So my husband and I are celebrating our anniversary in Porto and a lovely couple, newly married, join us for white port (which I had never had before and is delicious). Joan Rivers has just died, and my new friend says she found her vulgar. I respond how surprised, even shocked, I am at my sadness and realization of how much I will miss her.
My friend tells me about her life. She had longed to be a stock broker, but it was necessary to have predictable work hours in order to care for her three sons after the sudden death of her husband. She chose to teach high school English. The next day we meet for coffee, and my new friend has changed her mind. "I had trouble sleeping last night," she tells me," I never expected to feel so sad. I realize that I admire Joan Rivers, and I also will miss her a great deal."
I was never either a Joan Rivers fan or groupie. I did not watch her fashion "assessments," but I did follow much of her career: her years with Carson, her Fox TV show failure, her husband's suicide (in my home town, Philadelphia). And I was familiar with snippets of her work. I often smiled, and sometimes I really laughed as I watched Joan Rivers use humor to tell the truth about so much that most of us do not see, do not have the courage to face, and try not to think about. After a few moments, with consistency, however, I always changed channels. For I never saw Joan Rivers as my cup of tea. What I did not realize is that I had unknowingly been sipping her in for decades.
This is also true: When Robin Williams died, though I felt sad that he was in so much pain, I will not miss him. But I knew immediately that I would miss Joan Rivers. Hearing the news, my heart sank in much the same way as when I learned of the deaths of Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy, although the three are so entirely different. I miss Audrey Hepburn because she was not only lovely and talented, but kind to her core. And Jackie Kennedy was part of my youth because I worked for her husband and loved seeing her beauty, taste and style and her wonderful, beloved children; and years later, when I saw her in the lamp department of Bloomingdales, I was moved that she remembered me. But I did not understand my deep sadness about Rivers' death or why I would miss her. I was to find out....
You know how it is sometimes. You put together conversations and experiences in a life, and then all of a sudden parts of your own private puzzle fit together. This is what happened to me. Please stay with me on this.....
My husband and I have been married for almost 35 years (our celebration was early), and when we met, we each had two kids who had suffered because of mistakes we made. Yes, we fell deeply in love; and yes, we loved being together. But our main bond was and remained devotion to four young children who needed us. We agreed completely: Their well being was the number one priority in our lives. They deserved a real family, and we would use our hearts and souls, every fiber of our being, to give them one.
When one of my dearest friends backed away from our long friendship soon after my marriage, I was devastated. I felt from the moment we met that she was more sister than anything else. We shared the same profession. We went through painful divorces at about the same time. We had similar interests, similar tastes (We had both discovered the artist Paul Evans before our first marriage, and each of us saved money weekly to buy one of his tables). Plus at approximately the same time, we shared new marriages. But she stopped calling, did not return calls, and there was nothing I could do about it. I had not heard from her for years, but when someone we both knew told me she had cancer, I called. We met for breakfast: No longer coloring her hair, she was more beautiful than ever, her smile even more radiant. Our friendship resumed, and I asked her why it had been interrupted. Her response: "You gave up too much of yourself for your marriage. I hated to see it."
In her analysis, my friend showed that she did not really know me. Yes, I put a hold on a thriving career that had been successful in myriad directions, concentrating professionally on my clinical practice and some writing. But there was no gun to my head: I was grateful to have this opportunity -- to choose what was right for me and those I loved.
But, looking back, and piecing things together I realized: Joan Rivers was the ultimate survivor who snatched all opportunities and handled adversity without compromise. She remained who she was always, resourcefully doing what was necessary, and doing it her way. She adjusted to all of the tragedies and losses of her life, but she never did what my friend saw me do, and what I believe most in life do to create a sane existence and safe family. We put part of ourselves on a back burner for the greater good of those we love. It is our choice, but not one that Joan Rivers would have ever make. Her way is not our way. Still, those like my new friend, and millions of others, are fascinated by this singleminded determination. We will miss seeing it and her in living action. And there is more.
In remaining precisely who she was, Rivers remained the most devoted mother and grandmother, working through an exceedingly rough patch in her relationship with her daughter, Melissa. After the release of the 2010 documentary about her life, "A Piece of Work," which revealed how kind she was to so many, and how generous and helpful she was to those who touched her, I received a wonderful phone call. My youngest daughter, no Joan Rivers groupie either, had gone to see the film with a friend who adored the comedian. "Mother," she told me, "she reminds me of you. She almost missed a plane because she wanted her daughter to have something she thought she needed, and she was determined to find it for her."
I cannot imagine a lovelier compliment, but I did not tell my daughter or anyone about the time, more than fifteen years ago, that I became dreadfully seasick on the first of a seven day Caribbean sailing trip. For help I wore a scopolamine patch, and zip: no more sea sickness, but there is more. On the last evening of this lovely holiday, I climbed on the table of a crowded outdoor restaurant, told jokes, and then sang "True Love." My husband said I brought down the house. I remember none of it.
Following Joan River's death, Barbara Walters wrote (in the New York Daily News) that Rivers was not "a great beauty and she didn't have great success with men." She wrote further that Rivers "had a disappointing marriage to a man who almost ruined her career and then, sadly, committed suicide." Surely these words of 'tribute' were more about Walters than they were about Joan Rivers. For Joan Rivers was genius in her ability to be who she was and make the most of it. That part of me that let loose on the beautiful evening is who Rivers was always. She let it rip and never looked back. She made no compromises. She was precisely and entirely who she wanted to be.