Tuesday, August 12, 2014

In Gratitude

The internet makes death strange. Or, rather, the internet makes the process of mourning complicated, especially when it's a celebrity who has died. I usually avoid the throngs of commentary after a famous death, reasoning that their death doesn't affect me much, anyway.

But I can't avoid talking about Robin Williams.

I called my mom last night, and the first thing she said was, "I can't believe Robin is dead."

Robin. Full stop.

Robin Williams was my first favourite actor, because he was the first actor I knew. When my sister and I were 5 years old, our parents took us to see Aladdin. We were introduced Genie, the best friend in cinematic history, and simultaneously experienced out first exposure to real comedy. I was hooked.

And with that, Robin Williams became a staple in our household. There weren't many movies or TV shows we could agree on, but my whole family rallied around Robin Williams. On family movie nights, no one ever argued against anything starring Robin Williams. My dad, sister, and I quoted Mrs. Doubtfire frequently and without prompting, because we knew it would make each other laugh ("No I don't need a hand, I need a face!"; "Oh, dear, I think they've outlawed whaling, really.") We laughed through Flubber, cried through Jack, watched Hook in awe, and suffered through Death to Smoochy together. When I announced that he was guest starring on Whose Line is it Anyway?, everyone rushed to the family room and we laughed until we cried at what can only be called the greatest game of "Scenes from a Hat" ever to appear on TV. My sister and I saw August Rush in theatres, and I remember her turning to me at the end credits, both of our faces covered in tears, and saying "it's true! Music really can bring people together."

It wasn't until my early teens that I realized Robin Williams wasn't just a comedian. I remember stumbling across Dead Poet's Society on the Family Channel at one late night hangout at my friend Jana's house, and being surprised to see Robin Williams speaking in his own voice. I was enraptured by Mr. Keating, and I, like the boys in his class, was challenged to view poetry as more than words on a page, but as the essence of the heart. I remember watching Patch Adams on repeat, and being challenged to believe that every great idea needs a bit of whimsy. I've watched Good Will Hunting probably more than any other movie. I remember presenting the "it's not your fault" scene in my theatre arts class as an example of excellent acting. I remember saying that the pacing of that scene is what makes it great; Robin Williams' character knows where the breaking point of his patient is, and he gently bumps up against it, until the wall is finally broken. It is perfection.

I haven't thought much about Robin Williams in recent years. But with the news of his death comes a rush of memories; so many more than I realized I had. I almost can't believe how much impact this person I have never met has had on my life. Robin Williams gave me my first example of what it looks like to fully commit to a joke. My formative understanding of humour came from his roles: his faces, his costumes, his voices. And, when I was ready, his roles taught me about sorrow, loss, rejection, and salvation. They taught me about the power of words, and how much power there is in connecting with another person's soul.

It seems ridiculous to say that an actor becomes a part of your family, except it's not. Because that is the point of being a storyteller: connecting with deeply with people you don't know, so that the stories resonate beyond the narrator. My family invited Robin Williams into our home repeatedly, and he infected us with feelings of triumph and frustration and loneliness and redemption. He exposed us to the experience of being fully human.

I am so sad that he is gone so soon. The world had not yet had its fill of his art. But I am so thankful that Robin Williams shared so much of himself with me.

To Mr. John Keating, Peter Banning, Genie, Mrs. Doubtfire, Jack Powell, Professor Philip Brainard, Sean McGuire, Patch Adams, Jakob, Dr. Know, Rainbow Randolph, Maxwell "Wizard" Wallace,

to Robin,

from every version of myself, from every corner of my heart, a most sincere thank you. May you rest in peace.

- Jill