It’s quite an odd thing, to cry for a stranger. One may feel sadness and melancholy and regret for so many deaths: the ones in the newspapers which run into horrifying statistics, almost beyond the ability of the brain to process, like the Yazidis or the Syrians or the Gazans, or those closer to home, the teenage car crashes or fire fatalities reported in the local press. John Donne’s lines live always with me:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
But still, to find oneself weeping blindly in an ordinary kitchen, making an ordinary cup of coffee, on an ordinary, rainy Scottish morning, because of the death of a famous person, as if that person were a best beloved – that is quite strange.
And yet, perhaps it is entirely explicable. Many other people seem to have had the same reaction to the shocking loss of Robin Williams. I sat with a friend in the field in the rain, as the red mare listened, and tried to work it all out. It was not just the straight sadness of a bright spirit snuffed out too soon. It was not only the thought of the family and friends left bereft. It was, we thought, the terrible poignancy of a man who gave so much joy, who lifted up so many hearts, being unable to stop himself from sinking.
We came back to the same line: if Robin Williams could not make it, who could?
Perhaps too there was the contemplation of the power of those demons, which robbed him of hope. If they could overcome such a dazzling, inventive mind, such a good heart, such a glittering talent, they must have been almost supernatural in their agency. The thought of the long fight he must have waged with them was one of unimaginable terror.
Depression is a bastard, and it is a thief. It is random and it does not discriminate. It takes the brilliant and the beautiful, the kind and the good, the funny and the clever. It does not give a shit how much you are adored or how much joy you give or how many prizes you win. It is no respecter of money or class or fame.
As the affection and grief roll round the internet, my friend and I say, as one: if only he knew how much he was loved. There is the silent, melancholy rider: it would have made no difference. Depression does not count blessings. Blessings, ironically, may make the sufferer feel even worse. How dare I be afflicted when I have all this?
Out in the open prairies of the web, where so often the craziness of crowds lives, comes the wisdom of crowds. People are shining lights into those dark corners where debilitation and shame live. It’s a condition, they are saying, as real and painful as a broken leg. You can’t fix a shattered limb by the power of thought or will; you can’t say to someone with a smashed femur, cheer up, butch up, man up. Don’t be afraid to ask, people are saying; stretch out your hand for help. There is help, there are people who love you, you are not alone.
Ordinary people, touched by this extraordinary man, are remembering Captain, my Captain, and wanting to stand on their desks and be remarkable.
I met Robin Williams once. I was a waitress in a tiny café in a valley in Scotland, and I went over to a table and asked the new arrivals what they would like, and stared straight into that familiar, smiling, open face. I have an odd benchmark of character: I judge people very much on how they treat waiters. Williams was enchanting. He was gracious and polite and regular; he had no sense at all of the Big I Am. He was gentle and quiet, with no trace of that wild, manic, public persona. The other lovely thing, in that small highland village, was that everyone left him alone. Nobody pointed or stared or asked for his autograph. They gave him the courtesy of allowing him to be an ordinary man, just for one day.
I have a fantasy in my mind that he ordered the special lentil soup that I had made that morning. It was a long time ago. I think he probably did not have the soup. I think he just had a cup of coffee. I prided myself on my barista skills, newly learnt, and I made the hell out of that cup of coffee. I don’t expect you can really judge someone on one brief transactional meeting, but I was left with the impression of a very, very nice man. A gentle goodness shone out of him like starlight. Perhaps that is why so many people, from the humblest waitress to the most storied Hollywood star, are so sad.
He did not belong to us. I think of the heartbreaking moment in Out of Africa, where Meryl Streep looks down bleakly on a mound of dry earth and says: ‘Now take back the soul of Denys Finch-Hatton, whom you have shared with us. He brought us joy, and we loved him well. He was not ours, he was not mine.’
And yet, so many of my generation feel as if Robin Williams was stitched into the fabric of our lives, from Mork and Mindy in our youth, through Good Morning Vietnam and Dead Poets’ Society in our formative years, to the later, darker films of our middle age. He was so reliably present that perhaps many of us thought he would always be there.
There is something tragically democratic in his loss. Perhaps that too is what speaks to every bruised heart. He might have seemed to live up on that higher plane, where coruscating invention and wild talent and universal fame exist, in the troposphere where ordinary mortals may not go. Yet this kind, funny, haunted man was no more immune from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune than the most workaday amongst us.
I very rarely use the universal we. I don’t like to speak for anyone else. But I’m not sure I have seen such an agreement on anything, in the rushing new age of the internet. There are no dissenting voices, no snide remarks, no cheap jokes. There is a collective sense of love and sadness, in their most authentic, unifying form.
In the end, there is not much point in trying to understand or dissect the extraordinary reaction to the death of one brilliant man. In the end, it is what it is. It is a shining light gone out, a brave soul lost, a fighting heart broken.
He gave us joy, and we loved him well.
Go free, now.
As I choose this picture, I think:
Tell someone you love how much you love them; take solace in the small things; be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle; lift your eyes up to the hills. Those are my resolutions for today.