The death of Robin Williams one month ago hit close to home. I can see his bayside neighborhood from my back deck in Marin, the county where America’s most beloved funnyman grew up, showed up, lived, loved and died. He is still being mourned, the power lines brought down by the giant media trucks are still being repaired, and his shuttered house a sad reminder of what happened inside. But happier memories are still being shared now that the shock is subsiding, somewhat.
Like many local residents, I had my own encounters with the man I first experienced as Mork on our family’s TV set in the ‘70s.
I first met Robin Williams on the set of a film my newborn daughter was in as a baby extra. While Nine Months (1995) was not one of William’s major acting roles, it was a big deal when my girlfriend — also a new mother — and I bumped into him in the elevator during a filming break. I still have the photo of him dressed in doctor’s scrubs holding my Jenna as if she were his own. Years later, when we met again at a fundraiser, I jokingly showed him the picture and asked why he had never written or called. My infant daughter is smiling brightly, “almost a laugh” as she peers up at Robin adoringly.
Living in the same area as Williams and serendipitously having my only child in one of his movies before she was a month old is not really why his suicide touched a familiar nerve or two. Three members of my own family died by suicide, and my father died of complications from Parkinson’s Disease, which the world now knows Williams had also been battling, along with depression.
Twenty years ago, in a house less than a mile from Williams’ residence, my first husband took his life. Forty years ago my mother — beautiful, beloved and with a genius level IQ — took her life. And 20 years prior, the grandmother I am named after but never got to meet, took her life in a hospital room in New York City.
What they all had in common was each suffered from at least one illness that was chronic but not necessarily terminal, combined with biochemical depression. The combination can be deadly.
In my late husband’s case, he had been suffering from the ravaging effects of Multiple Myeloma, a bone marrow cancer, that disfigures by eating away at the marrow and creating brittle bones. Mark was 49 years young.
Jane, the woman who gave me life, had battled Colitis and Ileitis for years before the physical pain associated with simply eating food combined with inherited depression made the suffering unbearable. While she had many happy years raising three kids and being the life of the party, her dark days eventually grew more frequent and debilitating. She was unfortunate enough to have hit her low point just a few years before Prozac was invented, and was given Valium which didn’t help. Jane was only 40 when we lost her which left a gaping hole in my heart, family and life, a traumatic loss that continues to have ripple effects even to this day.
Bertha, my maternal grandmother and namesake, had suffered from Rheumatic Fever which caused heart damage, eventually requiring surgery. But back in the mid-‘50s they reportedly didn’t know about post-operative depression, especially with cardiac cases. She hung herself with hospital bed sheets leaving behind a heartbroken husband and two teenagers.
In March, 2001 my handsome and hilarious father, Jerry, died of complications from Parkinson’s Disease. His was not a suicide, but the circumstances were equally tragic, as he had undergone a fetal tissue transplant to ward off the early symptoms of Parkinson’s. A brain hemorrhage within 24 hours of the experimental surgery left him unable to walk, talk, eat or ever make us laugh again. While Jerry was no Robin Williams, he WAS the funniest guy in our family and his social circles. His dry sense of humor and perfect timing made for showstopping toasts at both my weddings. One of his lines was so clever he made it into the San Francisco Chronicle‘s infamous Herb Caen column.
Six months after we lost our dear Dad, on September 11th we as Americans lost our complacency and sense of safety, along with some 3,000 souls, to terrorism. And my family narrowly missed having another loss that day. If it hadn’t been for an impromptu call and invite from a former girlfriend the night before, my stepson Jon could have died on that beautiful Manhattan morning. He was scheduled to attend a conference at Windows on the World in the North Tower but drank too much the night before and slept through his alarm. Instead Jon was awakened by the sound of a plane crashing into the building from his apartment on nearby Hudson St. Life can be tenuous, death can be random and miracles can happen.
One of my miracles was second husband Alan appearing in my life soon after I became a widow at age 37. And just in time to have the daughter I’d yearned for in part to recreate the bond with my own mother. The baby girl who made her “stage debut” in Nine Months is now a sophomore at NYU.
After becoming a mother I grew weary of my career in radio news covering breaking stories and was increasingly frustrated with what got covered and what didn’t merit attention. I wanted to use my voice and skills to reach the public with content that was more relevant, and less fleeting, than the news du jour. So I “recycled” my career, transitioning from reporter and anchor for CBS Radio to radio-activist, using my broadcast platform and microphone to raise eco-awareness.
Beginning on Earth Day 1997, with “Trash Talk” minutes on KCBS offering tips on how to reduce, reuse and recycle, my waste prevention focus eventually widened from garbage — and all that’s going into our landfills — to global warming and what’s coming out of our tailpipes. My green features went from local radio to a national, hour-long show on the short-lived liberal network, Air America. Heard in more than 40 progressive radio markets, EcoTalk became the first green-themed program to air nationwide on a daily basis. After Air America went bankrupt I moved my show to the internet, continuing to interview sustainability leaders and eco-innovators across the green front lines.
What does all this have to do with Robin Williams? Despite all the publicity around his stunning death — and especially here in Marin County, where so many stories about encounters with this sweet and generous man persist — I’ve yet to hear of one that mentions his concern for our environment.
Many locals know Robin and his wife were big supporters of the arts, education and numerous children’s causes, but little has been said publicly about his interest in climate change. I was at two environmental fundraisers where Robin Williams either performed or emceed. Friends of the Earth was one of the venues. One year he showed up at their annual fundraiser in San Francisco with his buddy, Chevy Chase. Attendees got more than their money’s worth from this national treasure.
And treasuring what we have before it — or they — are gone is my point. Not only for this piece but in our lives. We’ve all heard, said, or perhaps sung the expression, “we don’t know what we’ve got till its gone,” from Joni Mitchell’s 1970 song Big Yellow Taxi. So true and yet so difficult to remember in the day to day grind.
But why DO we too often forget until it’s too late? How many of us wouldn’t give five years of our lives to spend five more minutes with a departed loved one? I know I would, and I’m at an age where five years goes by far too quickly and as my husband likes to say “there are no throwaway days — each one counts.”
As we take a moment to contemplate what we’ve already lost — whether it’s the precious innocence and innocence lost on September 11, 2001 or the rare genius of a life lost August 11, 2014 — shouldn’t the takeaway message be to cherish what we DO have in our lives that adds real joy, meaning, makes life worth living and should make the prospect of losing nature’s gifts — our life support system — unacceptable?
If so, that means we all have to DO something, or many things differently, to prevent it. And there is much to do at the citizen, community and country levels.
If you loved Robin Williams — or at least appreciated his amazing talents — perhaps you’ll consider expressing that respect and gratitude for the gifts he shared by doing something positive for the physical environment currently under siege, from the U.S. We are leading the world with unchecked growth and over consumption, even in the face of evidence that our extractive, acquisitive and wasteful ways are stealing comforts and abundance—not to mention national security — from our children and future generations. And we are not any happier with all this stuff. Au contraire. Research shows many Americans yearning for community and connection…being world class shoppers just doesn’t satisfy for long.
Think about it for just a moment. If we are going to destroy the livability on our one and only planet, in part by burning fossil fuels that pollute, degrade our climate and add to the national debt at dizzying rates, might we come to regret this reckless runway to ruin?
Might we wish for a chance to turn back the clocks and beg for a re-do? Might we not have an adequate response when our kids and grand kids ask what were we thinking—and so damn busy doing— that we couldn’t be bothered to change habits, policies and leaders, so as to better protect that which makes life…and everything in it…possible…and pleasant enough to enjoy??
If you think suicide is depressing, just imagine what eco-cide would look and feel like. Once a stable climate, healthy oceans, bio-diversity, endangered species and the entire web of life — this sweet spot of an earthly ecosystem — are irreversibly compromised, isn’t that a form of collective suicide or eco-cide? And any future survivors of that will surely be sorry, sad and appropriately mad that those of us who could have done more failed to heed the warning signs of impending doom. If we willfully ignore the many signals — and Mother Nature is screaming at us now — then who are we as a culture and a country?
IS THE FUTURE WORTH PRESERVING? IS LIFE WORTH SAVING? If not, then carry on as usual.
But if your answer is yes then consider showing your BIG love for kids, community, country or even a favorite fallen comedian, by marching in the upcoming rally for climate action on September 21st. If you can’t join us in New York City for the march in conjunction with UN Climate Summit People’s Climate March on September 21st, then find or plan an event in your own town. Consider inviting friends over to discuss your environmental concerns, hopes and what you can do to be part of the solution.
IN SUMMARY, this is what I know for sure after a life filled with much love but too much loss. The things we all share…our love of life and fear of losing what we hold most dear…should mobilize us. We ALL co-exist on one small planet that we are squeezing the life out of. Our climate is hanging in the balance. As I write this the California drought is shriveling crops, raising food prices, and record flooding in Pakistan and in Phoenix, Arizona topped the nightly news this week, though typically, leaving out a mention of what’s fueling it, global weirding.
But while loss and death are unavoidable, extreme weather events are not a fait accompli. Or at least some of it is preventable, but only if we wake up now and smell the carbon. The ultimate tragedies are ones we could have avoided but instead chose to ignore while we could still take action.
If you’ve read this far, thank you. If you like the message please share so it can go “enviral”. Then go do something positive for your planet and fellow citizens in memory of those we have loved and lost. Whether or not we care about what’s happening with our weather will determine what happens next. But don’t do it for me. Do it for everyone and everything you hold dear. And if you’re thinking of him today, or any day, do it for Robin Williams. When you do, just imagine those expressive blue eyes of his crinkling and twinkling from on high.
And then go out and have a good laugh, something we should all do as often as possible.
It’s more satisfying than shopping and gentler on your wallet, not to mention our ailing planet.