In an exclusive essay for ABC News, Karen Wilder opens up about her 35-year marriage to the late actor and activist Gene Wilder. The “Young Frankenstein” star died last year at the age of 83, after battling Alzheimer’s disease in the final years of his life. Wilder discusses some of the trials and tribulations caregivers or spouses can experience when caring for someone living with the debilitating disease. These are her words:
I never pictured myself marrying a movie star. I also never saw myself spending years of my life taking care of one. But I’ve done both. Love was the reason for the first. Alzheimer’s disease, the second
I met Gene Wilder in 1989. He was preparing to shoot a movie called “See No Evil, Hear No Evil,” in which the character he played was deaf. Though I grew up in very small town in Idaho, where it was a big deal if you had indoor plumbing, I had been working in New York City for over twenty years by that point as a speech pathologist with the hearing impaired. As he always did when he took on a role, Gene wanted to understand his character. He showed up at my office one day in search of my professional advice.
We formed a powerful bond. At the time, Gene was married to Gilda Radner, who was in the final stages of ovarian cancer. After Gilda’s death, Gene sought me out again. We married a year later and, for more than twenty years, we were one of the happiest couples I knew. We traveled to France and played tennis together (three sets in a single afternoon). When I signed up for tap dancing lessons, Gene joined me. We set up side-by-side easels in the garden painting watercolors. At night, we danced together on a floor we’d built, under the stars — The Waltz, Salsa, Cha Cha and Tango.
The first signs of trouble were small. Always the kindest, most tender man (if a fly landed on him, he waited for the fly to leave), suddenly I saw Gene lashing out at our grandson. His perception of objects and their distance from him became so faulty that on a bike ride together, he thought we were going to crash into some trees many feet away from us. Once, at a party with friends, when the subject of “Young Frankenstein” came up, he couldn’t think of the name of the movie and had to act it out instead.