“What’s the worst possible thing you can call a woman? Don’t hold back, now.
You’re probably thinking of words like slut, whore, bitch, cunt (I told you not to hold back!), skank. Okay, now, what are the worst things you can call a guy? Fag, girl, bitch, pussy. I’ve even heard the term “mangina.”
Notice anything? The worst thing you can call a girl is a girl. The worst thing you can call a guy is a girl. Being a woman is the ultimate insult. Now tell me that’s not royally fucked up.”
Even as she was dying, Gilda Radner went for laughs. At home, Gene Wilder remembers, she enacted her infamous Saturday Night character Roseanne Roseannadanna, shouting at the cancer cells invading her body, “Hey, what are you trying to do in here? Make me sick?” The cruel punch line, of course, was yes, and on May 20, 1989, ovarian cancer claimed America’s comedic sweetheart. Wilder was bereft. As Gilda once described their bond, “My life went from black-and-white to Technicolor.” Today, in the Connecticut country home where he and Gilda had lived after their 1984 marriage, Wilder smiles sadly as he pulls a pad of paper from a cluttered desk drawer. “I found this the day after her funeral,” he says, then quietly reads the words his wife had written. “How do you feel?” she scribbled next to a drawing of her body. “Cramped, clogged, frightened,” she answered. “What would make you feel not afraid?” she wrote. “If someone could for sure tell me that everything would be okay.”
It was a request no one could fulfill. However, after months of research and correspondence with cancer experts across the country, Wilder is now convinced that “Gilda didn’t have to die.” On May 9 he appeared before a House subcommittee to tell them so. “At first I didn’t think it would make any difference if I testified, but we have to learn from the past,” he says of his decision to speak publicly about Gilda’s illness and the tragic misdiagnosis that led, he contends, to her unnecessarily early death. “I’m not trying to make up for a wrong that can’t be righted,” he adds. Instead, hoping “to help save the Gildas out there that still have a chance,” he is working with doctors to set up hotlines and support groups to provide women with information. He has also helped establish the Gilda Radner Ovarian Detection Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in L.A. to screen high-risk candidates and run basic diagnostic tests. He spoke to correspondent Jane Sims Podesta with the aim that others should learn from Gilda’s story:
Until three weeks before Gilda died, I believed she would make it. If I made one contribution to this ovarian-cancer nightmare, it was that I was so dumb or ignorant or innocent that I never believed she would die so soon. Never. Gilda would wake up frightened in the middle of the night and ask me over and over again, “Am I going to die?” I kept telling her, “I’ll die before you do.” And I meant it. Gilda was too strong a fighter. Her spirit would never give in to cancer, I thought.
I was wrong.
Three days before she died, at Cedars-Sinai, she had to go down to radiology for a CAT scan — but the people there couldn’t keep her on the gurney. She was raving like a crazed woman — she knew they would give her morphine and was afraid she’d never regain consciousness. She kept getting off the cart as they were wheeling her out. Finally three people were holding her gently and saying, “Come on, Gilda. We’re just going to go down and come back up.” She kept saying, “Get me out, get me out!” She’d look at me and beg me, “Help me out of here. I’ve got to get out of here.” And I’d tell her, “You’re okay, honey. I know. I know.”
They sedated her, and when she came back, she remained unconscious for three days. I stayed at her side late into the night, sometimes sleeping over. Finally a doctor told me to go home to get some sleep. At 4 A.M. on Saturday, May 20, two years ago, 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.