When my brother came home from the Navy, newly divorced and still healing from a terrible motorcycle accident that shattered his leg, what he brought home with him—besides his impressive record collection—was his sense of humor. He was naturally funny, and though he was a big guy and could be imposing when he really wanted to, he had a sweet smile and the most infectious laugh. His laugh was always more like a giggle—a high-pitched "hee, hee, hee hee!"— and he was the first person I remember who would pointedly look me in the eye as we laughed over something. It was like he delighted in seeing other people laugh along with him and wanted them to know it.
Jon and I devoured a lot of pop culture together: movies, music, music videos, TV. I can't remember when or how we saw that first Robin Williams stand-up special—whether it was on TV or we rented it on our new Betamax tape player—but it was Robin Williams Live at the Roxy.
I won't go to the trouble of listing every joke and line from that show that became a part of our shared scripts, but I'm sure you know how it goes. You see a comedian and from then on you grab every opportunity that presents itself to repeat a line so you can share that laughter again. Which is why for ages we would crack each other up by quietly singing, "Pop goes the weasel" whenever we used a microwave.
Robin Williams certainly wasn't the only comedian whose work wormed its way into our lives, but he was always the one I loved the most. I don't know if his influence can be felt or seen in my writing, but I guarantee you it's there when I put my kids to bed every night and they beg me to perform our traditional bedtime ritual in as many accents and voices as I can.
To me, the life of Robin Williams is proof that making people laugh is a worthwhile calling. It couldn't save him from a lifetime of depression, but how many people did he save in some small way each time he performed, each time he gave of himself—risking so much by throwing his entire being into every word? I know there are people out there who felt the bleakness of life lift, and maybe only for a moment, because they laughed at and with this fiercely intelligent, brave man.
The last time I saw my brother, he was bedridden and was staying in a rehab facility, where they were making a last-ditch effort to help him regain some use of the left side of his body after his stroke and second brain surgery. I hadn't seen him since before the stroke, and so, when I walked in his room, I was gutted by the sight of him. He was unable to walk on his own, and was propped in bed watching TV. His left hand was being held open by a special strap to keep the skin of his palm from getting sores. He had lost much of his facial and vocal expressions, so at first he seemed distant and monotone. He had developed a large skin cancer on one side of his face that was not being removed because, well, there was no point. My sister and I sat with him for a while and chatted, and then decided to give him a rest while we went to get some lunch, promising to come back after and bring him a burger.
When we got outside to my sister's car, everything that I had held in since we entered his room burst out, and I sobbed and sobbed until I thought there would be nothing left of me. He was really dying, and for the first time, I could see it. It wasn't just a dent in his skull, or a propensity to nap or to be cold. The physical, immutable reality that he would soon no longer exist and that it would not be an easy departure hit me so hard I buckled. My sister sat with me, talked and cried with me, and eventually I pulled it together enough to go eat.
I worried about going back for the afternoon, uncertain if I could handle it, but the rest and the food (and the cry) was good for all of us, and we all seemed looser and more comfortable. We started talking more like we always had, about anything and everything, and we started to laugh again. As we talked, Jon would occasionally change the channel on the television. He liked to have it on, even when he had visitors, and at one point he turned it to a golf game. I had recently been farting around on the internet and had come across a Robin Williams performance where he imagined the crazy Scot who invented golf—who obviously did it just to fuck with people. I asked Jon if he had ever seen it, and he hadn't. So, I did it for him. As much as I could remember and in my best Scottish accent. By this time, the three of us were laughing like loons, and the next day, when his son came by while we were there, Jon told him to look it up on You Tube, and the two of them watched it together and there was that beautiful giggle again. It should have become one of our refrains: "Fuck, no! Eighteen fuckin' times!" The laughter we got from that opened us all up to more and more, and though we moved on to other topics, we giggled and laughed more easily thereafter. Or at least it seemed so to me. His wife later told me that she called him after we left, and he was practically giddy—lighter in spirit than he had been in months. Because that's what laughter can do.
I was making arrangements to go and visit him again a few months later when he passed away.
Robin Williams will never know that one day in a rehab center in Tennessee, two sisters and a brother spent two last days together, and that a part of those days were spent holding our sides over one of his many, many performances. And that's okay, because I trust he knew how much joy he brought to the world, even as his depression stole his own joy from him. And I know that my brief moments of sorrow over his passing are nothing compared to the overwhelming grief those who truly knew and loved him are feeling now. I'm all too aware of what that grief feels like. Still, I would have liked to have told him what he did that day.
Anyway. Thank you, Mr. Williams. I wish you well on the next leg of your journey. Say hi to my mom and brother if you see them, okay?
For what it's worth, this is the bit: