I’m not the kind of girl that gets upset by celebrity deaths. For all that we see some version of people’s lives on screens and the covers of magazines, it’s a one-dimensional kind of knowing. They’re still strangers, even when they’re familiar ones. When we get the news that someone has died, I take a few moments to think over how sad it is and pray for the family, and then I move on with my day.
I guess it’s a measure of the respect and, yes, love I had for Robin Williams that I’m crying my eyes out as I write this, having been on the edge of tears all day.
Since waking up to the news this morning, I’ve been trying to put my finger on why it is that he’s so special, both to me as a person and to the world at large. It’s not just that he was the face and voice of my childhood. Bob Hoskins held a similar role and I was certainly not this devastated back in April, as callous as that may sound. Robin was special. I don’t even think it can be quantified by the roles that he chose to play, even though some of them were the moral compass for some of the most turbulent of my years as a child and as a young adult.
I think it’s because there was something ‘Other’ about him. He was touched with a spark of madness (just one!) that gave rise to his frenetic humour and madcap hilarity, yet he was also touched with a bottomless wellspring of darkness that made his lightness shine all the brighter. He was a titan of my childhood, the kind of deeply flawed and imperfect character that makes for great superhero stories. His comedic outpourings and poignant performances were so often completely inspired, reaching people on a level that no-one else could because you could see it in his eyes that he’d been there. I don’t know if it’s true, but I read on the interwebs that the script for Aladdin couldn’t be nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar because he ad-libbed so much of it. I don’t know any other actor of our time that could have managed that.
There’s one quote that I’ve seen again and again today that I think sums up the most of what he represents to me, which is along the lines of – “no matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” You can keep your carpe diems and grand gestures…it was his humility and kindness that touched the lives of so many people that I think will be his lasting legacy. People love him. It seems he lived by the words of one of his most famous characters, Patch Adams: “You treat a disease, you win, you lose. You treat a person, I guarantee you, you’ll win, no matter what the outcome.” There are countless stories of his kindness and generosity pouring out across the globe.
My favourite Robin Williams story isn’t very well known. I read it many, many years ago in the autobiography of Christopher Reeves. It took place shortly after the Superman actor had woken up in hospital and been told he would never walk again. By his own confession, he was devastated and in a very black place, wishing they’d let him die rather than kept him alive in what he was sure would be a grim and miserable existence. Into the middle of this black mood walked a tiny but almost manic doctor, declaring himself to be Reeve’s proctologist and making joke after outrageous joke about the procedures he was going to carry out. It took several minutes for Reeves to realise it was Robin Williams and when he did, he laughed and laughed and laughed. It changed the course of his life. The power of that practical joke, of one person being prepared to laugh in the face of the darkness, of one person being unafraid to tell him to pull his socks up and seize the day, changed not only Reeves but also our understanding of spinal injuries for generations to come. In giving Reeves hope, in treating the person rather than the problem, Williams inspired him to never give up in the face of the fear. Reeves died still believing that he might one day walk again and raised millions for medical research. Robin Williams’ words, his jokes, changed the world.
It’s the greatest and deepest sadness of all that the darkness in Williams’ life became too great for him to laugh in its face any more.
I entitled this post “bittersweet” because this is a bitter and sad day and yet…and yet as I read the tributes and the quotes and the stories of kindness and humility that people share about this amazing man, it fills me with warmth and hope and even a few bubbling peals of laughter. The legacy that he leaves behind is extraordinary and very, very special. If we can learn his greatest life lesson, it is this. The world is a darker place today because he has passed, but he was kind enough to leave us enough material to help in laughing in the face of that darkness. And if we can laugh, we can hope and, no matter what anyone says, that can change the world.
Edited to add that the HuffPost reported on the Reeves story: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/11/robin-williams-facts_n_5670220.html?ncid=fcbklnkushpmg00000024