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

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.

We couldn’t let that happen; I had no doubt. My sister, a more spiritual person, resisted the idea of giving up on her. All those amazing stories (Gabrielle Giffords had just survived being shot in the head) were fresh in her mind. All I could think of, though, was a lifetime of hearing my mother’s firm stance on the matter. No way would she ever forgive us if we extended her life without her fully functional mind. Days later, we held a dance party in her room. Then we all followed her to an operating room where the doctors removed her breathing tube, and we stood there, literally watching her last breaths.

For me, having to sign the papers that decided whether my mother lived or died, and answering a million questions about what to do with her organs, kept me quite calm throughout the ordeal. It added a methodical nature to the messy process of death and grief. On the other hand, I still wake up in the middle of the night wondering if I made the right decision. What if we’d kept her on a few more days? What if the MRIs were wrong, and the swelling would have gone down? What if she could have lived a reasonably comfortable life in a wheelchair and a nursing home? Maybe she could have met her grandsons. In the light of day, however, I know that’s not true. My sister and I probably wouldn’t even have kids right now if we’d been consumed by taking care of her. And she would have hated every minute.

I know this isn’t the right choice for everyone. Many feel like life has plenty of value, even in the face of enormous handicaps, and I don’t think those who continue to live with such obstacles are lesser people. I just know with absolute certainty what my mother’s wishes were, and I’m grateful she made that clear for us.

Now, I’m probably not going to start telling my kid to throw me off a roof anytime soon. I hope to spare him some of the darkness my mother didn’t spare me. As soon as he’s old enough to understand, though, I’m going to make sure he knows where I stand on the matter.

I have no idea if Melissa Rivers had to decide any of this on Thursday. I hope Joan went peacefully on her own instead. Still, this is a good reminder for me to download a living will right now. There are free sites like Do Your Own Will, as well as places like Legal Zoom that charge a nominal fee for the forms. And then I’m going to have another dance party, for my mom and Joan.

(photo: Getty Images)

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