Like many others, I also revisited Nora’s writing, looking for the copy that might tell us Everything. This was more productive. As was widely noticed among Nora’s obituary writers, her slender last book, I Remember Nothing, published in 2010, could be seen in retrospect as a good-bye. It ended with elegiac summing-up lists titled “What I Won’t Miss” (“Funerals … Joe Lieberman … Panels on Women in Film”) and “What I Will Miss” (“My kids … Nick … Coming over the bridge to Manhattan … Pie”). The acknowledgments page that followed listed the expected family, friends, and editors—“and also, of course, my doctors.” For a book largely collating previously published material, Nora had also written a new final essay, not much noticed in 2010, in which she confronts the realization that she may have only a few more “good years” and broods about what she might do with them: “I try to say to myself, if this is one of the last days of my life, am I doing exactly what I want to be doing?” Deciding that she wants to “aim low,” she moves on to a joke defining an ideal day as “a frozen custard at Shake Shack and a walk in the park. (Followed by a Lactaid.)”
Such were the recent hints hiding in plain sight. So was the announcement that her upcoming project, a play for Broadway, took on the life of Mike McAlary, the New York tabloid columnist who did his most powerful work while being treated for colon cancer prior to his death, at age 41 in 1998. Reading further back, you’d discover that Nora had also addressed “the D word,” as she put it, directly in an earlier essay titled “Considering the Alternative,” published in Vogue (and reprinted as the concluding chapter in I Feel Bad About My Neck). The piece appeared in the summer of 2006, the year she learned of her illness. It was pegged to the imminent approach of her 65th birthday, but also to the recent deaths of friends. She writes at the outset that “denial has been a way of life for me for many years” but that she was leaving it behind in her sixties, now that she was seeing the “long shadows” of illness and death everywhere: “Death is a sniper. It strikes people you love, people you like, people you know, it’s everywhere. You could be next. But then you turn out not to be. But then again you could be … You can imagine you’ll be brave, but it’s just as possible you’ll be terrified. You can hope that you’ll find a way to accept death, but you could just as easily end up raging against it.” Nora also writes about the “Exit” file Henry Grunwald left behind, but she “can’t quite figure out how any of it applies” to herself.
It was not for nothing that Nora’s movies were comedies, with the happy endings the form demands (in Hollywood, anyway). The few morbid pieces aside, most of her work remained funny in the final years. “The D Word” returns as the title of a chapter in I Remember Nothing, but in its final outing, the D is not for death but divorce, a topic she helped turn into a section at the Huffington Post and one that, from Heartburn on, she always navigated with humor. Nora’s later blog posts could be riotous. The phenomenon of the Scottish amateur singer Susan Boyle as a contestant on the TV show Britain’s Got Talent prompted this in 2009: “That song is worse than all of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and it’s worse than ‘It’s a Small World After All.’ That song from Les Misérables that Susan Boyle sings is the all-time most horrible song ever in history.” This is not gallows humor; it comes from a spirit that is alive to every vicissitude of the culture, down to the ephemeral trivia. It’s not the kind of writing we have come to expect from a dying writer. We’re more likely to think instead of the example of Hitchens, who, denied the option of hiding his physical decline, turned his last eighteen months of life into a multimedia torrent of interviews, philosophical debate, and testimonials he could still be on hand to witness. He wrote enough about dying to fill a book, Mortality, to be published next month.
Nora chose the un-Hitchens way to go. I can imagine her saying that this had something to do with the differences between men and women. (They did not differ in their disdain for religion.) Since her death, there has been plenty of theorizing among those who knew and loved her about the motives for her secrecy. For sure, Nora had some cause for hope until nearly the end. She had responded to earlier treatments. Also for sure, Nora wanted to keep working; she might well have assumed that a Hollywood studio would think twice about bankrolling a movie like Julie & Julia were there a serious chance the director might not be able to finish it. Another strain of conjecture had it that she was just too used to being in control, to being disciplined and strong-willed, to surrender to illness. “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim,” Nora said in her oft-quoted 1996 commencement address at Wellesley. She hated complaining. She did not want to become her cancer. She did not want her illness to change the weather of any room she entered. She did not want to spend every day fending off an onslaught of concerned questions. She didn’t want to be thought of as a lesser person. She did not want friends to see her falling apart.