Gene Wilder – star of such classic films as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein – passed away on Sunday night due to complications stemming from Alzheimers, a disease he had been suffering from for about three years. In the hours since the announcement fans from around the world and admirers throughout show business have been tweeting and commenting about Wilder’s iconic career.
As many know, Wilder’s “technicolor” love of his life was fellow comedic genius and 80’s star Gilda Radner. She died in 1989 from ovarian cancer that she had fought for multiple years before finally succumbing to her illness. In response to losing Gilda in such an unfair way, Wilder founded the Gilda Radner Ovarian Detection Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in L.A. in his late wife’s honor and then, in 1991, he wrote an essay for People detailing his grief and what the couple went through during Radner’s final days. Some of the passages are truly heartbreaking, made only slightly better by the thought that they might be together again somewhere now.
On what he would tell her each time she asked whether she was going to die, Wider said “I kept telling her, ‘I’ll die before you do.’ And I meant it.” He also detailed the struggles that during her last MRI, stemming from her fear that she wouldn’t wake up if they gave her pain medicine for the test. They did, and she didn’t regain consciousness from that point until she finally passed. About that sad day, he revealed,
“I heard a pounding on my door. It was an old friend, a surgeon, who told me, ‘Come on. It’s time to go.’ When I got there, a night nurse, whom I still want to thank, had washed Gilda and taken out all the tubes. She put a pretty yellow barrette in her hair. She looked like an angel. So peaceful. She was still alive, and as she lay there, I kissed her. But then her breathing became irregular, and there were long gaps and little gasps. Two hours after I arrived, Gilda was gone. While she was conscious, I never said goodbye.”
The actor admits he “made mistakes” during her illness but most heartbreakingly, Wilder talks in the essay about how he thought Radner’s disease could have been prevented and his reaction to her death.
For weeks after Gilda died, I was shouting at the walls. I kept thinking to myself, ”This doesn’t make sense.” The fact is, Gilda didn’t have to die. But I was ignorant, Gilda was ignorant – the doctors were ignorant.
She could be alive today if I knew then what I know now. Gilda might have been caught at a less-advanced stage if two things had been done: if she had been given a CA 125 blood test as soon as she described her symptoms to the doctors instead of 10 months later, and if the doctors had known the significance of asking her about her family’s history of ovarian cancer. But they didn’t. So Gilda went through the tortures of the damned and at the end, I felt robbed.
All along I kept hearing Gilda saying, ”Don’t just sit there, dummy, do something!” So I started contacting experts, looking for explanations.
…But here’s the thing: None of them put it all together and said, ”Wait a minute, now. Does anyone in your family have ovarian cancer?”
If you really want to tear up, Gene’s discussion of going to Gilda’s grave is the real tearjerker.
If I need to cry or think a little bit, I’ll go over to the cemetery where she is buried to make sure the tree our friends planted is doing well and the grounds are kept up. I think one of the things that would make Gilda happiest is if Sparkle, her Yorkshire terrier, pee-peed right on top of her grave. One for Mama. She’d laugh.
There is no word yet on where Wilder will be interred, but it’s nice to think that he will be buried under a tree near Gilda and they can crack jokes together again – wherever they are.