Another Heartbreak

01/24/2002 at 01:00 PM EST

Hamilton's death was the heartbreaking coda in what, for Burnett, was a banner year. Single since her 1984 divorce from Joe (who died of cancer in 1991) after a 21-year marriage, she quietly wed Miller, whom she had been dating for three years, in November. On Nov. 26 she stunned the entertainment world when her CBS television special, comprising outtakes from her old comedy shows, drew 30 million viewers -- more than the Emmys and all but the final game of the World Series. Shaken by Hamilton's diagnosis, Burnett had wanted to call off the program -- a family affair produced by daughter Jody, 35, and stepson John. "It was Carrie who said, 'You have to do this, Mom,' " Conway recalls.

It couldn't have been easy. Initially Hamilton had checked in and out of Cedars-Sinai as she underwent chemotherapy and radiation, keeping her sense of humor even as she lost her hair. When tumors spread to her brain, says comedy writer and longtime Burnett associate Buz Kohan, 68, "that was really desperation time. Carrie was completely paralyzed except for one finger." Burnett canceled a scheduled appearance in West Palm Beach, Fla., getting Shirley MacLaine to fill in for her at an arts center anniversary celebration. Then for a short while the tumors began to shrink, and Hamilton was able to move her arm and even walk a little. Bolstered by hope, Burnett told friends her oldest daughter had done "a complete turnaround." With Hamilton's encouragement she made a scheduled trip to Washington, D.C., in early December to salute friend Julie Andrews at the Kennedy Center Honors. But within weeks Hamilton contracted the pneumonia, and after that Burnett rarely budged from her side.

With the exception of Hamilton's tumultuous teen years, such closeness was the hallmark of their relationship. While growing up in Beverly Hills, Carrie and her sisters Erin, now 33, and Jody attended almost every dress rehearsal of the Emmy-winning Carol Burnett Show, which starred their mother, was produced by their father and ran for 11 years, until 1978. "We'd be out by 6 o'clock every day and by 10 p.m. on show day," says writer Kohan. "The show was structured in such a way that Carol could spend time with her family." Early on Burnett's fame had little impact on Hamilton: "I never connected who my mother was with who was onstage," she told the Denver Rocky Mountain News in 1995. "She was just a mom like everyone else."

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