Last night I had a dream that starred Nora Ephron as Edith Piaf. I was a friend of Nora's (like half the Western world, I know) and like half the Western world I was shocked to learn, in one phone call last Tuesday, not only that Nora had cancer, but that she was dying, would be dead within hours. The slough of despond that I then fell into is now populated by many other despondent men and women -- a great number of women, many of them writers, young and old, telling and re-telling their Nora Stories: how she took them to lunch, gave them tough funny rapid-fire advice, invited them to dinners and parties and openings and Shakespeare in the Park and read their writing and introduced them to famous friends and gave them breaks -- as if somehow these testimonies would provide evidence that someone so completely alive, so generous and hilarious and wise, might not really be dead. Might be, in fact, in Paris, at a sidewalk café, sampling an apertif, maybe sending it back.
My own Nora story: I met her many years ago at a book party in Los Angeles for her sister Delia, but didn't see her again for years. When my husband, a wonderful actor, died suddenly in 2000, I took up a bi-coastal life soon thereafter and happened to meet Nora again at a Famous Person's New Year's Eve party in the City. We talked for a long time at the party and the next day the Famous Person emailed me and said that Nora had asked for my email address, would it be all right if he gave it to her? Ha!
What ensued was pretty much the almost-scripted Nor-gasmic narrative -- she took me to lunch, invited me to dinners and parties -- and here's a twist: occasionally recited poems. Nora loved poetry and she knew poems by heart -- she once recited a poem of my own to me, one that was meant to be humorous -- she laughed as she repeated the words -- therefore it was official. Nora thought it was funny: it was funny.
The last email I received from her was in late May -- she talked about getting together in summer, she "hoped." That "I hope" was uncharacteristic, sure, but could have meant anything.
During my time in the Slough of Despond, a poet-friend of mine contacted me to tell me that he was writing something about "regret" -- unrelated to Nora's death -- and that he was conducting an informal survey among poets about their regrets. Not whether they had them or not - "everyone has regrets" -- but, for example, did I have regrets about things I hadn't done or things I had done? I ran with the prompt - I was a Regret Jukebox, I told him. Press any "button" -- Family, Friends, Spouses, Lovers, Pets -- many "oldiers but baddies," what I had and had not done -- I warbled the blues full-tilt.
Then that night -- or rather, towards dawn the next morning, I had the Nora-Piaf dream. In my dream, Nora was vamping it up -- she WAS Edith Piaf, in a beret and fishnet stockings and mega eye makeup, bending a mike and belting out, of course, "Non, je ne regrette rien." It was hilarious, I woke up laughing -- it "was" Nora -- and yes, (woo woo) I understood it as a "message."
The message was -- Unplug the jukebox, I'm still knocking it out for the upper balconies! She had already delivered the message -- this was a friendly reminder. The message was that she had not given in to her regrets nor should I -- as her mother famously said to her, on her deathbed, "Everything is copy."
Yes, of course, Nora had huge regrets, she even listed them in her last book, under "What I'll Miss" -- a list now morphed into "Clues We Missed," by her mourners. But when she received her diagnosis of leukemia, I believe she made a decision. She could have announced her illness to the world -- and spent what remained of her life being a "spokesperson," floating in the tsunami of grief and pity that would have inevitably washed over her. She could have been a Regret Jukebox. Or not.
It seems to me that The Alternative, for Nora, was that she could write her own death or her own dying -plus she could enlist others (beyond her tart, smart books and her unforgettable films) to continue writing it, writing HER, anecdotally, when she was gone, following a kind of instruction manual, almost a recipe: How to Go Out with Class, with Style. How to share one's knowledge and expertise, how to recognize and encourage young talent, introduce friends to each other, (some famous, some not), how to cook for friends -- how to be a men-loving feminist ("Never underestimate the antagonism of men for women."), how to be, even in pain and loss, breathtakingly funny. And how, mes amis, how to love.
(In the woo-woo dimension yet again: I was convinced that I'd read all the essays in her last book, but hadn't taken in carefully enough her piece entitled "Considering the Alternative." I was startled, after writing down the thoughts above, to discover in re-reading "Considering" that Nora mentioned Edith Piaf -- and also highlighted "Non, je ne regrette rien." Amazing to me: I swear that was the essay I skimmed over in reading the book. She wrote: "It's a good song. I knew what she (Piaf) meant. I can get into it; I can make a case that I regret nothing." But she goes on to say that "the truth is 'je regrette beaucoup.' So she was, as usual, ahead of the curve, certainly ahead of me. Yet, I'd put my money on how "regret rien," in principle, in the matter of how she would want to be remembered.)
Maybe she did send me that dream "reminder," dressed up as the French Sparrow, singing "No Regrets" -- as a note from Beyond. "Quit feeling sorry for me and for yourself -- everything is copy -- get on with The Story -- your own story. Here's how."
From her novel, HEARTBURN:
Vera said: "Why do you feel you have to turn everything into a story?"
So I told her why:
Because if I tell the story, I control the version.
Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me.
Because if I tell the story, it doesn't hurt as much.
Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.
So you got on with it, Nora. And we're trying to tell the true story, inspired by you -- "I would rather have you laugh than feel sorry for me." Rest in peace, Nora, little sparrow, big big heart. We're left here, laughing, we're still singing along with you, "Non, je ne regrette rien." No, I regret nothing.
Follow Carol Muske-Dukes on Twitter: www.twitter.com/carolmuskedukes