Skip To Content

Emerging from a ‘twilight world,’ Delia Ephron offers a harrowing story of loss and survival

Left on Tenth: A Second Chance at Life

By Delia Ephron

Little, Brown and Company, 304 pages, $29

If you’re expecting a light, frothy read, Delia Ephron’s “Left on Tenth” isn’t your book. You’ll need to brace for (emotional) impact if you pick up this memoir of late-life love and life-threatening illness.

Ephron was the frequent writing partner of her more famous older sister, Nora, who died in 2012 of complications of acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Delia also is a successful humorist, essayist and novelist (“Siracusa,” “The Lion Is In”) in her own right, and she knows how to grip a reader with plot twists and punchy prose.

Her title, “Left on Tenth,” is a double entendre referencing abandonment – and directions to her Greenwich Village apartment. The narrative starts with loss: the illness and death of Ephron’s husband, the playwright and screenwriter Jerome Kass. It morphs into a tale of new romance with an almost-too-good-to-be-true man from Ephron’s past. Then it descends to the familiar terrain of the illness memoir, by turns hopeful and harrowing.

Delia and Nora Ephron

Sisters: Delia Ephron with her sometime writing partner Nora. By Getty Images

The book exists, so we surmise that, unlike her sister, Delia has survived.

Her tribulations are many, but, as she periodically reminds us, so are her resources: She has money, access to top-flight doctors, a steadfast second spouse, and an abundance of devoted friends – so many that it can be hard for readers to keep track. The book is semi-epistolary, filled with email exchanges demonstrating that devotion.

As “Left on Tenth” begins, Ephron learns that her husband’s prostate cancer has taken an aggressive turn. He has been her soulmate and professional sounding board, and they have led a charmed life. “We knew that we belonged together and the fact that we’d found each other was the luckiest thing,” Ephron writes.

When Ephron realizes that their time together will be cut short, she rehearses being without him, a manifestation of anticipatory grief. When he dies, in home hospice, she is 71 and has been enduring high anxiety for years — over his fate, her sister’s illness and death, and her own possible susceptibility to AML.

Luck figures mightily in what happens next. After she disconnects her husband’s landline, her frustrating misadventures with Verizon inspire her to write an op-ed for The New York Times. That gets the company’s attention, and she ends up with her own personal Verizon representative. More important, the piece prompts an email overture from Peter Rutter, a Jungian psychiatrist, widower and long-ago admirer with his own Verizon woes.

It turns out that Nora fixed the two up when they were in college. They had a few dates, of which Delia retains no memory. Now, Peter, though living in the Bay Area, is interested in rekindling that old attraction.

After an understandably cautious start, Ephron plunges into a correspondence leading to impassioned phone calls and a whirlwind, sexually electric, bicoastal romance. The two act like lovestruck teenagers. “I was aware every second of what a gift it was,” Ephron writes.

But trouble looms. Since AML runs in families, an oncologist, Dr. Gail Roboz, has been monitoring Ephron’s blood regularly. And just as her romance with Peter is taking off, she is diagnosed with leukemia.

Peter flies to her side, rearranging his own life, moving his patients to remote sessions. Ephron has no interest in immersing herself in medical details, so Peter shoulders that load, too. He proposes that they marry, and the ceremony takes place in the hospital.

A then-experimental chemotherapy drug, CPX-351 (now called Vyxeos), puts Ephron into remission. She and Peter seize the opportunity to travel to Europe and visit her closest friends, who live in Wales.

But the remission is more short-lived than expected. When the cancer returns, it becomes clear that the best – the only – hope of a real cure is a stem cell transplant, a grueling procedure rarely attempted on those over 70. (For a variety of reasons, Nora didn’t get one.)

Medical technology has advanced, and Ephron no longer needs a perfect (adult) match; instead, she receives a haplo-cord transplant, combining adult stem cells with those from baby cord blood. For patients, it’s an ordeal with no guarantee of success. “Don’t be scared of the treatment,” her oncologist tells her, “be scared of the leukemia.” Those words become Ephron’s mantra.

The cover of Delia Ephron's 'Left on Tenth'

Telling Her Story: Delia Ephron’s latest book is a story of confronting illness and finding love. By brown and co., little

Before the transplant, she endures a brutal chemotherapy regimen. And though the transplant goes well, the aftermath includes terrible side effects and complications. Ephron is nauseous, exhausted, frail. She becomes so emaciated and distraught, so clinically depressed, that she longs for death. “All I want is blackness,” she writes. “An empty screen.”

At her lowest point, Peter and her close friends offer unstinting support. Her doctors encourage her and do their best to alleviate her symptoms. Recovering, finally, at home, she must spend a year “in a twilight world” of semi-isolation and enforced restrictions – an eerie precursor to pandemic lockdown. One imagines that when that crisis arrived, Ephron, resilient and enveloped in love, was more than ready for it.

Julia M. Klein, the Forward’s contributing book critic, has been a two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.