San Miguel de Allende, GTO, MX, August 11, 2014: Today the actor and comedian Robin Williams was found dead of asphyxia in his home. He was sixty-three years old. His death is widely believed to be a suicide. Williams suffered from severe depression and alcoholism. Some accounts say he was bi-polar, which explains his almost manic-style of stand-up comedy.
Social media is alight with eloquent remembrances of this much-beloved man. I certainly don’t have anything exceptionally poignant to add, except that I loved much of his work and it makes me sad to know that he is gone. It’s strange to feel a sense of loss over the death of someone you never knew, but I suppose that is what makes one a “celebrity”. People feel like they know you, and they often do know many details about your personal life that you might just as well wish had remained personal.
I have known only a two people in my life who committed suicide. One was a guy I worked with at my first job out of college, managing software implementation projects for EDS. We were all young but John was probably no more than twenty-five. He used to come and sit in the office that I shared with another co-worker, talking incessantly about seemingly nothing. There was a NERF basketball hoop in our office, and John would come in a play, alone. We were always insanely busy and behind schedule, and I looked at his visits as a nuisance more than anything else. When he didn’t show up for work one day, and didn’t answer his phone, I knew. After he was gone it was clear that he was reaching out, begging to connect, wanting *something*, and not getting it from me, or anyone else in his life.
The other was a veterinary client. He owned an excavation business and most days looked as though he had been excavated from somewhere himself. He had two cats that were old when I first started seeing them, just a few months after I had graduated from vet school. The older one was twenty-one, I believe, and I diagnosed him with squamous cell carcinoma, a very aggressive oral cancer, under the tongue. Typically this disease is not amenable to surgery, but Bob wanted to know every option. He ended up taking the cat to an oncologist, who did experimental radiation therapy on the lesion. The cat lived a few more months but ultimately succumbed to the disease. Bob never looked back and always treasured the extra time he had.
But Bob and I really got to know each other over Biscuit. Biscuit was a big orange cat that had gotten down to six pounds or so by the time I met him. He had severe hyperthyroidism, or an overactive thyroid, and pretty much every complication that comes along with it. We worked to get Biscuit’s problems under control together. Bob took Biscuit to have radioactive iodine therapy, essentially curing the thyroid disease but leaving him with several life-long complications to manage, including heart and kidney failure.
With Bob it was never a matter of deciding whether to treat Biscuit’s complications. If there was fluid in his chest because of the heart failure, we didn’t sit around and talk about whether we should pull the fluid off of Biscuit’s chest. We tapped Biscuit’s chest. If Biscuit stopped eating or seemed lethargic, we didn’t sit around and talk about whether we should do bloodwork or x-rays. We did bloodwork and x-rays. When arthritis started really slowing Biscuit down at age sixteen, he became a weekly acupuncture patient, sauntering out of his carrier and assuming the Sphinx position in preparation for his treatment.
Bob never asked what something was going to cost, and he always pulled a grubby checkbook out of his back pocket and paid. I think once we held a check for him for a few days. It was clear he was completely devoted to Biscuit, and even when he took in two feral kittens he found at a job site Biscuit remained his soul mate.
I didn’t know a lot about Bob’s personal life. I knew vaguely what part of town he lived in, and that he drove a beat-up Honda Accord. We talked about music and travel and other general things when we saw each other, but mostly we talked about his cats. I dreaded the day that I knew was coming, but when it came Bob just knew that it was time to let Biscuit go. There were tears, but there was love and genuine affection, and an acknowledgment of what this cat had meant to this man.
After Biscuit’s passing I didn’t see Bob for a few months, and then he came in and gave me a picture of Biscuit with a poem that he had written for him printed below it. He seemed like he was doing OK, but I was busy and didn’t have much time to talk with him. Several months later I was reading the paper on a gorgeous spring Sunday morning and found myself staring at Bob’s obituary. It was no more than two paragraphs in length, and stated that he had no surviving relatives, and his adoptive parents were deceased.
I knew that Bob still had the two feral cats that I had seen, and if there were no surviving family members I knew I had to find out what had become of the cats. I drove to his house, which was a tiny, dilapidated shanty, and spoke to a neighbor. Bob had closed the garage and started the engine of that beat-up Accord. They found him with a copy of the poem he had given me on his lap. His cats were taken away by Animal Control and because they were still essentially feral, they failed the Humane Society’s behavior test and were euthanized.
While I suppose suicide brings peace to tormented souls like John, and Bob, and Robin Williams, it leaves the rest of us in the dust, pondering what blame lies at our feet. Could I have been kinder? Listened better? Asked more questions? Gotten more involved? How can we recognize these tormented souls before it’s too late?
Robin Williams had it all. Fame. Money. A rewarding career that he loved and was remarkable at. And he probably had access to the best psychiatric help available. But in the end it wasn’t enough, and the pressure of keeping on one more day became too great.
In one of his most famous movie roles Robin Williams plays a high school teacher who implores his students to “seize the day”. It’s easy to write that off as talk of a manic mind; as advice to plunder forward without regard for consequences. But perhaps the interpretation we should focus on is more to live in the moment, to care for one another, to be present and mindful and more aware of our fellow human beings and less aware of deadlines and appointments and responsibilities.
Ultimately I’m just trying to make some sense of it all. And maybe get better at being human in the process.