I was saddened to hear about Gene Wilder’s death this week. For years, he and his wife Gilda Radner filled my heart and the hearts of many with laughter. I was devastated when Radner died of ovarian cancer in 1989. However, Wilder helped provide a living legacy, one that has inextricably bound me to the comedic couple: Gilda’s Club.
I was a cancer refugee.
I already had breast cancer — no way to run from that mess — but I was seeking refuge from its emotional toll.
I got what I was seeking at Gilda’s Club.
Living in Chicago, I was lucky to have a Gilda’s Club in my hometown. This organization offers a safe haven that provides free support and programming for anyone touched by cancer and their loved ones — friends and/or family. Such programming ranges from yoga, writing therapy classes, art classes, cooking classes, and a Christmas party with Santa Claus for the children.
At first I was hesitant to go all by myself, but I was urged by my aunt, a breast cancer survivor who attended Gilda’s Club in New York during her diagnosis and treatment. Each time I called her sobbing hysterically about cancer, she listened and offered warm support. And then she ended our conversation the way she always ended it: “Go to Gilda’s Club.”
I was terribly shy and didn’t want to go by myself. But the walls of despair and terror were suffocating me, and I needed more support than long-distance phone calls could provide me.
One day, I was downtown standing alone at the famous red door, the entryway to the physical building that houses Gilda’s Club. I had made an appointment with an intake worker, so she was expecting me. My heart was pounding as I rang the doorbell.
The door opened to a friendly receptionist’s face and a beautiful, well-lit interior. The welcoming intake worker gave me a tour of the many appealing rooms — there was a gorgeous kitchen, a reading room, general relaxation spaces, and an elevator to all three stories, for which my chemo-weary legs were grateful. The interior of Gilda’s Club was really a house — no, a home — offering a safe haven to people touched by cancer, their friends, and families.
The intake worker took all my information, and I received a membership card to a club that, like cancer, I never wanted to join. A part of me was still skeptical that Gilda’s Club could ease my constant emotional torment and fear.
“Every other Tuesday we have a chef teach our members how to cook a dish,” the intake worker told me enthusiastically. “It’s one of our more popular activities. You are invited to come today.”
I had nowhere comforting to go, so despite my skepticism, I decided to stay and check it out.
That evening I and a bunch of people I didn’t know saw a cooking demonstration and got to taste a dish of salmon and green-tomato ginger jam. Prior to my visit to Gilda’s Club, I had so much trouble eating, but for some reason, this dish was palatable to me. We all applauded the chef’s talent, asked questions, and got the recipe. I got to talk to several other cancer patients while we ate our communal feast.
I no longer felt alone.
And during the two hours of cooking and eating and asking questions, I felt the warmth, power, salvation, and magic that is Gilda’s Club. That evening cancer did not exist for me. I actually forgot I was ill. Joy and laughter were everywhere, and I fell in love with Gilda’s Club, a club that, it turns out, I was glad I joined after all.
I came to Gilda’s Club regularly for support. I always loved cooking, so I tried not to miss the chefs’ demonstrations, and I participated in writing classes, yoga, and a variety of other fun activities. Doctors would come to this haven to discuss various health/cancer issues. I got educated and met so many people in this welcoming environment.
And this safe space was the place where my emotional healing began.
Gene Wilder, Rest in Peace. You have helped many people through Gilda’s Club.
Have you ever gone to Gilda’s Club?
Does your hometown have a Gilda’s Club nearby?
If applicable, how have you found solace in your diagnosis and beyond?