And yet: Who knew that she had been struggling with a terminal illness for six and a half years, and had been in a hospital deathbed the last five weeks of her life? For nearly all of that time, only a half-dozen or so intimates, most of them immediate family, knew that Nora was ill—and not necessarily with much accompanying detail. At the memorial, Max Bernstein, her younger son, said that “even my brother and I were given the rosiest possible version of what could barely be called the truth up until when she was hospitalized” (on May 21). During that last hospitalization, as her acute myeloid leukemia worsened, the circle widened only slightly when Nora’s atypical failure to respond promptly to e-mails and phone messages required some explanation. But even then, few knew exactly what was going on. Not until the day or so preceding Nora’s death did many of her friends receive the shocking call, as Alex and I did from Max’s brother, Jacob, telling us that the Nora we’d seen in full bloom only yesterday (it seemed) was out of reach.
In her 2006 anthology, I Feel Bad About My Neck, Nora has a chapter titled “What I Wish I’d Known.” It contains some classic Nora-isms—“There’s no point in making piecrust from scratch” and “Never marry a man you wouldn’t want to be divorced from,” among others. But the last in the list—“There are no secrets”—is one of the rare examples of Nora being wrong. There are secrets; she had one, and it was kept until almost the end.
Streep didn’t sound seriously mad when she claimed to be pissed off at the memorial. But she hit on what so many of Nora’s friends wrestled with, along with our grief, in the immediate aftermath of this huge loss. Some of us—and that would include me—were pissed off at first. Her death was a gut-punch that initially landed like a sucker punch. And it came with a vexing mystery. In private, in her public persona, and in her literary voice, Nora exemplified self-awareness and truth-telling, and yet she hadn’t let us in on the long battle for her life that finally consumed her. This might be expected if Nora had chosen a life of privacy despite her renown (witness the astronaut Sally Ride), but she was ubiquitous, both in her day-to-day rounds around town and in the mediasphere where she did her work. Her choice to keep her illness a secret was not just out of character but a Herculean task that required an unfathomable scale of compartmentalization and enforcement in the fishbowls of New York and L.A. she swam in. What, exactly, in Streep’s phrase, had Nora intended? What was she telling us by making her final chapter a secret? What, if anything, was she telling us about ourselves?
Like everyone else, Alex and I went searching for clues. We replayed our last encounters with Nora, trying to remember if we had failed to notice moments when she might have been under the weather or let her guard slip in conversation or been sending a coded message. But the truth was that Nora still looked younger than her years (she died at 71) the last two times we’d seen her, in April, and seemed as sharp mentally and physically as ever. Hendrik Hertzberg had it just right when he wrote in his New Yorker tribute that “physically and spiritually, Nora always seemed to be exactly the same age—say, 36.” (Which is just a bit older than the age she was back in the day when both he and I first met her.) As Alex and I cycled through every encounter, conversation, and e-mail we’d had with Nora over the past couple of years, we could find at most a few inklings. What had particularly stuck with me was a phone conversation about Julie Salamon’s biography of Wendy Wasserstein. Nora and Wendy were more wary acquaintances than friends, but Salamon’s account of Wendy’s largely private struggle with cancer had made an outsize impression on her. “It’s just so sad, so depressing,” Nora had said when she called to talk about it, reiterating the thought several times without expanding on it. For her part, Alex recalled an e-mail earlier this year in which Nora, not often given to effusive emotional displays in our experience, wrote “I love you” in response to a thank-you note. “Nora wanted people to know how she felt about them” is how a longtime Nora friend and professional colleague now looks back on a similar incident awhile back, when during a lull in a workday she unexpectedly blurted out to him how much she treasured their collaboration.