“I hate to be the bearer of bad news,” my coworker John said as he interrupted the meeting, “but they just announced that Robin Williams is dead.”
That’s how I learned the news yesterday that Robin Williams, comedian, actor, father, had passed away, and as the time since John told us passed I’ve found that the news has been hitting me rather hard.
I’ll fully admit that the first time I saw him was in the kind of terrible Popeye, punching that horribly fake octopus and everything.
Next watched was Awakenings and I can still remember the sense of loss I felt as the patients slipped back into catatonia.
Hook brought me more of an appreciation of his silliness and sense of play even as it gave me an example, if a fictional one, of a father doing everything he could for his kids, even after screwing up so much.
FernGully, Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire (IT WAS A DRIVE-BY FRUITING).
But, really, I have to thank him, most of all, for Birdcage.
I know I’ve mentioned it here before but I grew up in a very fundamentalist Christian environment. While my father was a two-day Catholic, my mom was a church-going, Born Again, nondenominational Christian. The only time I wasn’t in a Christian school of one form or another was preschool and second and third grade while fourth through eighth were spent at a particularly fundamentalist school where they actually taught us things like the very cliche line “It was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” No joke.
Until high school I was one of those kids that was an unthinking homophobe, the kind where you never really put any thought into it, it was just what you were taught, and because it’s all you know you’re utterly convinced that is simply the way it is. I didn’t understand how or why those kinds of thoughts were harmful, not just to others around me but also to myself in closing my heart and mind to others, to their humanity. I was, as some who knew me then might describe me, an insufferable, little shit.
Then two things happened that started making me wake up. I started dating a young woman who I’d fall in love with who had two fathers. Spending time with them helped put chinks in that particular wall, started opening up my mind and softening my heart. The more time I spent with them the more I saw that they, ultimately, were just like me. They had the same fears and concerns, the same struggles, the same love, even if it wasn’t expressed in the way that I would.
I also watched Birdcage. I know it was just a fictional story but seeing the son be proud of his fathers in the face of Robin Williams’ character’s fear really struck a chord with me. Wasn’t I proud of my family? Didn’t I love them, and them me? I saw how my girlfriend was proud of her father and stepfather, how they were as much a family as mine. And if they were the same except for one, small detail, then, really, what was I really fearing? It’d be a longer journey but my homophobia started dying during those times.
I think the reason why today’s news is having the impact on me is that unlike so many other actors that have come and gone or are still around, for me Robin Williams embodied joy. Simple, positive, joy. His smile was one of a kind, infectious and incredible. I know more than once over the last (almost) four years since Michelle became pregnant I’ve thought back to the bits he did on pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting (especially the horrors of baby poop).
I’m also sad because he helped me become a better person through his work. Because of him, I found some more joy and love.
I want to leave you with three things.
One, if you are living with depression, please, reach out to those around you. As the Bloggess says, depression lies. You aren’t alone. People will and do care.
Two, a poem posted today by my friend Lee Presson, who knew Robin when he was taking classes from Lee’s father, by W. H. Auden.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let airplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message “He Is Dead.”
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
The stars are not wanted now, put out every one
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood
For nothing now can come to any good.
And finally, some words from the end of Reality: What A Concept, the first bit of Robin’s stand-up I ever heard:
“Keep a spirit of madness in you, just a little touch of it, just enough so you don’t become stupid.
Just a little touch of madness will keep you alive because no one in the world knows how to tax that.
There was an old crazy dude who used to live a long time ago, his name was Lord Buckley, and he said a long time ago, he said, ‘People, they’re kind of like flowers, and it has been a privilege walking in your garden.’ My love goes with you.”
Rest in peace, good sir, and thank you.