"Nora Ephron's Final Act," the New York Times Magazine story about the final days of writer/director Nora Ephron and the cancer that led to them, is as adoring and intimate as you'd expect coming from her accomplished writer son, Jacob Bernstein (he contributes regularly to the Times and his father is Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame).

There are predictably sad, lovely passages like this:

When I arrived in her room, my mother was crying. She cried a lot that first night, and then, the next day, she cried some more because she was certain Christopher Hitchens had done no such thing, and she was devastated at the thought that she might not be as brave as him about death.

It terrified me to see her cry like that. She loved me, showered me with gifts, e-mailed or called every time I wrote something that made her proud. But even after all the weekly meals, the shared vacations, the conversations about movies and journalism and the debt ceiling and Edith Wharton, I still viewed her with a mix of awe and intimidation. It wasn't often that I caught a glimpse of her vulnerability.

Now there she was, in her Chanel flats and her cream-colored pants and her black-and-white-striped blouse, looking so pretty and so fragile as she dabbed her eyes with a Kleenex; and I finally understood what she meant when said she was a bird - that she wasn't just talking about her looks but something inside as well.

More impressively, the piece describes how a clever writer whose mother instilled in her the notion that "everything is copy" figured out how to discuss her cancer without discussing her cancer:

What both [Ephron and her mother] believed was that writing has the power to turn the bad things that happen to you into art (although "art" was a word she hated). "When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you; but when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it's your laugh," she wrote in her anthology I Feel Bad About My Neck. "So you become the hero rather than the victim of the joke."

...The thing is, you can't really turn a fatal illness into a joke. It is almost the only disclosure that turns you into the victim rather than the hero of your story. For her, tragedy was a pit of clichés. So she stayed quiet, though clues were sprinkled through much of what she wrote during the six years she was sick.

The clues run all the way to Lucky Guy, the Tom Hanks-starring Broadway show that's now in previews about Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mike McAlary who died of cancer in 1998. Bernstein writes that to Ephron, McAlary "was a role model not so much in life, but in death, in the way that he used writing to maintain his sense of purpose and find release from his illness."

Not even terminal illness could repress Ephron's writer's spirit. There's a nice parallel between her attitude toward her death and Bernstein's — toward the end of the piece (which finishes, by the way, on the kind of wry beat that Ephron probably would have loved and/or devised herself), he wonders aloud to his mom if he'll ever write again once she's gone. She assures him that he will, and boy, was she right.

New York Times Magazine: "Nora Ephron's Final Act"

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