On Monday, August 11, 2014, I was sitting with my kids outside playing. They were in a wagon singing “So Long, Farewell” and pretending they were sailing to Ireland to pick up trash on their next expedition. A text from a dear friend came in. And then another and then a news alert. And it was absolutely heartbreaking and unbelievable news. Robin Williams was dead.
Before the sideline commentary starts about this being just another Hollywood star with a list of addictions who couldn’t get his stuff together, let me share a little story I haven’t told anyone — not my husband, not my best friend, not my parents, not my sister, not anyone. Because it is too precious to me. But now is the time. Now is the place.
After my first husband, Greg, died by suicide, I went on a travel quest of sorts, scattering his ashes where he requested and trying to piece my life and my soul back together as best I could. I spent quite a bit of time flying between Los Angeles (LAX) and Oakland, as I was living in West Hollywood but contemplating a move to San Francisco or Marin and visiting my best friend monthly at a minimum. Post 9/11 it wasn’t always easy to get a Tupperware of your late husband’s ashes through TSA security, and at LAX one afternoon I found myself on the receiving end of an agent with a power trip like no other. After several threats telling me I was going to have to toss the ashes and me going ballistic and falling into hysterics and finally having a real cop come in and look at the death certificate I always carried with me, I made it to the airport bar still crying and clutching my little container. I sat in a corner table facing the wall so no one could see how hysterical I was, with my whiskey on the rocks providing support, and I felt a hand on my shoulder. A soft voice stated, “Miss, I just want to be sure you are OK. I see you are traveling alone, and I saw what happened, and I just really want to be sure you are OK.” Through my tears, I could place the voice but couldn’t actually believe Robin Williams was just casually strolling through LAX and would actually take the time to stop to see if I was OK.
I was still crying that ugly cry where you are trying to catch your breath, and I gave him the Cliff Notes version of circumstances. His eyes got a little glossy. His voice got softer. And he said to me, “Addiction is a real bitch. Mental illness and depression are the mother[s] of all bitches. I am so sorry for all the pain your husband was in. I’m so sorry for the pain you are in now. But it sounds like you have family and friends and love. And that tips the scale a bit, right?” And he walked me to the gate, as we were on the same commercial flight.
He was a gentle soul. He made us laugh, and he made us cry. He made us feel with his craft. He was honest about his demons. He was open about his mistakes and his faults. He was obviously in pain.
He was always there for our veterans, always there for our servicemen, children in hospitals, his own friends and family in need, and even a hysterical stranger in the airport. And what I haven’t yet shared was that during our walk to the gate he got me laughing. Impersonating people we passed by. Making fun of the TSA agents, especially the one who gave me such a hard time. In a playful way, though. Not insulting (even though the guy totally deserved to be insulted). He told me I had a wonderful laugh. A beautiful smile. And when we parted ways, he hugged me. With his famously hairy arms, he gave me a huge, warm, bear hug, and it sustained me. It was a moment I think about all the time. That moment saved me. And sustained me. He sustained me during one of the most difficult moments of my life.
He was as kind as he was funny.
His death is so terribly, terribly tragic. That someone who brought so much light and joy to others felt so much darkness inside.
Rest in peace, Mr. Williams. May you find the peace that eluded you here and may you keep the angels laughing.
Thanks for being there that day for me. You were the angel I needed. And I know you spoke from experience, and I appreciated that.
It was tough news for me to hear that Monday. It continues to be tough news for me to process.