I remember Gilda Radner.
Not because I knew her personally. Not even because I knew her from TV. Though I have a distinct memory of watching the news the night she died. They showed footage of Gilda’s rendition of “The Way We Were.” I was eleven years old and I turned to my mom: “She’s actually not that good.”
“That’s Gilda Radner,” my mom told me. “And she’s not supposed to be good. She’s supposed to be funny.”
“Is she funny?”
It’s strange the things that stick in your head. A thirty-second conversation, a name I remembered. That’s why, a couple years later, I picked up It’s Always Something, Gilda Radner’s memoir of her life as a comedienne, her marriage to Gene Wilder, her battle with cancer, and the comfort she found at the Wellness Community, a cancer support center.
If indeed God created the world and then left us on our own to work things out, then getting together with other people to communicate is what we should be doing. I learned at The Wellness Community that that is the most magic thing we have, our ability to open our mouths and communicate with each other.
Years after Gilda Radner’s death, when I was a senior in high school and co-president of the Community Service Club, my friend Katie and I organized a group of students to volunteer at the inaugural Gilda’s Club event in New York City. Gilda’s own cancer support therapist, Joanna Bull—I knew her name from the book—gave a speech about what the Wellness Community had meant to Gilda, and how it was her legacy to bring that same kind of community to others.
A couple days ago, I read that several chapters of Gilda’s Club were changing their names—taking Gilda’s name out of their own. The reason, a spokesperson explained, was that Gilda Radner died so long ago, and many college students hadn’t heard of her. Wanting their support groups to be inclusive of everyone, including younger cancer patients, they decided on the change.
I feel the need to point out that when I was checking out Gilda Radner videos on YouTube last night, I saw they had hundreds of thousands of hits; clearly, she IS remembered. But that is, of course, beside the point.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog you probably know that I’ve long been involved with an organization called the Pediatric AIDS Foundation. It was founded by Elizabeth Glaser and two of her closest friends. Elizabeth was infected with HIV just around the time AIDS itself was first identified. Unknowingly, she passed the virus onto her two children. After her daughter’s death, she created the Foundation, hoping the research it funded would save her son. The last few years of her life were devoted to tireless advocacy. I remember the last time I saw her, just weeks before her death, she’d flown across the country to New York, and gave a speech about how difficult it was for her to make it to this particular event, and all the work that was yet to be done.
Three years later, exactly fifteen years ago to the day today (World AIDS Day 1997), the Foundation changed its name to bear hers. It is now the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF). Elizabeth’s daughter, Ariel, who died in 1988 at age 7, drew the picture that has been the Foundation’s logo since its inception.
When I was in high school and even in college, when I said I’d worked with Elizabeth Glaser, most people knew who I was talking about. This coming Monday marks eighteen years since she died. It sometimes makes me sad, when I bring her up to people who don’t know me well (those who know me well already know all about Elizabeth) and they’ve not heard of her. But then I tell them. I remain involved with her foundation, and I have a number of friends who have volunteered for them—shouts-out in particular to my friends Arielle and Maria. My friend Regan is an ambassador for EGPAF. It continually breaks my heart that these women never got to meet Elizabeth in person. But—and this is going to sound cheesy, but it’s true—it keeps Elizabeth so close for me when I see them participating in the work that she started, in the cause she died fighting for. And I don’t think it’s that much of a stretch to say it keeps Elizabeth close to them, too.
What do we leave after we die? If you search Gilda Radner’s name on YouTube, you’ll find close to 1000 video hits. And there’s her beautiful memoir. And there is the club, Gilda’s Club, that was named for her and created because of her, and brings hope and solace to countless people like her. You can change the name, but nothing will change that.