My husband was sprawled across the bed a room away, iPad balanced on his knee.
“Ohhhh,” I heard him say.
I stopped reading and braced myself. I waited for him to call out that the zoo was closed
tomorrow, or that a friend had lost his uncle, or that a co-worker was getting a divorce.
“Robin Williams had Parkinson’s disease.”
The stone in my chest broke up.
“Ohhhh,” I echoed, trying to sound interested. “That would be a lot at once.”
“Depression and Parkinson’s disease?” he called back.
“And bi-polar disorder,” I replied, remembering a headline I had seen earlier in the day. I picked up reading where I had left off, while my mind drifted to the two people I knew with Parkinson’s.
I imagined it was not pleasant, but I was not upset for Williams. I was more bothered by the fact that we knew he had the disease at all. I was bothered that we knew about his depression, his bipolar disorder, his substance abuse and that last stint in rehab that wasn’t really for “rehab.”
Earlier in the day, we’d driven away from our hut in the woods, where we were on holiday and deprived of networks and wireless. As we left dirt roads and re-entered civilization, I lapped up the internet, skimming my portals to the rest of the world.
Every other post in my Facebook feed was about him. Sometimes it took me a while to figure out who, because the headlines and tributes, a few of which claimed to outdo the last, “the best,” and the “most heart-wrenching,” didn’t even bother to mention his name.
It felt as if I had walked out of my wireless hut and into a cocktail party where everyone had been gossiping about Robin Williams’ death for the last quarter of an hour. No one was saying who anymore, only what. There I stood with my freshly shaken dirty martini, wondering what the hell everyone was wide-eyed and talking about.
“Did you hear about his daughter?”
“Zak? No, wait, that’s the son.”
“Yeah, I heard. She left Twitter.”
“Rush Limbaugh said he was leftist and that leftists are unhappy and lazy and that’s why he died.”
“Good god, what an asshole.”
“I totally agree.”
“I read he was bipolar.”
“It’s so tragic. It’s like the genie is finally free, and I am so sad about it.”
“Wow, how poignant. Can I quote you?”
“He died of asphyxiation, but he hung himself.”
Then the party falls quiet, because we are imagining the man, unable to breathe in his last moments.
At this point in the conversation, someone might turn to me and whisper, again, “It’s so sad,” to which I would answer, “It’s so personal.”
Robin Williams was a public figure. People are upset because they liked to see him onscreen, and because he played people we all want to know. It’s a shock for his audience to learn that the man behind the screen was apparently so unhappy.
We, that audience, subsist through social media: we exist in dimensions of information and participation. We define ourselves by the exchange of our tweets, blogs, reads, posts and comments. Participation lends us inclusion, and inclusion lends us validation.
Yet I wonder if, within these dimensions, we are able to move in reverse. Are we capable, namely, of limiting ourselves at those moments when “common decency” once dictated a motion toward modesty, self-restraint or understatement? How can we, in our current medium, practice collective restraint?
Because if there ever was a time to put a lid on it, that is now.
If there was ever an instance to let a legend take his life and for us to simply be sad about it, that is now.
If there was ever a moment for us to mourn – without needing his private life, history of mental health or our curiosity to go viral – that is now.
Let the girl tweet her grief about her dad, and leave her be. Can we do that?
I am sad, because we cannot.
© 2014 Anastasia Hacopian