Skip to content
 

How Delia Ephron, 77, Found New Love and a Second Chance at Life

The ‘You’ve Got Mail’ writer's moving memoir, ‘Left on Tenth,’ revisits four years of joy and agony

left on tenth a second chance at life book by delia ephron alongside a photo of delia and her husband peter

L: Little, Brown / R: Elena Seibert

If you’ve seen the movie You’ve Got Mail, you’ve had a taste of the Ephron sisters’ witty writing. The 1998 film, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, was cowritten by Delia Ephron and her older sister, Nora Ephron, who died in 2012 of acute myeloid leukemia (AML). The duo and their two other sisters, Hallie and Amy (also writers), were raised in Beverly Hills by parents who were screenwriters.

Now, Ephron, 77, has written a memoir, Left on Tenth: A Second Chance at Life, that covers just a few recent years, but what years they were — with enough highs and lows for a lifetime.

She lost her first husband, Jerry Kass, a playwright and screenwriter and her “soul mate of 37 years,” to prostate cancer in 2015. Still mourning him a year later, she wrote an essay in The New York Times that caught the eye of Peter Rutter, a psychiatrist/Jungian psychoanalyst in the San Francisco Bay area, who emailed her (You’ve got email!). Turns out, she’d briefly dated him when she was 18, after they were introduced by Nora (he remembers loads of details, even meeting her parents, but she has no recollection of him, poor guy).


AARP Membership -$12 for your first year when you enroll in automatic renewal

Join today and save 25% off the standard annual rate. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life. 


During a long-distance courtship, they quickly fell wildly in love — an experience she describes as “heady, giddy, exhilarating” (“Delia, je t’adore,” he’d email her). But in the midst of their blissful romance, Ephron was diagnosed with the same bone marrow disease that killed her beloved sister. She and Rutter were married in her hospital room, and he stayed by her side through an excruciating series of treatments, a stem cell transplant and a slow recovery.

We talked to Ephron about these emotionally wrenching years, what it was like to fall in love again in her 70s and how writing sustains her. 

On finding her second soul mate

Peter walked into my life — or actually emailed into my phone. And it was so joyful, so much fun to feel alive like that. When you fall in love when you’re older, you know so much more about yourself. When I was younger I was figuring so much out: Could I have a career? What kind of a marriage did I want? All these things that were just banging around. And now I know how I feel about things, so it’s easier to be in love. You’re not working out the problems of growing up. I’m always fascinated that people can fall in love when they’re 19 or 20.  

But when I met Peter I was 72. Death is right there — I mean, you can reach out and touch it. So being in love has a kind of defiance to it.  

Her fantastic pals

One of the things about getting sick is that you begin to understand the things that you did right. And I understood that I have extraordinary friends. My girlfriends, they are incredible. Friendship is a special thing. One thing I’d say, when you go on journey like this — and I hope no one else reading this ever does — but if you go through some sort of medical journey, you have to think about who you invite on the trip with you. You have to think about which people will make you feel better. Who will be compassionate and empathetic? If there are people that don’t help you [in that way], make sure they don’t come with you.

Peter’s support

I had never read all the emails that he sent everyone when I was sick, and one of the really amazing things for me when I was researching the book was to see that he never said, “Oh, God, this is a nightmare.” And it was a nightmare, but he never said that. … He just absolutely refused to be negative. He was so positive, and that was something to find.

Finding the strength to write again

I survived, but I was really traumatized. I thought, I’m never going to write again. I had to relearn everything; I had to learn to walk again. But I was beginning to understand that life had handed me an absolutely extraordinary story. And so I asked a young filmmaker to help me go through my computer and just take everything that I had written from the time that Jerry died, and she assembled these giant loose-leaf binders [of information] in chronological order through those four years. She printed out all the emails between me and Peter, which were really so sweet. And I could see that the story touched on everything that mattered to me about love and loss and new love, and medicine and miracles and friendship.

Recovering forgotten moments

It was a bit of a treasure hunt, because I didn’t realize I was in the hospital for 100 days, and I didn’t remember so much of what happened. [My neighbor] said that when I found out I had leukemia again, I saw her in the lobby and just, like, dragged her up to my apartment and said, “You’ve got to go on this journey with me.” I also told her, “It’s very important that you love me.”

When I talked to her for the book, she said, “I’ve never seen anyone as terrified as you were.”

How writing heals her

Writing just put that trauma somewhere else. I was able to create something from it. I was able to make something out of this journey through this tunnel. I think if you have a trauma like this, if you can do anything with it, if you can dance it, draw it, paint it, knit it — anything that you can do to take that experience and make something beautiful out of it is really, really helpful.

For me, writing is almost my nourishment. I’m someone who likes to be alone in a room for six hours a day. Being a writer is a calling, and it comes first, before almost anything else.  

What’s next

I’m trying to figure out how I might want to adapt this book, either for theater or film.

Christina Ianzito is the travel and books editor for aarp.org and AARP The Magazine and also edits and writes health, entertainment and other stories for aarp.org. She received a 2020 Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing.