I’ve been thinking a lot about Robin Williams this week. Reading stories and blog posts and opinion pieces as people who were impacted by his art, his humor, and his life come to grips with his death. And an image keeps popping up in my head; a very pleasant image. That time Robin Williams and my wife Lindi and I attended a Bruce Springsteen concert together.
It was late November 1995 when Bruce was on his solo acoustic Ghost of Tom Joad tour. The concert was at The Berkeley Community Theater in San Francisco, one of those opulent Art Deco theaters, the only theaters that ever really feel grand and alive enough to properly host a great show. Okay, so Lindi and I went to the Bruce show with Robin Williams in the same way we went with the other 3,500 people who were there. We were in the same building together. No big deal, right? Well, to you, maybe. But to me?
I was standing in line to buy a couple glasses of wine for my baby and me before the show began. I glanced to my left. Double-take. “That’s Robin Williams,” I say to myself. Anyone who knows me knows how much I enjoy meeting the people who have impacted my life with their art. I was in the front row at a Dylan concert when I saw Ken Kesey across the aisle in the second row. I walked up to him before Bob took the stage, Kesey standing in his hand-painted American flag Converse All-Stars, and I said, “Thank you for everything.” Just that. He smiled and said, “You’re welcome.” I paid extra for a front row seat when Cheryl Strayed spoke in my town a few months ago so I could meet her at a private reception after her presentation and snap a selfie. My daughter Emily knows how often I made her wait with me at the stage door after all those Broadway shows we attended when she lived in New York so we could get a word, an autograph, a photo with Bernadette Peters, Jack Klugman, Tony Randall, Natalie Portman. My favorite such encounter was the talk we had with Bruno Kirby after his touching performance in Bunny, Bunny.
But not this time. I stood next to Robin Williams for about ten minutes and never said a word. I didn’t want to wreck the moment. We were there for a Bruce show and I just didn’t want to be the person that builds the wall between a star and a fan that jumps up immediately when someone says, “Hi. I loved Dead Poets Society, or whatever.” We got our drinks at about the same time and I followed him into the theater. His seat was right in front, I assume. Ours were not so close that time. I handed Lindi a glass of wine and said, “Guess who I just stood in line with?”
My grandfather suffered from depression; bipolar disorder. He committed suicide when my dad was two years old. I’ve been thinking a lot about him as I think about Robin Williams. From what I’ve heard from people who knew him, my grandfather was a very warm and funny guy; everyone’s favorite uncle. And the depression overcame him and the humor could not save him.
Lauren Bacall died the day after Robin Williams died. She died at home at age 89. That’s the way life is supposed to end. After a long, full life I want to die peacefully, at home, surrounded by people who love me, with the opportunity to say farewell, see you again, I love you. But it doesn’t work out that way for most people. When people we care about die, we take it as it comes and sometimes it comes in the form of suicide. We try to make sense of what happened, what led someone to that place where ending his or her own life appeared to be the best option. And we usually fail. We often ask the proverbial question, “What could I have done?” In all likelihood; nothing. The best we can do is pick up the pieces of our broken hearts, slip them gently back into the dark cavity in our chest, take a deep breath, and take a next step. And another. And another. And remember the good stuff.
I’m going to watch Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting and Aladdin again soon. And I’ll remember that moment with Robin Williams before the Bruce show in San Francisco with a big smile of gratitude on my face for all the funny, profound, gratifying moments he has given me – given everyone – since he first uttered the words “Nanu! Nanu!” I hope and trust Robin Williams has found the peace that eluded him in this life.
For anyone who loves both Robin Williams and Bruce Springsteen, this one’s for you. Robin Williams as Elmer Fudd doing Bruce: