Why I Felt Robin Williams’ Loss So Deeply

A lot of my friends are talking about Robin Williams today.  They’re all talking about the sadness, the loss,the iconic man that he was, a man who made others happy but couldn’t do so for himself.  Many of us are commenting on how this celebrity passing is touching us in a way others haven’t.  Sure, Michael Jackson was a major influence that we all grew up with too; but there’s something about Robin Williams, the depth and breadth of his work and talent that has made us all feel like we’ve lost a family member. 

I feel it too, though quite likely for reasons that very few of my friends would understand, and one that I don’t really ever talk about.  Sure, Dead Poets’ Society is one of my favorite movies, a huge reason why I ended up becoming a teacher (the idea that I could change one, even just one students’ life in the way Mr. Keating did….).  But it wasn’t that movie in Robin Williams’ filmography that made the most impact on me and my life.  It wasn’t Good Will Hunting or Patch Adams or Good Morning Vietnam, although I loved all of those movies. 

It was The Birdcage.

I know, right?  How could that be the most impactful of his entire body of work?  The hilarious comedy about a gay couple and their son and the frantic antics they engage in to pull off the son’s marriage into a conservative family. 

I’ll tell you why.  Because I’m the child of a gay man. 

That’s right.  I don’t say it out loud that much.  It’s not that I am ashamed of it.  It is just that we never, ever really talked about it when I was growing up.  My parents got divorced in 1977.  I was seven.  I found out later it was because my mother, who had long suspected my father was having an affair, had her suspicions confirmed.  He was indeed sleeping with someone else.  Only it wasn’t another woman.  It was a man. 

The world was very, very different in 1977.  My parents never told us that my father was gay.  When my father moved in with another man we were told it was because they were going to be roommates.  They maintained separate bedrooms.  I actually found out about my father from my sister, who let it slip one day while she was talking to a girlfriend within my earshot.  I think I was 12. 

There were no gay people on TV then.  People weren’t talking about gay pride back then (at least not that I knew about).  Gay people were stigmatized.  My father and his partner maintained separate bedrooms all throughout my teens, and while it eventually became clear to my father that we all knew about him and Steve, it was something we simply did not discuss.  They were not “obvious” and Steve hardly ever came to any family functions.  They were both firmly in the closet at their respective jobs.  I didn’t tell anyone but my very closest friends about my father.  It was like a shameful secret.

The Birdcage came out in 1996, the same year I got married.   And in it, for the first time, I saw so much of my life depicted.  The awkwardness of having to explain your father and his “friend”.  The impulse to lie because it just is easier.  The anger and frustration that you feel when you realize people can really just be jerks.  That being a kid of a gay person does not mean you are destined to be gay yourself.  And the slow realization that these two people, these are just people in love just like anyone else.  My father and his partner are more married than many heterosexual couples I know, even though they are not legally allowed to marry. 

The Birdcage took all of the crazy stereotypes that people have about gay couples and truly just turned them on their ears.  Through Robin Williams wit and comedy, that movie made even truly conservative people stop and think about their prejudices about gay people.  By going to the most crazy level of stereotypes about gays and transgenders, he showed that in the end, there are a lot more similarities than differences.  That moment when Calista Flockheart says in a choked voice, “I really would have loved to have been part of your family.”  Because gay or straight, at the end of the day, that three person unit was just that.  A family.   Something to be proud of, not ashamed of.

And now, nearly 20 years later, the world is a very different place.  In 1996, my father’s partner wouldn’t attend my wedding, no matter how much I begged, because he didn’t want to be a spectacle.  Last year, he attended my son’s wedding and my father proudly introduced him as his partner.  The world is changing, for the better.  We still have a long way to go.  But we’re headed in the right direction. 

So when I think of Robin Williams and his direct influence on my life, I think of the Birdcage.  And I thank him for finally showing me and the world that being the child of a gay person isn’t something to keep a secret.  My family may look different than yours, but that doesn’t make it wrong.  It just makes it different.  And if someone can’t accept that? 

To quote Armand Coleman:  Yes, I wear foundation. Yes, I live with a man. Yes, I’m a middle- aged fag. But I know who I am, Val. It took me twenty years to get here, and I’m not gonna let some idiot senator destroy that. Fuck the senator, I don’t give a damn what he thinks.”

Rest In Peace Robin Williams.  I hope you find some measure of the peace you were able to give me through your gifts. 

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Baby Watch

Well, it’s finally time.  Well not quite time, but close to time.  Close enough that it’s getting all very real in my head:  I will be a grandmother in a few days, a few weeks at the most.  Could be two days, could be twelve, but it’s not going to be likely too much longer than that.  I still can’t quite wrap my head around it, but it doesn’t matter, because regardless of where my headspace is at, this is happening.

At first, when “the kids” announced my daughter in law’s pregnancy to me, I was hesitant for them.  They should have waited, they needed more time.  More time to be young, to be a married couple, to enjoy life.  I suppose this was in some ways practical, but in other ways totally reactionary:  I became a mother at age 18.  I know first hand how much that altered my course, how difficult some things became.

But they’re not 18.  They’re 24 and 25.  They aren’t in school, they’re well beyond college and working.  They’re not living at home with a parent, they’re married and on their own.

As the months have progressed and I’ve watched my son’s baby become a visible presence, I’ve kind of marveled at how mature he is.  How much he’s grown up, while still retaining his youth and fun and whimsy.  He’s a kid at heart, but he’s also a 24 year old adult, and he’s acting like one.  He’s saved, scrimped and prepared for this moment.  They have planned and set up their life to be ready for this baby.  Everything is in place.  They have read, they have researched and they have done everything they can do ahead of having the child to be prepared.  They’re ready.

Even if I’m not quite all there yet, they most definitely are.  And I’m kind of awed and amazed by it.

So this morning, my daughter in law sends me a text.  I knew she was going to the doctor today  and they would “check” her to see if she was moving along.  Last week they’d reported she’s been having contractions although she can’t feel them, so this week was the telling moment:  would we be waiting three weeks or more or not?

The text said:  “3 CM!!!!”

I know you can walk around for weeks at 3 centimeters dilated.  I’ve never personally experienced 3 cm anywhere but in a hospital, but I have heard it happens.  So it’s happening.  Could be this weekend.  Could be next week (please don’t let it happen on Monday when we’re predicted to get quite a nasty storm….and so are they).  But it doesn’t seem likely that it will be much beyond then at this rate.

My grandbaby is coming.  I (finally) can’t wait.

One Year

When I lay in bed this morning, in the dark quiet before the dawn, the first thing that came into my head was the song, “Seasons of Love.”

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?

It’s been one year today since the awful tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary.  I can still remember the day so vividly, and so many of the days afterwards.  The terror, the fear, the tragedy, right here in my own backyard.

In the past year I’ve become increasingly involved with one of the families affected by that terrible day.  I’ve gotten to to know them and am now working with them on the foundation they’ve set up to raise funds in their child’s memory.  Their spirit and ability to move forward has just astounded me.  Today, this family quietly marks the day in a tropical location far away, away from the sadness and the madness that they hoped wouldn’t happen here.  I’ve seen how this family has been able to find their son in a million tiny moments every single day.  I’ve seen how they’ve been able to truly take this tragedy and create from it a life filled with passion and love and hope for the future of others.  How they’ve surrounded themselves with energy and light instead of darkness.

The bracelets they had made for their foundation, coincidentally, have imprinted on them:  “Measure your life in love.”  As I look back on the last year, I am proud to say that I have taken that oath and brought more love, more laughter, more gratitude into my own life.  I’ve done that by working with this family, working with others, donating my time and energy.  And it has come back to me in so many ways.

Today, five thousand twenty five hundred six hundred minutes later, I am praying for all of those who measured this past year in those excruciating increments as they moved forward from unspeakable tragedy. I am hoping that everyone affected by the awful events that happened one year ago today are able to measure their lives in the love that surrounds them today, and every day. We are here for you, thinking of you, and hold you in our hearts.

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?

In daylights, in sunsets
In midnights, in cups of coffee
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife
In five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, a year in the life?

How about love?
How about love?
How about love?
Measure in love

Seasons of love
Seasons of love

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand journeys to plan
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure the life of a woman or a man?

In truths that she learned
Or in times that he cried
In bridges he burned
Or the way that she died

It’s time now, to sing out
Though the story never ends
Let’s celebrate
Remember a year in the life of friends

Remember the love
(Oh, you got to, you got to remember the love)
Remember the love
(You know that love is a gift from up above)
Remember the love
(Share love, give love, spread love)
Measure in love
(Measure, measure your life in love)

Seasons of love
Seasons of love
(Measure your life, measure your life in love)

43

I turned 43 a week ago today.

It was a quiet day.  Birthdays at this age aren’t the source of fanfare they used to be.  Still, it was nice day filled with good wishes and friendly camaraderie.   My girlfriends had taken me out a few days before, my family took me out the day after, and all manner of far flung people filled my cell phone and Facebook page with their thoughts.

I’ve always said that getting older doesn’t really bother me.  In fact, I try to revel in the fact that I am extremely healthy and look young for my age, despite having a child in his twenties.  Certainly I’ve never even thought about lying about my age; as it is, people still greet my eldest’s age and station in life with shock.  I see them do the math in their heads when I tell them how old he is, how old I am.  Still, all told, 43 isn’t a problem for me.

I’ll be 43 this year, the year I become a grandmother.

My son and his wife shared their news with us this weekend, four days after my birthday.  They are expecting their first child, in March.

So many thoughts have occurred to me since the moment they told us.  They seem so, so young.  Except they’re five years older than I was when I had him.  They seem so unprepared, but yet they both still have good jobs.  I was still in college when I had my son.  They’ll need to move, to find a bigger place, but they’re still out on their own.  I was living at home, with my mom, when my son was born.

Everything I hear myself saying about how they’re not ready yet to be parents flies in the face of my own experiences.  And I worked it out, made a good life for my child, my children.  Right?

I want to happy for them, but I am so worried for them.  I wanted my son to not make any of the same mistakes that I did, and to have a much different experience than I had as a young adult.  I wanted him to revel in his twenties, have that time to enjoy life and travel and not worry about every penny, not worry about tomorrow and just have fun.

But I raised this boy to be responsible, thoughtful, and goal oriented.  So he’s done it all right:  gone to college, gotten his degree, gotten married, lived on his own, saved his money.   He didn’t waste his time partying because it simply isn’t in him.  I hope he feels that he’s had a lot of wonderful experiences, that he’s enjoyed his life as a young man.  Because his life is about to change dramatically.  It won’t ever be the same.  And most of the time, that will be wonderful, amazing, a gift that he will always cherish.

I hope they’re ready.  I pray they are ready.  And I wish, against all hope, that somehow the universe will hear me.

Six Months Later

It’s six months since Sandy Hook.

Here in Monroe, CT, where the survivors now go to school (and will be going until a new school is built for them), today is a somber day where we all are reliving that awful Friday in our heads, thinking of all of our many personal connections to those who lost so much that day, and reflecting on how much (and how little) the world has changed.

In other parts of the country, Sandy Hook and its awful terror seems to have long since been forgotten.   Or worse, thought of negatively, as perhaps the “Connecticut Effect”, where a real world tragedy brought to light some of the terrible and real cracks in our society’s foundation.  For those who do not want our society to change, Sandy Hook is perhaps a term used negatively.

But not here.  Here it’s a phrase woven with love and sadness and protective fierceness.  I sat in on a discussion last week of how our own schools will be doing construction over the summer to make them safer.  All of the exterior doors will be replaced.  All of the classroom doors will now have two way locks, so they can be locked in the inside as well as the outside.  When I was a teacher, twenty years ago, this never occurred to us (and I taught in the inner city!).  They are reconstructing the entry ways of each school to have “sallyports” or vestibules rather than open access to the building.  In one school, this means moving the school office to a different location, so the staff can have “visual command” of the entry way.  Glass will enclose these sallyports way from the main hallways.  The glass will not shatter with bullets, we were told.  The glass will stay in place, even when it breaks.

All of this will “slow down” an intruder, our superintendent said, not stop them.  Which is why we have had, and will continue to have, police officers stationed at each school as well.

What a horrible new reality we are living in here.  The Connecticut Effect is definitely present here next door to Newtown.   It is inescapable.  It is our every day these days.

Despite all of the awful, there is also wonder and awe at how kindness and love have become more recognized and more present in our world.  Our race two weekends ago brought out the best of our giving and helping community.  Our town is offering the school where Sandy Hook kids attend rent free to Newtown.   Everywhere you turn there are little green signs in storefront windows proclaiming “Love Wins” or “Choose Love” or “Sandy Hook Loves Monroe”.  Many businesses here sell little bracelets, ribbons or shirts to help raise money for the victims and their families.

So here we are, six months out.  Tonight we will leave our porch light on, a beacon of light in the darkness that has been left here for so many.  And perhaps, maybe a promise that the world will not forget what happened just nine miles up the road.  Maybe, just maybe we can still come together and make the world a better place.

Because in the end, I really am hoping that love does win.  It just has to.

Love In Many Forms

My son and his wife of seven days (typing that just seems amazing) are somewhere in Jerusalem right now.  In Israel.  Yes, the one that is seven hours time difference from where they live in Alexandria, VA and where I live in Connecticut. I was pondering that the other day.  For my honeymoon, my husband and I went on a Carnival cruise.  We went to Grand Cayman, Cozumel and New Orleans.  It was the first time I’d been outside of the US save for Canada (because every good Detroiter has gone drinking in Canada).   My son has been now to Spain, to Croatia, and to Israel.  He’s passed through France for connecting flights, twice.  What a different life has than I did.

What a different life he has than I ever imagined for him.

At my son’s wedding last week, after he and I shared our emotional mother/son dance, I walked him back to his new wife and hugged her hard.  Then I went back to sit at my table, with my husband and our two much younger children.  Within a minute, there was my father, red in the face and clearly just as emotional as me.

Maybe more so.

“I remember the day he was born,” he struggled to tell me, tears flowing from the corners of his eyes.   And he was right.  Of the hundred or so people standing in this room with us, there were only three of us who were there the day Zach was born.  My sister, myself and my father.  My brother was in the Navy in basic training at the time, and met him about a month or so after he was born.  Everyone else in the room met him sometime later in his life.

It was hard, at that moment in time, staring at my son and his lovely wife in this gorgeous hotel ballroom, with everyone dressed in their finery, to imagine what those days were like.  My father had literally been there since the moment this boy was born; he’d been my Lamaze coach.  He’d watched this young man come into the world, take his first breaths.  He’d been ultimately supportive after his initial skepticism  regarding my “situation”.  I was 18 and alone when this little baby came into all of our lives, and life could have turned out very, very different than the moment we were all experiencing together.

But what was overwhelming all of us, as my sister had now come to join my father and I, both redfaced in the front of the room together, was my mother’s absence.  “She should have been here,” my father said next, putting his head in his hand.  “She would have been so proud of him.”

Seeing my father cry about my mother is truly a humbling experience for me. While my father has been with his partner since before my parents’ marriage ended, it’s clear to me that he truly did love my mother.  While the demise of their marriage was fraught with difficulty, fighting and anger, eventually everything settled in to the way things were supposed to be.  In fact, I always kind of thought that my pregnancy at 18 and my parents banding together to support me and my child truly was the last step of pulling them back together as a family unit, if not a married one.  And when my mother passed, my father was there to hold her hand along with us kids.  It was my father who helped us eulogize her at her memorial.  They had a clear and deep connection, and it is easy for me to forget that on a day to day basis.  I suppose I deal with my grief often about my mother, but my father likely doesn’t.  So it is in these family moments where it comes roaring to the surface for him, still raw and harsh, even twenty years later.

In some sort of awful way, it made me feel good to see him that affected by her absence.  That while his life is very different now, the affection he had for her was real and true and honest. I held him and told him about the wedding song, and how sure I was that she had a role to play there.  That I was sure she was watching all of us here, this night and smiling from wherever she was, happy to see her beloved first grandchild so successful, so sure of himself, so clearly in love.  “She loved him so much,” I said to my father and my sister, which gave them both a fresh set of tears, but gave me a strength and surety that stopped my own.

Because You Loved Me

Well, just like that, it’s over.  The lead up, all the stress, the fights, the craziness of getting ready for my son to be married is over.  He’s married and off on his honeymoon in Israel.

There are many things bottled up inside of me that I want to say about it.  They’ll all have to come out, one at a time.  But for now, I guess I’ll share my favorite story of the weekend.

About a week before the wedding, my son asked me to select a song for the mother/son dance.  I’d honestly forgotten there was such a thing, and I was stumped.  We don’t really share a lot of the same music tastes, have never really had music in common as our thing.  We don’t have “a song” per se.  I didn’t know what to do.

I thought about it for a few days, and finally did what I always do when I don’t know something.  I consulted Google. And sure enough, when you type in “mother son wedding dance”, you’ll find several sites suggesting music.  I clicked on one that was supposedly from some DJ that does a lot of weddings, and looked at his Top 100 Mother/Son Wedding songs.

Some were weird and inappropriate.  More like for a couple.  But there were enough on there that made me think, “Oh, yeah, I’ve always liked that song” or “Oh, that one has always reminded me of Z.”

I wrote out a list of song titles, and put a little sentence underneath each one about why I picked it.  There were eight songs.  I asked him to listen to each one, look up the lyrics and decide which one connected with him the most about our relationship.  In the end, I deleted my descriptions of why I chose each one, not wanting to prejudice him.

When I asked him a few days before the wedding which song he’d picked, he wouldn’t tell me.  All he said was that one of the songs on the list I’d provided was one of the songs he’d been thinking of too, and so that would be the song.  I couldn’t imagine which one he would pick.  Here’s the list:

  • I Hope You Dance, Lee Ann Womack
  • Devil Knows You’re Dead, Delta Spirit (this is an Irish blessing put to song, don’t be scared off by the title)
  • You Raise Me Up, Josh Groban
  • Because You Loved Me, Celine Dion
  • Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole “Iz”
  • The Prayer, Bocelli/Dion
  • What a Wonderful World, Louis Armstrong
  • Forever Young, Rod Stewart

I figured he would pick What a Wonderful World.  Or maybe The Prayer, or You Raise Me Up.  I hoped he’d pick either I Hope You Dance, which has always made me think of him, or Because You Loved Me, because it has always been my song for my mother.

Z and his new bride danced their first dance, and we all cried.  They looked so happy and in love.  And beautiful, even though my poor boy really can’t dance at all.  Then his new wife danced with her father, very sweet, and they looked so happy together.  I knew my turn was coming.

And all of a sudden, when I heard the first notes of the song my son had chosen for our dance, I couldn’t believe it.  I tried not to cry, but I couldn’t help it.

He’d chosen Because You Loved Me.  I wasn’t sure if I’d ever told him that it reminded me of my mother.  It’s a pretty girly song, and I never imagined he’d choose it.  As we awkwardly moved in circles around the dance floor, cameras popping off everywhere, I told him:  “I’m not sure you know this or not, but this song has always reminded me of my mother.”

He looked down on me and responded:  “This song has always reminded me of you, Mom.”

And then the tears really started flowing.  A bittersweet mixture of happy and sad all at once, overwhelming.  I kept myself from sobbing right then and there on the dance floor.

Only later, alone in my hotel room, did I succumb to the emotion and cry the heaving sobs that my heart had to release.

 

 

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