A Time to Heal

updated 05/24/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/24/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THE WINTER OF 1992 WAS THE LOW point of Sally Jessy Raphaël's life. One night in mid-January police appeared at the door of her Manhattan apartment to tell her that her 19-year-old adopted son, J.J., had been in a serious automobile accident and had been taken, unconscious, to a suburban New York hospital. Then, only three weeks later, just after J.J. had emerged from a coma, Raphaël's executive producer called at 4 a.m. with horrifying news: Allison Vladimir, 33, Raphaël's firstborn from a previous marriage, had died in her sleep of respiratory failure at the family's Bucks County, Pa., inn.

Since the time of (hose numbing tragedies, Raphaël, in her late 50s, her husband of 29 years, Karl Soderlund, 57, and their brood of seven surviving natural and adopted children have returned, insofar as they can, to a state of normality. J.J., who suffered multiple broken bones and required 56 facial stitches, has spent six months in a course of physical therapy and is job hunting. And Raphaël, if not yet able to accept the loss of her daughter, has begun to come to terms with it. "There's no solace, no comfort," she says simply. "There is going to be an ache as long as my body is alive."

No doubt that is true. But now Raphaël also has reason to celebrate. Next month she'll become mother of the bride when her 32-year-old daughter, Andrea Vladimir, a physiotherapist and graduate student at New York University, will wed 26-year-old advertising manager Peter Romanov beneath a yellow-striped tent on the lawn of Raphaël's five-bedroom, brown-shingled home in Westchester County, some 40 miles north of New York City. Andrea plans to wear the custom-designed while satin gown that her mother wore for her first marriage, to then advertising executive Andrew Vladimir, in the late 1950s. Raphaël herself will serve as matron of honor, and 150 guests (friends only, no celebs) will dance to a six-piece band's rendition Andrea's favorite tune: Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick out of You."

"Everybody remembers our family's sadness," says Andrea. "I don't think people realize that there is some happiness left."

And Raphaël is seizing the moment with a vengeance. On Friday, May 21, in a show tilled "Andrea's Fantasy Wedding." Raphaël will, in effect, allow her 8 million viewers to go behind the scenes for her daughter's wedding preparations. "My mother is into making this an MGM production," says Andrea, with obvious affection.

Given what she has endured over the past 16 months, Raphaël may be forgiven. Certainly, her son's accident was horror enough. After months of grueling physical therapy, J.J. can walk with no trace of a limp. But he does show signs of the syndrome known as traumatic brain injury—the aftermath of his seven-day coma. "He has short-term memory loss, he's a little slow and a little quick to anger, says Raphaël. "He has a way to go."

It was the death of Allison, though, that nearly shattered Raphaël. The Bucks County coroner ruled that Allison, overweight and a recovering alcoholic, died after ingesting a mixture of over-the-counter drugs and a small amount of alcohol. He termed her death "a tragic accident." Afterward, Raphaël retreated to her Westchester home, where for two weeks she did little but read stacks of condolence letters from friends and fans.

Drawing on her $1 million-plus annual salary, Raphaël also resorted to travel as a diversion. In the months after Allison's death, she went with close friends to a spa in Germany and rented a summer house in Italy. "When you're in pain, it's better to be around people who will let you talk without giving you shorthand answers," she says. "It can really turn you off when they say, 'This was meant to be.' "

Then, last Christmas, she and Karl took a monthlong safari to Africa, largely to escape the memories of the holiday preparations that were Allison's trademark. "Since Kenya is a Muslim country, there is no Christmas there," says Raphaël. "We wouldn't have been able to bear it."

For all her globe-trotting, Raphaël made sure she wasn't away from work for long stretches. After Allison's funeral, she missed only 10 shows before returning to the rigors of her daily taping. "Because we were so busy," says Andrea, "we didn't have time to think."

But it was her daughter's romance that has most helped Raphaël to rebound. When the two began dating, says Peter, Andrea was less than forthcoming about her family. "I had told her all about mine," he says, "but she was really vague. She said her mother had something to do with radio." The couple grew close, then closer during Andrea's family tragedies. "I was there the night they brought J.J. into the hospital," says Peter, who kept a vigil with Andrea at her brother's bedside. "He made such sacrifices to be there with me," she says. "I decided that this was the real test in a relationship."

Just two months after Allison's death, Romanov celebrated Andrea's birthday by inviting the Raphaëls to his family's comfortable Manhattan home to meet his parents, Marjory Romanov, an editor at Country Living magazine, and Alvin. a manufacturer of men's shirts. Says Raphaël: "I hadn't paid attention to the men she's dated because she's always had a lot. But I couldn't say no. It was her birthday, so off we went."

After dinner, in front of their assembled families, Peter handed Andrea a jewelry box. Written in lipstick on the inside mirror were the words "Will you merry me?" Says Raphaël: "I thought, either the kid speaks Shakespeare or he simply can't spell."

It took a moment for Andrea to realize that—misspelled or not—this was actually a proposal. Then, on his knees, Peter formally asked Andrea to be his wife and presented her with a diamond ring. "I thought, 'My God!' " says Raphaël. "These are not people I'm having a cocktail with. They're going to be our in-laws!" Thankfully, she took to them. "They're fun," she says, "especially after two martinis."

For now, the family's full attention is focused on preparations for the wedding. "It's like doing a Broadway show," says Soderlund, Andrea's stepfather. "Complete pandemonium until opening night—then it all comes together."

Of course, Raphaël's celebration will be tempered by memories of Allison. Backstage in her mom's dressing room on May 6, Andrea fidgets as she is prepped by a hairdresser for her appearance on the wedding show, which has been taped over the past month. She and her mother watch wordlessly as taped segments for the show air on a nearby monitor. Then, as the song "Sunrise, Sunset" plays over scrapbook photos from Andrea's girlhood, a picture appears of Andrea as a young girl with her blond sister, Allison—and the two women begin to tear up.

It was just the other day, recalls Raphaël, that Andrea voiced a sentiment that could have come straight from her own heart. "I understood exactly what she meant," says Raphaël softly. "She said, 'If I could be granted one wish, it would be to bring Allison back. And if I could have that, I wouldn't ever want anything else.' "

SUE CARSWELL in New York City

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