O Captain, My Captain

DEAUVILLE FESTIVAL: THE ACTOR ROBIN WILLIAMS

I know I am not the only writer, artist, well-wisher who will run to their blog/facebook/twitter and post something about the loss of our beloved Robin Williams. When I first heard the news—through Facebook—I thought it was a hoax. Quickly, however, I realized it was not. It was very real and very sad. I broke down after reading the first article. And then I thought, “What is wrong with me?” I never met this man. I didn’t know him, only the characters he’d played. Other than star-struck 15 year old girls, who cries over celebrities? I’ve been crying on and off since. And I’m not 15.

Dead Poets Society was one of the first movies that impacted me on a level a couple steps up from entertainment. For the first time, I identified with multiple characters, truly admired an adult character, and held on to the story as truth for my own life. The movie had values and dreams that I could believe in, that I could hope for. And Williams’ character was an adult I could trust. Fictional, of course, but if someone had written this character, they had to exist, right? I was 13.

A few years later, Williams did another film that resonated. Despite being quite a bit goofier than Poets, this movie came out smack in the middle of GenXer’s tumultuous adolescence. Although I was five years past my own parents divorce, and had virtually no relationship with my father at the time, he took me and my sister to see Mrs. Doubtfire. The story certainly touched me, Robins’ character especially, but it wasn’t until I was older that I knew why: Because it showed me that fathers really do love their children.

And then in 1997, yet again, a movie that I saw as a very young newlywed and reeled over the scene where Williams, as a therapist, assures his patient that it “is not his fault”, a scene that still haunts me, perhaps more today now that I have far more understanding of just how much we can go through our lives faulting ourselves when there really is none to be had.

I’ve enjoyed many other of William’s movies and comedy shows and even just clips of his effervescent personality.  But he carried me through the nineties. You might say it was the movies or the characters, not the actual man who made an impact. But I disagree. If you look at his body of work as a cannon, or a collection, the way we’d look at a painter’s life or an author’s shelf of books, the art is very much the man, the man very much his art. Not all are great, some aren’t even good, but as a whole, as a representation, Williams’ work was well-rounded. Hilarious, dark, grievous, endearing, youthful, disturbing, innocent, beautiful.

It is profoundly sad that, in the end, it was the darkness that took the man.

And maybe that is why articles are reporting how “Everyone is devastated.”  How difficult it is to accept that behind that infectious smile and the rip-roaring jokes that made us feel like we knew who Robin was, was actually a very sad man. Depression camouflages itself well. Only the closest family or friends may be aware, and even then, are often surprised if their loved one finally succumbs. We see it again and again, especially with artists—they vanish behind some kind of mask, and then they vanish altogether, and we are left wondering how we missed it.

But even as a kid, I saw the sadness in Robin’s eyes and perhaps that is exactly what made him and his work so accessible to me. Here was an adult who had seen what I’d seen and was still living, still laughing. He was genuine. No one can make you laugh like that unless they know and speak the truth. No one can make you laugh like that unless they’ve seen the other side of that joke. This is what makes great comedians great. This is what makes all great artists. Truth in beauty and loss, together. But it is a lot to bear, holding the weight of both beauty and loss, and we lose too many of the greats far too soon.

RIP Robin.

Thank you for sharing your heart, and for being one of the greats who have taught me to share mine.

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