In her final weeks, Elizabeth Taylor had a lot of friends drop by her room at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
"We talked about how it's really hell getting older," says Debbie Reynolds
, who spoke to PEOPLE about her onetime rival and longtime friend. "We were complaining to each other about that, like two girls would."
But on the last night of her life, it was only her four children who were by her side as the last true Hollywood goddess passed away
from congestive heart failure on March 23.
"She was comfortable and it was peaceful and she was surrounded by her children," says her close friend Sally Morrison, who also shared her fond remembrances of Taylor, 79, with PEOPLE.
Taylor, who in her unpredictable eight decades essentially invented the modern celebrity, had survived several brushes with death, including an emergency tracheotomy in 1961 and cardiac surgery in 2006. When she was hospitalized this February
, she fully expected to cheat death once again.
"She was hoping to come home and optimistic about everything," says her friend, the photographer Firooz Zahedi. "She had her bedroom at home redecorated."
But the heart problems first diagnosed in 2004 proved too serious to overcome, and Taylor, in her final days, bravely faced the idea that she might not make it home.
Says Reynolds: "She expressed how scary it was when you see that it's perhaps the end, to find a way to leave this world and go onto the next."
For much more on Taylor’s courageous final days – and intimate stories of her incredible life from several close friends, including Reynolds and Larry King – pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Monday