During a long-distance courtship, they quickly fell wildly in love — an experience she describes as “heady, giddy, exhilarating” (“Delia, je t’adore,” he’d email her). But in the midst of their blissful romance, Ephron was diagnosed with the same bone marrow disease that killed her beloved sister. She and Rutter were married in her hospital room, and he stayed by her side through an excruciating series of treatments, a stem cell transplant and a slow recovery.
We talked to Ephron about these emotionally wrenching years, what it was like to fall in love again in her 70s and how writing sustains her.
On finding her second soul mate
Peter walked into my life — or actually emailed into my phone. And it was so joyful, so much fun to feel alive like that. When you fall in love when you’re older, you know so much more about yourself. When I was younger I was figuring so much out: Could I have a career? What kind of a marriage did I want? All these things that were just banging around. And now I know how I feel about things, so it’s easier to be in love. You’re not working out the problems of growing up. I’m always fascinated that people can fall in love when they’re 19 or 20.
But when I met Peter I was 72. Death is right there — I mean, you can reach out and touch it. So being in love has a kind of defiance to it.
Her fantastic pals
One of the things about getting sick is that you begin to understand the things that you did right. And I understood that I have extraordinary friends. My girlfriends, they are incredible. Friendship is a special thing. One thing I’d say, when you go on a journey like this — and I hope no one else reading this ever does — but if you go through some sort of medical journey, you have to think about who you invite on the trip with you . You have to think about which people will make you feel better. Who will be compassionate and empathetic? If there are people that don’t help you [in that way]make sure they don’t come with you.
I had never read all the emails that he sent everyone when I was sick, and one of the really amazing things for me when I was researching the book was to see that he never said, “Oh, God, this is a nightmare.” And it was a nightmare, but he never said that. … He just absolutely refused to be negative. He was so positive, and that was something to find.
Finding the strength to write again
I survived, but I was really traumatized. I thought, I’m never going to write again. I had to release everything; I had to learn to walk again. But I was beginning to understand that life had handed me an absolutely extraordinary story. And so I asked a young filmmaker to help me go through my computer and just take everything that I had written from the time that Jerry died, and she assembled these giant loose-leaf binders [of information] in chronological order through those four years. She printed out all the emails between me and Peter, which were really so sweet. And I could see that the story touched on everything that mattered to me about love and loss and new love, and medicine and miracles and friendship.
Recovering forgotten moments
It was a bit of a treasure hunt, because I didn’t realize I was in the hospital for 100 days, and I didn’t remember so much of what happened. [My neighbor] said that when I found out I had leukemia again, I saw her in the lobby and just, like, dragged her up to my apartment and said, “You’ve got to go on this journey with me.” I also told her, “It’s very important that you love me.”
When I talked to her for the book, she said, “I’ve never seen anyone as terrified as you were.”
How writing heals her
Writing just put that trauma somewhere else. I was able to create something from it. I was able to make something out of this journey through this tunnel. I think if you have a trauma like this, if you can do anything with it, if you can dance it, draw it, paint it, knit it — anything that you can do to take that experience and make something beautiful out of it is really, really helpful.
For me, writing is almost my nourishment. I’m someone who likes to be alone in a room for six hours a day. Being a writer is a calling, and it comes first, before almost anything else.
I’m trying to figure out how I might want to adapt this book, either for theater or film.
Christina Ianzito is the travel and books editor for aarp.org and AARP The Magazine and also edits and writes health, entertainment and other stories for aarp.org. She received a 2020 Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing.