I heard the news from Adam, my first-born son, now 25, A text message: Sad news: Robin Williams died.
Noooooooooooo was my first reply, followed by 3 more:
(Admittedly, it was mild, but it seemed terrilbly appropriate — even righteous — to cuss at the loss of this man).
Pure Genius. And we witnessed it. Live.
(Because, in fact, we had.)
I’m so glad.
Because I so am glad. Glad for his life. Glad we saw him live. Glad for his art that changed me for the better.
My son Adam inherited my father’s dry sense of humor even though he barely knew his grandpa. Adam’s wit is original, and quick, and unique.
You don’t always get it immediately, but as your mind processes what you just heard, you will laugh in a way that locks the moment into your memory so that you can tell the story for years to come.
Adam is extremely funny. He can do impersonations that make those who witness them want to applaud.
So it seemed appropriate that for his 21st birthday, I took him to see Robin Williams Live.
He had given me a CD of Robin’s live comedy the previous Christmas. It was, of course, horribly vulgar, and wet-your-pants funny. The afternoon that we watched it, we had to pause the double-CD several times to catch our breath, so that it took 4 hours to watch a 2 hour show.
When it was done, we were wrung out from laughing. And quiet. What can you add after watching such comedic genius? Even to repeat the punch lines like we so often do with comedy, seemed disrespectful of the artist.
To watch him perform was to imagine his mind firing at a maddening pace–his thoughts tumbling down his brain and out his mouth like pinballs in a machine, punctuated by neon lights and ringing bells. It had to be an exhausting thing just to live in his skin.
He was absolutely brilliant.
The night we saw him, he had about 18 glasses of water lined up on a table on the stage. Nothing else. As he told his epic tales, he could make you see not just the imaginary doorway he was walking through, but the faded red paint peeling off near the doorframe, and the fact that it was loose on the hinges. The door you couldn’t see was as funny as the stories you never wanted to forget.
He was just that good.
There were moments when it was awkward to be seeing his show with my just 21-year-old son. Williams had no boundaries when it came to topics – and one of his favorite topics was sex.
And that’s how I ended up sitting elbow to elbow with my boy, listening to a graphic description of childbirth…from the perspective of the exit door on the mother’s anatomy. A willing victim, he completely had me. Adam and I howled with laughter — and never looked at one another until the house lights were up, the 18 water glasses empty, and the standing ovation converted to sighs and shuffling feet.
I was a huge fan of Robin Williams. And not just for his comedy. I was a fan for his drama as well. His performance in both The Fisher King and Moscow on the Hudson was as beautiful as it was painful. In Fisher King, he plays Parry, a man gone mad after witnessing the brutal and senseless murder of his beloved wife. Jeff Bridges plays the role of his friend who walks alongside him in his insanity. I could never bring myself to watch it again because the story was so raw – but I never forgot the performance. It seared itself into my soul.
In Moscow on the Hudson, he plays a Russian saxophone-player who defects in Bloomingdales in New York City. That single performance increased my compassion for what it must be like to move to another country and try to adapt to the new culture while simultaneously grieving the one you had left behind. And it increased my sense of gratefulness that I was born in the United States.
Art does that. It touches your soul and changes you. It teaches you things you can’t forget even if you try. It enables us to walk in the shoes of even the most unlikely folks: those who have gone mad with grief and those who are permanently displaced and yet share the universal language of music. Those rare individuals who can embody characters to create that art surely must be wired in ways we cannot understand, but somehow know– that to be in possession of their minds is to have both a profound blessing — and an unspeakable curse.
I imagine in the days to come we will hear about Williams’ lesser but more widely-known performances including the character of Mork, the alien. Undoubtedly we will hear his signature greeting, Good Morning Vietnam, repeatedly, as his artistry is recounted and our loss is quantified.
We will hear the details of his death, which will likely add up to suicide. And we will have no words to talk about the loss of another rare genius who became so tortured that he felt he had no options to endure life on planet earth even one more day.
But when I think of Robin Williams, I will always remember sitting in a dark theater in Columbus, Ohio, next to my 21-year-old son who was born with Williams’ knack for imitating people so well you want to stand up and applaud.
And I will always be grateful for his artistic genius and the gift he gave the world during his brief time here.
But most of all, I will hope that at last, he is the one now being healed by laughter, and I will imagine him walking through a door we can’t yet see, to a place where his demons will plague him no more. I hope there’s a star on that door, and that it is bright as the sun.
“BUT OH, TO BE FREE. NOT TO HAVE TO GO ‘POOF! WHAT DO YOU NEED, POOF! WHAT DO YOU NEED, POOF! WHAT DO YOU NEED?’ TO BE MY OWN MASTER. SUCH A THING WOULD BE GREATER THAN ALL THE MAGIC AND ALL THE TREASURES IN ALL THE WORLD. BUT WHAT AM I TALKING ABOUT? LET’S GET REAL HERE, THAT’S NEVER GONNA HAPPEN. GENIE, WAKE UP AND SMELL THE HUMMUS.” — Robin Williams, as the voice of the Genie, in Aladdin