Mourning Mrs. Doubtfire

This is a little after the fact–twenty days after the fact to be precise–but I finally want to talk about what Robin Williams meant to me, and why the death of someone I never met filled me with such incredible and unexpected loss. I like to process things, to work out how I feel and try to determine whether these feelings are fair or can and should be modified. I’m a delayed griever. It takes time for me to understand what I’ve lost.

And I’m not a psychologist or friend of Robin Williams. My thoughts on the man and his death are utterly insignificant and in the first few days after his death it seemed like everyone wanted to weigh in on it. Some of them wanted to call him selfish. For the record, I think those people are assholes. Because if Robin Williams’ death reminded me of anything, it’s that all of us are carrying around pain every day of our lives. Some of it’s physical, some of it’s mental, and some of it’s emotional. And while we should try to help one another, we can never really know what they’re experiencing or feeling, how great their burden is from day to day, or how much courage the previous day has cost. We don’t know. And I don’t feel comfortable condemning another human being for choosing to end their suffering. Especially a man like Robin Williams who was, by so many accounts, committed to bringing joy and laughter to the rest of the world. Just because the jester stops dancing and telling jokes doesn’t mean we should turn on him with boos and jeers and judgment.

It took me three weeks to sort out the lessons Robin Williams has taught me but I think I finally understand. He taught me that being vulnerable and magical and so damned excited about life can have a profound impact on the people around you. He didn’t make it look easy; I’ve read articles about the demons he was battling, though I think all you had to do was watch one of his movies to understand that he was tapping into wells of emotion that weren’t always pleasant and he didn’t always have control. None of us do, but he went deeper than most and such emotional surrender comes with consequences.

It wasn’t until I watched The Fisher King for the first time last night that I discovered a visual for these demons. In fact, I wonder how much he related to his character–homeless and mad and so terribly kind despite the fact that this demonic red figure on horseback nearly ran him down every time he started to remember his wife. Maybe it was just a role for him. I can’t pretend to know. But it’s impossible to look at his bright, kind eyes and not see innocence and empathy and surrender to life and experience. He just looked so genuine that it sometimes brought tears to my eyes. And now I wonder what it cost to open himself up like that, to be so many people, some of them frail and damaged almost beyond saving.

Robin Williams was the person who taught me to think about how tough divorce is on a dad. In this world of undeniable male privilege, custody battles are one of the few arenas where women are granted an undeniable and often tragically unfair advantage over men. But when you’re a little kid trying to process your parents’ divorce–as I was in 1993 when Mrs. Doubtfire was released–you don’t tend to spare a lot of time thinking about the fact that your dad is now living alone somewhere and his primary solace is the fact that he’s going to see you on alternate weekends and holidays. The fact that alternate weekends and holidays is nothing close to 50/50 custody isn’t something you consider. Because you’re a kid and you’re already dealing with a difficult issue. You miss dad. But where dad is and how much he misses you isn’t the angle. And while we’re on the subject, let’s be brutally honest: Housing for newly-separated dads tends to be absolute shit. Cheap hotels or RVs. Basically the last place you’d want to go when you’re newly severed from your family and wondering what the hell you’re going to do with yourself.

But then along comes Mrs. Doubtfire. And yeah, it’s a comedy and it makes you laugh. At least, it made me laugh until I got a little older and I suddenly realized what it was about: A man who misses his children so terribly much that he pretends to be someone society deems worthy of spending time with his children. He has to be a stranger in order to be allowed to see his children. And it tears him apart. Once I got it, I couldn’t not think of my own dad sitting in a crappy hotel alone, waiting to see me. He didn’t dress up as an old English nanny in order to see us more. And I wouldn’t necessarily say that our story was happily ever after. But before Mrs. Doubtfire, who was talking about what it was like to be an alternate-weekend dad and know that was the best you could possible do?

I should note that I don’t say this to be anti-mom or to be anti-feminist. Every situation is different. Every divorce is different. Every family is different. But I advocate honesty and equality, and if I’m going to be honest, I have to point out that men aren’t given equal access to their children after a divorce. And I fully believe that this anti-dad bias is detrimental to men and to their kids, who grow up to be men and women, meaning that this bias is detrimental to everyone. But Mrs. Doubtfire was the start of that journey of realization. It’s silly, and perhaps shallow, that I required a movie to think about what divorce cost my father, but I can only plead that I was a child and not having my eyes fully open to every detail of what was going on from each and every perspective probably helped me maintain some shred of sanity. And what are movies for if not to open our eyes to a different perspective?

In a similar vein, I remember watching Hook as a child and absolutely worshipping it. Nothing could ever be as cool as Neverland–an island-sized jungle gym where you could skateboard, provoke food fights with imaginary food, and–if you were really, really lucky–fly. As a kid, I didn’t think much of Peter Banning (Robin Williams’ character) except to think that he was kind of a jerk at the beginning and ultimately insanely lucky that he was given a second chance, an opportunity to return to Neverland and eternal childhood.

It wasn’t until I became an A-type personality adult racing to meet deadlines and graduate early and become a workaholic that I realized there was another side of the story. Peter Pan grew up. Yes, even Peter Pan, despite his bravado and promises and pixie-fueled flight. In fact, he got so caught up in adulthood that he forgot magic and fun and play. He became the very thing he’d detested all along. It’s easy to do that. I don’t have kids, so I don’t have to worry about missing someone’s softball game because of a deadline at the paper, or shrieking at a terrified child to just shut the hell up because I’m stressed and tired and can’t handle their unimportant nonsense. But I forget to laugh. I forget how much fun I have every time I go outside. I forget how much I love swinging and hide and seek and capture the flag. Somehow, it’s harder to remember those things as you grow older. But I don’t ever want to let them go. And that’s what Hook is about for me now–reclaiming the parts of my youth that brought me joy and made me a better person.

There are other movies. I love Robin Williams for playing a gay man in The Birdcage back in 1996 when gay rights were barely a thing. Actually, I love that movie. It’s hilarious. But it’s also unapologetically progressive. And I love that he will go to hell and back for the woman he loves in What Dreams May Come. Yeah, it’s cheesy, and Robin Williams has never shied away from cheesy and I think it’s because he wasn’t ashamed to feel anything. It reminds me of the Walt Whitman quote: “I am human. Nothing human is alien to me.” I love that his character in Good Morning Vietnam detested censorship and mocked the military’s hypocrisy for sending men to kill and die without having the decency to acknowledge that it was a war.

And maybe cheese was part of his dash from those demons he was fighting. Maybe cheese helped him forget. Maybe it distracted him from the things he saw but could not change.

I wish he was still alive to offer more of his life lessons, or just to find something that would make him laugh for a change. I wish he could have outrun his demons. I wish someone had recognized his pain and said the magic words that might have brought him back. But since none of those things are possible, I hope we profit from his example–his joy, his kindness, his magic. I hope we learn to make each other laugh, consider the unexpected angle, have a little compassion for the homeless man raving in the street or park, embrace people and experiences we might otherwise turn our back on. It’s the least we can do for the man who was so many people and brought us so much laughter.




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