Mrs. Doubtfire: [modestly] Well, He broke the mold when He made me. He made me very special.
Bus Driver: He sure did.
(Robin Williams as Daniel Hilliard/Mrs. Doubtfire (1993))
“Did you ever wish you could sometimes freeze frame a moment in your day, look at it and say “this is not my life”?” The question came from Daniel Hilliard, a recently divorced father of three, and quite frankly….it startled me. That Thanksgiving break, my two brothers and I traveled back home to Urbana to spend the holiday with my parents for the last time in our home before they sold it the following year. Peter, Ted and I decided to take a break from my mom’s all-day holiday food prep session to see the newest Robin Williams movie at the Marketplace theater in Champaign.
The film was warm and humorous, just what the doctor ordered after a particularly grueling few months of my final year at NYU Law. However, I was mesmerized by the depth of Hilliard’s character. I was convinced by the pain he evinced at being denied even partial custody of his kids and felt his desperation as he donned (hilariously) the elaborate costume and personality of a British nanny, all so that he could be a part of raising his family, even if in secret. Robin Williams was amazing. He seemed expert at cloaking pain with comedy.
For a few minutes I stared at the silver screen but was no longer listening. I thought back to Hilliard’s comment, about freeze-framing a moment and wishing this was not my life. That was how I felt sometimes as a child, not understanding why I had to be the only one I knew that looked different. But my disposition was naturally positive and I always managed to rebound from momentary feelings of despair or anxiety. I looked over at my brothers, both immensely enjoying the film. For a moment Peter caught my eye and smiled, and so I smiled back.
Although I admit I am just as guilty of freely throwing around the word “depressed” when someone seems down, I must admit that this Sunday, if you asked me how I was feeling, the word would have come to mind. The day started out well, a great work-out, leisurely breakfast enjoying the paper and coffee and a walk with John, Ethan, Charlie and Savanna. However, after lunch while en route with all three kids for school supplies, a car in front of me unexpectedly stopped short as it entered a busy causeway and I ran right into it. Thankfully, although the kids were startled, no one in either car was hurt. But, the ordeal nonetheless shook me up, and a dark feeling of anxiety and guilt replaced any prior sense of contentment. The gloomy feeling lasted throughout the day, but then, as easily as it came, it took only a silly story from Savanna to bring back my good mood.
Later, it was time for me to pick Charlie at a football-related birthday party. My initial impression as I approached the field, he was all smiles. As we said our goodbyes, however, we got in the car and I asked him to tell me details about the party. Instantly, Charlie began to weep, telling me that he was the very last kid chosen for one of the teams. I could visibly see his mood sour, almost to the point of an emotional shutdown. Even though he was amongst mainly friends, I briefly wondered to myself whether his hand-difference played a part, at least for those boys that didn’t know him. It clearly had crossed his mind as well. It was time for damage control, and so I offered the following with a purposeful grin, “Char, let’s face it. You and I both know you’ve never played football. Your friends probably knew that too and, no offence, even I may have not prioritized picking you!” He looked up, agreed, and seemed to shrug it off. By the time we arrived home, the only thing on Charlie’s mind was whether we still planned to go out for dinner—he was famished.
With all of this in mind, while deciding what I wanted to write about this week, I received a new Teen Flaunt called, “What Sets Me Apart,” written by 17-year-old named Jack Landis about his uncle who had been clinically depressed and recently took his own life. One particular questioned posed by Jack, I found chilling: “What made him so terribly sad that he could not live anymore?” It’s a valid question, for sure, but one that few could truly answer.
Given the recent news of Robin Williams’ sudden death, Jack’s Teen Flaunt felt particularly raw and timely. At the same time, I began to feel a gnawing sense that I’m making an error in judgment by inviting people to join me in celebrating “all” differences, both physical and invisible. These events remind me that not everything we’re born with or struggle to overcome has a silver lining to be found. In Robin Williams’ case, the only place where he may have felt truly comfortable, where his demons could remain hidden, was pretending he was someone else on screen.
Some of us, my kids included, can bounce back from setbacks, anxiety or sorrow related to our obvious differences. For others though, it doesn’t work like that, and it’s not fair to judge.
Finally, I noted something at the end of Jack’s piece that resonated: “Someday these people may no longer be with you, but you will never forget them because of how they influenced you to be the person you are today and in the future.” That got me thinking. Almost as soon as the news spread (like wildfire) of his passing, tribute after tribute rolled out on Williams’ life and accomplishments. As Lisa Jakub, the actress that played Williams’ older daughter in Mrs. Doubtfire put it in her recent blog post, “Everyone is tweeting and Facebooking about what a great talent Robin was. Yeah, he was. But that wasn’t what I adored about him. It was the fact that he was an incredibly kind human being.”
It occurs to me therefore, that I need to reign in my overly broad goal of helping people ‘celebrate all differences.’ Sometimes, it is simply enough to celebrate the people themselves and rejoice on the impact they had on our lives. It is enough to remember them for what they accomplished, rather than what they weren’t able to overcome.