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Melissa Rivers, You’re Not Alone – And We Should All Sign A Living Will Right Now

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2014 NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment UpfrontsAs everyone memorializes the great and hilarious Joan Rivers today, my thoughts are still with her daughter, Melissa. We don’t know the details of the 81-year-old’s final moments — only that she’d had cardiac arrest during surgery, was on life support, and then, finally, moved into a private room to be “comfortable.” It would be nice if the rest could remain a private matter (not likely, as the papers are already screaming “malpractice!”). But I can’t help imagining what Melissa has gone through in the last week, because I’ve been there too. And now that I’m a mother, I’m trying to do everything to stop imagining my son ever having to do the same. If he does, though, I hope I can do something to prepare him.

It’s hard to tell if my mother knew she’d been preparing me for that moment, the worst decision a daughter would ever have to make. She had a famously sarcastic sense of humor. When my husband called her to ask for her permission to marry me (he was being a good Southern gent), she laughed and said, “No.” Fourteen years later, I still don’t think he’s recovered from that one. She also put a high value on her seemingly everlasting youth, always joking that she wanted us to throw her off a roof the second she showed signs of senility or illness. When she saw others with disabilities, she wasn’t unkind to them, but she was adamant that she would rather die than become a “vegetable.”

And then we all watched her mother, another vibrant, sharp-witted woman, succumb to Alzheimer’s over the course of years. It tore my mom apart, particularly after a stroke left my abuela comatose for months before she finally died. The euthanasia jokes continued, but they stopped being funny. My mother’s life took a few jarring turns after that — it was clear she’d decided to take carpe diem to new levels, though she didn’t quite know what to seize. Young boyfriends, a short-lived marriage, all-night partying, a move to Miami, career changes … the last decade of her life was both adolescence and mid-life crisis in one.  But to my sister and me, there was a dark cast to all that “fun.” She looked like someone who was expecting the end to come at any minute.

She had just moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, a month before the incident that took her life. I won’t go into what actually caused it, as that’s still under investigation. Let’s just say there was a fall and massive head trauma. My sister and I flew in from different states, and I reached the hospital first. We have no family anywhere near Charlotte (it was another of my mother’s random whims), so I was alone when the brain surgeon took me to a small room and gave me the news. The damage was extensive, and she probably wouldn’t survive it, but if she did, she would have very little if any cognitive function left. She would be the vegetable she always dreaded.

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