Reading Gilda Radner’s memoir, It’s Always Something, was equal parts inspiring and upsetting. Inspiring because Gilda Radner faced a terrible disease, ovarian cancer, with a remarkable attitude. Her book is funny (she’ll make you laugh with her descriptions of clearing a bowel obstruction; no easy feat), heartwarming, and honest. She does not make herself out to be a perfect patient who cheerfully submitted to every indignity demanded of her. She admits her doubts and her fears, the nights she spent crying to Gene Wilder about how scared she was, the jealousy she felt to see her peers advancing in their movie careers while she could barely get out of bed. Her candor and comedy helped me understand how someone can deal with a truly terrible situation and come out of it not a victim or a warrior, but a human being.
The upsetting part comes from knowing things that Gilda doesn’t know. Namely, that ovarian cancer eventually kills her, in 1989, not long after this book is published.
Gilda says in the book’s beginning that before she was diagnosed, she planned to write a book of vignettes about domestic life. Once her disease took over her life, the book assumed a new direction. That’s not to say it’s all about illness: it’s also about her childhood, her start in comedy, and her time on SNL. Mostly, though, it’s about Gene Wilder.
I always thought Gene and Gilda had one of those perfect marriages, like Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, or Amy Poehler and Will Arnett, or Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. It turns out their relationship had problems as big as anyone else’s, which was both comforting and depressing. Did you know that, although Gilda was in love with Gene from the moment they met on a movie set, he actually broke up with her once? He said she was smothering him and he ran off to France. They ended up back together, of course, but their life together wasn’t easy. They tried and failed numerous times to have a child, something Gilda wanted far more than Gene, and when she was diagnosed, things became more difficult.
The most upsetting part of reading this book doesn’t actually have anything to do with Gilda’s disease, treatment, or pain. It has to do with what happened after the book was published. I don’t mean her death, but instead what Gene Wilder did. Her husband, the man she dedicated the book to and wrote so glowingly of, remarried just two years after her death to a woman he calls the love of his life. They live in Gene and Gilda’s old home.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this. Of course he should remarry; no one deserves to be alone forever. And of course he says she’s the love of his life; if I married someone who’d been married to “America’s Sweetheart,” I’d demand a public declaration of love, too. And of course he lives in the same house; why move?
And yet. And yet.
The whole time I was reading this book, I couldn’t stop thinking, Why wasn’t she good enough for you, Gene? How could you break up with her? She loves you so much! Why is she going to treatment alone? Why did you tell her she was selfish? I know you’re exhausted, but my God! She has one of the toughest forms of cancer a person can get. So what if when she loves something she holds it so close it can’t breathe? So what if she has really high highs and really low lows? So what if all her neuroses and anxieties are driving you crazy? So what?
I don’t think their problems mean they didn’t love each other–actually, just the opposite. The fact that so much about her drove him crazy but he couldn’t be without her meant his love was that much deeper. He couldn’t stand her sometimes–but he had to be with her anyway. Maybe they weren’t a perfect long term match, but their love was real. Take this scene, where Gilda recounts a book she read about a woman who lost both of her children in an accident:
“She remembers that when she was a little girl, her parents had a house on the beach in Long Island, a summer place where they took her and her sister when they were about the age of her children who died. They’d go down there to the beach and there were always lots of people there, and everybody had umbrellas that looked alike. She and her sister would go and play by the sand dunes, but it was hard to tell where their parents were. So her father began to tie a pair of tennis shoes on one of the spokes of their umbrella so when the two little girls looked over, they could see right away where their parents were. She longed for that time when you could believe your parents were protecting you.
I remember riding in the backseat of my father’s car and thinking I was really safe…If my parents were home, I was safe, and things didn’t happen–cancer, bus accidents, plane crashes or wars. As long as my parents were home, everything was all right…In the hospital, I remembered that book, thinking inside, Please, someone protect me from this cancer. Make me feel safe again.
The night before my first chemotherapy, I was lying in bed and Gene walked in the doorway of my hospital room. He was carrying a little pink umbrella with shoes tied to it.”
I cried when I read that. I don’t think any of us can ask for anything more than someone to bring us an umbrella with shoes tied to it.