Crawling across the bottom of the TV screen are the words “Robin Williams Dead at 63,” and as celebrity doctors weigh in on reports that the actor died at his home in Northern California today, apparently due to suicide by asphyxiation, I am drawn back to my first encounter with Robin Williams on the TV in our living room in Antrim. As they speculate about his battle with severe depression, I am a teenager in Northern Ireland once more, and he is an alien from outer space on the Mork and Mindy show.
Brilliantly, he was Mork from Ork. Pam Dawber, as Mindy, was the perfect foil. Easy to like, she shared my taste in music with the cover of Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” album hanging on her apartment wall. Naturally, when I went to college in Belfast, living away from home for the first time, the “Running on Empty” cover hung on my wall too. But there was no one like Mork in Belfast. He was unlike anyone we had ever seen in rainy, slow 1970s Northern Ireland. With his rainbow suspenders and the catchphrase that caught on with all of us, “Nanu Nanu,” Mork was enchanting, a lovable clown with an inexhaustible range of funny voices and a child-like exuberance for all he was learning about being human.
Somehow, he was accessible to everyone. And even though he was out of this world, Mork learned about being in it, about being human, about falling in love, eventually reporting back to his invisible mentor, Orson:
Love doesn’t make sense. That’s why Earthlings think it’s so wonderful.
We loved Mork, and we loved Robin Williams being Mork. Like Mork, the actor was constantly evolving and surprising all of us, perhaps even himself, as he improvised through his various roles. So quick and agile in body and mind, he disappeared into roles such as that of the teacher we would all want for our own children in Dead Poet’s Society; the broke dad masquerading as a no-nonsense housekeeper and nanny for his own children in Mrs Doubtfire; Adrian Cronauer, the DJ who spoke truth to power in Good Morning, Vietnam; the heartbreakingly vulnerable homeless, Parry, in The Fisher King;and, the widowed psychologist, Sean McGuire, in Good Will Hunting, who would go to the ends of the earth for the love of his life. This last was my husband’s favorite Robin Williams role – The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences liked it too, and awarded Williams with an Oscar.
At the end of the movie, when Will Hunting leaves that note on his best friend’s front door, Ken always said he could have written the same for me, as a farewell to the life he left on January 13, 1990, to begin a new one with me, his girl.
“I’m crazy about you,” he told me that Saturday afternoon in a dive bar doorway. “I’ve been waiting for you my whole life, and I was beginning to think you weren’t going to show up.”
Within just weeks, we had embarked on a new life together. Unexpected and off-script, yet meant to be.
Like Sean McGuire, my Ken had no regrets about all he had left behind. He understood exactly why Sean would give up his tickets to see the Boston Red Sox play in Game 6 of the World Series. Sean had to go “see about a girl.” And even though he was a made-up character in a movie, there was something about the way Robin Williams delivered these lines that made me believe he was still the same guy who shone through in Mork, the guy who knew what it meant to love:
That’s why I’m not talkin’ right now about some girl I saw at a bar twenty years ago and how I always regretted not going over and talking to her. I don’t regret the 18 years I was married to Nancy. I don’t regret the six years I had to give up counseling when she got sick. And I don’t regret the last years when she got really sick. And I sure as hell don’t regret missin’ the damn game. That’s regret.
Learning tonight that he suffered from depression saddens me. Yes, Robin Williams is is a stranger to me. A celebrity. Of course I don’t know him, but I know about depression and despair, addiction and self-medicating, denial and co-dependence and all the other words from the Big Book. I would come to find out that the man who had waited for me for so long also struggled with all of these. Until the end, it turns out. For most of those years, I had no idea, because he hid it so well. Masterfully and with shame. No one would ever have known, on the outside looking in, because he was attentive to those around him. He was funny – so funny – and warm. He listened more than he talked so that he knew so much more about others than they did about him. He kept those demons at bay until it exhausted him. I know that now. Side-stepping the disease, each of us engaged in self-preservation or a kind of selfishness, we were no match for it. And now that he is gone I find myself remembering all that was good – all the laughter and love wrapped up in random road-trips and surprise bouquets and trips to Dairy Queen every Friday with our daughter. So much good, that I have to believe Gabriel García Márquez was right:
..the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past
Ah, endurance. Often we endure quietly and alone and wonder what we could have done differently or better – when it is too late. We don’t like to talk about depression very much. It’s not quite “as acceptable” as some physical illnesses, is it? It isn’t pink with ribbons and races. It is dark, and it lurks beneath the surface, nipping at the heels every day. Unlike other diseases, it is non-communicable and highly treatable, but there are only certain diseases, disorders, addictions, and ailments that can be the subject of “polite” conversation.
Depression can be unrelenting. It can be lonely, and loneliness – as Mork reported back to Orson – all those years ago, is a disease:
. . . loneliness is a disease of the spirit. People who have it think that no one cares about them.
Unlike the “common cold,” its symptoms unapologetically made public with persistent sniffles, sneezes, loudly blown noses, and a tell-tale trail of balled-up Kleenex in its wake, the “common” depression – and it is more common than we think – is more of a secret never to be told. So those afflicted often find ways to conceal it. Perhaps it is somehow, heartbreakingly, easier to camouflage depression with the routines and rituals by which other people define us. Perhaps. So, for a while, we had Robin Williams. He made us laugh and cry and feel better about our lot in life. I will remember him the way his wife has requested, grateful for the “countless moments of joy and laughter” that will sparkle forever.
Thank you, Robin Williams.
Rest easy, now.