In 1989, my ex-boyfriend Jim’s aunt, Maryann, lent me her copy of It’s Always Something, Gilda Radner’s poignant and intimately detailed account of her battle with ovarian cancer. “Give this back when you’re done,” Maryann told me. “This book gives me strength to fight my cancer. It’s very important to me. I want you to read it, but you have to return it.”
I neither read nor returned the book. Worse, I lost touch with Maryann soon thereafter, and never knew if she’d survived.
Decades passed. Each time I moved, I’d take It’s Always Something off my bookshelf and think, “I hope Maryann is OK . . .” I wanted to call her, but guilt squashed the desire. I felt terrible for having never read the book, for having never returned it and, mainly, for losing touch with my sweet friend. I’d pack the book in a box and think the same thoughts when I unpacked it in my new place. But I never called, I didn’t even have her phone number; and the book stayed on my shelf, unread.
In 2010, a few months before I became seriously ill myself, I reconnected with Jim via Facebook. I was hesitant to ask about his aunt, but elated to find out she was doing well. As my illness progressed, Jim and I became closer and, when I was out on medical disability leave from work and my health was uncertain, he came to visit me for the first time in twenty-two years. It went well that day, and soon we’re getting married.
Second chances are a rare thing, and I was lucky enough to get a double dose with Jim and his aunt. I was able to return the book that Maryann had lent me so long ago, with my deepest apologies. She was delighted to have it back, and to have me back in the family. We went on, our bond as strong as if no time at all had passed, but I still hadn’t read the book.
For my own sanity I avoid sad or violent books and movies, and there is no getting around the fact that It’s Always Something is tragically sad, and that cancer is viciously violent. I loved Gilda Radner. I had grown up watching her on Saturday Night Live. I loved her as Roseanne Roseannadanna and Emily Litella. I saw her one-woman show on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre. We had the same crazy hair. She was married to Gene Wilder, whom I also loved and who will always be Willy Wonka to me. I remembered Wilder’s words in his speech to the House subcommittee on the need for proper cancer screening, a year after Radner’s death. It was sobering to know that Radner’s initial misdiagnosis may have killed her. Cancer is one of my greatest fears, and I did not want to read of how much this beautiful, hilarious force of nature had suffered. But, I knew I had to. I knew I owed it to Maryann and Gilda to read this book.
People often speak of heroes and bravery in revered or superhuman terms, but Gilda Radner was incredibly human in her struggle with her illness, so very real and honest with no sugarcoating and no pretension. That was her superpower. She shared details of her cancer that only a close friend would tell you, details similar to the stories Maryann had shared with me so long ago. It was heartening to read of Radner’s life before cancer, and her strength and gumption during her battle, in her own unique words. It was uplifting to know she was able to accept love and support from other patients in The Wellness Community, and that she generously returned that love and support to so many, even after her death.
Gilda’s Club, founded in 1989 by Wilder and Radner’s cancer psychotherapist, Joanna Bull, is still going strong and providing that same pillar of support that was so healing and crucial to Radner. I cried when I realized that Radner had died before Gilda’s Club was founded, and right after the release of It’s Always Something. She never got to celebrate either Gilda’s Club or her rightful place on the bestseller list.
I am happy I read It’s Always Something, albeit twenty-five years late. When someone is willing to share with us the most difficult challenge of their life, we owe it to them to listen. I finally understand why the book had meant so much to Maryann.