21 Apr 2022

Delia Ephron: loss, love and second chances

From Nine To Noon, 10:05 am on 21 April 2022

Novelist and screenwriter Delia Ephron, who is best known as co-writer of the hit rom-com You've Got Mail along with her filmmaker sister, the late Nora Ephron, has chronicled her time of extreme loss, trauma and love in a new book.

Her sister and her husband of 32 years died from cancer. Months after her husband's death, Ephron met and fell in love with Peter.

But within months, she herself was diagnosed with the same aggressive form of leukaemia that Nora had died from.

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Photo: Supplied

Peter’s relationship with Ephron was pretty much full circle as Nora had set them up on a date decades ago.

“I have absolutely no memory of this [date] whatsoever … but we began to correspond and fell just madly in love,” Ephron tells Nine to Noon.

“When you’re 72, it may be easier to fall in love, but death is so close you can reach out and touch it.

“[At the start of the relationship] I said jokingly … you know, if I get sick I give you total permission to leave me and he just said I could never do that and he just shut it down and lo and behold, like three months later … I get this [leukaemia] diagnosis.”

Peter had lost his spouse to cancer too.

“He was there in the most powerful way. I don’t know how he did it endure it so much,” Ephron says. “I was in the hospital for 100 days, and really he never left my side … it’s hard to do that.”

Although she was not alone, she became depressed while receiving treatment.

“You take thousands of pills, I weighed a pound, I couldn’t stand up … I was begging everyone to let me go because I was so deeply depressed.

“I was so traumatised, because the treatment was so severe, and I was in a wheelchair for a long time afterwards and had to learn to walk again and everything.

“I read some of my records, it said like ‘patient can’t recognise her own palm’. I mean that’s the state I was in.”

It was a dark time when her lungs started filling up with fluid, but Peter always believed she would make it and he stayed up all night keeping a close eye, she says.

She was so debilitated that she thought she’d never be able to write again but ultimately, writing was healing, she says.

“One of the strangest things about writing a story like this is I didn’t remember a lot of things that happened in the hospital. I didn’t even know I was in the ICU, and Meredith, my friend, said to me ‘well you were there for six days’ and I said ‘what?’ And she said ‘yes, and you were swearing at everyone’, which is not like me.

“When I was researching and I was now all right, it became like a treasure hunt to ask friends what was going on, to look at Peter’s emails to people when I was sick, it was like putting together a story that was just a little bit of separation now between me and me in the book.

“Because I’m a dramatist, I thought gosh, life gave me this amazing story. So, it helped me to write it.

“I just want to say if you ever [are] even half as traumatised as I was, and we’ll all be traumatised with things in our lives, if you can write it, paint it, knit it, cook it, do anything with it, dance it, it will help you deal with it.”

The doctors also reminded her that she was not her sister, that her outcome could be different, she says, but to her those words felt almost like a betrayal.

“When I was growing up, I just wanted to do everything Nora did, but she was going around the track so fast that I could not keep up. I had to learn who I was, and writing taught me that … because your writing is your fingerprint.

“But the thing is we were so close, and we collaborated beautifully that I mean Nora used to say we share half a brain so there was always a muddiness about where I stopped and she began.”

She says it was love and support as well as cutting-edge medicine and experts that saved her life.

“It wasn’t just Peter; I had these girlfriends - I call them women warriors – I had this amazing small group of women who just were there as well.

“My book, it’s almost as much about friendship as it is about love and Peter and me and surviving this, they are such an integral part of the story.”

Her last check-up in 2020 with the doctors was positive and she says many have been sharing their own stories of love, survival, and loss with her after reading about her experience.