Delia Ephron is aware that her story sounds like it’s straight out of a movie. In a matter of a few short years, Delia Ephron, screenwriter and novelist, suffered tremendous loss. Nora Ephron was her sister and co-author, and she died in 2012 from cancer. She also lost her husband three years later.
Ephron then attempted to terminate her husband’s phone line and crashed her Internet. In a New York newspaper, she wrote about her horrible experience with Verizon Customer Service. Times Peter (a psychiatrist) found the op-ed to be incredibly helpful. He had just lost his wife and was also coping with grief. Peter wrote Ephron an email, reminding her that they’d already met—Nora had set them up 54 years earlier. Ephron didn’t remember, but that didn’t matter. Ephron was soon in love.
A co-writer You’ve Got Mail It happened suddenly She had to find a new relationship story. She will share her memoir in the future. Right on Tenth: Second Chance for Life, out April 12, Ephron describes their whirlwind romance—and the unexpected news that quickly changed everything: Ephron learned, four months after meeting Peter, that she’d been diagnosed with AML, an aggressive form of leukemia. “Everything big that could happen to me happened in a very short time,” Ephron says.
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Ephron, after a successful stem cell transplant that saved her life, decided to have a friend help compile all the notes, texts, emails and text messages she’d taken over those difficult years. The result is a book that navigates the weightiest of topics—death, love, sickness and survival—in Ephron’s signature heartfelt and humorous voice. TIME interviewed Ephron about her recovery and the value of love in any age. She also discussed why email is so romantic.
On the TenthFive years ago, you were diagnosed with leukemia. Throughout the book, you repeat this mantra: “You are not your sister.” Do you still find yourself saying that?
I never said that to myself until I got sick and my doctors began to say it. Their goal was to convince me that I would survive. Nora was so close to me. My younger sister Nora was my inspiration and I did everything I could to be like her when she was younger. So the idea that they were saying to me, “You are not your sister” and I had to believe that, maybe, to survive, it was mind-blowing. It felt as if I had betrayed her. All they really meant was your disease under a microscope is different from Nora’s, so you can have a different outcome, but they knew how much my mind was bound up with my sister. Both it was terrifying and empowering, at the same time.
You vividly describe what it was like for you to experience deep depression following your stem-cell treatment. How was it to go back to that period of your life?
It’s a very bleak place to be—to be intensely depressed. You can’t be allowed by anyone to make decisions for yourself when you’re depressed like that. Peter was aware that Peter could not make me a decision. My doctors also knew I wasn’t going to take control. It is important to allow those who are closest to you to take care of your needs. I’m embarrassed to say this, but it was so joyful to write this book because I was able to take control of it. I managed to reach the other end.
Talking of joy, tell us about your love story with Peter. This was after you lost your first husband to the disease. You wrote this about the first time you spoke with Peter on the phone: “We were both 72 and age meant nothing.” How did you come to realize that?
You believe that life is all about experiencing the world. With me, I didn’t have a choice—I just fell in love. It must have taken me a while to be open to the possibility. Some people are and some people aren’t, and having had a really wonderful marriage made me more trusting. Knowing what it felt like to love someone I loved, was something that helped me understand. My mind was on Peter all day—I could feel the chemistry through the bone. Emails were exchanged a thousand times per day.
It’s a little-known fact that there is a rom-com about email. Is there something about email that is so romantic?
Oh! They’re playful and very spontaneous. It’s a little bit more than a text. It’s something you can shape. It’s not more romantic than endlessly talking at night on the phone, but there’s something about that feeling: you’ve got mail.
These high-spirited feelings are beautifully paired with the real pain of losing. What has death done for your love life?
When we first met, we were both 72 years old. It’s right there—death is all around us all of the time. It’s some sort of defiance of it, as well as just thinking that you want to get every single thing out of life while you can get it. Peter makes everything better. It’s different to be older and fall in love—I know who I am. One of the hardest things about falling in love when you’re younger is you’re also trying to figure out everything else.
The following interview was edited and condensed for clarity.