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.
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.