Until we ourselves sit at a bedside watching a loved one die, we may only imagine death and hope for a good one. Most of us prefer to spend as little time on the subject as possible. It is rare to be invited in, but that is what Nora Ephron’s son, Jacob Bernstein, has done so eloquently in offering up his mother’s final chapter, during which, we learn, she was still writing her own jokes. It’s a gift for people who knew her and for those of us who admired her, but not really because she was famous. Death, the sharpest of editors, gets right to the point, whoever we are.
What Bernstein tells us is that his mom was still trying out fresh lines in her hospital bed, days before her death from leukemia, and with only her close friends and family even knowing she was ill. How she rolled her eyes when the doctors, trying to make sure she was still aware of her surroundings, asked her to name the president. And teased his brother, Max, about his hidden tattoos. But he also returns to the first time he realized it was bad: the moment at which life changes. “I’m having a little health crisis,” his mom told him over the phone. He describes being terrified by the sight of his clever mother crying, and then, as if to lighten the load for us readers, how she cried even harder at the thought that the writer Christopher Hitchens, with whom she had famously sparred, might have been braver when facing death. He tells us about the really bad stuff: the chemo, the numbness, the final week. It is painful and sad and darkly comic. That’s death for you. “The thing is,” Bernstein writes, “you can’t really turn fatal illness into a joke.”
This week, a less famous mother, Emily Rapp, offered us a similar lesson: about how to face a loss you know is coming and not being careless with the time we have. Her son, not even three years old, died last month. He had Tay-Sachs disease, which is always fatal. During his illness, she recounted, she would hold her dying son’s hand and watch distracted or annoyed parents with their kids. “This is what parenting a child with no future has taught me: Nothing is forever,” she writes. “There is only now, the moment, the love you bear, the knowledge that loving is about letting go, and that the power of a person’s grief is a reflection of the depth of their love.”
It’s often said that we are a death-denying society, but these stories – and the reaction they bring – suggests that this isn’t entirely true: We are willing to pony up and be present when the time requires this of us. In a society obsessed with achievement, there’s no ribbon for dying well or grieving fiercely. Even being fully present has its costs, as Bernstein tells us, in the strange feeling that having said everything, you have run out of things to say.
In any event, his mother filled the space as best she could. Complaining of a subpar pineapple milkshake, she vowed to get it right herself: “When I get out of the hospital, 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. It’s going to be great.” She surely knew this to be fiction, that there was no going home. But what is true, what the honest stories of death reveal to us, is what writers know: There is always greatness to be found in a sad ending written well.