How Robin Williams helped me feel closer to my father

The evening of Aug. 11, 2014 – one year ago today – was like most other Monday nights had been recently. I was lazing around on the internet, likely trying to iron out some inconsequential detail of my upcoming wedding, and had probably skipped going to the gym that night in favor of said lazing. I’d just interviewed for a new job and was about to put in my two weeks’ notice at my then-employer that Friday.

As I was browsing one of my favorite pop-culture news sites, I saw the headline that instantly made my heart drop into my stomach: “Robin Williams Dies of Suspected Suicide.”

I distinctly remember blinking a few times in rapid succession to make sure I was reading correctly. I mean, this was the man who made me laugh in every movie I ever saw him in – unless his job was to make me cry (a la What Dreams May Come) or freak me out (One Hour Photo) – but most of the time he just seemed so, so happy. My initial reaction was shock and disbelief; my brain assumed immediately that it must, in reality, be April 1 instead of Aug. 11, and that someone had a sick sense of humor.

But then I remembered Mr. Williams had been to rehab recently, and battled substance addiction most of his life. And that sometimes, depression isn’t outwardly apparent and people have their own internal struggles that the rest of world, and sometimes even their closest loved ones, know nothing about – or they do know and there’s sometimes just nothing anyone can do when someone decides they are finished on this earth.

And then I cried real, loud, genuine tears.

My husband (then fiancé) rushed into our bedroom to ask me what had happened. I pointed to my laptop screen and his face fell immediately. Because even in a world where I’m much more obsessed with celebrity and pop culture than he is and he usually (albeit good-naturedly) pokes fun at me when I tell him about a famous couple who has broken up, or we say something along the lines of simply, “Aw, that’s so sad” when someone famous dies, this time he understood. And he held me and let me cry.

Part of the reason our exchange unfolded this way was because we both grew up on Mr. Williams’ films. In fact, we both loved him so much we spent at least 15 minutes after our initial grievance deciding which to watch, ultimately deciding on Hook. And the other part is because, even though I wasn’t actually related to him even if he did feel like a favorite uncle in a way, Robin Williams helped me understand and appreciate my own father so much more than I may have otherwise. Because, like many of Robin Williams’ most beloved characters, my dad is kind of just a big kid. And like Mr. Williams himself, my dad struggled with substance abuse for many years, including when my brother and I were kids.

And I know I’m not the only one who feels these and other types of parallels between their dad and Robin Williams. But unlike the author of this amazing piece and Mr. Williams’ own beautiful and eloquent daughter Zelda, I count my lucky stars that I’m fortunate enough to still have my father here.

My father, who channels Daniel Hillard (aka Mrs. Doubtfire) in the sense that his children are the most important thing in his world to the point where will do absolutely anything for them. My father, who would in a second befriend a bunch of misfits in a quest to beat a bad guy who kidnapped them and tried to make them his own. In my dad’s case, Captain Hook was more like a monster-under-the-bed-type deal, but the point still stands: If the monster was real to my brother and me, it was real to him – just as everything eventually became more and more real to Alan Parrish in Jumanji, Chris Nielsen in What Dreams May Come, and Peter Banning in Hook. Just like Peter managed to figure out how to do for his kids Jack and Maggie (while also somehow finding time to play with his food and learn to fly again), my dad never dismissed the beliefs or fears of my brother and me. He was always on our side, and made us feel like everything we had to say and imagined was not only important, but crucial to explore.

But the movie that probably makes me feel closest to my dad is, in my opinion, one of Robin Williams’ most underrated works: Jack. This film is about a boy who ages four times as quickly as everyone else, making him appear 40 years old as a 10-year-old fifth-grader. Even though he is surrounded by both children and adults, Jack doesn’t truly feel like he belongs in either group for most of the movie. As the daughter of a man who has been disabled for most of his life, I’ve been able to take the emotions I felt from Robin Williams’ portrayal in Jack and tap into them when I think about the fact that my own father – who often can relate more to children than to adults – probably feels similarly. And this reminds me to make time for him, and put forth real effort into making him feel like he belongs firmly in my world.

A year later, I am still grieving Mr. Williams for these bodies of work and so many others that made me laugh, cry, and truly contemplate life and what it really has to offer us. I’m still grieving this man whose life’s work was to bring entertainment to others through film, HILARIOUS stand-up comedy, television, music, and more, and who seemingly sidelined his own comfort at times to do so. I am so grateful for the difference he made in my life – particularly because he gave me someone outside my own family to look at and say, “If this guy can be a grown man and do these things and have a blast, so can my dad.”

Thank you, Robin Williams, from the bottom of my heart. My husband and I vow to play your films on repeat for our own children one day, and hope they’re able to take even a fraction of the joy from them that we’ve been able to. I hope they, too, are able to see in some of your roles that their paw paw, albeit different, is awesome. You made such an impact on my world, and you will never be forgotten.

Robin Williams in ‘Dead Poets Society’ changed my life

A rainbow tunnel will forever pay tribute to Robin Williams

(Image courtesy Universal Pictures)

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