updated 03/06/2013 AT 6:30 PM ET
•originally published 03/09/2013 AT 6:30 PM ET
Valerie Harper has accumulated more than four decades’ worth of television memorabilia during the course of her extraordinary career, and right now much of it is cluttering the dining room of the cozy 1930s Spanish-style bungalow she shares with her husband of 26 years, Tony Cacciotti, in Santa Monica, Calif.
Among the keepsakes: the signature head scarves from her hit series Rhoda, her four Emmys, and nine neatly stacked piles of well-worn scripts from Rhoda and its television forerunner, The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
“I’m just putting them in order,” she says, pointing to the scripts, many of which are filled with personal scribbles. “This is the very first one – the pilot. Look at how cute this is. There are notes like, ‘dinner with Betty’ “– i.e., Betty White, her MTM costar. “They were in the garage and I just got them out. I don’t know what I should do with them.”
Until just seven weeks ago, the unsentimental actress – who hasn’t even watched most of her own shows – rarely looked to the past. But now she is eager to reflect on a life well-lived and impart the lessons she has learned along the way.
“All my life, people have had a connection to me because of Rhoda,” Harper, who seems decades younger than her 73 years, says of her beloved TV alter ego, working gal Rhoda Morgenstern. “Now there are things I want to share.” What Harper calls her “transformative moment” would be catastrophic news for most people: On Jan. 15 doctors informed the star that she has a rare and incurable form of brain cancer that can prove fatal in as little as three months.
The disease, which accounts for less than 2 percent of all cancers, “progresses quickly,” says Harper’s oncologist Ronald Natale. “It is a terminal diagnosis.” The grim finality of it “hit me like a sledgehammer,” says Harper, who until now has only shared the news with a handful of close friends and family members. ” ‘Incurable’ is such a concise word,” she says, her eyes brimming with tears. “I was terrified.”
And yet in the weeks since, Harper – a nonsmoker who successfully beat lung cancer in 2009 – has resolved to tackle what little time she has left with the same wry humor, grace and plucky pragmatism that has endeared her to generations of fans. “Cancer makes real what we try to obscure from ourselves,” says the candid star, who is fond of peppering her conversation with Rhoda-esque wisdom. “We spend our lifetimes thinking, ‘I’m never going to die.’ But cancer says, ‘Hey, not so fast.’ ”