Suicide Prevention Lifeline, inside the US: 1 (800) 273-8255
International Suicide Hotlines, outside the US: Click the link, then your country

Billy Crystal on Robin Williams

One year ago today, the world lost Robin Williams.  Since then, the world has learned that our funniest people are often harboring demons that all the laughter there is can’t vanquish.  We’ve learned that a lot of comedy has lost its luster now that we know what it’s often concealing.

For many, this was their first experience with suicide.  Robin had been in our homes so many times that many of us felt that we knew him.  For me, I was in his daughter’s place almost twelve years ago.  For all of us, the news was shocking, and it felt like a bad dream.

A couple days ago, my husband and I watched Dead Poets Society, possibly one of Robin’s best films.  John Keating’s name isn’t a household name.  More people are familiar with The Birdcage, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Aladdin.  He was a very versatile actor capable of playing Peter Banning as an adult Peter Pan in Hook, a career-centered man who grows up to be a child again and rediscovers the love of his children and the wonder of imagination and fun.  He could also perfectly portray Daniel Hillard as a father who wouldn’t grow up until his wife divorced him and he realized he had to learn to be an adult for the sake of his children.  I remember watching Mrs. Doubtfire and being stunned that the typical happy ending of a family reunited under one roof didn’t happen, and yet the ending was happy anyway.  He played gay man Armand Goldman in The Birdcage with a sensitivity that allowed us to laugh without making a mockery or a joke of gay people.  That right there is some incredible skill.  The entire cast was fantastic, actually.

But Dead Poets Society is the one that sticks out the most.  As Keating, he encouraged a group of boys who were being forced into predetermined careers and to deny who they are to instead take control over their lives, to let themselves feel, to be who they are and to “make their lives extraordinary.”  This film takes on a modern poignancy when you watch one of the teens, who could no longer take the pressure from his father to fit into the mold of a doctor with no outside interests, succumbs to the pressure, and shoots himself.  In a terrible twist, it mirrors what what going on within Robin.  Yet the message he taught through Keating is an important once, about making the one life we each have matter in some way, and to try to put out something good, and make the time we have worth something more than the sums of who we each are.

Who was Robin Williams?  We knew him as a funny man who could carry any role with an amazing believability.  His family knew him as husband, father, and son.  To others, he was a friend, a father by proxy, and a personal role model.  But how much did he let anyone in before he died?

I learned, through tragic and personal experience, that it’s often not until after someone dies that you can see the signs that something was concealed.  All the little signs, from my dad having me stop sanding a table we were refinishing to tell me to listen to Bad Company’s Seagull and asking me if I knew what it meant to him (I didn’t, and he wouldn’t tell me) just two days before he died, to quick moments of him wondering things aloud that I can’t bring myself to type.  Only in retrospect did I realize there was someone in there I didn’t know was there.  Tragically, Robin had that same person within him, a demon that can destroy our lives in an instant.  This is something survivors know all too well, and it the knowledge usually comes too late.

When Robin died, I had my first real days of crying for my dad, once I was far enough removed from having to try to carry the world on my shoulders.  And I was relieved to see that everyone was suddenly talking about the importance of mental health help and being open about depression and mental illness.  But, as always happens when someone dies, the rest of the world moves on and forges until reminded.  But mental illness doesn’t forget.  Depression doesn’t forget.  The demon that steals lives doesn’t forget.  Families?  We don’t forget.  We don’t move on.  We learn to exist with the pain, and to hope that no one else has to experience the devastation we have.

Seagull, you fly across the horizon
Into the misty mornin’ sun
Nobody asks you where you are going
Nobody knows where you’re from

Here is a man asking the question
Is this really the end of the world?
Seagull, you must have known for a long time
The shape of things to come

Now you fly, through the sky never asking why
And you fly all around ’til somebody, shoots you down, down

Seagull, you fly, across the horizon
Into the misty mornin’ sun
Nobody asks you where you are going
Nobody knows where you’re from

Now you fly through the sky, never asking why
And you fly all around ’til somebody, yeah
Shoots you down, yeah

Seagull you fly, seagull you fly away
And you fly away today
And you fly away tomorrow
And you fly away, leave me to my sorrow

Seagull go and fly
Fly to your tomorrow, leave me to my sorrow, fly