When I heard that Robin Williams died, I felt like someone hit my chest. It hurt. I read the articles while on the couch with my roommate and tried to convince myself that I couldn’t possibly be this upset about a celebrity dying. But I was. I made up some bullshit excuse to leave the living room and went to my bedroom where I cried like a baby. I cried for hours, eventually fell asleep, then woke up and cried again. I have never felt this way about anyone I didn’t know and I felt like a psychopath.
I felt stupid. I was grieving a fucking celebrity while the world had so many more important issues that I should be upset about. I felt like a horrible and selfish person to be this wrapped up about an actor dying when more horrific things happened today. Other news hit a few hours later and I knew that I should divert my attention to those stories. That they should be taking up my newsfeed. But I was already encapsulated in the grief that was Robin Williams and was unable to process anything else. I felt like a horrible human for my selfishness.
Here’s the thing: it’s one of those dead dad moments. One of those times where you can’t explain the magnitude of your grief because it has so many layers. You want to process everything privately because you know that people won’t understand. You feel insane. But here I am, at 2am, knowing that I have to start my day in 3 hours, and I still can’t stop crying. So I thought I’d attempt to process my emotions by writing them here.
When my dad died, I didn’t like to talk about it. The only person I openly talked to was my teacher, but even with her, there were things that I wouldn’t touch. I didn’t want to deal with a few dark emotions. The depth of my guilt, my immense depression, and the fact that I felt like I didn’t deserve to inhabit this earth. I felt guilty for having the privilege to live. I didn’t tell anyone about this because I feared that they would mistake it for being suicidal. I wasn’t suicidal – I was never in a state of wanting to harm myself – I just felt guilty for living while so many good people died. It was a secret that I didn’t want to share with anyone, so I turned to movies and books to justify my feelings and teach me how to get over this hurdle.
I found Dead Poets Society among the stack of movies that went largely untouched since my dad died. I remember the first time I watched it. It was a winter night and I popped it into the VHS in my room. I was glued to my TV. I cried the entire time, rewinded it, then cried again. I felt like the movie was made for me. I was a high schooler unwilling to face my own emotions, so I used poetry to help convey them. I wrote dozens of poems weekly, but refused to share most of them with anyone else. I was afraid that they weren’t good enough, I didn’t think people would care about what I had to say, but most importantly, I didn’t want to let anyone in. I was someone who looked for mentorship in my teachers. I was a teenager who felt worthless. I felt like Dead Poets Society was written for me. John Keating became a mentor and his words became advice. I would watch the movie, come across a line, rewind it, then repeated this process for as long as it took for me to memorize his words. At a time when I could tell no one about my feelings of worthlessness, Keating gave me the advice I so desperately needed.
Robin Williams played so many different roles that I loved. Genie, Peter, Mrs. Doubtfire, Sy, Teddy Roosevelt… his roles in Flubber, Jumanji and A.I. (Yes, I loved the movies Flubber, Jumanji and A.I. and no, I’ve never seen Good Will Hunting. Shut up.) He appealed to me as a person and comedian – kind, silly, someone who smiled with his eyes and emoted with his face, able to reach an audience of all generations, someone who had a quirky personality that annoyed a lot of people but didn’t comprise to please them, dark and vulnerable at times but on fire when in front of an audience (I especially understood this).
But to me, he was always John Keating. I know that he’s a fictional character that someone else imagined, wrote and created. But to me, he was my captain, my vessel to teach me that my words, hell… my life, mattered. That I was here for a reason and my voice needed to be heard. The one-sided conversation that allowed me to get the mentorship I needed without having to open up. Through him, I gained the confidence to share more of my poetry, and myself, to the outside world.
Losing a parent does things to you. Inherently, you get attached to things and hurt deeply when they’re gone. To me, the death of Robin Williams felt like the death of John Keating. I thank him for bringing that character to life so that I could learn how to make the most of my own.
We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?