Speaking of distant relatives, I remember meeting my great-uncle LeGrande at age 6. I adored him immediately because he looked just like my beloved grandpa, but more youthful, and less adept at hiding his childlike enthusiasm for mischief. He could play exactly one song on the piano, a nursery rhyme about swans, and each time he’d play it with a different theme. Sometimes he played solemnly and dramatically, sometimes he played fast and loudly. His performance was based entirely on what could elicit the most laughter from the children dancing around him.
I remember him always surrounded by light. He radiated happiness and laughter and silliness, even when doing mundane tasks, like making homemade grape juice or canning tomatoes. My mom told me once that LeGrande made her sometimes-turbulent childhood joyful, teaching her that a David-esque sense of humor and kindness can go up against a Goliath of dysfunction and sadness, and win.
Uncle LeGrande committed suicide during my sophomore year of high school. A new doctor switched his medications for bipolar disorder, and after a few weeks of mania, he hung himself in the backyard where he grew his prized grapes and tomatoes. My sweet great-uncle, my mother’s David, consistently chose joy and happiness, and yet lost his fight against the Goliath of mental illness. I know it wasn’t his choice to turn out the light, but it doesn’t make the world any less dark.
Many of us remember Robin Williams as our ally in that constant fight against darkness. We benefited from his humor and exuberance as we watched his characters battle tragedy while smiling. Williams didn’t use humor to mask the sadness of divorce, death, illness or simply growing up; instead, he utilized laughter as a natural companion to pain, heightening both emotions in a way that felt sublime and real. While Dylan Thomas urges us to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” Williams allowed us to believe that “everything and everybody is mockable, in a wonderful way,” even horrible things like depression and anxiety. For some of us, performing our own stand-up comedy routine is the only way to truly fight the dying of the light, and no one led us in war better than Williams.
In my own battles with depression, I often find myself at the height of my comedic genius while simultaneously fighting my hardest to get out of bed. Good teaching isn’t entirely unlike good acting, and teaching with humor allows me to shed my reserved and depressive alter ego and turn into a lesser version of Dead Poets Society’s John Keating. I remember one year making a series of terrifically inappropriate jokes about Jesus’ hypothetical twitter account during a unit on world religions, #youonlylivetwice being the least offensive quip. My students added their own jokes, mostly about Jesus unfriending Judas on Facebook and wondering if Mary Magdalene’s relationship status reads “it’s complicated.” It doesn’t strike me as particularly funny now, but at the time, my whole class was laughing, and I felt a little more human during the bleakest period of my mental health. Combined with seeking professional help and a supportive spouse, humor allows me to believe Williams’ claim that “comedy is acting out optimism,” so I laugh until things get better.
I am currently in a place of reprieve and stability in regards to my own health. (And yes, I am less funny.) I feel lucky and blessed that humor and laughter are no longer weapons against depression, but simply parts of my personality that bring me light and happiness. I don’t want my students, or anyone, to wonder if I’m feeling hopeless every time I crack a joke. It is also important to recognize that not everyone fights their battles the same way; it is callous and inhumane to suggest that choosing joy and humor can cure the disease that claimed the life of someone as hilarious as Williams or as beautiful as LeGrande. But talking about our battles and laughing at our failures removes the stigma from mental illness, and hopefully encourages us to seek out whatever personal, professional, and medical help necessary to keep fighting.
One of my favorite paintings is Sir Stanley Spencer’s “Resurrection of the Soldiers,” in which the fallen soldiers of World War I simply crawl out of their graves, still dressed in the uniforms they died in, the crosses marking their former resting places piled haphazardly because they don’t matter anymore. I’m not interested in a cloud-filled heaven with pearly gates and golden harps; I prefer the casual miracle that is Spencer’s resurrection, a simple return to the life we left behind.
For LeGrande, I imagine his resurrection as a return to a big kitchen filled with grapes. For Williams, I hope he returns to a place where laughter is enough to heal a broken soul. Because he’s right: “If heaven exists, to know that there’s laughter, that would be a great thing… Just to hear God go, ‘Two Jews walk into a bar…’”
First, I hope everyone forgives me for cluttering the world with another piece about a dead celebrity. I believe there are two types of writing: some writing forms a happy family with its similarly themed siblings, reminding us that our capacity to love is infinite. Some writing just feels redundant and cloying, like the gross aunt who smells weird and leaves lipstick stains on your non-consenting cheeks. Writing about the death of Robin Williams puts me dangerously close to weird-aunt territory, but I’m asking for forgiveness, not permission.