Along with many others, I’ve been feeling heavy-hearted about the death of Robin Williams. It’s a genuine sadness, a real sense of loss, as though he were a personal friend. It just throws everything off kilter, somehow. For almost as long as most of us can remember, there was this absolutely one-of-a-kind and kind-hearted genius, a man of rapid-fire brilliance, a delicious sense of absurdity, and a breathtaking wit that did not preclude sentimentality, who made us laugh despite his own vulnerability and pain. And now there’s not.
I don’t know what to make of it. The world is just diminished somehow, and there are plenty of other headlines and developments to brood about, much of it troubling and scary, but maybe that’s why the laughter was so important. With his meteoric energy and nimble stream of consciousness, he seemed to contain multitudes, and if there was something manic and madcap about it, maybe that just came with having a mind so fast. He was utterly unique.
And thus we are bereft.
Much has been said about the way he made his exit, but here’s a fact: just as terminal cancer ends in death, so does depression when it’s terminal. It’s not a matter of choice or fault or selfishness. Robin Williams was undoubtedly suffering more than most of us can ever understand. It’s terrible to contemplate that much anguish and alone-ness.
I had a friend who hung himself. I spent time with him in the months and days before this final act, and no one can tell me that his agony was not real. On some level he realized that his death would hurt the people who loved him, and he didn’t want to cause them pain, and he struggled mightily, deferring the end as long as he could. There is a point when the illness takes over, when nothing is real but the pain and the need to put a stop to it.
I understand how easy it is not to understand this.
The man I knew who committed suicide dreaded certain hours of each night. He was grieving over the loss of his wife and could not silence his thoughts. He was haunted and tormented and ashamed of himself. He despised the fact that he no longer possessed the qualities and capabilities which made life worthwhile to him. He wanted to want to live, which of course is very different from wanting to live, but the illness of his brain destroyed everything but his need to find peace. At last he had to over-ride even the bonds of love and loyalty to his family and friends. He set himself free.
But I think the last stretch of a life often assumes way more significance than it should. It is the sum total of a life that matters, rather than the illness or aberration that may shortly precede or precipitate its end.
That’s something I realized when my father died, not by suicide but a heart attack. Nothing had turned out right for him, and his final years were a litany of hardship and disappointment. I was in my 20s then. (As, it occurs to me, are Robin Williams’ kids, and I sure do feel for them.) The only way I could think of to get through this was to look at the whole of my father’s life, not its sad conclusion.
So I chose to give more weight to his shining moments, to the pleasures and accomplishments he knew, and to the dreams he once held, even dreams that had eluded him, for those failed dreams had contained promise. He had sailed towards them as though to stars in the night, sustained by the quest.
And I am looking right now at a picture of my late sister taken on a bright fall morning when she was healthy and newly in love and all things seemed possible–this reality is as valid as her days of suffering in a hospital bed, and it’s the one I cherish.
I have abandoned the tyranny of sequence and chronology.
Subsequent events do not negate or diminish all of the wonders, joys, and hopes which preceded them. They are not more important, they do not contain the meaning or the bottom line, and they are not somehow the summation of anything just because they happened last.
I even think we can fulfill dreams retroactively and add posthumous chapters, extending the impact of someone’s life with acts that honor who they were and what they loved. We can do something constructive and hopeful in their memory, and while that doesn’t eliminate the sadness, it imparts a bit of usefulness to it.
What does this have to do with Robin Williams? It has everything to do with Robin Williams, because it has everything to do with being human. It’s about honoring the unique gifts of the people whose lives have touched ours, celebrating what joys were experienced and given, learning whatever there is to be learned from the painful parts, and somehow being better because they lived.
And in the particular case of Robin Williams, there is so much to celebrate. He was of a different plane, a different planet, I suppose, and he stayed as long as he could, distracting and delighting us, and nothing can alter this fact.
So we can be a little kinder to each other. That would be nice. And let laughter be the legacy, and light.