First let me say that this book is not for everyone. If you have had cancer or experienced cancer through a relative or close friend, this book may not be for you. If you are recently widowed, this book may not be for you. If you are squeamish about medical treatments or diagnostic tests, this book may not be for you. However, this book was for me, 100%. It was a 5-star read for me.
I tore through this book, partly because I love Delia Ephron’s writing style, and partly because it felt so real and immediate, like I needed to read at the same speed that all of the action of this memoir was taking place. And, it takes place at a high rate of speed.
I’ve been happily married for almost 34 years. Delia had been happily married for 37 years when her husband Jerry passed away from prostate cancer, after having lived with the disease for six years. So, for me, this book felt personal. Delia says in the opening pages that when the oncologist sent them home with a DNR (do not resuscitate), she “began to rehearse being alone.” I sometimes think about my very close relationship with my husband and how if we are not at work, we are always together. I wonder what will happen to me if he dies first. How will I know how to be alone after 34 years of being together? So from page 3 of this book, Delia had drawn me into her close circle of life and death, of being married and then being alone, of being part of a couple and then being a single.
To add to the deep connection I felt from this book, this book is really about the massive battle Delia waged against leukemia. A few years ago, a good friend of mine from my early teaching days was devastated to learn that her oldest daughter, then 14-year old Ava, had leukemia. I asked my 7th and 8th grade classes to pray for her, and the 7th grade in particular was always asking about her and how she was doing. My friend started a blog and I learned a lot about leukemia, childhood cancers, diagnostic tests (which sometimes sounded horrific to me), chemotherapy, and much more. So, following Delia’s story of her own leukemia through the pages of Left on Tenth (Hachette Book Group, 2023) brought me back to the prayer vigils, the rosaries, and the stories of Ava as she battled leukemia.
Having read Delia’s previous collection of essays, Sister Mother Husband Dog: Etc., I found this to be written in the same chatty, personal style. As dark and heavy as the subject matter was at times, Delia manages to season it with a fair amount of humor and self-deprecation. However, one of the things that really stood out to me especially in this book was that while proclaiming that she doesn’t value fame or that she doesn’t only care about famous people, she is famous in her field, by her own work and by her work with and for her sister, Nora Ephron. Her parents were Hollywood screenwriters and playwrights, and she and her sisters are all writers, each having published multiple books. Her experience as a very sick person is and was very different from almost everyone else on the planet. At some points in the book, Delia’s experience as a very sick person in private hospital rooms, emailing her doctors and getting nearly immediate responses from them personally, demanding and getting a larger private room with a bigger window, well, this chafed against me, fully knowing that if I were to go down the cancer path myself, I would have a much different experience. At one point in the book she bemoans that they “meet with two physical therapists that we can get through Medicare. I think I am allowed a few weeks’ coverage…It’s shocking how little government assistance helps.” However, in the next paragraph she goes on to say that she hires one of them to come for an hour a day, five days a week, to her NYC apartment on Tenth after work to work with her privately. The dichotomy here is startling to me.
That being said, I did love this book. I loved Delia’s honesty, painting a realistic picture of a grieving widow dealt a terrible hand with an often incurable disease. I suffered along with her, burrowed deep under my covers late into the night as she battled side effects of a stem cell transplant, chemotherapy, and depression. I cried when she cried over her difficulty swallowing so many pills all throughout the day, as I too have a problem swallowing pills. I highlighted a statement told to her over and over by her doctor: “Don’t be scared of the treatment, be scared of the leukemia.” I loved her attitude when having to decide on a treatment that didn’t give her very good odds, ” I decide pretty much at that moment I might as well go out fighting.” I loved that about her. I reveled in her recovery, as the light at the end of the tunnel finally shined brightly upon her, much as I did with my young friend Ava, thinking about her as she starts college in the fall, which is a miracle on so many levels.
I woke up with a “book hangover” this morning, having stayed up to late to finish the book. As I dressed for work, and prepared myself for a full day of teaching middle school students, I offered up a prayer of thanksgiving for my health, for my husband and his health, and for my appreciation of all the good things in my life, of which there are many.