This is an extended version of a Facebook post I half-remember writing in the middle of the night. I’ve had some time to think a bit more about how this news has affected me, and I thought it was worth revisiting.
My original post wasn’t about Robin Williams the actor and comedian, although his presence was a constant in my life. I don’t remember a time when he wasn’t in our home and how his Mork made me, my parents and my grandparents belly laugh. His Popeye was a part of my life since I first learned to speak and then sing along to Harry Nilsson’s bittersweet soundtrack (on vinyl, naturally).
I’m six, and I tell my children’s theater teacher/glorified-babysitter that I want to be like Popeye. I vividly remember my childhood mind being blown as I’m told that Popeye and Mork are the same person.
I’m eight, and I watch Comic Relief for the first time (oops, but I don’t understand most of it). More than just an entertaining event, it is a master class in comedy and philanthropy.
Good Morning, Vietnam and The Fisher King I see but don’t understand (and cherish) until much later. Confused, I still laugh.
Hook, Aladdin, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
I’m eleven, and I take things way too seriously, way too hard. Comedy Central becomes a thing and I can’t get enough of it or HBO. In less than two years, I discover Saturday Night Live, reruns of old SNL episodes (it’s like seeing home movies of your parents in their teens and 20s), SCTV, Monty Python and Kids in the Hall. There are old cable specials on Comedy Central – back when they played almost exclusively stand-up. I see a sweaty Robin Williams work and work and also fail – although rarely. A few things don’t hit like they should, but he leaves it in and I wonder why. I remember thinking the word “brave.”
I’m fifteen, and my divorced parents briefly reconcile to take us to see Mrs. Doubtfire. Chew on that.
I’m sixteen, and our English teachers show us Dead Poets Society to make sure we appreciate poetry. Then they give us a test looking for the one right answer about what the movie is about, and I want to scream how they don’t understand the film! How they don’t understand anything! That they’ll never be Mr. Keating or “My Captain,” no matter how desperately they want us to see them as real educators.
They didn’t get it. Any of it.
The Birdcage, Nine Months, Death to Smoochy, Good Will Hunting. For the hell of it, I go back to discover Awakenings, The World According to Garp and others. He breaks my heart while it smiles.
I develop my comedic tastes, and Robin Williams becomes just one of many influences. I don’t even really consider him a “favorite” anymore, but I’m still happy when he pops up.
I’m twenty, and I sink into a depression. It’s a sadness that’s lain dormant for years, but it’s in full bloom now and it will last for a long time. Life has been hard and not going at all like I had hoped it would. My days start at 4 a.m. when I go to work at Einstein Bros. Bagels. I hate it; it’s not the job necessarily, or the crew or the customers, but I hate it and I’m in a constant fog. I leave at 2 p.m. to take my college classes until 8 or 10, then go back to my one bedroom apartment to do it all over again the next day. There are no days off, there is no end in sight. I’m not where I want to be and I feel stuck.
I have a girlfriend who will eventually become a wife, but she doesn’t make things any easier or even understands why I can’t smile. I feel guilty for so many things, but mostly for not giving her more smiles. I gain a LOT of weight. I have a few friends – really good friends – who drag me to the gym or to the movies or to go camping.
I’m lonely. And I’m getting yelled at by my friends, my parents, but mostly myself.
“What do you have to be so sad about?”
“What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Why don’t you snap out of it?”
Without going into too much detail, I do stupid things. Very stupid things.
And I feel a guilty beyond guilty about that.
I see What Dreams May Come.
I speak with someone. Finally.
Life goes on. It’s still hard, but it’s also good. There are graduations and weddings and children and jobs and layoffs and new jobs and promotions. Friends pass, family members pass, good friends battle tragic illnesses and win. Some lose. I’m still sad.
I take a comedy class. I catch a glimpse of something I’ve always wanted to try.
I’m twenty-four, and I’m scheduled to perform at the Improv for the very first time. I’m nervous and excited and proud and sick to my stomach. I turn on the TV while I iron my “comedy” shirt, and Robin Williams: Live On Broadway happens to be on. Jeez, I haven’t thought of him as a comedian in a few years, but he makes me smile. It’s almost as though he helps usher me out the door that night. I’m energized.
That night goes well. Way better than I allowed myself to imagine it would.
And I’m hooked.
Eventually, I have a family of my very own. We take our three-year-old son to his first movie at the dollar theater: Night at the Museum. I whisper to him to watch this guy playing the president, he’s going to be funny.
I take it for granted that Robin Williams will always be there to make us laugh.
It’s Monday, August 11th, 2014. After a day spent making sure my two boys have a wonderful summer adventure (not to mention yet another night without sleep), we collapse at home and I see the news. I take it hard.
I worry whenever a hero passes that all of his or her sordid, human stuff will come to light, destroying that “hero” status. It happens all the time.
Every personal story this week about Robin Williams, however, has only made him more of a hero. His generosity of time and spirit, his lack of self-importance, his random acts of kindness all paint a picture of a man who demonstrated the better parts of humanity.
I feel stupid – there are so many more pressing issues in the world. I didn’t know I could miss him this much though. He’s a celebrity, yes, but I’m not sad because he’s famous. I’m sad because I see someone who cared about people, who utilized his fame to ease the burdens of strangers, someone who had a family who loved him.
And someone who hurt.
Someone who fought pain with joy.
I’m sad because I recognize that pain. I’m sad because I’m sick of the “sad clown” cliché that gets tossed around, co-opted and worn like a badge of honorable self-pity by an army of funny (AND unfunny) martyrs.
I’m sad because I resent feeling like a cliché.
I stood on a stage Thursday night, one of many stages over twelve years of nights.
People laughed (not as many as I would’ve liked – weird crowd).
Robin Williams played a small part in that.
So in addition to sadness I feel gratitude. I also feel like I received my marching orders – that there’s so much more work to be done.
Who knows. Maybe the really nasty stuff just hasn’t come out yet, though doubtful. In the meantime – and we could be waiting forever – I will listen to a few albums, watch a few movies and hug some folks a little tighter.
Addendum: I’m thirty-six, and I’m sitting in a hotel room in a strange city. I’m about six hours from taping my very first stand-up set for TV. It hasn’t been an easy journey – I mean quite literally as this is a make-up taping since I had so many travel issues the first time.
It’s taken me 12 years to finally accomplish something that so many of my friends did years ago. Logically, I know it won’t change anything. It’ll be nice. My life won’t be substantially different tomorrow.
But it’s a goal I’ve always had: to make people laugh, to reach an audience. And it’s really happening.
Before my flight yesterday, I grabbed a quick lunch at the airport Einstein Bros. Bagels (Thintastic eggwhite sandwich for the record). I smiled when I first saw the place, and as I sat down I thought of all that’s changed in the last 16 years. The places I’ve been, the people I’ve met, the people I’ve helped make. The smiles I’ve shared.
All the stuff I would have missed.
Eight-year-old Aaron wasn’t as fat as he thought he was. 12-year-old Aaron wasn’t as overburdened as he thought he was. 15-year-old Aaron wasn’t as lonely as he thought he was. 20-year-old Aaron wasn’t as desperate as he thought he was. If I could, I’d give each one of them a hug. So it stands to reason that there will be a time when I’ll look back and want to give 36-year-old Aaron a hug too, to let him know that things are okay and not to take things so hard, so seriously.
To play. To enjoy himself. To help others enjoy themselves.
We’ve all earned it. Especially Robin. I wish I could have hugged him too.