She was not publicly fixated on her illness, but Ephron did address the subject obliquely in her writing. Here, a reprinting of “The O Word” from her final essay collection, I Remember Nothing: and Other Reflections, published in November 2010.
I am sixty-nine years old.
I’m not really old, of course.
Really old is eighty.
But if you are young, you would definitely think that I’m old.
No one actually likes to admit that they’re old.
The most they will cop to is that they’re older. Or oldish.
In these days of physical fitness, hair dye, and plastic surgery, you can live much of your life without feeling or even looking old.
But then one day, your knee goes, or your shoulder, or your back, or your hip. Your hot flashes come to an end; things droop. Spots appear. Your cleavage looks like a peach pit. If your elbows faced forward, you would kill yourself. You’re two inches shorter than you used to be. You’re ten pounds fatter and you cannot lose a pound of it to save your soul. Your hands don’t work as well as they once did and you can’t open bottles, jars, wrappers, and especially those gadgets that are encased tightly in what seems to be molded Mylar. If you were stranded on a desert island and your food were sealed in plastic packaging, you would starve to death. You take so many pills in the morning you don’t have room for breakfast.
Meanwhile, there is a new conversation, about CAT scans and MRIs. Everywhere you look there’s cancer. Once a week there’s some sort of bad news. Once a month there’s a funeral. You lose close friends and discover one of the worst truths of old age: they’re irreplaceable. People who run four miles a day and eat only nuts and berries drop dead. People who drink a quart of whiskey and smoke two packs of cigarettes a day drop dead. You are suddenly in a lottery, the ultimate game of chance, and someday your luck will run out. Everybody dies. There’s nothing you can do about it. Whether or not you eat six almonds a day. Whether or not you believe in God.
(Although there’s no question a belief in God would come in handy. It would be great to think there’s a plan, and that everything happens for a reason. I don’t happen to believe that. And every time one of my friends says to me, “Everything happens for a reason,” I would like to smack her.)
At some point I will be not just old, older, or oldish—I will be really old. I will be actively impaired by age: something will make it impossible for me to read, or speak, or hear what’s being said, or eat what I want, or walk around the block. My memory, which I can still make jokes about, will be so dim that I will have to pretend I know what’s going on.
The realization that I may have only a few good years remaining has hit me with real force, and I have done a lot of thinking as a result. I would like to have come up with something profound, but I haven’t. I try to figure out what I really want to do every day, 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? I aim low. My idea of a perfect day is a frozen custard at Shake Shack and a walk in the park. (Followed by a Lactaid.) My idea of a perfect night is a good play and dinner at Orso. (But no garlic, or I won’t be able to sleep.) The other day I found a bakery that bakes my favorite childhood cake, and it was everything I remembered; it made my week. The other night we were coming up the FDR Drive and Manhattan was doing its fabulous, magical, twinkling thing, and all I could think was how lucky I’ve been to spend my adult life in New York City.
We used to go to our house on Long Island every summer. We would drive out with the kids the day they got out of school and we wouldn’t come back until Labor Day. We were always there for the end of June, my favorite time of the year, when the sun doesn’t set until nine-thirty at night and you feel as if you will live forever. On July Fourth, there were fireworks at the beach, and we would pack a picnic, dig a hole in the sand, build a fire, sing songs— in short, experience a night when we felt like a conventional American family (instead of the divorced, patched-together, psychoanalyzed, oh-so-modern family we were).
In mid-July, the geese would turn up. They would fly overhead in formation, their wings beating the air in a series of heart-stopping whooshes. I was elated by the sound. The geese were not yet flying south, mostly they were just moving from one pond to another, but that moment of realizing (from the mere sound of beating wings) that birds were overhead was one of the things that made the summers out there so magical.
In time, of course, the kids grew up and it was just me and Nick in the house on Long Island. The sound of geese became a different thing— the first sign that summer was not going to last forever, and soon another year would be over. Then, I’m sorry to say, they became a sign not just that summer would come to an end, but that so would everything else. As a result, I stopped liking the geese. In fact, I began to hate them. I especially began to hate their sound, which was not beating wings— how could I have ever thought it was?— but a lot of uneuphonious honks.
Now we don’t go to Long Island in the summer and I don’t hear the geese. Sometimes, instead, we go to Los Angeles, where there are hummingbirds, and I love to watch them because they’re so busy getting the most out of life.
“The O Word” from I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections © 2010 by Heartburn Enterprises, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.