a different person when you get sick, I mean, temperamentally or anything. So I told my doctors, don't tell me that much. My - Dr. Roboz, Gail Roboz, said - she heard me. And she never weighed me down with statistics, with, you know, worries. I mean, you can make choices about how you go through. But I was comforted because I knew Peter understood it all.

GROSS: You'd watched your sister, Nora, die of the same form of leukemia that you had. What were your fears about dying like she did? I mean, obviously, you were afraid of dying. But you saw the struggle she went through when she was dying, the suffering that she endured. So what frightened you most when you thought about her death?

EPHRON: Well, I just really thought that - I mean, when I was with her in the hospital and they were tracking me then - I mean, they'd been tracking me for 10 years by the time I met Peter. When I was in the hospital, it was like staring my own death in the face, you know? 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. I was a - you know, if she'd wanted to have a bone marrow transplant, as I did, she could use me as a match. Actually, I realize I'm slowing down because it's getting difficult to talk about - some things were easier to write than to talk about, and that is one of them. And I think, you know, that I knew she didn't want to have a bone marrow transplant because it's quite brutal. I mean, I speak from experience because I had it.

But one of the things about being sisters is that she was the firstborn. 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're all published writers. And - but Nora came first. And she was, like, just, like, shot. Like a shot, she was. 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. And it wasn't until I became a writer that I - you know, writing is your fingerprint. Nobody else can do that, 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 are not your sister. You're not your sister. But it felt like betrayal.

GROSS: When Nora was diagnosed with leukemia, she kept it a secret until the very end. She didn't keep it a secret from you, but she kept it a secret from her friends and from the public. And you say, she always wanted to be strong and never wanted to show weakness. You weren't like that. But you initially kept it a secret, too, until you went into remission before the recurrence. And you didn't tell them about your marriage either. Why did you want to keep that a secret?

EPHRON: Well, I could not possibly explain how I got married in four months (laughter) 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. And Nora, yes, I think you're absolutely right, she always needed to be strong. But she couldn't live the life she wanted if she let it out, if she told people. And she couldn't direct. She wouldn't pass the tests, you know, to direct. They couldn't insure her.

I mean, there were a million reasons why Nora would keep it a secret and then also temperament. And I just don't have that temperament. I mean, I needed - if I went to dinner with a close girlfriend, I needed to be able to talk about it, what I was going through. The reason I didn't tell initially was that my doctor said to me, you know, I want to protect your hope. And I knew that was critical and that if I just said I had what she had and it began to just meander about, you know - from one telephone to another, one email to another, one text to another - that they would just say, oh, her sister died. She's dying, too.

GROSS: Yeah.

EPHRON: And I needed to protect my hope. And so I kept it a secret until I did go into remission. And then I wrote a Times piece about it and just announced to everyone exactly the same way.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here. And then there's a lot more to talk about. If you're just joining us, my guest is Delia Ephron. Her new memoir is called "Left On Tenth: A Second Chance At Life." We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL CHARLAP TRIO'S "I'LL REMEMBER APRIL")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Delia Ephron. Her new memoir is called "Left On Tenth: A Second Chance At Life." It's about two second chances - her marriage to her husband Peter Rutter at the age of 72 after the death of her husband Jerry Kass and a literal second chance at life after surviving a deadly form of leukemia that killed her sister Nora Ephron.

Delia, I just feel like I should say here to the people who are thinking, you're mispronouncing her name; it's eff-ron (ph). And I know that you pronounce it eff-rin (ph).

EPHRON: That is so correct.

GROSS: Want to clear the air about that.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK. You said that secrets don't suit you. You grew up having to keep secrets because your parents were alcoholics. So there were a lot of secrets that you had to keep. So you know how to keep a secret, even though they're not suited to you.

EPHRON: Yeah. That's true. You know, my mother was a - she was a very impressive woman. I mean, she was a screenwriter in the '50s, when mothers - you know, we didn't know any other mothers that worked, even. You know, my mother was - she was serious about it. And yet at night, she went completely to pieces. And she was angry, really angry. So we were up all night listening to them have their fights. And, you know, one day she said to me, I hope you never tell anyone what happens here. And this is kind of amazing 'cause, you know, my mother is so famous for saying to Nora, take notes. But to me, she said, I hope you never tell anyone what happens here.

And, you know, I feel, if you're the child of an alcoholic, you're not supposed to keep their secrets. Your parents are supposed to protect you. You're not supposed to protect your parents. So I feel - I understood as I got older - you know what? Tell everyone. That's what you have to do. You have to not make it that secret that you're keeping for her. You just can't because you'll never get through it. You'll never figure it out if you can't talk about it, if you can't write about it, if you can't dance it or draw it or something. Don't keep those secrets that are your parents' secrets, not your secrets.

GROSS: And I'll mention here that your parents wrote the screenplays for "Desk Set," with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, for "There's No Business Like Show Business," with Marilyn Monroe and Ethel Merman, for "Daddy Long Legs," with Fred Astaire. And they co-wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of "Carousel." So those are a lot of important credits.

EPHRON: I mean, my mother was absolutely amazing. And in many ways, we put her on a pedestal, even though she was clearly going to pieces. I mean, she died of cirrhosis, which is from excessive alcohol drinking, when she was in her 50s. I mean, the poor woman - to have that kind of talent and that kind of success and four rather wonderful daughters. I mean, and look what - I mean, alcohol is a terrible disease. But I do think that in terms of my own life, that growing up anxious made a huge difference in how I behaved when I got sick.

GROSS: What do you mean?

EPHRON: Well, I mean, it's why I said to them, don't tell me too much. Don't tell me too much because I can't handle it, because I'm going to spin it bigger.

GROSS: Like your mother did?

EPHRON: Not like my mother - but when you live in a family where your parents are alcoholics, in my case - I don't know, it might be different - you think that you can say something or do something that's going to prevent it that night. But you can't. You have no control over it. So every time you're trying to control it, you find out you can't. So it's a kind of thing, which, like I'm saying, if you're looking left, it's coming from the right. So I'm conditioned to anxiety. That's why I said to them, just keep it down because I can't - that's not what I can handle.

And, I think, if you get sick, you know, you're going to be who you are. If you're someone who's going to Google everything about your illness or you're going to Google everything in general, you're going to be out there Googling. If you want to interview two or more doctors to make sure that you're doing the right thing, then you're going to do that. You're not going to be a different person. And the person I was when I was sick was someone who said to my doctors, don't tell me too much.

GROSS: So soon after your remission, the leukemia came back. And like the first time around, you had access to treatments that didn't exist when your sister Nora had leukemia, this deadly form of leukemia. There was a new kind of chemo drug, an experimental drug. You were in the trial. That's what got you into remission. And there was also - once the - once you had leukemia the second time around, there was a new form of bone marrow transplant that included umbilical cord stem cells. Can you describe this new, I think, still-experimental form of bone marrow transplant?

EPHRON: It's called a Haplo-Cord transplant. And if you - I did not have a match. My only match was Nora, and Nora's only match was me. And Nora couldn't have a match from me because they didn't know about my marrow. So the doctor told me - it's something he's done a lot of work in - Dr. Koen van Besien at Weill Cornell - that it's a donor - it's a transplant from two donors. One is the adult donor, and the other is the cord blood from a baby. So it's two stem cell donations to you. So you have two donors, not one. And because cord blood is so - is the cord blood of an infant, it's so adaptable in a way that more mature blood isn't.

So what happens is they give you one transfusion - first, the adult, then the cord blood - and one day apart. And while the little baby cord bloods go - or whatever they are, the stem cells, they go to your marrow, and they take root. But there aren't very many of them 'cause there's not very many in the cord blood. So in the meantime, the adult donor takes care of you while the little baby stem cells begin to multiply in your marrow. And eventually, the adult fades away, and the baby marrow - the baby stem cells take over your marrow. So I now have the cord blood from an infant.

GROSS: And I should mention here that leukemia is a blood disease, and it's the bone marrow that makes the blood. Do I have that right?

EPHRON: Yes, that's the most important thing. Yes, of course. I mean, your bone marrow produces your blood supply. So you have to literally - I mean, I was a Type O blood when I got leukemia, and I am now Type A.

GROSS: Yeah, it's like you have different blood than you - (laughter).

EPHRON: Yeah, completely. Yeah.

GROSS: Totally different blood type. Yeah.

EPHRON: But it was able to work, I mean, because I didn't have a match, but it's more adaptable. And that is so recent. Really, some medicine is so remarkable. You just can't believe it, especially when - if you're lucky enough to be the beneficiary, which I was.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Delia Ephron. Her new memoir is called "Left On Tenth: A Second Chance At Life." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAQUITO D'RIVERA QUINTET'S "CONTRADANZA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Delia Ephron. Her new memoir is called "Left On Tenth: A Second Chance At Life." A new form of bone marrow transplant saved her life after she was diagnosed with a deadly form of leukemia, the same disease that killed her sister, Nora Ephron.

The real horrible part of this treatment isn't the transplant, per se. It's the fact that they have to basically kill your immune system so that your immune system doesn't fight the cells that you're given during the transplant.

EPHRON: That is absolutely correct.

GROSS: So they dose you with, like, you know - it's like the atom bomb of chemo. Is that a fair comparison?

EPHRON: (Laughter) That's a good description.

GROSS: And...

EPHRON: (Laughter) That's a good description. I was - it was very brutal. I mean, I did feel I was in the major leagues when I began to get that chemo. It's really - there was one particular one that's called melphalan, which - I mean, you have to - you have to keep your self - you have to ice your throat all the way through for an hour before, during and for an hour after when it's being infused into you because it can destroy your throat and your - yeah. It can destroy your throat. So...

GROSS: And your mouth.

EPHRON: Yeah, and your mouth. So I was terrified. I mean, just terrified. And - but, you know, it's important because it eradicates - well, I asked my doctor what it did. He said it tracks down any cancer cells that could be located anywhere in you and gets rid of them. That's what he said. But honestly, I was so sick. I was - the transplant - you know, it's interesting when I decided to write this because it became a treasure hunt. I had to ask all my friends what I had been like in the hospital. I mean, there weren't a lot of people there, obviously, because, you know, your immune system is absolutely dead. So, you know, I had very few people who came on with me on this journey, but they were very devoted. And I had Peter there every minute.

And they told me about - I mean, Maron (ph) said to me, well, you were in the ICU six days. I said, what? I still have no memory of the ICU. And I was swearing at everybody, which is absolutely not like me. But when I was writing the story of me, these were just - oh, my goodness. That's interesting. You know, it was like finding out - it was kind of like a treasure hunt. And then reading all of Peter's emails that he wrote to everyone when I was sick and him just absolutely maintaining a positive - he never said, God, this is hell. And it was. I was in the hospital a hundred days. It was such a treacherous journey.

GROSS: You begged to die, basically. You were asking people to help you die. You asked your doctors. You asked your husband. Everybody declined to help you. Your husband didn't think you even had the mental capacity to make a decision like that, and that also you lacked the information to have any sense of what the future might be. But do you have a memory, any memory, of asking people to let you die?

EPHRON: Oh, yes. I remember that very clearly. I remember my - I asked my internist to come to the hospital, and I begged her to let - I remember talking to her. And she saying - you know, she looked at the numbers, too. Like Peter said, you know, you're going to be reinvented. You're going to be, you know - I forget what word she was - she wouldn't. Then I asked my friend Gail Monica (ph), who's also a therapist, and I said, you know, please - you know, tell Peter he has to let me die. And she said, it would destroy him. You cannot. I said, I don't think I love him. I mean, I didn't feel anything, but I was so depressed. I understand depression now, which I did not before. I was so depressed that I just wanted - I did not have feelings for anyone but myself and my miserable aliveness. And that's all I could focus on.

GROSS: So you're the kind of person who, when you have to do - you always get a blow out.

EPHRON: Yeah.

GROSS: So you go to your hairdresser so that your hair would look good. I mean, that was important. And here you are in a new marriage. You are at your absolute lowest. Your hair has fallen out. You can barely move. You're not responsive to the doctor's questions because you're barely alive at that point when you were really at the bottom after your immune system was killed off by the chemo so that the bone marrow transplant could take. So you're in a new marriage while you are at your worst mentally, physically, emotionally. You're in a deep depression. Are you amazed that your marriage survived, that your new marriage survived this?

EPHRON: No, I'm not. But that's because I know Peter. We were all in. And Peter made me feel beautiful even when I looked like an old rag. I mean, he just did. And I felt so cared for. And I - I mean, there was that period when I was so sick and I didn't know, I really wanted to die then. And I didn't feel anything for anybody. But that lifted. And when it lifted, we were back. We were back.

GROSS: Do you think that you're both different people than who you were when you met before you got sick?

EPHRON: There is no question that 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 will be there. I think that, you know, 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. I mean, we have a lot of fun. And that's been marvelous.

GROSS: Even though the doctor told you that you were, at this point, as likely to get leukemia again as he was likely to get leukemia and he'd never had leukemia - so that means your odds are really low - do you still feel the sense of death constantly lurking in the background?

EPHRON: Yeah, a little bit. I do. That's true. I do. But I was someone who always had that feeling about death. So in some ways, it's - you know, I'm just one of those people that thought about death a lot. I don't know if that's because I - also, I was raised when - you know, I was born in '44, and the stories of the Holocaust were all around me when my - in the - you know, in the '50s. And I used to always think about concentration camps and things like that. If you're Jewish, I think that that's a big thing. But yeah, I've always been frightened. I was a frightened person. So I don't think - I think I still have that. And I think - I worry about that. And one of the reasons I think about it also is because I'm - now I am 77 years old. And so, yeah, I think about it. But I also think about how lucky I am right now.

GROSS: It strikes me that your husband is not a worrier. So when he's not worried and you are, are you relieved that you have somebody to be with who's kind of quieting your worries? Or do you think, like, no, you're wrong, you're wrong, you should be worried, like, I'm right? (Laughter).

EPHRON: Oh, no, no, no. It's so great. I say, I am really worried about this, and he's - oh, I don't think you need to worry about that. And then I calm down. It's quite amazing to be with someone - (laughter) it's quite amazing to be with someone who does not have that temperament.

GROSS: Delia Ephron, it's great to talk with you and hear that you are in good health, and I wish you continued good health. Thank you for coming back on our show. I greatly appreciated talking with you again.

EPHRON: Thank you. I love being here.

GROSS: Delia Ephron's new memoir is called "Left On Tenth: A Second Chance At Life."

After we take a short break, TV critic David Bianculli will review the new Showtime series "The First Lady," dramatizing the lives of Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford and Michelle Obama. They're played, respectively, by Gillian Anderson, Michelle Pfeiffer and Viola Davis. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBBEN FORD AND BILL EVANS' "PIXIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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