Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Bittersweet Paradox: Grief, Hope, and Robin Williams

Nearly a week has passed since it happened, and I still can’t – or don’t want – to believe it. Robin Williams, gone? It’s like being told the sun won’t be rising anymore. You take it for granted for the majority of your life, stopping only now and then to bask in its glow, finding comfort and joy in its warmth, and never really bother to question what life might be like without it. Then one dark morning it’s not there, and you panic, because you realize too late what you’ve lost. I’ve lost public icons I cared about before, but not quite like this. Though I’m not among the lucky few to have known him personally (I’m not even sure we were ever even in the same city together, let alone the same room), the loss I feel is personal.

Like many others of my generation, he and his characters have been there for me every step of the way. As a child, Genie and Batty were my imaginary friends and consciences, reminding me to “bee” myself and teaching me about how important it is to take care of this wild and wonderful ecosystem we call home. During my early teens, I and my classmates passed many a free (read: substitute teacher) day watching hand-me-down VHS tapes of Flubber, Jack, and, whenever the curriculum cycled back around to Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jakob the Liar. In high school, Good Will Hunting’s Sean Maguire taught me something about the meaning of life and the beautiful chaos that comes of sharing our “weird little worlds” with one another, and in college Chris Nielsen’s courage in What Dreams May Come helped me come to terms with death, loss, and my own vague sense of spirituality. The Birdcage and Mrs. Doubtfire, of course, were always good for an easy laugh.

I first heard the news of his passing early Monday evening, before more specific reports had begun to surface. All we knew was that he was gone. It ached in the way I imagine an organ suddenly disappearing would – it left an empty space in my gut that I didn’t know how to fill. But I didn’t cry. Recalling that he’d had serious heart surgery in the not-too-distant past, I figured it was probably some sort of physical malfunction. I told myself a bedtime story about it, that he’d been so excited about something, so unbearably happy, that his heart hadn’t been able to take it. I liked to think he died as he had lived on film: with joy and a twinkle in his eye.

I turned to What Dreams May Come that night, and it helped a little. Until, while searching for news about the lovely tributes that had already begun to spring up, I ran headlong into a couple of hard, unforgiving words. Hanging. Suicide. Everything stopped, or at least it should have. My bedtime story fell apart. I broke down.

A several-hours-long phone conversation with a close friend later, I found myself sitting in my backyard, staring bleary-eyed up at the fading night sky and watching the shooting stars of the Perseid meteor shower pass me by. I wondered if Williams could see them, too. I wouldn’t remember until several days later the quote from The Little Prince which his daughter Zelda posted on her twitter feed the next day.

“You – you alone will have the stars as no one else has them. ... In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night … You – only you – will have stars that can laugh.”

Never in my life did I imagine losing someone I cared about to suicide. This loss, even at such a distance as there is between a fan and a celebrity, surprised me with how devastating it felt – how much more devastating, in particular, than merely the news that he had died. It is not that I’m religious and believe that what he did sent him to hell or something like that, but the thought that someone so brilliant and beloved found himself in a place so dark, so lonely, that death seemed brighter than any other path is unbearable to me.

I can’t begrudge someone for wanting to choose their own end, especially when faced with something as serious and difficult as Parkinson's. I don’t think less of him, or that he was weak, or that he committed some sort of mortal sin. But I, like most of us, do wish our heroic clown was still here, that something, anything, could have stopped him or changed his mind and kept him with us a little longer. More than that, I wish he could have found a better way out of his situation, something that would have helped him find peace and hope without taking his life from him, and him from his family and fans. But since that point is moot now, I wish instead that he finds, in the great unknown beyond, the solace and joy he deserved so much in life.

Since his death, I’ve watched a different film of his every night. It’s my version of a week-long wake, I guess. I was afraid at first – afraid that I would look back and suddenly see his suffering somehow reflected in his eyes, afraid that every laugh I used to love to listen to would sound hollow, fake. But the truth is, as Williams himself stated in the past when discussing his depression and substance abuse, acting and making people laugh were among the few things that kept him going when nothing else could. So that spark we all saw in his eyes on the silver screen was likely true, if only fleeting. The movies were fiction, but the laughter was real.

It’s a strange thing to find comfort coming from the same source as your grief, but that’s how it is for me right now. Rather than making bereavement more acute, watching his past alter egos laugh and dance and sing for all the world to see reminds me of how many times his lovable mug pulled me through my own dark places in the past, and how many people besides me feel the same. I hope, above all else, that some small voice in his head, even if in the end it wasn’t loud enough to win his final inner battle, never quite let him forget all the people he saved in big and little ways over the years. He’s part of the reason I’m still here, and I know I’m not the only one. 

That’s where the bittersweet paradox comes in. Even after death, he’s still inspiring so much good. Droves of devoted admirers leaving flowers, quotes, and thank-you notes in makeshift memorials, pouring generous donations into charities and non-profits like the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital he cared so deeply about – it’s enough to make you believe there might be hope for our mad little species after all. Perhaps most importantly, it’s sparked a long-overdue public discussion about depression and suicide prevention, raising some much-needed awareness, not to mention funding.

In my heart, I would rather he still be here. I would rather these changes for the better come from some other, less painful origin. But it is what it is, and all we can do now is try our best to make the most of what good can be wrangled from this tragedy – for his sake, for ours, and for the future. May we make our fallen Captain proud, and honor his memory by making this world a place worth living in.

Rest in peace, chief. You will be missed.

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