On Robin Williams & Giving Thanks

Robin Williams was in my dreams last night.

Robin Williams was in a movie, maybe, in my dreams last night.

He was playing someone like himself or like one of so many characters he played – like Perry Williams in The Fisher King – a disappointed but joyful romantic of sorts, wound up and anxious but reluctantly hopeful.

And he was with a woman – I don’t know who, but the kind of actress who could play against his manic energy with something like bemused compassion – and she had finally told him she was his.

Their figures were framed by a mountain range, romantic, sunny, cold. Every word they said could be seen by the breath that encased it. I think they were the Grand Tetons, because my brain has its own sense of humor. I don’t think she said anything but waited, instead, for him to understand that they were for each other, and he did, and he realized it the way only he could have acted that scene – with a dizzying monologue about how he had always wanted and always known and disappointment had taunted him and kicked him but fuck you disappointment and he looked at her and pulled her shirt up and exclaimed, loudly, “boobies!” with that kind of barbaric yawp that he was such a master of.

There are still a lot of days when I think about him, his life’s work, all that joy and enthusiasm he kept throwing up against despair. He must have terrified so many people all his life – I don’t mean most people, who just laughed at his antics and didn’t seem to know he was a depressive – how could anyone not have known? That look in his eyes all the time – he looked like a good, honest kid who has just discovered how cruel people can be, how depraved the world is – and it is. It’s as if his whole career was about that second of realization, of knowing how beautiful it can all be and delighting in it only to realize cars hit dogs and deer and people act in the shittiest ways most when they’re scared. It’s only as a kid you realize how fragile and beautiful a bird is and that you probably know someone who seems perfectly normal who would kill one just because they can.

There are days when the burden of enthusiasm is too much for me; I can’t imagine what the weight he carried was like if he had to conjure such amazing energy and fun against it. I have always felt fortunate that I can live in the world something like sober most of the time and that I have never needed a whole lot of illusion for what is and what isn’t, what can and can’t be. I had a Buddhist once tell me I was a natural Taoist; the world is bad and that’s just how it is: people kill birds because they can, and beat children, and rape women, and bash queers, and all of what they do is about suffering and feeling insubstantial and alone and scared, and everything the rest of us do in response is, too.

You can’t really teach gender studies – which is, after all, the study of oppression – and not go through life knowing exactly how fucked up things are. They are. It’s not okay, and it’s never going to be okay. Sometimes, in darker moments, I expect that things are going to get worse as our resources become scarce, but then, too, I know we will see remarkable acts of kindness and generosity at times when you’d expect the opposite. Look at every hurricane, tsunami, bombing: you see extraordinary acts of love and the heroic. You see what Mister Roger’s mom called “the helpers”. Disasters are some of the only times that people can actually live as hugely, as passionately and compassionately as they want to all the time. Most of us aren’t Robin Williams; we are self conscious and want to fit in, keep our jobs, not freak out the neighbors. We want quiet kinds of joy, maybe a contented happiness, instead of the extremes that lead to or are expressions of depression and euphoria.

But wow does his memory make me want to live harder and happier and with far more defiance in defense of what I know to be right. With joy and wild enthusiasm, wild, untamed, amazing enthusiasm, I would like to be able to live in the world as that child who can see how amazingly, stunningly, unbelievably beautiful every single thing is but who knows how all of those things are only ever tentative when they’re not momentary.

That kitten you hold in the palm of your hand will be the cat you will bury if life goes according to plan, Neil Gaiman once wrote. Whose plan? What plan? What the fuck kind of plan is that?

I woke up this morning stuck somewhere between a sob and a laugh. The holidays are upon us. I miss the innocent, joyful ones I used to have. I have no family nearby but for my wife this year; no lover; two of my friends I’ll spend Thanksgiving with are very ill; a third won’t be around because his parents are. And that’s it, isn’t it? I know there are people who have so many things – their parents still alive, their spouses’ parents, beautiful children, heterosexual privilege – and I can’t imagine it anymore. I had a couple of years like that, when I was partnered and then married and everyone I loved was still alive. Some days it makes me want to try again, to go back to being heterosexual so that I can have again the luxury of complaining about having to spend time with my family. Now? It breaks my heart that I can’t, not just because of geography but because my family of origin is estranged within itself, and my family of choice is everywhere all over the globe.

I’ll go to a north Wisconsin town and drink with writers and queer friends. I’ll get into a hot tub, maybe, if I can get past my own self consciousness and feel safe enough to do so, and I will feel very, very lucky and full of gratitude that there are people whose sense of thanks includes me.

I wish all the same to all of you out there. Boobies, like the dream Robin Williams said. Let your joy fly in the face of your disappointment.

Helen Boyd

is the author of My Husband Betty and She's Not the Man I Married.

4 Comments

  1. Wow. You are very much inside my head and heart. I sometimes look back at that guy I tried so hard to be and wish I could have been him without being me, but that makes no sense, does it?

    Lets all celebrate one another and pray(however one does it) for healing.

  2. That’s was wonderful and so heartfelt!! In a lot of ways you laid down the life you could have had for the sake of your wife. Such a wondrous sacrifice you have made in the name of love. I’m very, very thankful you shared this with us! ????

  3. That’s was wonderful and so heartfelt!! In a lot of ways you laid down the life you could have had for the sake of your wife. Such a wondrous sacrifice you have made in the name of love. I’m very, very thankful you shared this with us! ????

  4. Thanksgiving has become a time of reflection for me. I think of evom the past and where I am now. I’m thankful for so many things. Being thankful is what Thanksgiving is really about. Thank you for sharing.

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