by Gena LeBlanc
On Tuesday, August 11th, 2014, actor and comedian Robin Williams was found dead in his home. When my mother heard the news, she went to bed. Not right away. Not the next day or the day after that. But once she got in, it was a long time before she got out again.
It wasn’t the first time that my mother found herself estranged from the routine and order of her own circadian rhythm, had once again rejected the primordial instinct to rise and fall with the sun. Instead of greeting the day with open eyes, she shut out the light. She closed her blinds and darkened every lamp, created a world in which the sun never rose and no one ever died. The only source of light came from the TV in the corner, which was always on. Among her piles of pillows and dirty tissues, in the dark reality she had devised for herself, my mother lay down and wept for a man she had never met.
Technically, it was the master bedroom, but for as long as I could remember the room has belonged to her and her alone. My dad sleeps on the couch downstairs. But it was in that room that my grieving mother whiled away the hours, tucked beneath thick blankets and dressed in a fuzzy pink bathrobe, even though it was the middle of August. She wasn’t always alone. My dad and my sister and I took turns visiting, taking her food and then bringing it back out when she didn’t eat it. But, because my dad worked and I was the oldest, the bulk of my mother’s care fell to me. Mostly it meant picking up trash and tidying up as best I could. Nine times out of ten neither of us spoke a single word. Sometimes it felt like she wasn’t even there.
Entering the room felt like crossing the threshold of a tomb. It always seemed so still, so undisturbed. Any sound was muffled by the dark fabric draped across every window, the room itself in a state of perpetual mourning. Each step I took was soft and deliberate, as if the creature on the bed were not my mother at all, but a wounded wild animal, unwilling to be helped and ready to bite anyone who tried. It’s the smell of the room itself that’s easiest to recall, despite my own attempts to forget. It was a combination of dried sweat and wet tears, half-drunk glasses of bitter wine, moldy bread and bruised apple cores, and most pronounced, the sour stink of an unwashed body. The stink of neglect. The air was thick with it. I imagined the smell weaving and pressing itself between the fibers of my clothes, staining the skin on my face like poisonous smoke, coating the insides of my nose and mouth until my every wheeze and sigh and gasp would be rotten with the stench of self neglect.
I tried to hold my breath to keep the smell of it off me. I thought if I could protect myself from the smell I could protect myself from the awful of the softly hiccoughing figure on the bed. It wasn’t my mother specifically who frightened me, but the idea that a mother, any mother, could appear so very unmotherly, could, if only for a moment, become something so other, so foreign from the role of Mother as I defined it. I didn’t understand. How could someone so easily broken, someone so cruel and savage and yet simultaneously childlike and naive, how could such a person be a mother? Be my mother?
Beyond the shadowy outline of her sleeping form the dim light of the TV struggled to penetrate the dark, curdled air. Moving as quietly as I could, I stooped to gather handfuls of crumpled tissues from the ground like bouquets of tear-stained flowers. I stacked mostly empty bowls of melted ice cream on top of paper plates heavy with meals left untouched. My fingers were sticky. The air was sticky. It was disgusting. I got up to leave with my arms full, content that I’d done my job, that I wouldn’t have to return until the next day. Before I could turn away though, a flash of movement caught my eye. Ten or twenty ants had swarmed the fallen remains of a piece of peanut-butter toast. I’d have to make a second trip.
The 24-hour news cycle cooed softly to me as I worked. I listened halfheartedly to the same voices repeating the same scripted commentary that they had for hours, each phrase meticulously fashioned to elicit just the right amounts of sympathy and sadness: the tragic death of much loved actor and comedian…Williams will no doubt be remembered for generations to come…a man full of talent…his secret struggle…the pain behind the punchlines…remembering the tortured genius of Robin Williams…tune in at 9.
I wanted to write off the cloying, sensationalized coverage as the network’s cashing in on a famous man’s death, but I couldn’t. Between the never-ending surge of celebrity eulogies, the outpouring of messages from fans, young and old alike, artfully arranged between scenes of the actor in some of his most celebrated roles and clips from his interviews, it got to me. It was enough to make anyone a little sad. My mother, on the other hand, had taken one look at a little sad and raised it a manic breakdown of epic proportion, culminating in a crippling depression that, at the time, appeared endless. Clearly she had miscalculated the amount of sadness appropriate for the occasion. Or, maybe it was that she believed everyone else had.
Only after her initial outburst had passed did my mother go to bed. At that point, the worst of the episode, from my perspective, was over. I felt like a bad person for thinking it then, and I feel like a bad person for thinking it now, but given the choice, I’d rather deal with her depression than her mania. The hush, the sleepy listlessness and passivity of her despair is easier to manage, involves less on my part than the frantic, rage-fueled hysteria that precedes it. Her mania demands attention, requires an audience to witness the intensity of its discontent and validate its hurt.
The thing that takes her over, her mind like a weapon against itself, is a beast. It goes by different names (mania, hysteria, delirium, insanity), but it always possesses the same capacity for destruction. I’ve seen it burrowed, small and unassuming, in the lightless depths of my mother’s eyes. I’ve watched it grow a little every day, keeping to itself, not doing anyone any harm. Biding its time, a regular wolf in sheep’s clothing. Slowly, it festers, becomes inflamed like a boil, swollen and volatile. My mother is helpless against it. Anything could send her flying over the precipice that the beast nudges her ever closer to. Hearing a cruel word from a loved one, spoken without thinking, but impossible to take back. Forgetting wet laundry in the machine overnight, leaving the freshly cleaned clothes to shrivel and harden, suffocated by their own dampness.
Or, on a humid morning in August, being told by an absent-minded daughter that a beloved actor and comedian had taken his own life, following a lengthy battle with mental illness. That he had finally surrendered to the same disease that plagues her. A fellow soldier, lost. How could she not break down? What other choice did she have? She was at the mercy of the beast.
In hindsight, it’s almost funny. All of it really, but especially the part where I was the one that did it, the one that broke the news that broke her.
I don’t mean funny like a knock-knock joke. It’s the other kind. The kind of funny built with the stuff of tragedy, which transforms it into new material, building blocks so strong you can hardly see the flecks of sadness peeking through. We need that kind of funny, need it to cushion the blows of death and disaster and all the other horrors that populate the world. We need it to make the pain not hurt so bad. But, more than that, it’s the funniness of watching other people fall down, watching them get hurt and knowing you had nothing to do with it. Or, in my case, watching someone get hurt and knowing I had everything to do with it. Funny because it wasn’t. Funny because I knew how it all started, knew where exactly to place the blame, and that was not how it usually worked. And different is always funny, at least, after it stops being terrifying.
The thing is, nine times out of ten, when it all goes bad, I’m as clueless as the next guy about what little, stupid thing gets the beast all fired up. But once it’s happened, there’s no time for questions or apologies. All I can do is treat the symptoms as they come. It’s about hoping for the best and preparing for the worst, like boarding up your doors and windows after you hear a hurricane’s heading your way. You don’t care what set the storm off, what drove it in your direction—all you know is it’s coming and you can’t stop it. You can only brace yourself, ride it out, and pray there won’t be permanent damage.
[I need to pause here, for a moment. It’s not fair to imply that my mother is capable of the same amount of destruction as a hurricane. That is not the case. Obviously, I’m working with countless biases and am probably the most unfit of sources when it comes to accurately describing the woman who raised me. But, as is typically the case with this sort of thing, I’m also probably the most well-equipped to tackle it. What’s more, I’m not claiming my perception is the only perception. Everything I describe exists more fully in my own head than it ever did in reality. That, however, does not make it any less real. Regardless, she’s still just my mom. It’s not like she’s the Hulk or anything.]
Whatever I compare it to—a massive storm, a fast-acting contagion, an inferno—when my mother has an episode I know my role. If I start to smell smoke and turn to see her going up in flames, I know there’s no stopping to ascertain the cause of the fire, no time to chase after coherence within a roaring blaze of madness. All I can hope to do is serve as a guiding light and try to lead her through the darkness like the unrelenting beam of a lighthouse that shines even when there’s no one there to see it. It’s not fun, or rewarding. But it’s the position I was placed into at birth, the role I was born to play. And that’s a contract that’s not so easy to get out of.
When Robin Williams died things happened in ways that they hadn’t before. It’s hard to pinpoint why, but something about that news set off a chain reaction in my family of pain, revulsion and revelation. Maybe it was all coincidence. Maybe it was just the heat.
The day his death was reported—perhaps only hours after the body had been found —I was the first in my family to find out. For reasons I still don’t understand, the news rattled me. It upset the balance of the imaginary scale I keep in my head, the one that weighs my varied thoughts and then tells me how to feel: Fine or Not Fine. When I read that Robin Williams was dead, the lever bore down harder and faster to Not Fine than ever before. Maybe it was because the few people in my life to die up to that point had been old family friends and distant relatives, people I’d only met once or twice at holiday parties and awkward reunions—no one that I knew beyond the fact that my parents told me I did. I didn’t attend their funerals. And if my parents hadn’t made a point to tell me, I never would have known. I didn’t see those deaths as losses because, in my mind, there hadn’t been anything to lose. Their names were only as real to me as the names of strangers in obituaries or long lists of the dead after wars and natural disasters.
In trying to understand my mother’s extreme reaction to one man’s death, I became interested in the varieties of grieving. I wanted to know why people seem, almost at random to deal with one death a certain way, and then another in a way that appears completely contradictory to their former reaction. No one, including me, ever claims that death is easy. But, on the other hand, no one claims that it is universally hard either. There are too many intricacies of time and space that determine the extent of the damage, physical or emotional. Within that endless range of difference, some deaths may lean closer to one end of the spectrum than others in terms of how people react to them.
For instance, if it were difficult for me to comprehend the deaths of people I knew but only thought of as strangers, consider the challenge of comprehending the deaths of thousands of true strangers. Who are they? They are the dead. Who were they? They are the dead. Individuals become lost on endless lists and trapped within stark, unfeeling numbers. Such vastness takes the individual and robs him of his face and name, groups him together with other nameless, faceless people. But if you’re one of 1,000, or 5,000, or 500,000, what becomes of you? Are you anything more than a tiny fraction of the whole? Do you contain any meaning beyond the presence of the other 499,999?
The ratio needs to be smaller, more personal. The news that four people died in a house fire elicits a wholly different reaction than news that 800,000 died in an earthquake. We perceive the two events differently because of our fundamental inability to make sense of that much death. It’s easier to be sad about four people dying than about 800,000. But compare the mother of one of the four and the mother of one of the 800,000 and I’m sure they didn’t find one tragedy any easier to grasp than the other, any more or less painful. They suffer just the same.
The process of reporting on and dealing with death, on both the large and small scale, tends to rely on tried and true practices that provide a kind of stability to the proceedings. Even within small groups like families, there are certain expectations of decorum, guidelines for how to manage grief and sympathy properly. But, every now and then, when a particular celebrity dies, the response becomes something else altogether, and people go a little nuts. Because when someone whose face has appeared on TV and movie screens across the globe, someone people have tuned in to watch interviewed or read about in People magazine alongside pictures of celebrities grocery shopping or filling up their gas tank, the caption proclaiming, They’re just like us!, it’s easy to get attached. It can be hard to think about famous people as perfect strangers. How can people be a strangers if you know their height, weight, and favorite Beatle? If you’ve seen their faces on a screen more than you’ve seen your own in a mirror? It doesn’t have to be a full-blown obsession to feel like a very one-sided friendship. So when I read that the playful, charismatic man who’d made me laugh for years was dead, I was sadder than I’d been after the deaths of family friends or relatives. It was a brand new experience, a new sort of pain, and I didn’t quite know what to do with it. How do you mourn someone you never knew? What use is grief for the loss of a friendship that only existed in my head? I elected to share it—the news itself, but also the grief.
When I went downstairs I found my mother sitting at the kitchen table, hair still damp from her morning shower. She was flipping blithely through an L.L. Bean catalogue and holding a full mug of coffee. She smiled when she saw me.
I couldn’t have known how my mother would react when I told her the news, couldn’t have foreseen the precariousness of her psyche on that particular day, how vulnerable it was, how easily shattered. I know perfectly well that it’s ridiculous and unproductive and even vaguely narcissistic to blame myself for my mother’s ensuing breakdown. And yet, there’s a part of myself—small but insistent, one that I don’t acknowledge in public and pretend I’ve never met when we run into each other late at night—that continues to cry out for justice. It demands that I give myself up, confess that the crime was all my doing, that I was the mastermind behind the theft of my mother’s health and well-being and that full responsibility lies with me alone. I can articulate exactly why that isn’t the case, but, still, sometimes I can’t help myself. Sometimes I start to believe the lie. I take all the pieces apart and put them back together so that my incrimination seems the only possible conclusion, and then it all makes perfect sense and I confess my sins before I think to ask what the punishment is for such a crime.
It never lasts, though. Not for long, anyway. I always recant.
You see, I’m smart enough to understand that not everything is in my control. But I’m also dumb enough to undermine everything I do by blindly appealing to that fact rather than risking the burden of responsibility for my actions. Nine times out of ten I don’t think twice before relieving myself of accountability; nine times out of ten I really don’t care or pause to consider another option. Of course, after nine rounds have gone by, that tenth one’s bound to to show up sooner or later. And when it concerns my mom, it’s never as simple as denying responsibility, because that would mean denying how much she depends on me, how much she needs me. And I can’t deny that.
What makes a mother a mother and a child a child? What holds them together, and how do they keep from falling apart? Beyond the rules of biology and settled definitions lies a world of complications that pervade the relationship between mother and child. We like the rules and definitions, though; we trust them. They tell us how to act and what to expect. But we get upset when reality doesn’t conform to those definitions. Why else does the reversal of expectations and roles within a family result in such painful attempts to fix things at any cost, to make everything right?
Case in point: A parent should never have to bury their child. But we only say that because parents sometimes do have to. We set unattainable standards and enforce rules impossible to follow. They tell us that we’re ruining everything and lure us in with fairytales that trick us into believing that our lives should be different, that if they were different they would be better. So we try to fix things that can’t be fixed, things that aren’t even broken, and we hate ourselves and all the rules and definitions and everyone in our lives who aren’t what we think they’re supposed to be. We pick fights and point out flaws and wish that we had never been born.
But maybe that’s what we have to do. Maybe it’s only after we’ve torn everything down and built it up again can we appreciate it for what it is. Maybe, after all that, we can accept that some mothers take care of their children and some children take care of their mothers.
When I think back on the August Robin Williams killed himself and my mother went to bed and I devoted my days to picking trash up off the floor and bringing her food she didn’t eat, I remember my struggle as caretaker. The struggle between making her want to get better faster because I really wanted her to get better, and stepping back so she could have as much time as she needed—to take things slow, to wallow. I remember checking in on her every day while my dad was at work, making sure she had water, saying I loved her when I knew she wouldn’t say it back. I remember refusing invitations to go out with friends and spending hours doing housework. I remember being angry and sad and full of pity for the woman I had convinced myself was better than this.
And even after all that, when I remember as hard as I can, trying to capture how I really felt back when I was in the thick of it, I realize that even if I’ve already torn everything down, I still haven’t put it back together.
One morning in August I woke up shivering. The heat wave had passed, been brushed aside by a cold front that left the air smelling fresher and sweeter than before. I lay in bed for a long while breathing it all in. When I went downstairs I found my mother seated at the kitchen table, phone in hand, happily chatting away with the person on the other end. Her hair, still damp from the shower, hung shiny and clean down her back. She was making plans to meet a friend for coffee.
She smiled when she saw me.