Nora Ephron Taught Us How to Live and Die

In reflecting on all the people who passed away this year, I am thinking of Nora Ephron and how this witty, wise and loving woman taught us not only how to live but also how to die.
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In reflecting on all the people who passed away this year, I am thinking of Nora Ephron and how this witty, wise and loving woman taught us not only how to live but also how to die.

I last saw Nora Ephron earlier this year at the memorial for best-selling author Charla Krupp, who shocked her circle of loyal devoted friends by never divulging her terminal illness. While Nora was behind me as we signed our names on the guest book, a few friends, with tear rimmed eyes, came up to us questioning how anyone could keep a terminal illness secret or would want to make that choice. "We live in the age of the Internet where everyone tells everyone everything," cried one friend.

"The credit should go to a good marriage," I said, referring to Charla's partnership to Time magazine's theater critic Richard Zoglin. "How lucky was she that her husband's love was enough that she didn't need anyone else."

I then turned to Nora and for some inexplicable reason said, "Don't you agree?" In owl-like black sunglasses, the celebrated writer of romantic comedies like Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally nodded her head and whispered, "That is so true." Only now I realize she most likely was thinking of her own husband, writer Nick Pileggi, whose quiet unwavering support gave her the protective cocoon to keep her secret intact -- even from her children.

As Frank Rich wrote in his New York Magazine piece about Ephron, people have legitimate reasons to want to keep pending death a secret. He said his friend may have not wanted "her illness to change the weather in any room she entered. She did not want to spend every day fending off an onslaught of concerned questions. She didn't want to be thought of as a lesser person. She did not want friends to see her falling apart."

Rich went on to share how at Ephron's memorial in New York City, her son Max Bernstein reflected on his mother's unexpected gift for not divulging the seriousness of her illness.

"I think that she just kept quiet so the rest of us could keep enjoying being with her as much as possible," Max said at the memorial. "All of those moments would have been bittersweet or sanctimonious, flanked by an asterisk, leading to a footnote that says, "There aren't many of these left." Then he added, "I am so glad they weren't that way."

But it couldn't have been that way for Max or his brother Jacob without Nora's husband Nick Pileggi by her side. Yes, this man who she married in 1987 was a good fella in the best of ways.

As a culture, we often focus on the lust and laughs of new marriages. But want to see passion at its sexiest? For me, it is witnessing the long-term marriages of couples whose passion for loyalty and the respect for their history together endures so that each spouse can feel safe and not judged during times of weakness. Long term marriages are the real love stories of our time. Just wish there were more of them.

Lucky Nora had Nick to discuss the challenges of squeezing joy from life with rationed time. She had him to give her the chicken soup when treatments made her sick and cranky. She had him to cry with at night when the fear of the unknown choked her with anxiety. Nora had Nick to soothe her apprehensions so her public face could still be smiling. So she could still be working. So she could still be living the life she wanted. So she could be, as she often said, "the heroine of your life, not the victim."

Friends of course lamented not being able to say farewell. But as Bruce Feiler wrote in the New York Times, farewell conversations are usually awkward and forced. What do you say after goodbye? Sorry this happened and it sucks? As I've witnessed, the dying often feel obligated to make their friends feel better about their condition. It becomes stressful for them. They only feel safe with a trusted few.

Oddly enough, Nora Ephron, the woman who eagerly doled out delicious recipes for Thanksgiving dinners, never did share the one recipe many covet: The recipe for a loving devoted marriage. With the divorce rate hovering towards 50 percent, few will have built a reservoir of good times to not need anyone else when the end of life comes.

In fact one of Nora Ephron's greatest successes ends up proving not only that in divorce, wife can go on, but that she can marry well too.

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