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The Night the Laughter Stopped

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In the sterile corridor outside Edgar’s room at the UCLA Hospital in Westwood, Calif., a woman was standing with hands clenched helplessly at her sides. Her face, raw with grief, was soaked with tears. Her husband, I knew, was dying of cancer. I thought, “That was me 10 days ago,” and I went to her and stood for a long time just rubbing her arm, not speaking, hoping that human contact could make a difference, hoping that it helps to know that another person understands.

This is why I am telling my story. I am doing it for every wife who may be standing in her kitchen at 6:00 p.m. and at 6:10 be sitting in the front seat of an ambulance saying over and over and over, “Please, God. Please, God. Please, God. Please, God.” I do believe there is comfort in numbers, in knowing that others have survived—and I wish there had been somebody then to tell me what it was all about.

For a long time I had no idea that Edgar, who is only 56, was probably going to die. On Oct. 18, when my secretary, Dorothy Melvin, screamed, I knew something terrible had happened. I found Edgar lying on the floor, and even though I was covering him with a blanket and rubbing his hands and telling him I loved him, I did not understand that I might be looking at death. Nothing shows with a heart attack. No guts lying on the street. Just Edgar in his nice gray flannel slacks and his blue blazer, looking fine except he was horizontal and had a pain in his chest. He was even making jokes. After I’d gone downstairs, the paramedic said, “She’ll ride in the ambulance over my dead body.” Edgar opened his eyes and said, “You don’t know my wife.”

At the hospital nobody told us anything. They put my daughter, Melissa, and me in a little room off the emergency room, and there were monitors for each patient with lines showing the heart beat. Ignorance was bliss. Most of the heart beats were jagged, and we kept saying, “Look how good Daddy’s is.” His line was almost flat. He was dying right in front of us on the monitor.

And then they lied to us. The doctors said, “Go home. Go home. Everything is fine. No point in your staying.” That is very wrong to do. The family must know the truth so they can start dealing with it immediately. And if Edgar had died when I was home, I never would have gotten over that. Then, at 5:30 a.m., I called the hospital and a nurse said, “It’s touch and go.” My whole insides collapsed. Melissa and I went right back.

When we arrived, Edgar was having a second heart attack and was in desperate pain. I would not allow myself a deathbed scene. You can indulge yourself or indulge the patient, and I chose to reassure him with humor. Obviously no wife would ever stand at her husband’s deathbed making jokes. Little did he know. So when he said, “Why now? Just when things were starting to go well,” I answered, “Hey, Edgar, it hasn’t been only chopped liver for 19 years. You were wearing Dunhill bathrobes when I met you.”

But my mother had died with no chance for me to tell her that she was fabulous and wonderful, and the ache of that regret has never left me. So with Edgar I did sneak in an “I love you.” I did tell him, “You are my everything.” And later I had every person who works for me call their parents and say how much they loved them.

That evening the doctors decided Edgar’s only slight hope lay in a bypass operation, very risky for a man so sick. I had the job of telling him. I pretended he had options—while the surgeons were scrubbing upstairs. He said okay. But he guessed the odds, and said he wanted his organs donated to an organ bank. I told him, “Who’d want your organs? I’m sorry for the guy who gets your eyes.” What a wonderful last thing to say to your husband! But that, again, reassured him. Humor is our shorthand for saying, “It’s okay.” And then he was able to joke about Bill Sammeth, our manager. He said, “If I don’t make it, give Bill a bonus, but not too big.”

As they wheeled him away, he said to Melissa, “Take care of Mommy,” and right in front of me I was losing everything—my best friend, the only stability in my life, the only person I totally trusted, my rock. Suddenly I realized that I drew all my strength from Edgar—the strength to pretend I’m Mother Courage, the strength to be the great Jewish nurturer. I really didn’t know whether I could carry on.

I went home for an hour to distract myself, though it didn’t seem like my home because Edgar was not there. In the bathroom I went down on the floor, flat out, no knees, just like Biblical times. I said, “God, what’s the deal? What do you want?” I said, “You won, God. Here I am on the floor.” But I couldn’t think of anything to offer. I have really always tried to do my very best. And there was no lightning and thunder and a big voice telling me, “Do this.” It was kind of a disappointment. But I felt better. I’d been brought back to fundamentals. Much later, the laugh was, “…and God said, ‘No more Elizabeth Taylor jokes.’ ”

I deeply believe that if you exert enough effort and determination, any problem can be solved. I built my career on that, taking a small talent and just willing myself to where I am. But now, for the first time, there was no solution. There was mud. Just mud. Everything was out of my control, out of Edgar’s control. I had little faith in the doctors. They were not ones we had investigated and gathered from the four corners of the earth. These were the ones we found in the elevator on Thursday night. They turned out to be wonderful. But we could also have found Schwartz the Butcher.

In the intensive care unit, after the operation, the roller coaster began—hope and despair, hope and despair. The next day, Edgar slipped into a coma. Then, one lung filled with fluid and they ran a tube through his nose down into his lung to “breathe” him artificially. He had terrible problems with his kidneys and prostate, the catheter infected his liver and he moved into congestive heart failure. When he rallied each time, it meant nothing. Once I came into the ICU and found a crowd of doctors around his bed. Edgar’s heart had stopped, and they were shocking him back to life. Every time I left him something seemed to happen, so right away I moved into the hospital, took a room, but at night never got under the covers because that was bad luck. I thought if I relaxed, if I let go of my tension, he would die. So I just napped, returning every hour into the ICU room, wearing hospital greens and big wool socks.

He was lying on a table like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, with a fuming oxygen cup over his nose and 185 tubes running to his lungs, to a balloon under his heart, to bags of pus and bags of urine, to plasma bags and IV bags and to every machine known to man—everything gurgling and hissing and beeping and pinging. And the nurses in the room were calling out across the patients: “Would you bring me some…” “If you’re going to the lab, would you…”

So I thought, if Edgar is going to hear a voice, feel a touch, smell a smell—it should be mine. Something in all that confusion and pain and madness should be telling him through his coma, “It’s okay.” Day after day I would stand by his head, holding his hand, rubbing his shoulder and face, keeping my voice very positive, very strong, saying “Edgar, it’s going to be all right. The doctor said the operation was a success.” “Edgar, the doctor says you’re ahead of schedule.” “Edgar, your blood pressure is fine; your numbers are great.” I think, no matter what anybody tells you, do what you believe. Rationally there was nothing I could do. But I was going to pull him through. I could not live without him. It was that simple.

Then I would lose my nerve and think what I was willing into him was not enough. And I’d go out into the hall and pace up and down, feeling utterly alone and weak and sure he was going to die. I kept thinking, “My whole life is like a mirror that is smashed.” And I thought, “What have I done? Is this God saying, Thought you had a good year, did you? The joke’s on you.’ ” My career seemed over. How, I wondered, could I ever again put on the beads and the feathers and hit the stage screaming nonsense about big rings and first wives. Then stupid things would come into my head: “I can never eat in the dining room again; I can’t bear looking at Edgar’s empty chair.”

And all the time I was crying, my face wet and hot, a Kleenex box always in my hand. But I didn’t care that people were seeing me looking 90 years old with tears streaming down my face. And when it did occur to me that maybe I should be embarrassed because I am a celebrity, it didn’t matter because a camaraderie had been formed in those halls—a camaraderie of fear and sorrow but also of comfort. Once, a patient came down the hall wheeling his little pole holding his IV—a long walk on spindly legs—and he said to me, “For what it’s worth, none of us remember what went on in there.” That helped me get through a lot.

I would trudge up and down that corridor till there was no feeling in the end of my toes and till I thought, “I must go back. I must get him out of this.” So I’d stand by his bed again, my whole body tight and crazed, rubbing, rubbing, feeling bones in his shoulder I had never known were there, feeling his flesh clammy and cold like a half-dead body. And I’d talk and talk, trying to penetrate his terrible inertness into some little core of consciousness, trying again to will my life into him. I did everything I could think of to wake him. I brought in a tape recorder, hoping his favorite music would strike home—Gershwin, Linda Ronstadt, Ella Fitzgerald. I wore heavy perfume so maybe he’d smell me. I thought perhaps if I made jokes, he would come to and laugh. I shouted, “Edgar, I’m going to pull the plug. Edgar, I’ve pulled your plug, but I got your shaver.”

I made the choice to ignore all friends and relatives and save my remaining strength for Edgar and Melissa—and I even kept Melissa away from the gruesome deathwatch. She went to school each day and talked and cried with her friends. When she came to the hospital she was very strong, determined not to burden me with her tears. Then came the really bottom day when Edgar’s heart stopped again. That afternoon I went home briefly to change clothes and Melissa asked me for news and I said, “Everything’s great.” And she said, “Tell me the truth.” I took her arm and we walked up and down the hall that goes the length of our house. I told her what she already knew, that Daddy might die. And somehow the act of verbalizing it to each other made us, for the first time, face the facts in our innermost beings.

I said, “If Daddy dies, we’ve got to figure out what to do.” And I immediately thought again, “We’ll never be able to sit in the dining room.” I began to cry—and I was going to be the strong one. We kept walking and talking, and I noticed that we were using the past tense a lot—which upset me. Edgar was alive!

Without realizing it, we were building a future without Edgar, which was very important at that moment. Melissa said, “Mom, I got to say it. Maybe this is Daddy’s time.” And that was strangely comforting to me, who had been struggling so hard to keep it from being his time. Melissa was saying, maybe we should accept the worst, so that if it does happen, it will be easier to bear. That afternoon I understood I could go on without Edgar. I became stronger. I had let a little bit of him go and, look, I was still here.

That night I wrote Edgar’s obituary. If he died, I wanted it to be correct and complete. Nobody knows Edgar and what he’s done because he’s so quiet. The world always sees him as Mr. Rosenberg, Joan Rivers’ husband, and I’m sick of it. He’s the smartest man I’ve ever met. He was born in Bremerhaven, Germany, but his family fled Hitler and he grew up in South Africa, then went to school in England at Rugby and Cambridge. In America he was an NBC executive and worked for years for Anna Rosenberg Associates, America’s most elite, prestigious public relations consultants, three members, advising people like RCA, Lazard Frères, Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Whitney interests, the Rockefellers, the Kennedys. During that time he produced four feature films. We met when he hired me to come to Jamaica and rewrite a Peter Sellers comedy script. Instead, after four days, we got married by a judge in the Bronx on a day the entire Philippine navy seemed to be in port and getting married too. It was the first and last time we had ever been the tallest people in a room.

When I finished the obituary I felt very peaceful. I had faced what had to be faced, done what had to be done. And then I figured out how to use the dining room. I’d sit in Edgar’s chair, so I wouldn’t have to look at it.

On the ninth day a nurse was holding Edgar’s hand, and suddenly his hand moved, feeling her fingers and working down to her fingernails, which were short. “Where’s Joan?” he said. They called me and I rushed in, but he was gone again. I was devastated. The next day I persuaded those wonderful nurses—they really saved Edgar—to take off that awful oxygen cup and put up a child’s oxygen tent. I was helping them do it, taping it down, making my usual suggestions, when suddenly Edgar’s voice said, “Joan, stop trying to run the hospital.”

I wish I could say I had a tremendous high. But that’s not the way it works. There never will be a high. I had stopped allowing myself the luxury of hope. When you switch from the horror and suddenly you’re laughing and everything is way up, then everything changes chemically in your body. When the hope is crushed, you are smashed down to an even deeper depth. You cannot endure that too many times. Whenever they said Edgar was out of the woods, he was not out of the woods. After they moved him out of ICU into a transition room, I came in and there were 10 doctors around him again. He was having chest pains—but this time, thank the Lord, he was only passing a gallstone.

From now on every little symptom will drive us both crazy. Our mortality has been thrown in our faces. Even me—I get chest pains myself, and have to say, “No, no, no. This is childish.” I take a deep breath, and they go away. The waiting terror must be even greater for Edgar—a low-grade horror we’ll always have to cope with by talking to ourselves—while keeping a lot of nitroglycerin on the night table.

Edgar has been incredibly lucky. He has suffered very little physical damage and, with reduced stress, can live a normal life. The classic depression of the heart-attack victim—”Just when everything was going so well, I’m an invalid”—is the next illness to be healed. So right now recovery is measured by the tiniest triumphs—walking three minutes instead of two—an hour and a half of laughter watching the movie Broadway Danny Rose—his pleasure and surprise at the outpouring of letters and flowers from everybody from President Reagan to the PSA baggage handlers at the Las Vegas airport.

One day I said to him, “What would you have done differently in your life?” He said, “Really, nothing.” Which was wonderful. We have always been aware that these were the good times. And I am determined that they continue. There’s the old joke, “Death is nature’s way of saying, ‘Slow down.’ ” Well, that’s not a joke. I already see the change in myself—getting down to basics, simplifying, as though scraping away the old barnacles from my body, removing all the things I find don’t actually matter.

I always said, “I have to do this. I have to do that. The show must go on.” I never questioned why. Well, for a month, the show did not go on, and the world continued very nicely when I canceled my week on the Johnny Carson show, when I didn’t perform at Caesars in Atlantic City. Staying alive is what matters. And enjoying life. Our work will always be our fun. But all the little perfectionist things that make us crazy are not the fun. So what if the dress isn’t quite right!

And if Edgar gets crazy again or reaches for another cigarette, I will show him the horrifying pictures I took of him lying in ICU in the middle of his ganglia of tubes. Nobody is ever going to catch a Rosenberg in the hospital again—except if Melissa has a baby—or, of course, for my plastic surgery.