If you would like something uplifting with your Wednesday, but also something heartbreaking — something that will almost definitely make you cry at your desk, or tonight on your couch — there is perhaps no better new long-form journalistic option than Jacob Bernstein's tribute to his late mother for The New York Times Magazine. His late mother, of course, was Nora Ephron.
Bernstein writes beautifully about Ephron's descent toward death, of her last few days spent in the hospital with her family. Ephron died on June 26, 2012 of complications from leukemia. She was working on a Broadway play while she was sick, something we haven't seen yet, called Lucky Guy about Mike McAlary, a former New York Newsday and New York Daily News reporter who died from a similar disease as Ephron. It opens in April, with Tom Hanks as star. Ephron was bed-ridden in a hospital for most of the last few days of her life. Very few people even knew that she was ill, only the closest friends and family members. But that didn't stop her wit from shining through to those she kept closest:
At some point, a team of doctors and nurses arrived to assess the situation, and Mom became slightly more lucid.
“Can you tell me your name?” one of them asked.
“Nora Ephron,” she said, nodding.
“Can you tell me where you are?”
“New York Hospital.”
“Who is the president of the United States?”
At this point, my mother looked annoyed, gave a roll of the eyes and refused to answer the question, which later on was the source of some debate between Max and me about whether her sarcasm and humor remained even as her memory and focus faded or whether she was simply irritated at being treated like an infant.
Ephron fell asleep for a few hours after that, but was feeling better when she awoke. Her other son, Max, told her he was "going to miss you so much," to which she replied: "Miss me? Well, I'm not dead yet." The humor never faded.
In another situation, when Ephron's illness had gotten considerably worse, Bernstein writes of his mother's competitiveness with Christopher Hitchens, who she famously sparred with in the last few years of her life. "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," he says. (It's hard not to love her.)
But perhaps the best anecdote from Bernstein's piece, the one that best exemplifies his mother's spirit and humor in the face of death, involves a pineapple milkshake. Yes, a pineapple milkshake. She wanted one, but the one she got wasn't up to par. It didn't meet her standards. Now, mind you, she was frail and close to death here. She had been in a hospital for weeks, months even. But she wanted her milkshake done right:
“When I get out of the hospital, I’m going to go home and I’m going to make a pineapple milkshake with crushed pineapple, pineapple juice and vanilla ice cream, and I’m going to drink it and I’m going to die,” she said, savoring the last word. “It’s going to be great.”