Down Home: Sad exit for a funny, funny man

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More than most celebrity deaths, the passing of Robin Williams hit hard at our home. The barrage of articles and comments on the Internet indicates we were not alone.

Joanna and I began laughing at Williams’ antics more than three and a half decades ago, even before we married.

We attended Hardin-Simmons University, where I edited the campus newspaper, The Brand. It was a small outfit. And putting out a newspaper in the pre-computer/desktop publishing era was a labor-intensive, tedious endeavor. It involved printing articles on long strips of paper, which we placed strip by strip on pre-press pages. It involved X-Acto knives and waxing machines and red film called rubylith. Preparing the paper for printing took hours.

By our senior year, Jo loved me so much, she spent most of every Thursday at the printer’s office, by my side, placing those copy strips on pages so The Brand could be printed that night.

We almost never finished before the university cafeteria closed on Thursdays. But since we both served on the food-service committee of Student Congress, the cafeteria manager let us use our meal cards to eat dinner in the snack bar.

Cheeseburgers and Mork

It seemed like the best of all possible worlds. (Didn’t take much to thrill a couple of college students back in the day.) Every Thursday night, we feasted on cheeseburgers, fries and soft drinks. And the snack bar had its own TV. Better still, the place usually resembled a ghost town on Thursday nights. So, we had the TV to ourselves.

We always tuned in to a new show, Mork and Mindy, about an alien from the planet Ork who fell to earth and was rescued by a young woman in Boulder, Colo. We howled at Williams’/Mork’s out-of-this-world observations about all the silly and mundane things earthlings take for granted. He quickly became our favorite comedian.

Across the years, we’ve watched most of his movies. And for decades, he’s been our favorite late-night TV guest. We never tired of his impersonations and speed-of-light stream-of-consciousness improvisations. He’s probably made Jo laugh out loud more than anybody except for me, and I try to do it every day.

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Williams was only five years older, so we progressed through adulthood with him. Fortunately for us, our lives haven’t been nearly as dramatic as his. We’ve stayed married to each other, and we haven’t been to rehab.

But we’ve raised children, and so has he. We’ve been appalled and infuriated by the same politicians and despots who appalled and infuriated him. We dealt with mortgages and traffic and the economy and sports and marriage and kids and music and relationships—the subjects of his jokes.

Sensitive soul

So, Jo met me at the garage door the other evening and quickly said: “I just read the worst headline. I think Robin Williams is dead.” Tears filled my eyes almost as quickly as her words filled my ears.

Actually, I was shocked but not completely surprised to learn he took his own life. Jo and I heard him so many times, talking to people like Johnny Carson and then David Letterman. Obviously, he was a sensitive soul. And while I can’t recall hearing the word “depression,” his trips to rehab indicated a troubled spirit.

In the past week, you’ve heard and read numerous comments from experts far more knowledgeable than I. They’ve told us depression is a disease, like cancer or diabetes or the flu. Depression victims need not be ashamed, but they need to get help.

I feel blessed to say I’ve never been clinically depressed. I’ve not experienced the malady of depression in my brain. But I’ve been situationally sad enough that I’ve discussed depression with my doctor. He told me he did not think I needed medication (which proved to be a correct diagnosis), but he said if I did—or ever do—need help, that’s no reason for shame.

Remove the blanket of shame

Williams’ suicide still breaks my heart and many others’ besides. But if it helps us acknowledge the truth of depression and frees us to remove the blanket of shame, then it will secure a measure of redemption.

That’s particularly true of depression that generates thoughts of suicide.

If you experience an inclination to take your life, please know this:

• Your life has value. You are created in God’s image, and your life is precious because it reflects the stamp of the divine.

• You are loved. God made and loves you, no matter what you think or feel. Others love and care for you, even if they’re lousy at expressing it.

• Suicide is not the answer. The experience of countless people across the ages testifies that hopelessness is not permanent. Beauty rises from ashes. Productivity and meaning exist on the far side of the desert.

Robin Williams lived a paradox—a deeply sad person made everybody laugh. And depression is a paradox, too—life seems bleak, but joy floats on the edges.

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