Delia Ephron lost both her sister Nora and her husband Jerry to cancer within the space of three years. Then a new love unexpectedly entered her life; or to be more accurate, a new old love. In response to a New York Times op-ed she’d penned about the difficulties of communicating with her internet provider, she had an email from a man named Peter, who claimed to have dated Delia when they were at college, and asked if she remembered him. To her embarrassment, she didn’t. Still, that initial email sparked a run of replies, and soon the two were meeting in person, and soon after that, falling wildly in love. After the darkest time of her life, things were finally looking up for Delia… and then she received a cancer diagnosis of her own. The same rare blood disease that led to Nora’s death.
Left on Tenth follows Delia through the emotional whiplash of those strange few years: the exhilaration of falling in love when she least expected to, and the terror of facing a cancer that killed her sister.
About the first third of Ephron’s memoir is concerned with her whirlwind romance with Peter, and – to be blunt – this is the weakest portion. Whereas the rest of the book is commendable for its bracingly blunt humour and sometimes painful displays of vulnerability, there’s a gushiness to Ephron’s descriptions of her courtship that make them a little cloying to read. In addition to that, a couple of anecdotes that are presented as charming are in actuality rather off-putting (foremost among them a story about killing a mouse).
It’s in writing about her illness that Ephron excels – not just the physical effects, but the toll that living so close to death for so long took on her mental health. Nora’s terrible fate looms understandably large in her mind; it doesn’t help that she’s treated in the same hospital, and even narrowly avoids staying in the same room. Battling a disease with a dauntingly high mortality rate (at first she’s given a 20% chance of survival, which is later raised to 40%), knowing first-hand what might well happen to her: it’s an awful lot to contend with.
Left on Tenth takes us through the various stages of severity of Ephron’s cancer – from the uneasy relief of her first remission through to the very darkest moments of her disease, when she was begging doctors to let her die. Whilst Ephron’s memoir gets truly bleak at times, its leavened by both her indomitable sense of humour, and the large cast of friends and family who congregate around her offering moral support. However much her recounting of their courtship cloys, the steadfast love that Peter has for Delia throughout her whole horrible journey is continually moving.
Though the first section isn’t as compelling as the rest of the book, Left on Tenth is a searingly honest memoir of a battle against cancer, and a testament to the sustaining power of love.
Left on Tenth is published by Doubleday on 14 April 2022