Oh Captain, My Captain

Each year before I began teaching poetry to my tenth grade students, I started with the movie Dead Poet’s Society. Sometimes I worried about showing it because one of the main characters commits suicide, but I thought the overall message was an important one. It always created a little more excitement in sixteen-year-old males to begin studying Frost and Whitman.

The scene I pulled from YouTube is one of my favorites. One of my most cherished items from those years of teaching is a large card my students made and signed for me. They gave it to me on my last day of teaching. One of the students wrote, “What more can be said than, ‘Oh Captain, My Captain.'” I still cry when I read it, and I always cried when the students jumped up on their desks at the end of the movie.

Today when I watched the scene, I cried. But the tears were different. This time the tears were tears of sadness as I looked into the face of Robin Williams as he said, “Thank you, boys. Thank you.”

Thank you, Robin Williams. Thank you. You brought us to tears from either your sensitive portrayals of a teacher, a father, or a doctor. And you brought us to our knees in laughter with your incessant antics and monologues that often made little sense.

Suicide. You hung yourself in your home. You poor poor man.

Ironically, this past week we found out our neighbor killed himself last year. We’d been traveling and sick this past year so we didn’t keep up much with our immediate surroundings. We knew his house was for sale, but we figured he’d moved nearer his job. But no, while we were in Florida last year, he left his father and young son and went into his bedroom and killed himself. The man next door who told me said there’d been financial troubles.

Thank you, John, for being a loving father, but your young son who you loved so much will never forget that night. You were such a nice friendly man and when you came over to our house with your son, you showed him kindness and consideration.

Suicide. You shot yourself in the head. You poor poor man.

I’m not unfamiliar with suicide. It’s hit my own family. My brother Don, a successful statistician yet unsuccessful in relationships, wrote a suicide note and sat down in his recliner and left us at the age of fifty-eight. Much too young.

Thank you, Don, for being my big brother. I looked up to you in all things as a child. We shared the same dismal childhood, but you never could break out of the prison of yours. I couldn’t help you. I’ll never forget you and how we ate our dinner in the back end of our new Plymouth station wagon one summer night. You were my hero. Don and Me

Suicide. You took an overdoes of pills. You poor poor man.

My husband who’s never suffered a day of depression in his life asked me how Robin/John/Don could have done what they did. Didn’t Robin have enough fans? Didn’t John think about his son? Didn’t Don know someone loved him in the world?

My answer to him is simple. It doesn’t matter what they had, who they were, how much they’d achieved, where they were. Nothing mattered except their need to leave. It overpowered everything else.

Could I have done something to save my brother? I don’t know. Robin’s wife was in the house the night before he died, and John’s estranged wife allowed their son to spend the weekend with him. Perhaps in those final moments and hours, there was nothing that could have been done. The decision was made and the determination set.

Obviously, in none of the three cases I’ve cited did it happen suddenly. Perhaps if depression was something we acknowledged as a real disease as we’re beginning to do with alcoholism and drug abuse, there would have been real help for these three men who’ve touched my life.

I left teaching in 2000 because one of my students attempted suicide in a big way. He took a mega dose of Tylenol and drank a bottle of vodka. He was nearly dead–and would have been in an hour–when his mother came home from work unexpectedly and found him unconscious. The week before, I knew this young man was in trouble. He was lashing out at everyone–myself included–and when I consulted with his guidance counselor, I was informed he was fine. I remember the counselor coming to my classroom and pulling me away from teaching to tell me the young man just wanted attention. He wasn’t depressed at all, he told me. Thankfully, he recovered and so did his nearly destroyed liver. And the guidance counselor continued guiding students, but not discussing depression.

Let’s make an effort to change that. I’m not immune to depression. I’ve been in the depths without hope. The worst thing said to me was, “I don’t understand–you have so much to live for. How in the world could you be depressed?” Would we ever say that to a cancer patient?

We can’t change the past, but we have an opportunity now to take the very public suicide of Robin Williams and recognize it for what it is and open our hearts and arms to those who suffer from depression.

Thank you, boys. Thank you.

18 thoughts on “Oh Captain, My Captain

  1. Thank you for this entry. I stumbled across this somehow and it’s the first thing I have read since hearing the horrible news of Robin Willliams’ suicide that has struck a chord with me as someone who has also been personally affected by the suicide of a loved one.

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  2. Thank you for this, P.C. It’s a thoughtful tribute to Robin Williams, and the Dead Poets’ Society reference is such a well-chosen reminder of what we have lost. Your probing discussion of the heartaches of suicide and depression is a fitting tribute to him, as well, and a perfect reminder of what we must – all of us – try to change.

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  3. “…we have an opportunity now to take the very public suicide of Robin Williams and recognize it for what it is and open our hearts and arms to those who suffer from depression…” very well said!

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  4. My dear friend, in Judaism you wish people who lost loved ones “my you experience no sorrow any more”. I wish you that. I love your writing. I always feel like I am touched by your world. Thanks for sharing your great gift with me. Wishing you the best.

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    • Revital, so wonderful to hear from you. Thank you for your very kind words and wishes. I know this blog is called “Living Lightly” but sometimes to reach that light the darkness must be dispelled. My best to you.

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  5. I don’t know why depression continues to stay in the shadows. People refuse to see the signs and seem to think you can just turn it off at will. I always suspected that Williams was bipolar. No one can be that animated all the time. Jim Carey is a prime example too. Even though Catherine Zeta-Jones was diagnosed with the same illness, she apparently has it under control with drugs. There needs to be better PR at least. Good post.

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    • Thank you. My daughter said the same thing about Williams today. She also said she’d never known the death of a celebrity to affect so many people, including herself. So perhaps now is the time to bring this out in the open.

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  6. There is such a stigma about mental disorder in this culture. If you get that mark on your employment record, even, it taints your chances for advancement of all sorts. Your comment, “The worst thing said to me was, “I don’t understand–you have so much to live for. How in the world could you be depressed?” Would we ever say that to a cancer patient?” is a prime example of how our fear of mental troubles can make us thoughtless to the point of mean. I have a friend in Canada who has fought this battle for years, her own bi-polar experience being her starting point. She feels education is foremost, and she works to help in that way. With the increases in stress in this culture, we will see more and more people bending under depression’s load. A bit of compassion as a starting point would be good indeed

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    • I hope that all the talk turns into action regarding depression and mental illness in general. We are so afraid of anything that hints to a dysfunction of the brain. Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

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  7. Beautifully written post. I have similar family experiences. (In fact, the family member in question for me “took a mega dose of Tylenol and drank a bottle of” wine.) Depression is…ugh…a beast. To try to understand it better, I studied it in school and spent years cultivating my comprehension. Yes, the depressed person has choices, but when every choice before them seems tattooed black it’s hard for them to see the upside of anything, even if the rest of the world can see it clearly.

    I’m sorry to hear of your personal loses. Like you, I share deep sadness at Robin Williams’ death. But, like you, I think the best option is to celebrate his life rather than fixate on his early end.

    “That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

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    • Thanks for that quote, Dex. It’s a treasure from Dead Poet’s Society as well. You’re so right when you say the depressed person can make choices but so so difficult with the black veil of despair shading everything. It’s the complete and utter loss of hope that marks them. I’m so glad you commented. Talking about it will help remove the stigma.

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  8. Okay, so now you’ve got me crying as I remember that amazing, sour-wrenching movie and the incomparable Robin Williams. Thank you for that heartening reminder of what one person can do–both the Mr. Keating character and the first boy who defied the headmaster to voice his love and respect for his teacher.
    And I don’t know many people who can’t point to either a suicide or an alcoholic tragedy within their family or friends. Let’s spend billions of dollars on understanding and cures rather than on conquering and killing. Thinking of you, P.C.

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    • Thank you, Elaine. There’s such a stigma even in my own family. One of my relatives asked that I not tell anyone that my brother died by his own hand. She wanted us to tell everyone it was a heart attack. Obviously, I disagreed with that opinion.

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