Sunday 19 September 2021


Sunday afternoon AJ, Dani and I were at one of our favourite parks/playgrounds. We call it “The Secret Playground” because it is tucked into a grove of trees at the end of a street and you could miss it completely if you don’t know it is there. I love it because it feels like you are in a forest meadow. There are tall evergreen trees, small fruit trees, and tangles of lilacs as well as playground equipment. The kids love all of it, often disappearing into greenery or up trees when they are done with the playground. You can always hear birds and often spot a woodpecker. These mild autumn days, the sky is a stunning blue above.

There is also a  Little Free Library in the park, a cupboard where people can take or leave books. The girls always run to check it out. On this day AJ found a battered old board book and Dani brought me a yellowed, cracked paperback that I barely glanced at. We read the board book together. I convinced AJ to put it back, and then the girls ran off to play and I picked up the paperback to return it too.

Something caught my eye; I’m not sure what. I changed my mind and took it back to the bench with me.

I had no familiarity with Gilda Radner or her work. I didn’t have a TV as a child and my parents didn’t care for pop culture (that’s a whole other story). My first assumption was that she was some 80s daytime TV star that housewives watched. But even this thought generated curiosity. I couldn’t care less for celebrity culture in general, but older books arouse a kind of anthropological interest in me. Our world changes so fast that reading something from a few decades ago is like a peek into a foreign, but also familiar culture.

The books begins in 1981 when Gilda is 35 and 
falling in love with Gene Wilder. She is a comedian and TV star, and trying to start a career in movies. But her new romance also fills her with dreams of a domestic existence. Chapter 2 is titled “The baby and the movie star.” Gilda was three years younger than my mother, but doesn’t at all resemble my mother, nor would I say she particularly resembles me. I felt bemused reading about her frenetic energy and shifting priorities. However, she is the sort of woman that I grew up aware of: a life focused on potential, the ever present message that you could “be anything,” do anything, filled with belief in unbounded potential and time.  After her wedding, Gilda says:

When I got home, I ordered stationary that said “Gilda Radner” and “Mr and Mrs Radner.” I was uneasy for a while trying to figure out when to be Gilda Radner, thr TV star, when to be Gilda Radner, a brand new person, when to be Mrs Gene Wilder, the wife of the international movie star, and when to be Mrs G. Wilder, just another blushing bride.
I decided I could be them all.

Gilda admits she stopped using birth control after she began her relationship with Gene, hoping a pregnancy would motivate him to commit to her. But when they marry in 1984, she is 38 and pregnancy hasn’t happened. She goes for a hysterosalpingogram, which shows blocked Fallopian tubes. This leaves three choices: IVF, surgery to open the tubes, or adoption. Gene is willing to try for a baby but points out they should not ruin their relationship or lives. They opt for IVF.

The historic account of IVF is both familiar but with an added layer of terror. Perhaps it is just me, but older accounts of medical procedures have the feel of a  sophisticated horror movie. Just add an internal scream or whimper after each of the following sentences: Gene and Gilda make seven embryos, but transfer “only” four, to avoid multiples. They give permission for the remaining three embryos to be destroyed because the clinic doesn’t have facilities to freeze them. Gilda must fast and lie inclined on her back for several hours after transfer, to increase chances of implantation. A week later, she starts bleeding heavily and IVF is proven a failure. Gilda is willing to try it all again but Gene, probably to his credit, refuses.

Next, Gilda has the operation to open her tubes. It is successful and she looks forward to “just” having timed sex to conceive. This is the part of the story I could personally relate to the most as that was essentially our strategy. Gilda learns of course that it can be as exhausting as fertility treatments in its own way. Like me, Gilda used ovulation predictor kits to determine when she was ovulating. I sometimes wondered why they are called “kits” when it is just a stick you pee on. Well, mystery solved. Here is how you used an ovulation predictor kit in the 80s:

I bought one of those ovulation kits where you are the scientist. You have to catch some of your first urine of the morning in a cup, mix with some powder, wait ten minutes, mix something else, wait ten minutes, mix with another thing, wait a half hour, dip a stick into the mixture and match it up with a colour chart to see whether it is blue or green or yellow. The kit costs about eighty dollars for one cycle. I didn’t tell Gene I was doing this. He was already wondering about my sanity.
Trying to conceive naturally also takes an emotional toll. After IVF, Gilda says: “…I’d lost interest in anything else. I was desperate not to not have a baby.” After the operation to open her tubes: “…as soon as I got to the middle of the cycle, the panic came in. I was always counting days on my calendar. Then when I got my period, it was like a death: a failure, another lost child.” … “I continued to dwell on the fact that every time Gene traveled and we weren’t together, I was missing an ovulation cycle, an opportunity to have a child….”

Despite the increasing fixation on having a baby, Gilda still wants to work on her career. In 1985 she and Gene go to France to film a movie, and she starts birth control again because they decide it would be poor timing for a pregnancy. She is enjoying the experience and only notices belatedly that she is having dizzy spells and her period is late. After a home-chemistry-lab-like pregnancy test, Gilda discovers she is indeed pregnant. Unfortunately, she starts bleeding a week later and has a miscarriage **. She tries to take this philosophically, reassured that pregnancy is after all possible.

It is not to be, however. Gilda’s health takes a turn for the worse, as she suffers from inexplicable exhaustion, fevers, and aches and pains. Doctors and naturopaths cannot figure out what is wrong for a long time, but ultimately she is diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer. A hysterectomy permanently ends her quest for a family.

**Considering Gilda’s eventual diagnosis, I wondered after if she ever really was pregnant, as ovarian cancer can sometimes cause HCG production. It is a very scary disease. You can read on social media today about women in their 40s whose symptoms were misdiagnosed. I have often had the thought that one of the “good” things about being tested for sub fertility was someone was always looking at my ovaries. Now, however, nobody is checking out what is going on in there.

Most of the rest of the book focuses on Gilda’s cancer treatment, and how she coped physically and psychologically. It is a moving and interesting story (which I am still reading). I enjoyed her explanations of how she maintained her sense of humour throughout a very unfunny experience, and I probably will look up some of her comedy after all.

It’s Always Something is a tragedy. Gilda dies just short of her 43rd birthday. But it’s usually the tragedies that make you think, not so much the comedies and their happy endings.

What did I get out of this book? It reminded me of the infertility community at its best. I’ve never been keen on the infertile label, and I think support group culture has some serious problems. However, those touched by infertility and loss do have commonality. All infertility grief is not equal, but it is immediately recognizable. We are, in the midst of our personal hell, capable of seeing our similarities, of just wanting to reach out and hold another woman’s hand, or hear her story, or share a kind word. That is something I never want to forget.

There are many ways of putting infertility into the bigger context of a life. There is the “happy ending” of parenting a child or children. There is choosing to cease and desist and live without children. Then, most poignantly, there is the context of mortality. What if the time is shorter than you think? Gilda died when she was barely a year older than me. If I had just a year or two left, what is the meaning of all the things I have tried to do?

As I read Gilda’s story I feel still more grateful for the twists and turns of my life that led to this amazing present. I’m grateful that we all don’t have to live the same kind of lives, that we can make different choices. I think about what a strange, and dangerous game it is to try and force your life to take a certain direction. I feel tenderness to the women (and men) who told me so enthusiastically in my youth that  I could be anything, do anything, have everything I wanted, even though I now think that isn’t exactly true, and I won’t say quite the same thing to my daughters.

I think too about how fast our world changes, and how important it is to pause and tell the stories, and hear them too. It’s kind of like Gilda joined me at the park one day, and I’m glad she did, so we could talk for a little while and understand each other better.