Life, Death, Robin Williams and Henry Rollins

I haven’t posted on some of the big, obvious topics that have been shooting down the rapids with such astonishing velocity and mass over the past few weeks. Ferguson, Missouri and ISIS, the leveling of Palestine, the Ebola outbreak. I could take the easy way out, as I had intended, by telling myself–and you–that I simply have nothing to add to these broadly covered subjects, but the truth of the matter is a little more subtle: I’m so unsurprised by all of it that I lack the energy, the outrage, or even the whimsy to address any of those topics.

morkI’ve been particularly reluctant to talk–or even think–about Robin Williams’ suicide, not just because I feel like I’d be just another whisper beneath the cacophony of commentary, but because I’ve suspected that my thoughts won’t win me a lot of admirers. I’m good with that–l like to be liked, and I don’t mind being disliked. It’s disinterest that smites me, but a lot of folks are hurt by this loss. Why provoke?

I probably would have stayed quiet had I not encountered this compelling commentary by Henry Rollins, another icon of my youth, whose mindset seems to mirror my own.

When Rollins writes, ” How in the hell could you possibly do that to your children? I don’t care how well adjusted your kid might be — choosing to kill yourself, rather than to be there for that child, is every shade of awful, traumatic and confusing. I think as soon as you have children, you waive your right to take your own life. No matter what mistakes you make in life, it should be your utmost goal not to traumatize your kids. So, you don’t kill yourself.”  it is as if he’s channeling my own, brewing thoughts.

The thought of Williams’ children was the first thing that roared through my mind when I heard, several days late, of his demise. How old were his kids?  I’ve never had a vocational calling, never really found anything productive through which I could define myself, except for being a father. My own dad was an asshole–not really his fault, but it sucked and my childhood was blighted by his, um, shortcomings.  I feel sad thinking of that kid I see in pictures, but everything turned out okay, especially in the relationships I’ve built with my own kids. I was determined that I would give them all the love and attention and guidance and parenting I never got.

Ironically enough, my own father re-entered my life after two decades of estrangement, having finally found whatever peace or perspective he needed to find in order to be a good and decent man. We would never have a storybook father/son relationship, but he became a person whose company I enjoyed, and even anticipated. He was an excellent grandfather, but too briefly,  When he died, at age 67, from a secondary infection contracted during a common surgery, it seemed particularly unfair.

I read about depression, how we can’t possibly understand what its victims experience. I get it, and the sympathetic human buried somewhere beneath my cold, black heart wants to accept this, but perhaps I’m too selfish because–here it comes–my second thought about Williams was concise and telling. I looked at my wife as said, “That asshole son-of-a-bitch.”  I know, I know–I’ll never understand, but here’s some things from where I’m sitting.

1) My brother-in-law got 9 months with his 4 daughters, aged 10-16, after his diagnosis with inoperable cancer. My sister, at 40, became a widow. My nieces are fatherless.

2) My best friend from childhood, at 43, wakes up one morning with a singular symptom. Six weeks later his friends gathered in the woods he loved, the land where his grandmother had been born, to celebrate his memory.

3) A year ago next week, another good friend, my daughters’ swimming coach, an iconic and beloved local teacher, and father of four teenaged boys falls dead in his bathroom after an evening run.  He was 56 years old and one of the best people I know–a person of such character that his friendship inspired me to be a better person, in hopes of feeling more deserving of it.

And how many lives aren’t filled with those losses, those friends and parents, uncles and teachers, coaches and teachers?  How many lives aren’t littered with the memories of love snared and snatched and stolen from us, of loved ones dragged bitterly, prematurely from our embrace?

I don’t disdain Robin Williams, or any sufferer of depression, but I can’t get past his throwing his life away, hurting those who loved him, depriving all of us of his existence, his creativity–I’m angry about that, and I’m prepared to accept the ultimate selfishness of that anger. I miss what Williams had yet to offer, just as I mourn for the music Kurt Cobain never lived to make, or David Foster Wallace, or Spalding Gray. So much–everything, ultimately–is taken from us by death.

I begrudge any fragment of life that is freely given–or love that is freely withdrawn–and I worry that our fixation on this death and those like it, our sympathy, our loss-driven compassion and grasping for understanding will be collectively interpreted as acceptance. I won’t invoke cowardice, as some unfeeling jerks have, but I do believe that suicide is unacceptable except in the face of certain, harshly painful death (yes, I recognize the brutality of emotional and mental anguish as well–but it’s not the equal of searing physical agony). There is always a way up and out. Always.