The loss of Robin Williams has laid me low. I feel like I’m grieving someone I knew, someone who meant something to me, and now he’s gone. It’s so final. There’s no lifting a giant remote and pressing “rewind” to go back in time and save that lovely, lovely man.
My husband says that when something bad happens to someone, I don’t just “bite,” and then “catch and release,” I swallow the hook whole. This time I feel like I also swallowed part of the pole. It hurts me to think about how much pain Robin Williams was in. Such suffering, borne by a man who has cheered me up times without number!
It’s made me think about depression.
It’s made me think about the people I love who have suffered so, about my mum, whose ten-year-bout with the illness nearly stole her away from us. It’s made me think about another lovely, lovely man, a man who died too young and who will always be a beautiful boy in my mind. And of Pastor George Vanderweit, who told his wife he was going on a bike ride over a year ago, and has never returned.
I used to be one of those people who thought a depressed person should just snap out of it, already. Buck up, little camper! Get a grip!
When my mom turned 60, her depression had just begun to take over her life. We lived 1000 miles apart, so much of what I was hearing from my dad was hard to believe. According to him, she would sit in a chair for hours, staring into space. Her appetite had dwindled, and her interest in going out with my dad—even to church—was “nil.” The poor man was beside himself with confusion and fear.
In our phone conversations, I could tell she was faking interest in me, and so much worse, my baby. She could hardly muster the energy to ask about her new baby grandson. I would replace the phone receiver and cry. Who are you and what have you done with my mum? Wasn’t a new Oma supposed to be infatuated to the point of obsession with the First Grandchild? And yet there was a polar apathy where the fieriest of loves should be. She didn’t care anymore, not about me, not about my dad, my brother, my baby. It hurt us all, but her most.
A black monster was clawing at her, scraping at her substance. Soon, she couldn’t get out of bed in the morning, and when she did, she wanted to open the passenger door as my dad was driving and fling herself out onto the frozen prairies. She just wanted it all to stop, like Robin Williams, and like Carl.
Carl. Whenever I hear the Chicago song “You’re the Inspiration,” I think of slow dancing with Carl at a restaurant downtown Winnipeg. We felt so grown-up, even though we were just 17, maybe 18. When that song comes on, I’m lifted up for a moment, caught up in the gorgeous memory.
And then my heart falls, and I think again of how Carl’s story ended.
He was so handsome, a South American soul in the body of a white-blonde, marine-blue-eyed Mennonite boy. Carl had grown up mostly in Paraguay, the son of a world-renowned hand surgeon and expert on leprosy. He volunteered at the leprosy clinic, which was where he first thought about becoming a doctor himself.
In Grade 12, he returned to Canada, and we quickly became friends and then a bit more. We went out on a few dates, and he treated me with old world charm and grace. Carl was so, so smart, and also very kind. I knew he would make a wonderful doctor someday.
Things ended in ambiguity, as many high school relationships do. Short story: I was an idiot. I moved to the US to go to college; he stayed in Winnipeg and went to medical school. The friendship didn’t wholly survive, but enough remained that I invited him to my wedding in 1991. The last memory I have of Carl is flying down the aisle on Doyle’s arm during the processional. He and his date were sitting in the back row and we caught each other’s eyes. He grinned.
In January of 1997, Carl was doing his residency in anesthesiology, and he locked himself in a hospital bathroom and injected himself with some kind of solution he knew would be fatal.
Depression, people said. Who knew? The black monster had devoured him, as it surely has Pastor George, a great man who championed the rights of the poor and marginalized his whole life.
“They say the mind can break like a bone,” said Grandpa George, our beloved bonus grandpa, and dear, old friend of the other, missing George. “I guess we just don’t know what happened and maybe we never will.”
A movie star, a medical student, and a social justice-loving pastor, all engulfed by an invisible flame, all consumed by an illness people don’t take seriously.
My mum was the exception. Whether it was the numerous ECT’s she received (electroconvulsive therapy, ie shock treatments), her work with a psychiatrist, or finally landing on an anti-depressant that worked, she doesn’t suffer nearly as badly as she used to. My relief takes my breath away.
But we’ve lost Carl and Pastor George, and we’ve lost so many others.
Losing Robin Williams, that wacky, gorilla-tickling genius who made me laugh just today, in spite of my sadness, brought it all up again.
(Oh Captain, my captain, rest in peace, you funny, sweet man. You were an irresistible gift.)
If I could, I would ask all three of them this:
Did your mind break like a bone, and instead of binding you up, did we not notice? Worse, did we throw stones of ignorance and arrogance at you? Did we diminish your pain and demand that you get a grip, while all along you were clinging to the ledge for dear life?
May our eyes be wider open to the silent suffering around us. May we have the courage to lean in and push in and drag people away from the cliff, kicking and screaming, even if we get bruised and bloody. May we have the tenderness to sit with and be with those who are depressed, and not demand a timeline or an exit strategy.
And people, for the love of ALL, may we never, ever use our faith as an excuse to harm these dear ones further.
Let’s express love but say little. Rather, let’s hold people’s hands and pray for them as if they have an acute illness from which they could very well die. Let’s be the kind of people other people go to when they need help. Let’s be alert out there. People’s lives may depend upon it.
Sarah Michelle Gellar, Williams’ co-star on “The Crazy Ones,” lost her “dream father” figure when Williams died. He just played her father on TV, but obviously, was a kind of real dad to her.
She offered a few words of loving tribute, and ended with the Serenity Prayer, which somehow fits this whole discussion perfectly. I think I’ll end there too: