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Monday, August 18, 2014

Making Peace with Robin Williams

Last week we lost a beloved comedian and movie icon whose wild antics and stunning dramatic performances impacted generations. Quite a number of years ago, in an airport in Pittsburgh, I met Robin Williams. Considering all that I've learned about him this past week, I now realize that I met him on what must have been a very off day. 

Even though Robin was wearing a somber colored bomber jacket, the child I was with immediately recognized him as Mork. I'm not usually celebrity conscious and under most circumstances would not approach a TV or movie personality, but I was amazed that Robin had been identified despite his lack of colorful suspenders or red and silver suit. I myself was young and naive enough to think that Robin would also be amazed and delighted, that he'd chuckle and offer us a  cheerful Na-Nu Na-Nu.  But Robin was surprisingly sullen. Now if  he recognized me from The World According to Garp, I'd be impressed, he muttered, turning his bomber-jacketed back on us.

At the time I attributed Robin's response to celebrity snootiness. Through the years, when people raved about his zany humor or poignant portrayals, I remained unimpressed. What did great performances matter when he had literally turned his back on a child?

That was before I learned about the girl with cancer whom he visited because she was too sick to achieve her make-a-wish dream. Before I read about the grieving family that he consoled at a late night diner. Before I knew of the generous, loving but tortured spirit that we've all been reading about. 

We lionize our actors and athletes, our writers and rock stars. Because they're famous, we expect superhuman feats, exceptional behavior. As decades went by and I learned of Robin's struggle with alcohol and depression, I should have better understood his sullen lapse at the Pittsburgh airport. Despite money and mansions, sparkling jewels and private jets, celebrities are human beings who deserve their privacy, who suffer the same insecurities as the rest of us, and who must often struggle to present a brave face despite their own cracked and broken hearts.

Suicide occurs when the pain inside of us is greater than our ability to carry it. How heavy must that pain be? Certainly heavy enough for me to forget a single rude moment in a lifetime of generous deeds. Heavy enough for me to liberate an insignificant lapse wedged between the cracks of a broken heart. 

Last week we lost a beloved human being. It's time for me to remember and celebrate the zany humor and poignant portrayals that Robin Williams generously shared and will continue to share with untold generations.