Three Rules for Middle-Age Happiness
Gather friends and feed them, laugh in the face of calamity, and cut out all the things––people, jobs, body parts––that no longer serve you.
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“The only thing a uterus is good for after a certain point is causing pain and killing you. Why are we even talking about this?” Nora jams a fork into her chopped chicken salad, the one she insisted I order as well. “If your doctor says it needs to come out, yank it out.” Nora speaks her mind the way others breathe: an involuntary reflex, not a choice. (Obviously, all dialogue here, including my own, is recorded from the distortion field of memory.)
“But the uterus …” I say, spearing a slice of egg. “It’s so …”
“Yes. Don’t roll your eyes.”
“I’m not rolling my eyes.” She leans in. “I’m trying to get you to face a, well, it’s not even a hard truth. It’s an easy one. Promise me the minute you leave this lunch you’ll pick up the phone and schedule the hysterectomy today. Not tomorrow. Today.”
“Why the rush?”
“Why the hesitation?” Nora has leukemia. She knows this. I do not.
Ten years earlier, Nora had cold-called my home, annoyed that she’d had to get my number through a friend. Throughout her life, if you dialed 411 and asked for her home number, you’d get it. “Why would you ever not be listed?” she’d said. “What if someone needs to get in touch with you?” But first she said, “Hi, Deb, this is Nora Ephron. I loved your memoir, and I’d like to take you out to lunch.”
“Yeah, right,” I said. “And I’m Joan of Arc.” I assumed it was a friend, mimicking her voice. Nora was my superhero. Screenwriter, director, novelist, humorist, essayist, journalist—Nora did all the things I wanted to do but better, faster, stronger. I saw Heartburn three times when it first came out; When Harry Met Sally, too many times to count.
“No, Deb. This is Nora. And I’d like to invite you to lunch.”
I froze. It was her. Nora effing Ephron. On the other end of my phone. So what does one say to the woman whose work you’ve admired your entire life? For starters, not this: “Ummmm …”
“Are you still there?” said Nora.
A long, uncomfortable pause. “Sorry. Lunch. Yes!”
I’d been clutching a roll of bubble wrap when she called, staring at a wall of family photos that needed to come down. Our dark 1.5-bedroom was located over a parking garage that overheated every summer, rendering the kitchen tiles too hot for bare feet. Its windows framed the last stop of the M79 bus route. Buses idled there 24/7, blasting a toxic cloud of metaphor into the master bedroom.
Moving boxes were everywhere. My husband and I were eight years into our marriage, six years into parenthood, and five days away from seeing whether more light, air, and space could keep our marriage from collapsing. Our new living room, bright and fume-free, had an oblique view of the Twin Towers. Until it didn’t.
Now, a decade later, Nora’s my go-to person on every topic: Couches, she tells me, should be white; tables, round; emails, short; lunches, long. “You don’t need it anymore,” she says, still harping on about my uterus. “It served you well, but that part of your life is over.”
She’s right. I’m 45, I have three children––two teenagers and a preschooler––and I’m not planning on having any more. And yet: Who am I without my uterus?
“How great is this chicken salad?” says Nora.
Our lunches have become a monthly fixture, to which Nora often arrives bearing gifts with careful instructions for their use: Dr. Hauschka’s lemon oil (“Dump at least half a bottle in the bath water. Don’t skimp. If you like it, I’ll get you more”); a black cardigan from Zara (“I bought five of them, they were so cheap. You can wear it on your book tour. Look, the buttons look just like a Chanel”); a silver picture frame (“Black-and-white photos only. Color won’t work”).
“Won’t I feel like less of a woman without a uterus?” I ask.
“Oh, please.” Nora rolls her eyes again. “Would you rather not have a uterus or be dead? They go in with robots now. You’ll barely have a scar. So what is this adeno … How do you pronounce the thing you have?”
“Adenomyosis,” I say, Googling it on my phone to make sure I get the definition right: A chronic condition in which the lining of the uterus breaks through the muscle wall, causing extensive bleeding, increased risk of anemia, heavy cramping, and severe bloating.
“Sounds delightful. I see now why you’d want to keep it.”
I laugh. Then I sigh. I’ve been putting up with this disease for 16 years because, like most women who get adenomyosis (or endometriosis, its equally wily cousin), I had no idea I had it. “How are your periods?” my gynecologist would ask every year, and every year I would answer, “Heavy,” but with a tone that implied I had everything under control. Why didn’t I tell my doctor I had viselike cramps and slept on a doggy wee-wee pad half the month to catch the overflow?
Every woman in a paper robe, facing her doctor, knows she is silently being judged. “Come on! It can’t be that bad,” a doctor once told me, diagnosing a mild case of gas three hours before I had an emergency appendectomy.
I’d had painful and heavy periods since adolescence, but they grew exponentially worse after the birth of my first child, in 1995. It wasn’t until just after my annual checkup in 2011, however, that my general practitioner became alarmed. A woman is considered anemic when she has fewer than 12 grams of hemoglobin per deciliter of blood. I had seven. “This can’t be right,” my doctor said, staring at my results. “How are you even standing?”
I was sitting. “I’ve been a little tired.” (I’m exhausted!)
“Are you able to work and take care of the kids?”
“I do my best.” (Who else is going to do it?)
“Look,” said my doctor. “We can either hospitalize you every month for anemia or you can go ahead and get a hysterectomy. It’s your choice, but not really? I don’t think getting transfusions every month is a sustainable life choice.”
“Whatever it’s called,” says Nora, “I want you to promise me you’ll get that hysterectomy this year.” Also, she doesn’t like the paperback cover design for my new novel, a picture of a woman lying on a park bench with a book in her hand. “She looks dead. Like the book was so boring, it killed her.”
“I can’t do this anymore,” I finally admit to Nora. I call her early, too distraught to elaborate, after a particularly disturbing interaction with my husband the previous night.
She’s at her house in East Hampton and reserves me a ticket on the jitney while we are still on the phone. “I’ll meet you at the bus stop. Don’t eat. I’m making lunch.” Five years earlier, when I’d called to say I couldn’t attend the baby shower she was throwing for me, because my prematurely contracting uterus and I were now on bed rest, she showed up at my apartment with a dozen lobsters, two homemade lemon-meringue pies, our mutual friends, and her sleeves rolled up to do the dishes when the party was over.
I’ve told no one but my shrink about the darker corners of my marriage, but when Nora picks me up, I unearth all of it. Every last bone. A few years earlier, my husband was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, and although the diagnosis helped us understand both his lack of empathy and my anger over its absence, it’s one thing to comprehend the origins of our marital dysfunction and quite another to fix it. I still feel alone, unseen, and frequently gaslit; he still feels confused and hurt by my seething fury.
After the exorcism, Nora’s husband, Nick, joins us for lunch, placing his hands gently on his wife’s shoulders before kissing the top of her head. “Is this for real?” I say dubiously, air-circling their conjoined heads with my finger: Harry and Sally, in their golden years. “Is this as good as it seems?” My jealousy burns almost as brightly as my admiration.
“No,” says Nick. “It’s better.”
“Deb!” Nora laughs, standing up and walking to the kitchen counter. “He’s my third husband. If you can’t get it right by your third marriage, well … Come. Help me carry the salad to the table.” She slices thick slabs of peasant bread. “Are you staying over tonight?”
“I can’t,” I say. “I have to pick up my son at 5:30.”
Nora purses her lips. “Might his father be able to do that?”
“I’ll ask,” I say, knowing before dialing his number that the answer will be no.
“You know I’m here for you if you decide to pull the plug,” she tells me, “but please: Try to fix the marriage before taking any drastic measures. Marriages come and go, but divorce is forever.” She scribbles the name and number of her friend Joyce, a Jungian therapist who treats couples at an impasse, on a scrap of paper. “Joyce is a genius,” she says. “Call her.”
“You’re not eating,” says Nora.
“I had a big breakfast.” Stress has eaten my appetite. Anemia has eaten my red blood cells.
“No. Sorry. You are not allowed to add anorexia onto adeno … whatever it’s called. Did you schedule that surgery yet?”
“I can’t have a major operation right now. I’ll do it after my novel comes out.”
“What exactly are you worried about when you imagine going under the knife?” she asks.
“I’m not worried about going under the knife,” I say, moving the pieces of cucumber and chicken around on my plate like pawns on a chessboard. “I’m worried about the aftermath.” The day after my appendectomy, my husband had asked me to bring him a Sudafed for his runny nose, because my side of the bed was closer to the bathroom. I fiddle with my wedding band: a new tic.
Nora notices. She notices everything. “How are things going with Joyce?”
“Joyce is great.”
“And the marriage?
I sigh. Not wanting to disappoint her, but unable to find hopeful words. “About as healthy as my uterus.”
She pauses, weighing her words. “He doesn’t have Asperger’s, you know. I’m sure of it.”
“What? No, stop.” This is the only argument we will ever have in our 11-year friendship, the only time her well-earned confidence about always being right gets in the way of the truth.
“But he’s so at ease at our dinner parties,” she says. “And he truly seems to love you. It doesn’t make sense.”
“It’s a ruse, his ease,” I say. “It’s a survival skill. He knows how to watch and listen carefully and learn behaviors. He watched rom-coms, for example, to figure out how to woo me.”
“Seriously?” says Nora, rom-com auteur.
“More or less,” I say.
“Okay, fine. I’ll stop.” She gives me the dreaded Nora Stare™: a raised-eyebrow, chin-down, crooked-mouth rebuke. “But that doesn’t mean I think you’re right.”
I laugh. “I wouldn’t want you any other way.” I look across the table at this daughterless woman who has all but adopted me and several other women. Who never judges my actions but tries to understand. Who champions my work, even when it’s not going well, and loves my children as if they were her own. Who teaches me, by example, how to navigate the postreproductive half of my life: Gather friends in your home and feed them, laugh in the face of calamity, cut out all the things––people, jobs, body parts––that no longer serve you.
After lunch, she flags down a taxi. “Are you feeling okay?” I ask. She lives three blocks away. She always walks home.
“I’m fine,” she says. She shuts the door and rolls down the window. “Schedule that surgery already, please! And be nice to your husband. One more shot, okay? For my sake.”
“Okay, okay!” I watch the blur of yellow that is Nora disappear up Madison Avenue and set a date for my hysterectomy.
“I’m dying to see you,” I write Nora, the morning after my surgery, at the precise moment when she, unbeknownst to me, is the one doing the hard work of dying. “Wanted to see what your summer looks like so we can plan something in, I dunno, late July?”
Unusually, she does not write back. Or even call. I’m unnerved. She always responds to my emails within an hour or two, max.
The hysterectomy—which, just as Nora had predicted, was done with robot arms—had lasted a little more than eight hours. I’d woken up in recovery to the sounds of the nurses whispering: “Where’s the husband? Has anyone seen the husband? We can’t reach him. Is there another number?”
“What?” I said, suddenly cogent and in pain.
“We can’t find your husband,” said the unfamiliar faces now hovering over my head. “Is there anyone else we can call at this time?”
“Yes. Call Nora, please.”
“Who’s Nora?” said the nurse.
“Nora Ephron. She’s listed. Call 411. That’s E-p-h-r- …”
“She’s delirious,” the nurses whispered.
Back home, less than 24 hours after surgery, I beg my husband for a lunch that never comes, for quiet that never falls, for help with our older son, who’s stuck downstairs in a taxi without cash to pay the fare. “I’m watching a movie,” he yells from the TV room. “Can you do it?”
I end up screaming at him with so much force, a hernia pops out of one of my incisions. “That’s it. I want a divorce,” I say. Nora will understand. She has to. I’ll call her first thing tomorrow to tell her.
Instead, I’m awoken by a series of texts from a friend, asking if I’ve heard the news: Nora is gravely ill. What? I call Nora’s cellphone. She doesn’t pick up. I write her another email. She doesn’t respond. Her death is announced the next day. Her face is all over the TV, her voice all over the radio; I have to turn off both to keep from weeping.
Her husband invites her friends to their apartment to eat the chicken-salad sandwiches Nora herself picked out for the occasion. “Why didn’t she tell us?” we all ask one another.
She’d told almost no one about her cancer, including her sons, until the end. Which was odd, as she was the self-proclaimed Queen of Indiscretion. Years before it was public knowledge, she told me and anyone else who would listen that Deep Throat was the FBI agent Mark Felt. At a dinner party, when a friend asked Nora if she was working on a new movie, she said yes but she wasn’t allowed to talk about it. Then she proceeded to spill every last detail about Julie & Julia, including the fact that she’d just spoken to Meryl Streep about coming on as its lead. How could she have kept her own terminal illness a secret?
Back home, my teenage daughter stops me as I head into the bathroom. “Mom,” she says, “I need to tell you something really personal, but I’ve been worried about telling you while you’re recovering. I didn’t want to bother you. The coincidence is just too … weird.”
“Hit me,” I say.
“Okay, so, while you were in the hospital? Like, literally during the exact hours when they were removing your uterus?”
“I got my period.”
“What?!!! No!!! That’s so crazy! Congratulations!” I hug her. I kiss her. The torch has been passed. Life goes on. What comes out of me can only be described as craughing: that combination of crying and laughter. “Do you have everything you need? I’m so sorry I wasn’t here for that. Do you even know how to use a—”
“Mom! Oh my God, stop. Yes. I’m the last one of my friends to get it. They taught me everything.”
“Okay, okay, but promise me one thing,” I say, channeling Nora.
“Sure,” she says, “what?”
“Promise me you’ll never be afraid to talk to me about anything.”
“Oh my God, Mom. Chill. It’s just my period.”
“No, no!” I laugh. “I’m not talking about periods. I mean, like … anything.”
“Duh, of course,” she says, and suddenly it strikes me: Of course Nora told no one about her illness. The transmission of woes is a one-way street, from child to mother. A good mother doesn’t burden her children with her pain. She waits until it becomes so heavy, it either breaks her or kills her, whichever comes first.
This article was adapted from Deborah Copaken’s book Ladyparts: A Memoir.
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