Sunday, August 17, 2014

What Robin Williams meant to a little Polish kid from Connecticut.

Robin Williams is dead.
                     (That's a weird sentence to write.)

I never knew the guy.

Yeah, I grew up watching his movies and standup (who didn't?).
And yeah, I was even lucky enough to see him on Broadway in Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo back in 2011 (he was amazing).

But no, I never met him.
I never worked on a movie set, ate a meal or had a conversation with him.

So why is this affecting me so much?

Sometimes we latch onto entertainers because they remind us of good memories. Sometimes their faces trigger a rush of nostalgia for a time when things were a lot less complicated. Their work is a break from the mundane trappings of everyday life. They are travel guides on a whirlwind tour of someone else's imagination. Positive memories like that burrow deep into our souls, making the loss of their creator that much more painful when it happens.

I couldn't tell you what my first experience with Robin Williams was. Like any child of the late 80's, it was most likely through a big, bulky VHS tape of Aladdin or Mrs. Doubtfire or even an unconscious viewing of Hook at preschool. The first memory I can place for sure was in early 1996, in the darkened movie theater where we were watching Jumanji; 25 minutes into the film and I was scared shitless. As a six year old with an unhealthy fear of spiders, the giant ones crawling on screen were causing my little popcorn covered palms to sweat. It's not like the evil monkeys, massive mosquitos, deadly quicksand or car-crushing vines were helping much either. (When I got home that night, I was convinced those vines were going to crawl out of my closet and get me.) The only thing keeping me from going into full blown wet-the-bed mode was that crazy, hairy (so hairy) guy running around in giant leaves, fighting off lions. Something about those kind, blue eyes and goofy smile was instantly calming; it's funny how easily children can recognize one of their own.

When you make a child laugh, you earn their love forever. From that night onwards, I was a loyal Robin Williams fan. Jack, Patch Adams, Flubber and all of his kid friendly films were on heavy rotation in our house. More than one VCR malfunctioned due to excessive rewinding of that face mask scene in Mrs. Doubtfire. We had the cheat codes for Genie World in the Aladdin Super Nintendo game memorized better than we did our bedtime prayers. When the inevitable time came to bid childhood movies farewell, a high school teacher showed Dead Poets Society to me. Was there ever a more influential film for an aspiring writer to watch? Professor Keating was the teacher we all dreamed of having: passionate, smart and fearless in his quest to be unconventional. Just thinking of his "read and write poetry" speech makes me want to curl up on the couch and lose an afternoon to a good book.

I'm sad to admit that I hadn't yet gotten around to watching some of Robin's more "grown-up films" (Death to Smoochy, Good Morning Vietnam, The Fisher King are all next on my Netflix queue) when I heard about his passing on Monday afternoon. Oddly enough, I hadn't even seen Good Will Hunting yet because, what was the rush? I had plenty of time.

It's rare to be as universally loved as Robin Williams was. That kind of genuine warmth and kindness is hard to come by. The hundreds of stories and anecdotes popping up across the world (i.e. herehere, here and here) can attest to Robin's incredible character. He felt like our weird, kooky uncle that permanently lived inside our TV sets. The sadness I feel about his death is selfish and petty; a sadness that we'll never watch another dizzying, slew of impressions or mesmerizing, Oscar worthy performance again. A sadness that we'll never get to see that Mrs. Doubtfire sequel. A sadness that I'll never get the chance to tell him in person how much joy he's brought to my life over the years. I can't even imagine the kind of pain his family and friends are in right now. After seeing all the tributes, salutes and outpourings of love, I think we're only just beginning to understand the true depth of our loss.

Yes, there are more important things going on in this world. Wars are being fought. Climates are changing. Babies are being born. Life will go on, as it always does. I just hate that from now on, we'll have one less source of laughter.

So this is for you Robin:

Thanks for all those crappy days you brightened. Thanks for teaching me it was ok to be a little silly; that it was cool to be passionate about about literature and poetry. Thanks for teaching me how important laughter is in life. The world is a better place because you were in it and we're so lucky to have been witnesses to your genius. I promise I'll make my future kids watch Mrs. Doubtfire a million times. They'll show it to their kids who will then show it to theirs and you'll live on forever in your work. I'm sorry that you had to suffer in so much pain. I'm sorry that we couldn't help you. I'm gutted that we have to live in a world where you're not here anymore but I hope that wherever you are, you're finally at peace.

You will be missed.
You are very loved.

"O captain, my captain!"

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