Gene Wilder Set An Emotional Anchor For My Life

This is the first post I've written in almost a year, about a man I never met, born in the same city as me (Milwaukee), who now happens to be dead.

That man is American actor Gene Wilder.

Wilder died on August 29th, 2016. Here is the statement issued from his nephew:

It is with indescribable sadness and blues, but with spiritual gratitude for the life lived that I announce the passing of husband, parent, and universal artist Gene Wilder, at his home in Stamford, Connecticut. It is almost unbearable for us to contemplate our life without him. The cause was complications from Alzheimer's Disease with which he co-existed for the last three years. The choice to keep this private was his choice, in talking with us and making a decision as a family. We understand for all the emotional and physical challenges this situation presented we have been among the lucky ones—this illness-pirate, unlike in so many cases, never stole his ability to recognize those that were closest to him, nor took command of his central-gentle-life affirming core personality. It took enough, but not that.

The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity, but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him “there’s Willy Wonka,” would not have to be then exposed to an adult referencing illness or trouble and causing delight to travel to worry, disappointment or confusion. He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.

He continued to enjoy art, music, and kissing with his leading lady of the last twenty-five years, Karen. He danced down a church aisle at a wedding as parent of the groom and ring bearer, held countless afternoon movie western marathons and delighted in the the company of beloved ones.

He is survived by Karen, Jordan, and the Webbs (Kevin, Gretchen, Tucker, Spencer), along with Jordan’s wife, Elizabeth. Gene's sister Corinne, predeceased him in January of this year.

He was 83 and passed holding our hands with the same tenderness and love he exhibited as long as I can remember. As our hands clutched and he performed one last breath, the music speaker, which was set to random, began to blare out one of his favorites: Ella Fitzgerald. There is a picture of he and Ella meeting at a London Bistro some years ago that are among each of our cherished possessions. She was singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as he was taken away.

“We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.”


“Gene’s Kid”

Jordan Walker-Pearlman

For all that Wilder accomplished in his own life -- as an actor, an activist, a family man -- I most admire him for the emotional anchor he set in mine, thanks to his seminal role in 1971's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Watching Wilder, as Wonka, year after year, I took away the same message:

Life is hard and there is joy.

This really describes an authentic life, don't you think?

Life is hard and there is joy. There is no comma. We must keep going.

Life is hard and there is joy. The and is intentional. There is no but, because difficulty and positivity can -- and must -- coexist.

Wilder's performance as Wonka prepared me for what life truly is, a psychedelic river of wonder and catastrophe, of resilience and fragility, of heart-pounding humor and gut-wrenching disappointment.

Wilder taught me that no one, no matter how powerful or all-knowing, can save any of us from our own circumstances…our confusion…or conscience.

He also showed me that every expression is valid, and that the emotions which lie deep beneath the surface deserve every opportunity to breathe.

Wilder's performance showed me that every life experience shapes who we are, be it struggle or satisfaction, mistake or merriment, loss or laughter.

He showed me to grab it all, and not fear the intensity.

That sadness and disappointment and grief and pain will never, ever destroy me. They may, however, change me, and oftentimes, for the best.

And so, after what's been a year marked by spectacular challenges, I am deeply indebted to a man I never met, gone but forever remembered.  Thank you, Gene Wilder, for leading me back to my words. You prepared me well for this messy, complicated, beautiful life, filled with joy...and pain…and its sometimes-seemingly-everlasting challenges.

Life, indeed, can be a Wondrous Boat Ride:

Round the world and home again

That's the sailor's way
Faster faster, faster faster
There's no earthly way of knowing
Which direction we are going
There's no knowing where we're rowing
Or which way the river's flowing
Is it raining, is it snowing
Is a hurricane a-blowing
Not a speck of light is showing
So the danger must be growing
Are the fires of Hell a-glowing
Is the grisly reaper mowing
Yes, the danger must be growing
For the rowers keep on rowing
And they're certainly not showing
Any signs that they are slowing

Yet Wilder reminds us, through the gift of his acting and singing, that things cannot and will not remain difficult forever. That sort of negative thinking is just just pure imagination.

Hold your breath
Make a wish
Count to three.

Come with me and you'll be
In a world of pure imagination
Take a look and you'll see
Into your imagination

We'll begin with a spin
Traveling in the world
Of my creation
What we'll see
Will defy explanation

If you want to view paradise
Simply look around and view it
Anything you want to, do it
Wanna change the world?
There's nothing to it

There is no life I know
To compare with
Pure imagination
Living there, you'll be free
If you truly wish to be

If you want to view paradise
Simply look around and view it
Anything you want to, do it
Wanna change the world?
There's nothing to it

There is no life I know
To compare with
Pure imagination
Living there, you'll be free
If you truly wish to be


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    Christine Wolf

    I tend to cover life's ups and downs. I don't shy away from the tougher, more emotional stories. While I'm always willing to voice an opinion, it sometimes contradicts my innate desire to please everyone at all times. Such is this crazy life, I suppose. Ultimately, I search for meaning in the human experience, and openly share how I (try to) keep my head above water. Thanks so much for dropping by. I really appreciate hearing your thoughts.

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