"We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are."
- Anais Nin
Sunday, August 17, 2014
I was shocked and saddened to hear of Robin Williams' death, an apparent suicide.
The trouble with celebrity is that it makes us feel we know people.
Complete strangers? Somehow we feel we know them. The omniscience of their work makes us feel a sense of familiarity, of kinship.
And then, because they are human - and because we don’t really know them - they do something that catches us utterly off-guard.
Robin Williams was the funny man. He was Mork from Ork. Peter Pan. Mrs. Doubtfire. His stand-up routines were foul-mouthed brilliance. In many of the darker moments in my own life, he made me laugh when I wanted to cry.
I met my friend Cathy - Cat Woman, as I called her - in 1992. We were neighbors at first, then roommates for a while. Cat was an artist, musician, and general three-ring circus. We rigged up her microphone and PA system for karaoke nights in our house. We sang even if her dog Debbie was our only audience. We had no money, so we crashed local art openings and wine tastings as an alternative to dinners out. Cat ruined two of my blenders making paper. She atoned with jewelry and hair clips she handmade for me.
When my son was born, Cat became his honorary aunt. She taught him to play piano. She painted his friends’ faces at his birthday parties. Cat was a spitfire, and the kids loved her. She was the life of any party.
She battled her demons, though. For all the years I’d known her, we’d discussed this openly. Cat was bipolar. I suffered from depression. We compared our afflictions, weighed the pros and cons of different treatments. On a little road trip in 2007 - to see Gordon Lightfoot in New York (I know; don’t hate) - she seemed especially sure she’d beaten her demons. I was glad. Back in our hotel room after the concert, we watched Man of the Year. Robin Williams starred as a political satirist who wins the Presidency thanks to a computer-voting glitch. Cat dozed off just before the end of the film. She was laughing one minute, sleeping the next. Just like old times at the house we’d shared years earlier.
In November of 2009, Cat and I chatted on the phone for nearly two hours. Her demons had returned earlier that year, and she’d moved away from New England to live with family. I missed her, but she sounded good. Better. She promised to send her new mailing address for my Christmas card list.
It never came.
In time, my attempts to track down Cat’s address for my Christmas mailing list became something more fraught. Her voice mail box was full. Then there was a recording saying the line had been disconnected. Email went unanswered. I tried to remember her sisters’ married names. I called our mutual friends and learned that no one else had heard from Cat in a while. A sinking feeling grew in the pit of my stomach.
It was spring before I learned what had happened. A mutual friend called, and the tone of his voice alone told me that Cat was gone. I waited for the details: she’d killed herself in December. On some level, I wasn’t surprised, yet I was literally brought to my knees. One of my very best friends was gone. There was no undoing this.
I thought, then, of all the times she’d called me in despair. She’d let me talk her down from so many ledges over the years.
Why couldn’t she have let me talk her down from just one more?
I took a pickaxe and shovels to the front of my lawn. I hacked and dug and crawled on my hands and knees. In a strange whirl of sadness and anger, I made a garden where there was none. I planted flowers for Cat and waited to feel better. Eventually, I built a Little Free Library in her memory and anchored it in the garden, thinking how she would love something so grassroots and community-minded.
You know what I really wanted, though?
I wanted my friend back.
Ultimately, I realized that what my friend wanted was simply an end to her pain. She wanted a better life, but she couldn’t find one in the skin she was in. Whether she found peace in the end, I will never know.
What I know is this:
Cat was a bright, shining star. She was blessed with talent and passion and kindness.
Much as it seems the celebrity Robin Williams was.
I didn’t know him. Most likely, neither did you. He wore different costumes, became different characters. Maybe he was as uncomfortable in his own skin as my friend Cat was in hers.
Now, for his family and friends and those truly who knew the man behind all the guises and humor, the pain begins. My prayers go out to them.