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. 

Advertisements

The Thousandth Mile

I’ve mentioned before that I live in Monroe, CT.  We here have been deeply affected by the events that took place on 12/14.  I wrote extensively about the charity 5K I put together (with a lot of help!).  One of the groups that benefitted from that race was the Race4Chase organization.  They get involved with various athletic events and encourage runners especially to run to raise money for their foundation, the Chase Kowalski Foundation.  Chase was an avid runner, even at 7.  He had competed in races and triathalons.  His energy and spirit are the rationale behind the cause.

Monroe is one of those places that people don’t leave.  It’s a small town in close enough proximity to NYC that there are plenty of reasons to stay.  Not only is it beautiful here, but there is a true sense of community here.  The people here are so nice; nicer than pretty much anywhere I’ve lived, and that includes my own hometown in Michigan.  Chase’s parents grew up here in Monroe, and didn’t go far.  They live next door in the Sandy Hook area of Newtown.  A lot of their friends from high school also live nearby, including one named Kevin Bresnahan.

Kevin is a runner, and not long after last December’s tragedy, he had the brainstorm to run a 1,000 miles this year in honor of Chase.  He’d heard that Chase had loved running and races, so he thought it was the one thing he could do to help.  He asked people to sponsor his miles, at $10 per mile.  His efforts actually helped give focus to the idea that eventually became Race4Chase, running to raise money for the foundation.  He started a blog to journal about each and every mile, and it can be read here:  1000 Miles 4 Chase.

He started last January.  I started reading it back then, and it was amazing to watch the miles, and the money, add up.  Kevin ran our local 5K as part of those miles, and I joined him for another 5K later that month.  He ran, and ran, and ran.  And lo and behold, the miles have added up.  This weekend, he finished.

As he neared the end, Kevin and some of the friends of the Kowalski family hatched an idea to share that last mile of his journey.  He worked with them to plan a route, a meeting place, get a police escort, and a big party for afterwards.  The last mile started at Chalk Hill School, where the Sandy Hook students now go.  It ended at their good friend’s house, just a mile away.  So meaningful.

This weekend was that last mile, and I was one of nearly 100 people who came out to complete that last mile with Kevin.  It was an awe inspiring, amazing time.   It was hot, so much of the route was walked by most of us, and I walked up part of the route with Becky Kowalski.  What an amazing energy and spirit she has.  She was upbeat, and positive, and even joked about how much she hated running, and why couldn’t Chase had loved a different sport that was less taxing?   She was incredible.

At the end, Kevin held Becky’s hand and ran through a finish line in their friend’s yard.  Then they both jumped in the pool to cool off.  And stayed to party with everyone who had come out in support of them.  It was friendship and love and support and faith and strength all together in one thirty minute span of time.

They inspire me.

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.

Yes, Adam and Steve

All over my Facebook feed, there are people posting, talking, supporting Marriage Equality today.  It’s truly an amazing thing.  What a different world it is today than it was five, ten, twenty years ago.

Last night, as the evening news talked about the Supreme Court challenges to California’s Proposition 8 and DOMA, as straight people were everywhere were talking about marriage being a civil right, it seemed a good a time as any to talk to my daughter about how this applies to our family.  She is just thirteen, the same age (or maybe even a little older) that I was when I discovered that my father was gay.  I found out by eavesdropping on my sister and a girlfriend talking derisively about my father’s boyfriend.

I remember the shock, the fear, the mild revulsion as I processed the information.  Back then, of course, one didn’t speak of such things.  It was perfectly acceptable to call people fags, homos and queers.  There weren’t any TV shows talking about gay people.   But then as I thought about the whole thing, I realized that it didn’t change anything.  I liked my dad’s boyfriend.  I didn’t want to think about them having sex any more than I wanted to think about my parents doing it.  So they were gay.  They were still good people.  Whatever.

We hardly ever spoke about the gay thing as a family.  My mother knew that I knew, but we didn’t speak of it.  My father knew that I knew, but we didn’t talk about it.  I certainly didn’t talk to my siblings about it.  And most of my friends were blissfully unaware of it.  Plenty of people had divorced parents, and my father’s boyfriend never made an appearance in our lives.  He just happened to be at the house if we went to visit my father.  But he didn’t come to funerals, graduations or weddings.  I worried what people would think if people found out he was gay.  What would they think of me?

But telling my daughter was an entirely different experience.  Of course “gay” still isn’t something that is widely accepted amongst her peer set.  Being called gay or queer at school is still considered negative.  But the plethora of information and familiarity her generation has with homosexuality through pop culture has led them to a much more open attitude about it.  Some people are gay, some are straight.  It’s just who you are.  My daughter shrugged her shoulders when I talked to her last night, as if the news was a: not at all a surprise (after all, she knows my father’s partner lives with him we see them together every Christmas) and b:  no big deal.  The stigma and the strangeness of it all just weren’t there as they were for me.  Gay is just part of life these days.

In fact, the only question my daughter had was how my father could marry my mother, since obviously you are who you are, and if he was gay, why would he choose a woman for a partner?  Explaining society in the 1960s, where being gay was simply not an option, where one got married because that was simply the only choice that existed, was hard to do.  Because she can’t even imagine a world where black people sat on the back of the bus and gay people couldn’t talk about who they were.  I told her that while my father loved my mother, and was happy to be a father and have a family, eventually he became very frustrated.  He was who he was, and eventually he had to live the life he was made to live, not the one that society forced on him.   I am still not sure it made a lot of sense to her, but she nodded and said she understood.

How wonderful it is to have that time, the time when being hateful and bigoted, seems strange and foreign instead of the norm.  We’re still not there yet, not by a long shot.  But the tides definitely have turned, in a big way.  I am not sure if the Supreme Court will be as far along as our society is….only time will tell.

Yep. I Called That One.

Here is the text of the voicemail that landed on my phone while I was out running this morning:

“Hello.  I just wanted to call and thank you for ruining Christmas, that was very nice of you, I appreciate that.  We won’t be going to Florida this year because (my fiancee) won’t come anywhere near you.  She is too mad at you for trying to bully me into going to (your son’s) wedding.  So, talk to you later!”

No matter that my father shared with me yesterday that my brother had already contacted HIM to complain about my reaction to the news of him not attending my son’s wedding.  No, that’s completely fine.  But I am a completely terrible person (once again) for going to my father to seek advice on how to handle my brother and his absence at my kid’s wedding.  I didn’t ask him to speak to him (in fact, I expressly asked him NOT to, but he did anyway).  I didn’t even tell him anything he didn’t already know; my brother had already told him about not attending and my father is aware enough to know that this would hurt my son’s feelings.  He’d already been trying to convince him to change his mind, and my email yesterday just gave him another push.

Whatever.

Having my son’s affection is something that my brother no longer deserves.  That’s how I feel.  And I’m fine at this point with helping him through the disappointment of seeing my brother (yet again) let him down, rather than having this type of animosity ruin what should be a wonderful, incredible, important day for my kid.  If my brother feels it is “bullying” to want him present there, then I don’t want him there.  I don’t want him anywhere near me or my family.  Because he doesn’t deserve us in his life.  Not if this is truly how he feels.  I’m over it.

Again.

UPDATE:  While I was writing this blog post, the following email arrived in my box:

After much discussion with xxxx we’ve decided to cancel our trip to Florida.  We are not going to go down there and try to enjoy a holiday with all the tension you have caused over xxx’s wedding hanging over everything.  It would be uncomfortable and awkward for everyone and I’m not going to spend my Christmas under that dark cloud, let alone ask (my fiancee) to and force (my son) to.  Christmas is supposed to be a joyful holiday.  Unfortunately it has all been soured and I don’t see any way to salvage it.

As I told Dad, xxx announced his wedding one month after we accepted Dad’s offer to go to Florida.  We can’t afford to do both.  Now, because of your wailing and gnashing of teeth, we will probably do neither.  You have upset xxxx and I both and neither of us wants to spend any time anywhere in your vicinity.  At least with the money we won’t be spending we can get xxxx an awesome wedding gift.

Family and Frustration (Again)

So, in a very strange turn of events, my brother and my son are getting married in the same calendar year.  I have known this for a while now, as my brother asked his on again/off again (but mostly on lately) to marry him nearly a year ago.

Now, in case you haven’t followed my blog for long, you may not realize that this isn’t exactly a warm, fuzzy relationship I have going on with my brother.  Long story short:  my brother, who has since been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, reacted badly to my parents’ divorce when I was seven, and I spent several years being his punching bag (not figuratively, but literally his punching bag).  He was institutionalized several times before my father took custody of him when I was 15.   For much of our adult life, his focus on himself above all others has been a constant source of frustration and angst for me.  Click here for far too many posts about how my brother and I go constantly around in circles of either speaking or fighting or not speaking because we recently fought.

All that being said, it’s kind of a miracle that he is getting married, and I am glad that he’s finally found happiness.  The fact that they are still together after nearly a year of living together and being engaged is astounding, and I’d been looking forward to the wedding they planned for next November.

My brother called me a few weeks ago to ask for some addresses for the family for his wedding guest list.  I of course had them on hand from my Christmas card list and told him I’d send them along.  He lamented that his side of the aisle would be kind of light and asked for suggestions on who else he should invite to the affair.

I told him we would likely have the same problem, and that I fully expected that some people from the family would likely be forced to choose which of the two family weddings to attend this year.  I told him that I expected more of the people from great distances to choose his wedding over my son’s.

That’s when he dropped the bombshell.

That he was going to make that choice too.  That he wasn’t going to be present at my son’s wedding.

Now, this shouldn’t have surprised me.  My brother always has time and money for himself and what he finds important in his life.  But, he told me, he was busy saving for his own wedding, and couldn’t sacrifice the money that going to an out of town wedding would take away from his own special day.

If I agreed with him, if I truly felt that he couldn’t afford to do both, I would understand.  I would.  But my brother has a way of making sure he is able to go out for karoake and drinks with his friends once a week, buying the latest technology for himself, and smoking hundreds of dollars of cigarettes a month.  Tightening his belt is a foreign concept.  Why should he sacrifice his fun for a family affair peopled with people he hardly ever sees and doesn’t often get along with?  But he expects us at his own wedding.  He worries the crowd will be “thin” for him.

I think it’s the hypocrisy of it that really grinds my gears.  Well, that, and the fact that my son will be supremely disappointed in his uncle.  He has a firm grasp of the person my brother is, but I don’t think even he imagines that his uncle, who has always talked about how proud he is of my son, would not attend this most important day in his life.  I don’t think it has even entered his head.

So I don’t know what to do, here.  I know from past experience that I never win an argument with my brother.  Conflict is always my fault, always.  When he told me, in fact, I simply said that I was disappointed but would get off of the phone before we both said things we would regret later.  I don’t want to have my father (again) offer to pay for my brother to attend.  My feeling here is that my brother can afford it, if he chooses to make this event an priority.  But there is no way I can make him do that.

Yesterday, my brother sent me, my sister and my father his son’s Christmas list.  It was full of gifts that had a price tag of between $100-$200 each.  He plans on getting “several” of the items on the list himself for his kid.  It brought it all to the forefront to me again, this frustration that I have with him, that he is more important than any of the rest of us.  In a fit of frustration, I sent an email to my father about the situation.  I don’t want him to fix it, I don’t want him to pay for it, I just want some advice from someone who knows both my son and my brother; who they are and how to handle this situation in light of who they are.

I don’t know what he will say.  Probably, my brother will be angry with me for making him “look bad” to our father.  Maybe I’ve made a bad situation worse.  I don’t know.

I just don’t know.

The View From My Corner of the World

The roundup of what my world looks like since I last blogged (nearly two weeks ago?  Yikes).

Today is my eldest son’s 23rd birthday.  Holy how on earth did this happen?  It seems both a million years ago and also about a few days ago that I was balancing him on my hip while I navigated life.  He came home last weekend with his girlfriend, and we had dinner Saturday night with her parents.  It is still hard for me to believe that this is my life.  That he and I could have ended up in a very different place.  Instead, we’re eating amazing Italian food with his potential inlaws in this crazy expensive town in CT that we can almost afford to live in now.  I’m not sure if this totally set up situation for meeting her parents is a prelude to Some Really Big News, but for now, holy smokes, my kid is older than I was when I had him.

The younger two kids are back in school.  I am still desperately worried about my daughter and her swimming with all of the sharks at school.  There were whispers about people not sitting together at lunch (not on purpose, really) and getting transferred out of her classes.  We don’t know what all is true, but a glance at her iPod text app yesterday made my heart sink.  She still is trying so hard to be friends with people who really don’t give a crap about her.  I vacillate between hands off (“she’ll have to figure this out herself, as painful as it may be….after all, didn’t we all hate middle school?”) and hands on (“honey, if they treat you that way it is time to move on…why don’t we call so and so who actually likes you and invite her over?”) on a daily basis.  We’ll see what happens.

My dog is one crazy canine.  While we were out drinking heavily celebrating Labor Day with friends, he tried to escape from his crate.  Not sure what all happened (I must set up that streaming video idea I had) but when we came home his two front paws were mangled and bloody, and he’d lost a toenail.  I nursed him for two days before taking him to the vet (having decided that while we love him, we weren’t paying a thousand dollars to the doggie ER).  Having a dog is indeed like having a small child.  The poor thing is now scared to death of his crate, needs pills twice a day, and now begs for (and receives) a companion in the room where he sleeps (not our room; the den downstairs where his crate lives).  Not sure what I am going to do when I have to leave the house, but I kind of do have to leave the house, like, some time this week.

My one year running anniversary is coming up in six days.  I started the Couch 2 5K program on 9/12/11.  I saw this blog entry from this one woman on her running anniversary and she’d gone from the program to like, a half marathon on her anniversary.  I am going to be struggling through another 5K this weekend (this is my seventh), hoping I don’t die, because I let my exercise go the whole time I was in Europe (and to be honest, it was on a major downward spiral before we left with the kids home this summer).  I’m trying to focus on the positives of it:  like, I am still actually running, and that I weigh less today than I did a year ago (um, only about 9 pounds….but whatever), and that I am likely healthier and all that.  Still, I do feel an awful lot like I should be trying harder, doing more having been at this thing A Whole Stinking Year.

Speaking of OMG THE RUNNING, I am going to a fitness conference in two weeks called FitBloggin.  I scored a free ticket by applying to be a live blogger, even though at the time I had no fitness blog and no audience for the real blog I actually do have.  The ticket might be free, but the hotel room on the Inner Harbor is like $200 a night, but I’m a little freaked out about getting a roommate that I don’t know and have never met (though, apparently, people do this all the time at these things).  I tried to entice my girlfriends with the Hotel Room in a Awesome City Away From Here for a girls’ weekend type of thing, but they all have soccer games, or football games, or husbands that aren’t interested in them subsidizing my weekend in Baltimore.  So it will be me, all alone, with all of these bloggers who write about fitness while I am pounding out 40 minute 5Ks.  Still, I’m super excited anyway.  Maybe I’ll network and find a job, or something, out of it.

And that’s the view from suburbia this warm September morning.  Yes, sure, I could have written about politics, or my inner conflict about why I am not hearing back from an old friend, or some other existential dilemma but for now?  This is where I am at.

%d bloggers like this: