Goodbye, My Captain

The first celebrity poster I had on my wall wasn’t a singer or some classically handsome actor. It was Robin Williams in his rainbow suspenders. I didn’t know it then, but he was to be my muse for the next 30-odd years.

I was (am) one of those girls who is smarter than she is pretty, always struggling with my weight and comparing myself negatively to others. I was the one with the “great personality”. I found my place by being witty. Mostly playful clever banter, but sometimes too cutting.

There was something in Mr. Williams’ timing and the rapid fire imagery and his clear love for the words that created the hilarity and chaos…. Well, it captivated and inspired me to use humor less as a weapon (even in self defense) and more as an expression of all the stuff that builds in a teenager’s mind.

Mr. Keating, the character he played in Dead Poets Society, was the English Teacher I longed to be, I hope my students understood the mechanics of writing and literature, sure. But I mostly wanted them to see how literature and the worlds they could explore through those glorious words could set them free. I wanted to see them find their voices and sound their barbaric yawps from the rooftops

In character after character, Mr. Williams infused a particular life and humanity, even where caricature would have been sufficient, Whether a tortured soul or cartoon genie, he always seemed to add a layer of intelligence and pain that made you believe the most manic or most subtle moments.

I wanted to be a parent as loving and creative as Mrs. Doubtfire. I wanted to care for people so deeply that I can wait long enough for them to hear the grace in words like Sean’s “it’s not your fault”. I hoped to be as good a friend as Genie and be as good a human as the Bicentennial Man.

I think, in the end, that is the loss I have felt so keenly- the humanity that he brought to every character- good or evil, kind or cruel, serious or zany. You could always see the soulful center of the man.

The stories and tributes from people who knew and worked with him have related what a kind, tender man he was in real life. I suspect that like all of us, he had moments of asshattery and selfishness. And they were probably more acute in those stretches when the addictions were winning and the lies of mental illness spoke louder than the truth. That is the way of human nature. We are all a mix of good and bad, but Mr. Williams clearly chose to treat people well when he was healthy.

I want to stand on my desk and cry out Oh Captain, my Captain, letting big sloppy tears run down my cheeks.

Yet the end of the day, it seems the greater tribute is to make the choice to be kind. To be warm and fully present with the people I meet and the people I love, especially those who struggle with depression, anxiety and other illnesses.

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