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Nora’s Secret

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In his talk at the memorial, her son Max acknowledged some of these theories and added another of his own: “I think that she just kept quiet so the rest of us could keep enjoying being with her as much as possible.” He recalled some happy times with his mother over the past six years and contemplated how they would have played differently if everyone had known how ill she was. “All of those moments would have been bittersweet or sanctimonious, flanked by an asterisk, leading to a footnote that says, ‘There aren’t many of these left,’ ” he said. “I am so glad they weren’t that way.”

I don’t have my own theory. But like most everyone else, I look at Nora differently through the prism of the secret she kept so well. I am in awe of her courage; I doubt I would have the ability to keep an illness of this magnitude to myself, to not complain, to spare most of my friends the gory details. And while I am grateful to have had some joyous recent occasions with Nora that were not rendered bittersweet by knowledge of her terminal condition, that’s not what I will remember most. What haunts me instead from these last years is how she acted when the chips were down for others.

Far from aiming low in the last days of her life, she aimed as high as ever, if not higher. I will give just one example, one I witnessed firsthand. In February, after a grueling battle with breast cancer, my wife’s sister, Phoebe, died at the age of 44. Nora barely knew my sister-in-law—they had met only once—and we were not in constant touch with Nora about Phoebe’s illness. Good friends as Nora and Nick were, we were not extended family. And yet after Phoebe’s death, Nora sussed out the logistics of the shiva on her own and schlepped downtown to mingle at length with mourners she mostly didn’t know, engaging with (and charming) every stranger she met. A few weeks later, she and Nick were adamant about having us over for a home-cooked dinner of chicken and brilliant mashed potatoes to try to have some laughs and ease back into the world. Alex was still picking herself off the floor emotionally; she talked very little as Nick, Nora, and I kept the conversation going. Later we looked back on that night as one of the most healing of that entire period, even though it would be hard to articulate the alchemy that made it work. Knowing now that the evening took place a little more than two months before Nora entered the hospital for the last time, we realize that the intimacy, on that night at least, was a one-way street. Which is ­exactly what Nora intended.

She had chosen, as is her right and ­everyone’s, to leave part of her unknowable. For all the instructions she gave us and everyone else about life, she was teaching us something about dying, and we had no idea at the time she was doing so. But what if we had learned in a timely manner that Nora was herself near death? What if we could have had that final conversation with her? Would she have benefited? Would we? My own “What I Wish I’d Known” list-in-progress has for some time included the dictum “There is no closure.”

Of all the Nora writings I reread after her death, perhaps none is more pertinent than an article she wrote not in the past six years but back in 1975, shortly after I met her, when she was 34. Titled “The Mink Coat,” and published in ­Esquire, it is mostly an account of her mother’s final off-and-on hospital stay. Though Phoebe Ephron had “managed, almost until the end, to keep up appearances,” Nora writes, her voice was so clotted that it was impossible to understand a word she was saying. Her mother was furious that her daughter couldn’t understand her, and Nora was furious in return. She was desperate for her mother to give her “some kind of answer” about life and mortality in her final days. But “what kind of answer?” Nora wrote. “What was the question? I don’t know, but I wanted one, a big one, and there was no chance of getting it.” She could not easily forgive her mother for being in a hospital, dying and “going off without having explained any of it.” And yet she could not and did not stop loving her either.

Like her mother, Nora managed, ­almost until the end, to keep up appearances. She entered the hospital to die, answered no questions, and went off without having explained any of it. But if action is character, and she believed that it is, perhaps we have the answer after all. What doesn’t matter is whether we got to say good-bye or not. What does matter is that she was here for those she loved and those who loved her, and that now, while we were napping, she has gone.


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