DELIA EPHRON: Finding love at 72 was like being a teenager again

Finding love at 72 was like being a teenager again… but something lurked that would shatter my joy: Romcom screenwriter Delia Ephron didn’t expect to find unbridled passion in old age – then a routine doctor’s check-up threatened to change everything

A year after her husband Jerry died, Delia Ephron — then 72 — started exchanging emails with a psychoanalyst who had written to her out of the blue. 

Peter said he’d met her many years before through her sister, the celebrated director and screenwriter Nora Ephron — though Delia couldn’t recall him. Emails progressed to long phone calls. 

Then he decided to fly from his home in California to New York, to meet her in the flesh…

Our first in-person date was Saturday, November 12, 2016. Looking back, we were already in love and possibly set up for catastrophe.

The phone calls and emails [between us] were almost dreams, perfect versions of ourselves.

I worried about Peter coming into this apartment, which was still very much mine and Jerry’s. Worried that it would be hard for him. That it would be hard for me, too.

I put Jerry’s clothes in a box, cleared off his desk, moved his computer to a closet. Hardest to part with were his glasses. They were sitting on my desk, to the left of my laptop and a little bit back. Why did I toss them? I don’t know. I was in a bit of a frenzy. I still regret it.

Our first in-person date was Saturday, November 12, 2016. Looking back, we were already in love and possibly set up for catastrophe. Delia is pictured above with Peter

‘What? You let him come to your apartment?’ a friend said. She had no idea how far these emails had taken us.

Seeing Peter in person was almost deranging. He had dark, deep-set eyes, white hair, and a great quick smile. I loved his smile. Gorgeous laugh lines in his cheeks. He did not take his eyes off me — in my memory anyway — but fixed me with such a happy look. 

He was about 5ft 8in, perfect for my 5ft 3in. We went into the kitchen first and I didn’t want him to sit in Jerry’s breakfast chair. Not that I told Peter that. Nor did I say that Jerry was with us. There were definitely three in the room. I couldn’t let Jerry go.

At dinner in a charming downtown bistro I was so tongue-tied, I asked him his favourite colour. And then again noticing how happy he was just looking at me, I said: ‘We’re not getting married this weekend.’ We both started laughing. I think that’s when things eased up. When we left the restaurant, Peter kissed me. Not lightly. A wonderful, serious kiss.

Now with his arm around me, holding me tight, we walked back to my apartment and made out on the living-room couch like teenagers. We had great chemistry. Sometime after midnight, he returned to his nearby hotel.

Seeing Peter in person was almost deranging. He had dark, deep-set eyes, white hair, and a great quick smile. I loved his smile. Gorgeous laugh lines in his cheeks. He did not take his eyes off me — in my memory anyway — but fixed me with such a happy look

When I woke up the next morning, I was zonked. Physically and emotionally. And freaked out.

We were supposed to meet at noon in Washington Square Park. I can’t do this, I thought. I can’t start some new life with a stranger. I can’t turn my life over, begin again. And then what? Then what? One of us dies?

At the park we sat on a bench. And we talked. We really talked. About what it meant to start something intense and meaningful at this age. To fall in love now, when death is right there in front of us. When we can reach out and touch it.

I had told him about my medical situation, but repeated it — that I had abnormal cells in my bone marrow that were harmless right now and might remain so and that the doctor had been tracking me for seven years.

Neither of us should have to go through again what we’d both already gone through, Peter with his [late] wife, me with Jerry. I said: ‘If I get sick, I give you total permission to leave me.’

I didn’t really mean that. It was almost a joke — I have a tendency to spin serious things that way.

Peter said: ‘I could never do that.’

I also told him that we needed to get to know each other. I needed to go a bit more slowly. He said: ‘Why don’t we take today? Tomorrow I’ll visit my friends in Brooklyn.’

Peter, I was learning, never tried to argue me out of a feeling. Of course, the minute I expressed my anxieties and he said it was fine, I relaxed.

We stopped for pasta at a local Italian place, then went back to my apartment and spent the rest of the day and night in bed.

From me the next afternoon: ‘Peter, You must be on your way to the airport . . . I didn’t thank you, such a strange thing to say, but I didn’t thank you for taking me out, for coming here, for being considerate and kind and exciting, for giving me room to breathe and taking my breath away, for your hands and your heart and all the rest of it.’

From Peter: ‘D— I miss you but feel so much gratitude for all that has happened between us in such a short time, so that fills me up even in the missing. Please breathe well and don’t be trapped.’

Peter and I spent the next three months falling in love. I visited him in California for five days. I told him: ‘If it gets difficult, I’ll move into a hotel.’ It wasn’t difficult.

I tried to push away my guilt. All my friends said: ‘Jerry would be so happy about this.’ It was kind of them, for sure. But all this sex? Would he be happy about that?

And I want to apologise for even mentioning sex. No one wants to hear about two 72-year-olds getting it on. In a movie, I know, if you have two 72-year-olds simply kissing, you want the camera far away, like across the street or out the window. But our attraction was an essential part of the magic.

This replay of young love when I am old — heady, giddy, exhilarating — I was aware every second of what a gift it was. At the same time, there was something lurking . . .

My beloved sister Nora was sick for six years before she died in 2012. She’d had myelodysplastic syndrome, a disease of the bone marrow which leads almost inevitably to fierce acute myeloid leukaemia (AML). Because AML can run in families, my doctor had sent me to an oncologist for a bone marrow biopsy in 2008.

The results were that I didn’t have myelodysplastic syndrome, although I had signs that I could get it. That didn’t mean I would get it.

Nora’s doctors weren’t concerned about me, they weren’t my doctors. Also Nora was a national treasure — a writer and director, reinventor of the romantic comedy, admired by women everywhere.

I was just, well, me. I realised I needed a great specialist of my own. Which is how Dr Gail Roboz came into my life. She looked at the results of my blood tests, and my biopsy and said, basically, right now, you’re fine. I should come back every six months, and she would take some blood.

Nora’s doctors told her, after several years keeping her stabilised, that they couldn’t do that for ever and she could have a bone marrow transplant, the only thing that might cure her. And they discovered she and I were a bone marrow match.

Ultimately, they decided it was too risky to use me to save her because my marrow might be diseased. Nora decided, in any event, she did not want a transplant.

She read everything there was to read about bone marrow transplants and told me it was awful, the chemotherapy before and the entire subsequent process. She did not want to go through a long suffering.

If you survived the transplant, your body might reject it. Also, you could just get leukaemia all over again a few months later. Nora was over 70. Because the process was gruelling, doctors rarely attempted it on patients over 70.

When Nora’s myelodysplastic syndrome morphed into leukaemia, I was with her every day in the hospital that last month. Watching her die was, in addition to the sadness, like staring my own death in the face.

My six-month checkup with Dr Roboz is on Thursday, March 9. I check in and sit down. I have done this now every six months for eight years. I always notice the variety of folks waiting to see doctors. Every age, every ethnicity, some well dressed, some barely put together.

A microcosm of the world. Cancer is an equal opportunity disease.

Not that I don’t know it, but it’s good to realise I am part of a world, even if it’s not a world I want to be part of. I assure myself each time I come that I’m not ‘one of them’.

I am called to the small clinic room to see the doctor. Dr Roboz’s PA (physician’s assistant) Evgeny introduces himself and sits at the desk.

I have never met one of her PAs in all this time. I say, ‘I come every six months to have my blood checked. My counts have always been normal.’ 

He is looking at the computer screen, at the results from my blood just taken. ‘They’re not normal,’ he says hesitantly.


He’s studying the computer. Dr Roboz comes in. He gets up. She sits down and looks. ‘It’s not normal?’ I say. 

She tells me something, I don’t remember what exactly, to the effect that it could correct. I can come back in a week.

As she is sitting there, the rest of the results come in, results that leave no doubt: I have leukaemia. I don’t remember her telling me. I only remember suddenly knowing it.

She says we have to do a bone marrow biopsy right now. While they find a room to do it, I call Peter and reach him between patients. He says hello. I say: ‘I have leukaemia.’

‘We’ll get through this,’ says Peter. He’s flying in tonight on the red-eye.

The news sinks in by me repeating it and repeating it. The next morning Peter arrives. He puts his arms around me and I want to disappear into him, just stay there for ever.

AML presents differently in different people, Dr Roboz tells me. ‘You are not your sister,’ is a refrain she drums into me again and again, willing me to believe I can have a different outcome.

Dr. Roboz says there is a new drug, in the final stages of testing, that she thinks is absolutely suited to me: CPX-351. I don’t Google it. But I have hope.

I will check into the hospital on Tuesday. On Sunday morning, Peter is at the kitchen table and I am making us French toast. Peter says: ‘We should get married.’ Then, I suspect because he’s hearing his own words, he stands up and says: ‘Will you marry me?’

‘Yes,’ I say.

It isn’t romantic. I mean, I’m holding a spatula in my hand, feeling terror about my diagnosis, about the next weeks, my future, our future, but ‘We should get married’ feels absolutely right.

Tuesday I check in. I am officially a cancer patient now. I learn about PICC lines because I get one. It’s a skinny tube inserted into a vein in my left upper arm. The end goes into a central vein near my heart.

When the first tech tries to insert it, I writhe and scream. They bring in another tech, who inserts it swiftly and painlessly. One of the many things I learn in hospitals is there is often someone who can do a procedure better.

I love to think, Oh, I can tell this to a friend. This part of me is still operating.

There are so many levels operating — the same old Delia, trying to learn and get better at anything new; the frightened Delia who thinks her life might be over; the Delia who is madly in love. I know that Peter will track my blood counts and everything else. He’s a doctor. I’m marrying a doctor.

I am aware I am lucky. It’s a bit pathetic to be dealt one of the worst cards in the deck and still try to find some way to believe that you are lucky. But that part of me is operating, too. Dr Roboz promises not to put me in Nora’s rooms.

I have invited a very few close friends to come to our wedding in the private dining room on the 14th floor of the hospital. It’s a sunny day. Light streams in the dining-room window.

In the photos, all the guests are smiling and some are wiping away tears. I am pale and have a scrunched-up tissue clutched in one hand and a bunch of daffodils in the other. We read our vows. I cry through mine. Probably every person at the wedding knew my chances were slim. But none of them brought that feeling with them. It was a room full of hope.

The way CPX works: I get three infusions, with a day between each. The hope is this chemotherapy will clean out my marrow, kill off the cancerous white cells. For the first ten days or so, I feel fine. One day, I stand up and my legs crumple; I clutch the bed, breaking my fall.

What I don’t remember during this time is discussing death with Peter, but it’s a presence. One night I have the strongest feeling that Jerry and Nora are there with me, and I worry they have come to take me away.

Peter is positive, always positive. Dr Roboz believes it can work. You are not your sister. It’s all banging around in my head every day. All the time, every day.

One morning, leaving the bathroom, I suddenly pass out. My head hits the floor. I am out for only a second.

We walk the hallways, my arm in Peter’s, and radiate so much affection that nurses and orderlies randomly ask us how long we’ve been married, thinking we will say, 50 years. At our age, we are everyone’s fantasy of long enduring romantic love. We tell them three days, a week, two weeks. Peter sleeps on a daybed here every night. I don’t know how he can do it, really.

I remember when Jerry was in the hospital. Around seven or eight every night, after a day there, I would feel that I had to get out. I had to get home.

Peter says his home is where I am. Perhaps some of this stamina is his medical training, the hours he spent years ago on overnight call. Mostly, I think, it’s love. The freshness of our love.

Sometimes, illegally, he slips into my bed, hoping the nurses won’t catch us. I love having his arms around me, feeling his body next to mine. I love the silliness of the sneak.

One night, very late, my heart starts palpitating. Peter takes my pulse. It’s racing. It is odd to realise that I am in danger. I am soon told that I have atrial fibrillation — an irregular heartbeat — which is a complication of treatment. It can cause blood clots or strokes.

My blood counts begin to rise, as they are supposed to. The question now is, will the new white cells be healthy? I am released from the hospital without knowing the answer.

I am uncertain outside. Street confidence — after five weeks in the hospital on chemotherapy — is blown. I love April in New York, but now I feel fragile, looking every which way before I cross a street.

Several days later, Peter and I wait nervously in the clinic room to hear the results of my ‘all-important next bone marrow biopsy’ as he calls it.

Dr. Roboz bursts in. ‘Your marrow is gorgeous.’ Remission. Impossible to underestimate the power of that word. Peter and I are instantly imagining and planning a future.

The first thing Peter does when we wake up in the morning is wrap his arms around me. I snuggle into his shoulder. It’s the moment in the day when I am happiest. When death is farthest away.

I think about it all the time. Sometimes very consciously, and sometimes it’s just fluttering in the back of things.

The average remission for CPX is 14 months. Maybe I will get more, much more. Many people with cancer have lasted way longer than expected, I tell myself. I have to go for a blood test once or twice a week, depending on the counts. I can’t take subways because I cannot risk getting sick. With my injured immune system, that could be the end of me.

I don’t know if it’s the chemotherapy or the possibly fatal diagnosis or the uncertainty inherent in remission or all of those things, but my relationship to the world has changed. It’s as if I’ve been knocked on the head.

I look the same, I think, although there is uncertainty in my reflection that wasn’t there before. Would anyone else notice that? I’m not sure. I am physically, mentally, and emotionally wobbly.

As soon as it’s safe, I go for a blow-dry. CPX, amazingly, does not make a person’s hair fall out. I get out of the taxi, cross the street, and my legs give out.

Fortunately there is a lamppost. I grab it. I recover in a second, and walk on. This legs-giving-out thing starts to happen now and then. Peter accompanies me whenever he can. I always leave calmer, and not simply because I have good hair — although let’s not underestimate the importance of that.

I have another bone marrow biopsy. ‘Fewer bad cells than last time,’ Dr Roboz writes. I didn’t realise I had any bad cells. My relationship to my illness is full of gaps in understanding. She prescribes an oral chemotherapy drug.

June 17, 2017: My legs are intermittently weak again. But I am beginning to believe with absolutely no evidence that my remission will be a long one or at the very least a full 14 months, until next summer.

Peter and I, feeling optimistic and festive, plan a party to celebrate our marriage. For Thanksgiving, we go to Paris, then fly to Wales so Peter can meet my friends Richard and Julia.

November 30, 2017. I have a bone marrow biopsy as soon as we return and get the results from Natalie, Dr Roboz’s PA. Peter and I are sitting opposite her at the clinic table. Feeling good and positive and certain I am fine.

Natalie says: ‘The results indicate early relapse.’


Natalie nods.

‘The disease is back?’

‘It’s coming back. Yes.’

‘Where’s Dr Roboz?’ I say.

Natalie looks tragic. ‘She’s at a conference. She’s in Japan. Do you think I would be telling you this if she were here?’

Adapted from Left On Tenth: A Second Chance At Life by Delia Ephron, published by Transworld at £16.99. © Delia Ephron 2022. To order a copy for £15.29 (offer valid until April 10; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit or call 020 3176 2937.

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