June 26, 2012. My journal page from that day says simply: “Nora is gone. Nora is gone and I never got to say thank you. Nora is gone and I will never be the same.”
I was just barely 21 years old. I had only been in New York for a year — a whirlwind one in which I ran a marathon, edited the fashion section of NYU’s newspaper, interned at the New York Daily News, wrote at least 10 articles a week (not including class assignments), and declared a second major on top of an already-full course load. About 90 percent of the choices I made that year stemmed from Nora Ephron’s influence. And now here she was, dead, unexpectedly so, and I felt nothing but overwhelming guilt, sorrow, and despair.
It’s taken me nearly four years to finally be able to write about her.
There are a few select women who have played significant, influential roles in my life. I write about them often. I think it’s important for women, particularly young women coming of age, to have women role models — lady heroes — to look to for guidance, influence, and inspiration. My lady heroes have helped me grow as a person, but I hold their impact on my life as a writer especially dear. Over the years, these women lit small fires in my belly — Yes! I do want to be a writer! — or have encouraged me to keep at it through the struggles. They made me think — That’s the kind of work I want to do; I think I can maybe do it almost as well as them. I identified with things they did or said about the process, they assured me that I didn’t just think I was a writer — I was one. Nora was — Nora is — one of these women.
When I heard that her son, Jacob Bernstein, a reporter for the New York Times, was making a documentary on Nora’s life and death, a flood of emotions overwhelmed me. I was excited — new insights and information and footage I was eager to devour — but also somewhat fearful, conflicted, and hesitant to watch.
I had gone through the grieving process. I read Jacob’s piece in the New York Times Magazine. I read Lena Dunham’s moving tribute to her late mentor. I re-read her work chronologically and bought her heavy anthology and underlined all my favorite passages. I had, in a sense, moved on, even if I still got choked up every time I watched When Harry Met Sally or felt the need to play The Cranberries every time I found myself on the Upper West Side.
It’s a weird thing to process the death of someone who you never really knew in real life, as much as you felt like you did. It’s weird to think about the fact that a little piece of them lives in your soul and comes out of you a little every time you write or feel like you’re not being very brave or hear Joni Mitchell sing “River” or imagine throwing an adult dinner party or… the list goes on. It’s weird to acknowledge that you never knew that person, because it sometimes feels so real.
Sure, the film might make me happy. But I was too sure that it would just make me miss Nora more, that it would just remind me of all the words I never got to say. I worried that it would just make me feel terribly angry and frustrated and immature, thinking about how unfair it was that she was gone.
The night the documentary came out, I couldn’t watch it. After four years, I still wasn’t ready. The trailer alone made me cry, and I couldn’t bring myself to face those emotions, not that night, at least. I sat in bed with my laptop and watched the tweets start rolling in and I didn’t want to feel left out. I considered watching it the next morning when I dragged myself to the gym at 6 a.m. No, I just can’t do it. I texted a friend. Nora wouldn’t want my sweaty, sleepy self watching her be brilliant on my phone as I elliptical. She deserves more respect.
I have to laugh. What Nora would want. It sort of felt like a very Nora Ephron-y thing for me to think, like suddenly I was a character in one of her films. What would Nora want? I’m still figuring that out.
“Everything is copy” was the mantra that Nora perpetuated. What she meant was this: “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.”
I’ve often thought about this philosophy. Everything is copy. Everything that happens to you can find its way into a story in some way or another. Take no prisoners, spare no friends. I’ve certainly embraced it on more than one occasion, but I often wonder if people take it too literally now. I think about how we’re in this weird, overly-confessional era where people can write things like “I Masturbated Every Day For a Week and Here’s What Happened” or “I Hit the Gym High and Here’s What Happened” — both are real headlines — and call it journalism.
What would Nora think about that? She was a pioneer: a woman who made her life’s work being confessional, whether in essays for publications like Esquire about breasts (and her lack thereof), an entire novel and screenplay about her divorce, or anthologies of essays about coming to terms with aging.
What I have learned from Nora is that there’s a line to be drawn somewhere between confessional and TMI. Maybe not everything is copy. Maybe some private things should stay private. In Everything Is Copy, Jacob reflects on her choice to keep her illness a secret — how could someone who preached that everything in life was game ignore her biggest story yet? Maybe because she knew that some things aren’t worth giving away:
“I think at the end of my mom’s life she believed that everything is not copy,” he says. “That the things you want to keep are not copy. That the people you love are not copy. That what is copy is the stuff you’ve lost, the stuff you’re willing to give away, the things that have been taken from you. She saw everything is copy as a means of controlling the story.”
So now it’s my turn to make things copy. These are the things I wish to give away in order to make myself feel better: I finally watched the film on a Friday night after work with my best friend, wishing I was watching it alone, maybe even wishing I wasn’t watching it at all. I sobbed through the latter half, told my friend (unconvincingly) that I was fine, then promptly called myself an Uber from the bathroom.
I cried on the car ride home. I cried when I got into bed that night. I cried until my eyes hurt. I cried until they were embarrassingly swollen and red. I cried until the tears dried in lines down my cheeks so thick that my face hurt unless it was completely frozen. I cried because I was angry — angry that Nora was gone too soon, angry that she didn’t tell people she was sick. I cried because I was upset that I would never again read her take on so many things going on in this world today — what would she have to say about this election, or Taylor Swift’s squad, or the way Kanye West seems to control the news cycle? I cried because I could no longer daydream about getting her advice on anything in life. I cried because I knew I would never get to thank her. I cried because that made me feel selfish. I cried because I was embarrassed that I felt anything at all.
The next day ended up being one of those beautiful New York Saturdays where you could walk for hours and not get bored. I walked from my apartment through the Upper West Side, pausing for a moment outside the Apthorp, looking longingly inside while the requisite “Dreams” played in my headphones. A few blocks later, I couldn’t help but smile: outside Maison Kayser stood a woman who looked alarmingly like Nora — small and bird-like with the same simple, chic brunette shag and long face — but different enough that when I blinked, I knew I wasn’t just seeing things. I stared for a moment before moving on.
That was all it took for me to consider that maybe death isn’t the be-all, end-all. Inspiration will always linger, and you can continue to learn new things from someone, even after they’re gone. There will be more serendipitous encounters like that on the street. There will be more clues to pick up on, new quotes or phrases that mean something to you later in life, new ways those special people can shape the decisions you have yet to make. That hero part of a person’s spirit never truly dies.