Robin Williams: The Death of Our Imaginary Friend
Imaginary friends populated my youth.
In childhood, my sister and I each had an invisible elephant (one pink, one blue) that we’d ride around the col-de-sac. Mythical creatures inhabited my backyard and the trees all had names.
As a pre-teen my entire family became obsessed with the Addam’s Family because they seemed like the most apt pop-culture-parallel to our own familial experience. One day my mother and her boyfriend came home from the video store with a life-size cardboard cutout of the Addams – a promo from the film. From that day on, they became members of the family. They stood in our living room for years and it became hard to imagine the house without them. Last year when my childhood home was foreclosed on, we found them up in our asbestos filled attic. It felt wrong to throw them away after all we’d shared – so we left them there for the new owners to discover.
In high school, my mother was in love with a rock star who she was sure was in love with her. Although they never met, he became a fixture in our lives – he and every member of his band were discussed daily, referred to by first name, like dear, well-known friends.
It was only today, when I woke up to hear the shocking news, that I realized just how much Robin Williams, in all his incarnations, was also a part of that odd, motley, imaginary crew for me and my sister both.
Unlike people in the western hemisphere, I didn’t hear about Robin Williams suicide (I still can’t believe those words could fit together as I type them) until I woke up on this morning.
At first I just felt strange. And then the numbness slowly left me, and I realized “oh, that was shock.” Then I felt gut-punched. And it’s weird…I keep bursting into tears. And I am struggling to understand why.
I feel sad at celebrity deaths, but usually in that vague way of stuff that you know is sad but doesn’t quite hit a true nerve, doesn’t quite pull a string deep in your heart. Usually it’s kind of an intellectual sadness.
But this is different.
It’s strange to feel such intense emotion about someone I don’t know, and at first I felt a bit confused and almost creeped out by myself. I am not a celebrity worshipper, and I tend to not be impressed by fame. Why do I feel such a deep, deep sense of loss?
I think people born in the 80’s have a very particular, special relationship with Robin Williams. His face, voice, gestures and humor became part of the fabric of lives. He became a kind of secret magical friend that kept reappearing in new forms, whether as a genie, or a man trapped in a board game, or a frog prince in green spandex, or a lost boy stuck in a man’s body, or a nanny, or a penguin, or Theodore Roosevelt. It felt like he might pop up at any moment again, just like the genie.
My sister just wrote me this in an email:
“everything about this is totally devastating. and it’s hard to feel so … grief stricken about a personality, a celebrity. but I do.
but when you think about it… when you add up all the times I watched Mrs. Doubtfire and Aladdin and the Birdcage and countless others.. when you add up the endless hours I spent feeling better because his face and voice and energy were coming through the tv to me… that’s probably more up close face time than I’ve had with most of the people I’ve ever known except my family and closest friends. So that’s weird to think about. and maybe explains it a little.
it’s like losing part of that imaginary family we were just joking about a couple days ago. “
I remember being perhaps 13-years old, sitting with my best friend in her living room watching “Dead Poet’s Society.” Everything about that movie struck deep into our sensitive, literary, awkward, misunderstood sweet little adolescent souls. From that day on we would loudly chant “Then I saw the Congo, creeping through the black, Cutting through the forest with a golden track” pretty much whenever we were excited about anything…or wanted to be loud and weird (which was often). We’d chant it faster and faster and louder and louder until we could no longer breathe and we’d collapse in a satisfied, euphoric heap of laughter.
And still the phrase Oh Captain, My Captain makes me feel connected to the inspiring mentor I always hoped I would find, but never did. Another imaginary friend.
But it’s more than just that.
This particular death and all the details of it hits so close to home in a lot of different painful ways. My mother is bipolar and self-medicates in an effort to numb her pain, insecurity and crippling fear of not being loved. She has flirted with the idea of suicide and the fear of her depression and the possibility of her death has been a theme throughout my life.
But it’s more than just that as well…
I am from Marin County, the place where Robin Williams lived and worked and rose to fame. So he was not really an elusive mythical celebrity for me, but a real person who lived where I lived and knew many of the people I knew. In high school for example, my boyfriend (who also had bipolar and in later years ended up deep in drug addiction and on the edge of suicide) and his family were close with the Williams family; spending time at each others’ homes, sending gifts around the holidays.
When I think of him, it’s in the context of all that was once home and the familiar. He belonged to my community
And it’s more than that too…
There is also a shock in the passing of someone like this, in part for how tremendously, vibrantly, frenetically alive he seemed. He exuded so much spirit, so much life, so much energy. And so very, very, very much heart. He gave SO MUCH of himself and was so honest and wide open. He was more available in many ways to us than many real people – and he made us laugh, cry and feel good. He made us feel alive.
Story after story online right now is about nice things he did for people, how kind and generous he was, and how good he made everyone feel. He had time and energy and words and warmth for seemingly everyone that crossed his path. It seems he was incredibly empathetic – very, very aware of other people’s emotional states, and able to immediately understand when someone was down and in need of some kind of pick me up – and then he took it upon himself to be the pick-me-up. You get the sense that he was that empathetic because of how familiar he was with pain.
I saw a little clip of an interview he did with Ellen Degeneres – where he was talking about the open-heart surgery he had in 2009 – and how vulnerable, and emotional he felt afterwards. Though, as always, he’s reeling off jokes a mile a minute, there are a few sentences where he’s really revealing how he feels before leaping back into being entertaining. In that brief moment you can see right into that heart and see how big it was and how sensitive and how fragile. And how complicated his relationship to life was – he didn’t just suffer life, but also was deeply in love with ‘the whole catastrophe.’
You can imagine how his genius for comedy helped him protect himself – his sensitive, loving, vulnerable, probably insecure underbelly. These kinds of clips just make me want to wrap him up in warmth and love, and somehow keep him safe. But in the end no one could do that for him. The horror of suicide from depression is that you kind of know that if that August 11th had gone just a bit differently for him, if the timing had been different somehow, he might not have followed through on the impulse, he might have found his way back to a safe place in his head, as he had probably had to do so many times before.
And you also know that for him, some days were better than others – and that on the good days he loved life, felt joy, treasured his friends and family and felt GRATEFUL. It’s just that the hard days can be so very hard. No matter who you are, how well loved, how “successful” or what gifts you have to offer…life can be so difficult to bear.
But there’s more …
I cried the hardest when I saw that the last tweet Robin Williams sent was one wishing his 25-year-old daughter happy birthday and sharing a photo of them together when she was just a toddler.
It made me realize that beyond everything else, this is hitting me in my gut because Robin Williams has always reminded me in some ways of my father.
I’ve seen a lot of people say how they feel like they’ve lost their weird uncle. But for me the weirdest one has always been my dad. My dad has always been part alien, part Rain Man, and part soft, squishy loving heart. He’s the sort of person who can get along with just about everyone, and yet also seems separate… different from everyone, often on his own special little planet (that I sometimes get to visit).
Robin Williams and my father are around the same age, and shared other random things as well – like a passion for cycling.
Robin Williams even looks a little like my dad…
My parents divorced a few years before the movie Hook came out. At the time we were learning to navigate the complications of having a father living on another side of the country (Alaska).
On top of that my father was/is a workaholic – who owns his own company and is responsible for an entire salmon empire. Though he tried very hard to make time for us, he was a very busy man with a lot on his plate.
When Hook came out, I think both my sister and I were very emotionally affected by it. Although the quality of this film now is dubious, the emotional relevance at the time was unquestionable. For us, this movie was both painful and therapeutic.
Robin Williams as Peter Pan reminded us of dad at the time – in his business man armor which often hid the boyish, whimsical heart. Peter struggled with fatherhood, not really understanding what it was that his children most needed from him. The pain of Peter’s children mirrored our own pain, and tapped into our feeling of not quite knowing how to reach our father, how to find him, how to connect.
Hook helped us work through these confusing feelings somehow, when it cracked open the hardened shell of the distant father, allowing his heart through, allowing his children to believe in him again. And it went both ways – when Peter was able to see and feel their love and belief in him, it helped him remember how to fly.
I think I liked the idea of a Neverland where we could have our father be all heart, and all to ourselves, with all the time in the world to learn to fly together.
Many of Williams’ movies contain the concept of the flawed or absent dad – especially Hook and Mrs. Doubtfire – and those of us who felt pain and longing in our relationships with our own dads, connected some of that pain and that love to Williams himself. So my feeling of loss is most tied into the loss of a father-figure. And it really does hurt.
And that’s really why, beyond everything else, when I see a picture of Robin Williams I find myself crying – because I see the father.
At the heart of it, it’s because he’s a dad with a daughter near my own age, a young woman who must love her father just like I love my father. The grief and pain his children must be feeling right now is beyond what I can even try to imagine… it’s just too much…
This event has triggered my deepest fears of loss.
My father, thankfully, doesn’t suffer from depression. But that doesn’t make him invincible or immortal. Just like anyone, he could disappear at any time. And that terrifies me. Any time would be far, far too soon.
I can’t help it, I want him to be here forever … all I can think today is Daddy please don’t ever go…
I love you papa.
And I love you too Robin Williams. Thank you for always being my imaginary friend, mentor and flawed father figure. I’m really going to miss you.