A good photo can tell the story of a life. Or maybe it takes two.
I think in the Bay Area, there are many, many people who are feeling something that we can’t shake: the loss of Robin Williams.
What people through all the country may feel, in fact the entire world as well, is the loss of a transcendental entertainer, the improvisational genius of the century, and a successful movie actor. But here locally, we mourn the death of a neighbor, a local, and somehow, illogically, one of us.
I feel him everywhere. Across from a mansion in Sea Cliff where he used to live, there are two benches. One commemorates his parents, the other is for the parents of his second wife, Marsha Garces. I like to run to China Beach and the benches are on the way. I always think he’ll be in the window of that house or something, even though he hasn’t lived there for years.
People bumped into him in nearby Laurel Village, buying groceries. My wife Anne once saw him in the famous Green Apple bookstore on Clement Street. In the Richmond, my part of town, it was like he was in the air.
Comedian Marc Maron put together the cleanest, purest look I have found into the mind of Robin Williams on his podcast WTF. Around minute 29:00, they talk about the comedy culture in San Francisco where Robin got his start: the Holy City Zoo, The Other Cafe, and Cobb’s. I didn’t see Robin at The Other, but I did see Paula Poundstone and the late Jane Dornacker once. I remember Paula did a joke about her shower curtain being so slimy, it was like Velcro against the tiles. Had I accidentally chosen another night, I would’ve seen him, pre-Mork days.
But the part of his life that sticks with me like a burr in my sock is the little-known fact that he was also a soccer player. His Wikipedia page says he “was a student at the private Detroit Country Day School. He excelled in school, where he was on the school’s soccer team and wrestling team, and became class president.”
“As Williams’s father was away much of the time, and his mother also worked, he was attended to by the family’s maid, who was his main companion. When Williams was 16, his father took early retirement and the family moved to Woodacre, California. There, Williams attended Redwood High School in nearby Larkspur where he graduated in 1969.”
Somewhere in that period, he attended a soccer camp in Stanford where I would work some years after. The link between Robin’s participation there and mine is Michael Keohane, a friend and mentor. Michael was always the guy who was a couple of years older than me and who would meet me at West Sunset on a Saturday morning to kick against the wall, or give me a ride to San Jose to watch the Earthquakes play, or any of a hundred other favors. I don’t think I’d have been a player in college or a coach today if it weren’t for Michael. He’s also been responsible for getting me to Brazil a couple of times. And he is perhaps the only living person who remembers Robin Williams played soccer here in the Bay Area:
I was not at that camp but I would be three or four years later. The attendance would boom, the camp photo would move to the bleachers, and we’d each be a suntanned dot. Marty Krumm is on the left end and he is no longer with us. Coach Feibusch I see once or twice a month, he still plays in our pickup game. He periodically says playing in the game makes him feel alive, and seeing the rest of us brightens his spirits. Coach Toby Rappolt likes to say soccer is “better than therapy.”
Part of me thinks it’s that simple. Maybe Robin could’ve used a pickup game. If he came to play with us on Tuesday nights and Sunday mornings, would he have felt better, like Ernie does, and not taken his own life? I doubt it. He was suffering from depression. And what I know about depression is I don’t know much about depression. So I will quote others. Some sufferers have said:
“Depression is silence. It’s total isolation in a room full of people. It’s feeling the drag and pull of life making you smaller by the day.”
Or, “It’s like falling into a well or a deep dark hole and having no ladder to climb to help you get out of it. You get trapped in the darkness feeling cold and numb.”
Knowing people fighting depression has educated me some. I have come to understand that language is a poor tool to explain what it is like. It is not a sad moment. It is not the blues. It is not grief for something tragic that has happened. Instead it is like something has broken in the your mind, the repair kit is missing, and you don’t have the energy to do anything about it. An expert in the field is Andrew Solomon and he had this to say about the darkness of depression and suicidal ideation:
“Psychologically, I will not have to seek far if I decide to kill myself, because in my mind and heart I am more ready for this than for the unplanned daily tribulations that mark off the mornings and afternoons.”
― Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression
Robin was depressed. Despite his riches, popularity, and fame, he suffered and couldn’t
emerge from it. Toby, Mike, and I live much simpler lives and continue to plug along. As does coach Feibusch. But I look at that photo from Stanford and realize everyone in it has traveled his own road, unique and impossible to predict. I wish the last turn for Robin had been different. And as nearby as he seemed, I wish we could have done something for him, because he did so much for us.
KQED blog on Robin and the Other.
W. Kamau Bell on Robin, and how he helped his career.