In this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, Jacob Bernstein has a long and moving essay about his mother, Nora Ephron, and her final days in an Upper East Side hospital bed. The piece is certainly worth a read—it provides an unparalleled, as of yet, glimpse into Ephron’s mentality regarding her illness (which she learned about in 2006), her frustration at the continuing deterioration of her health, and the impending “bad death,” which Ephron expressed a desire to avoid at all costs.
It serves as a rebuttal to Frank Rich’s New York Magazine piece decrying the way in which those in Ephron’s closest circles, including Rich, were finally told of the writer’s illness: in a phone call from Bernstein, a day or two before she died. Bernstein calls those conversations “strangely beautiful,” noting only that the longtime friends on the other end of the line “were startled and confused, but gracious.”
Bernstein also gives an impressive plug for Ephron’s posthumous production, opening next month on Broadway, of Lucky Guy, the Tom Hanks-starring play about 1990s New York tabloid journalist Mike McAlary, who got a major reporting scoop just months after a terminal cancer diagnosis. Ephron wrote the play in 2008, after her own diagnosis of the blood disorder myelodysplastic syndrome, fully aware of the dual layers the production would ultimately exist on. The casting of Hanks, a longtime friend of Ephron’s, as McAlary only deepens the play’s interwovenness with Ephron’s own life.
But most notably, Bernstein’s essay reveals a devoted and admiring son coming to terms with the death of his larger-than-life, seemingly indomitable mother. The shock that all of us, as readers and viewers and fans, felt at the realization that Ephron could be felled by anything is mirrored in Bernstein’s struggle:
When I arrived in her room, my mother was crying. She cried a lot that first night, and then, the next day, she cried some more because she was certain Christopher Hitchens had done no such thing, and she was devastated at the thought that she might not be as brave as him about death.
It terrified me to see her cry like that. She loved me, showered me with gifts, e-mailed or called every time I wrote something that made her proud. But even after all the weekly meals, the shared vacations, the conversations about movies and journalism and the debt ceiling and Edith Wharton, I still viewed her with a mix of awe and intimidation. It wasn’t often that I caught a glimpse of her vulnerability.