I read the news of Robin Williams’ death last night about five minutes after Steve went to the hospital to see our friend George, who’d just been told he has only a brief time left to live. News like this reaches my head long before my heart and so I’ve been thinking a lot about these two men and the struggle to wrap my mind around things like affection and gratitude and sadness and loss.
George loves humor. He laughs all the time. It is his form of friendliness, his way of crossing barriers, and his weapon of choice in the battle with life’s challenges. His eyes twinkle when he says something funny, which is pretty much all the time. (When Steve came home last night one of the first things he told me was, “George is still cracking jokes…on a respirator.”)
George has always been a mentor and father figure to Steve. He’s the one of the neighborhood dads who picked up the slack when Steve’s father left; he helped teach Steve what it means to be a man. Years later, he’s the one who took us in when we moved back from New York one autumn with no jobs and no place to live. We thought it would be a short thing, but we lived above George for four years. When we had the opportunity to take in a three-year-old little girl who was in foster care, George was totally supportive and willing to help, even though it meant he’d have a small child running and dancing across his ceiling every day (His nickname for Princess Peach was “Happy Feet”) We could not have been part of her life without the way he was part of ours.
I think the legacy George will leave here on earth –in addition to his laughter, bright colored suspenders, delicious baked beans, and penchant for feeding wild animals in the driveway — is how he cared for people in real, practical ways. Not the small gestures like brief conversations or vague emotional support. The big, sacrificial stuff: a place to live, food, a break on rent based on what you can pay, a chance to start over and rebuild. Mentoring over the long haul, sharing wisdom and trusting that it will take root and grow. Patience. He’s done this for so many people over so many years, it’s kind of mind-boggling. As I pray for George I’m still numb to the reality that he may be gone soon. But I’m vividly aware that his life is an ongoing example of a life well lived.
A short while ago, a friend posted this quote from St. Francis of Assisi on her wall: “Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take with you nothing that you have received–only what you have given: a full heart, enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice, and courage.” I love the focus on the enduring power of what we give, and yet I hope that when St. Francis died, he found out he was a little bit wrong. I hope that we do take with us some of what we’ve received. Because I want George to take with him all the love and gratitude so many of us feel for how he sacrificed for us. I’m not sure how you measure gratitude (stacks? pounds? waves?) but I hope that part of heaven is feeling the love others have for you in a way you’re not capable of here on earth. I hope that heaven is an expanded capacity to receive all that joy. If so, George has quite a ride to look forward to.
As does Robin Williams. Williams touched people from more of a distance, but the joy and escape he brought to others was just as profound. I’m struck by how much George and Robin will enjoy each other if they have the chance to meet. I’m not sure how souls connect in the afterlife–heaven is a big place, and I know nothing about how one makes friends up there. But I trust that God has it covered.
Rest in peace, Mr. Williams. Thank you for all you offered to make us laugh, forget, hope, and reconsider.
Bless your heart, George, and your every breath. Thank you for tying the knot in rope after rope to help the rest of us hold on.