A Very Personal Look Back at Robin Williams
What’s wrong with death, sir? What are we so mortally afraid of? Why can’t we treat death with a certain amount of humanity and dignity, and decency, and God forbid, maybe even humour.
Death is not the enemy. If we are going to fight a disease, let’s fight one of the most terrible diseases of all: indiference.
Robin Williams as Patch Adams
I felt as if I lost a friend yesterday. And I’m not one of these dingbats that throws a wobbly because someone he never met in his life has fallen off the twig. I’m just not that sensitive.
Yet I felt a real ache in my heart on hearing about the death of Robin Williams. He didn’t seem like a stranger. From Mork and Mindy through Good Morning Vietnam and all the way to The Fisher King and beyond, it was almost as if I grew up with this guy.
Around the time that my marriage was going down the toilet, so was his.
Around the same time that he kicked his bottle of spirits a day habit, I kicked mine, having—like him—hidden it even from my partner. Well, kind of. I’m sure that Robin would make a joke about our never-ending ability to lie to ourselves. And he would probably add that women always know.
I would also be lying if I said that I was surprised at his suicide because he always seemed to me to be a guy on the very edge. It takes one to know one.
He never tried to hide his depression; indeed, he most admirably spoke openly about it.
What is it about comedians and depression? Does it just go with the territory?
“You treat a disease—you win, you lose. You treat a person, I guarantee you: you’ll win, every time, no matter what the outcome.”
One of Robin Williams’s most woefully under-rated films (by the critics—normal people liked it) is the brilliant Patch Adams. I loved it the first time I saw it and since joining Hand in Hand I love it even more, because there are moments in that movie where I feel that he is talking directly to us.
He plays the real life Doctor Hunter Patch Adams who felt, as most sensible people do, that having a bit of a laugh is the best way to deal with things. Needless to say, that kind of thinking did not go down well with some of the stuffier doctors he came in contact with. Surprise, surprise; dignity of the profession and all that.
Hunter Adams was initially critical of Williams and the film, although he later came to praise Williams for his behind-the-scenes work for the sick. And this is something that I can’t emphasise enough. He was just one of those guys who did so much without fanfare and if I hadn’t been working for the Sunday Independent at the time I wouldn’t have heard half of it. He never wanted fuss. But if he hated one thing then it’s summed up in that quote from Patch Adams at the top of this piece. He hated indifference.
Do you know what I have found the most difficult thing to deal with since I joined Hand in Hand? It has been the almost total indifference of those who hold the purse strings. With a couple of honorable exceptions what we are consistently met with is indifference. Patch Adams would definitely get this.
“Our job is improving the quality of life, not just delaying death…We need to start treating the patient as well as the disease.”
I’ve pretty much had it. I wish that I was more like Jennifer; she’s had six years of banging her head off a brick wall; I’ve had ten months and I’m worn out. I’ll always be a volunteer here because I believe in what they do. But I’m just too selfish to put up with what this woman does, day in and out.
On one day you’re being told that there’s no funding available because you don’t have a waiting list and on the next it’s because it doesn’t come under Health. Heavens wept. How can cancer not come under Health?
I’m pretty sure that Robin Williams would have had something cutting and sarcastic to say about that, but it just makes me angry.
Williams’s grief at what happened to his friend Christopher Reeves affected him more than you could tell. I think that he had a thing about the indifference of the world and the irony of inflicting this on the guy who played Superman was not lost on him.
As his old sparring partner, writer Harlan Ellison (and Ellison is possibly the only guy alive who could out-talk Robin) put it: “The universe doesn’t care. It just goes on its merry way, one day letting you win ten million on the lottery and the next giving you colon cancer.”
But Williams saw the contradiction in that statement. And he wanted to make sense of that universe. He wanted to force it to make sense. The fact that he lost that particular battle doesn’t in any way make his struggle less heroic.
His death hit me very hard indeed. I hate to see a decent man lose his fight with the universe.
There’s something more. There always has been. I’m sorry that Robin reached the stage where he couldn’t see that.
I look at the two women in this office and I know that there is something more that drives them. Something outside of themselves. I’m not talking about a couple of do-gooders; I’m talking about truly extraordinary flesh-and-blood human beings who curse and swear in frustration but in the end just get their job done.
At a time when wars are tearing this beautiful planet apart for no other reason than that one group doesn’t agree with the other, Dee and Jennifer are heroes to me; and I don’t care that they don’t want to hear that. Because they do what I don’t have the stomach for anymore. They fight, every day of their lives, against ennui, lethargy and that appalling word again, indifference.
Robin Williams—a flawed, funny and caring man—fought against that indifference his whole life. And I’ll give the last word to him, from the film that he’ll always be associated with, because it breaks my heart that the storm in his mind won out in the end.
“All of life is a coming home. Salesmen, secretaries, coal miners, beekeepers, sword swallowers, all of us. All the restless hearts of the world, all trying to find a way home… your shouts disappearing into the wind. How small you can feel, and how far away home can be. Home. The dictionary defines it as both a place of origin and a goal or destination. And the storm? The storm was all in my mind. “
And finally, because at Hand in Hand they deal with this beurocratic bull every day:
“Hi, I’m Mitch Roman. Georgetown University. I was awarded the William F. Thompson Scientific Achievement Award.”
“Really? I’m Patch Adams. Emerson Elementary. I once drew a picture of a rabbit that got me two gold stars.”
Robin Williams (1951 – 2014). I’m going to miss you.