Three years ago, I saw this man perform for over three hours in an incredibly strenuous role in “Bengal Tiger In A Baghdad Zoo” on Broadway. Afterwards, throngs of people waited outside to sing his praises and snap a quick photo. He was visibly tired, but smiled and met with every last person who waited at the grate (even the ones that casually strode up from the street). As I stood and waited to meet him, I thought about how celebrity interactions are almost never about them; they’re about us, the non-celebrities, proving how we met someone with little more than a jealousy-inducing photo and generic interaction to show for it. I always hated that. I still do.
A few people mentioned how they loved him in this movie or that role, despite pouring his heart out for over three hours on that stage in what was a brilliant performance. He thanked them anyways. A few servicemen and women in uniform shook his hand. He thanked them for his service. When he got to me, I looked him in the eye and told him how a few comments he made in an interview I saw in 2007 profoundly changed my life. I was getting ready to move across the country, start a new life, and make the tough decisions I needed to pursue my dreams. At the time, I was also deeply depressed, and recently attempted suicide. When I told him how the words he said in that interview were exactly the thing I needed to hear that particular day many years ago, he stopped everything. Despite all the other people there, his exhaustion, the bustling streets of New York and all the chaos around us, he stuck out his hand and asked me what my name was.
He said he wanted to shake my hand, and thanked me for reminding him that our actions in this world can matter so much, even if they mean so little to us in a given moment.
..and I’ve never stopped thinking about that. I’ve never been able to shake how Robin Williams cared about me, even if for just a few moments, as if we were old pals. We were just two people having a sincere encounter, and it mattered to the both of us. He didn’t have to, but he still did.
Moments later, we took this photo and went our separate ways. Though it was one of hundreds he took that night, it’s always been a warm reminder of a person who cared, even if for just a few moments.
I don’t know what the news will say tomorrow, but thinking about it makes me unsettled. Personally, I’m less than thrilled with the mass outpour of loss as if he was someone’s family member or loved one because most of us (including me) didn’t really know him. I’m bummed for his family, but I’m also bummed that people lose people every single day, and it’s only when a massive celebrity passes that we seem to stop and reflect. I’m angry that this news will further distract from other issues like Gaza, and the Michael Brown injustice, and so many other things that need our attention (even though none of that is his fault). I’m angry that so many people are making a death of another about themselves, as if they were just taking that obligatory photo with him to show all their friends and earn their cool points in retrospect. Most of all, I’m angry that it takes events like these for us to discuss the seriousness of mental illnesses like bipolar disorder and clinical depression; things many of us face every single day. I still suffer from the latter, and looking back at this photo, the weary face in the middle tells me he might have too. As warm as my heart is that one person could touch so many lives, I have to question a system that doesn’t treat the mental health of it’s citizens as a priority.
..and at the risk of this coming off as being about me, it’s not. I have a great memory and “that” photo (which I’m not exactly proud of), but far more important are the reality checks that come with a widely-publicized event such as this. The way we react to celebrity deaths is unsettling. The way we react to the atrocities of the world is unsettling. The way we react to things and make them about ourselves is unsettling.
Hug your friends. Be there for those that need someone. Laugh. Do good, and remember that your actions in this world can matter so much, even if they don’t mean a damn thing to you.