The first I heard of Robin Williams death it was from someone who thought it might be a hoax. While poking around the internet (and eventually finding the press release), I was reminded of what I did on Good Friday: searching for answers I didn’t want to find. What I feared most last April as a brother was to find evidence of drugs or suicide. Not because there was any reason to fear that, but when a person dies suddenly and alone in this day and age, we are conditioned to expect those things.
It’s been a rough week for many Americans since we lost the man who breathed life into Mork, Popeye, Peter Pan, and the rest. Robin Williams gave us more happiness than we could ever give back. In the face of this death, we are all powerless. But this post isn’t about Robin Williams. Truth is few people knew the demons he fought. Our efforts to dig inside his mind are wasteful. The one thing I venture to suggest is that he very likely did not know, in those final moments, that God loved him.
Yesterday my oldest son, who is about to enter middle school, was working on his God and Family award for scouting. One of the exercises was write a litany like Psalm 136 where he was supposed to fill in a line about a time he felt unloved followed by the phrase, “God loves me no matter what!” And he couldn’t do it because he always feels loved by God. As a parent, I have never felt so proud; nothing could be more important that raising a child who always feels securely loved.
Of course our job is not done. The world overflows with reasons for feeling unloved and he hasn’t experienced a fraction of what conspires to destroy him. Many parents have lost their children to drugs, depression, suicide, and other evils after good starts. And we stand on the brink of adolescence where many parents have shipwrecked their children via unreasonable boundaries and nonexistent boundaries. Looking back on my own life, I don’t know if I felt unloved very often before junior high either.
What makes Robin Williams’ suicide so hard to accept is that the love and admiration of millions of people just isn’t enough. My hope for people I love who struggle with depression is that the love of God just might be.
For the most part, I’ve moved on with my life. I rebel against myself for saying it, but I hardly think about Bob any more than I did 6 months ago. The occasional reminder, such as LinkedIn emailing me about his anniversary at a summer internship, jerks me back into reality. Today is his burial, which pretty much marks the end of the formal grieving process. From now on, we will have fewer and fewer opportunities to remember thrust upon us. I’m left dissatisfied.
Yesterday, I talked with my parents about closure and what it takes to get it. Being settled, having an explanation of what happened, knowing where Bob stands, wrapping up logistical details, and so on seem to be part of what needs to happen. I guess. I really don’t know since it hasn’t happened yet.
After Father’s Day, it rolled into my mind that we’ll never see Bob’s children. Before the twins were born, I remember morning for my future children, who I imagined would never be born. There will be no miracles for Bob. Not even the Resurrection will restore that lost future, as far as I know. I can only trust his joy will be complete even so.
Bob will be buried at Arlington in the plot that eventually my parents will share with him. It’s not often that you can see into the future, but I can envision our visits to Virginia, which will likely now include a pilgrimage to the National Cemetery. Will that be good for closure? I don’t rightly know.
Lately, I’ve been even more irrationally worried about death than usual. It’s a sort of accessibility bias: an example easily comes to mind of a sudden, unexplained death, so it’s easy for me to imagine people in my life dying unexpectedly. I’d like that habit to stop; I don’t like being at the mercy of things out of my control.
Recently, the twins learned about affection. Or rather, they learned to imitate it. If I say the word “kiss”, Kathryn will turn to peck me on the lips (complete with a wet “smooch” sound). Isaac, meanwhile, has adopted dozens of babies, which is to say, everything that he enjoys hugging he now calls “baby”. Anything he enjoys holding and/or throwing is a “ball”. Somehow his vocabulary (and development in general) advances more quickly than his sister’s. They take turns with separation anxiety, however. This is Isaac’s moment to throw fits when we hand him to strangers.
Kathryn, however, remains our world-class snuggler. She clutches most anything with gusto: blankets, stuffed animals, Duplos, shoes (especially Joy’s), her bottle, and, most gratifyingly, people. Joshua and I have tested how long she will cling to us without support. (We haven’t timed her, but it’s got to be close to a minute.) Our male twin can be convinced to snuggle too, if he’s tired and nothing more exciting is happening. Yesterday, all five of us had a few moments of quiet together. Joy and I had brought the twins back to bed and Joshua flopped down between us. Very quickly, we devolved from that pastoral scene to a broiling bed of zerberts and laughter.
It’s been so wonderful to be back home; I had more important things to do than write. But this weekend Joy flew to Virginia for Bob’s graduation and Mother’s Day. So there’s going to be an important person missing from this picture:
Now I don’t need Joy for diaper changes (thanks Bob!), feedings, bedtime, or playtime. In a pinch, I can even pick out matching clothes. But I can’t replace her nurturing qualities. She had to remind me that the twin’s blankets were in the drier after a restless night without them. Joshua and I dropped the twins off at the nursery for choir practice without their diaper bag. I don’t know how, but I bet if their mom had been here, this wouldn’t have happened:
This isn’t to say I couldn’t learn to pay attention to such things. But I don’t have the instinct for them. Mothers do. From an early age, it’s easy to spot women who are unfit parents: their children lack basic necessities. The nurturing parent tends to be better at remembering to do things like bring a snack for their toddlers.
Dads are important too. We take out the trash. Men also serve an increasingly important need as a child matures. The ultimate goal of parenting is to create an adult who represents an asset to society. Fathers pack a metaphorical suitcase of necessities when a son or daughter heads off to live on their own. We include lessons on individuality, self-sacrifice, competence, confidence, and so on. (Mothers pack the actual suitcase.) It’s not that one parent can’t take on both roles and do it well. It’s that there’s a constant struggle between wanting your child to be safe and wanting her to be independant.
Last night, I wrestled my boys. After she sized up the situation, Kathryn joined in too. Joshua is getting too strong for me to handle all three easily, but he was so gentle with the twins. They were having the sort of fun you and I have on a rollercoaster: a little bit of fear without a sense of real danger. Isaac in particular enjoyed testing his strength against an adult. It reminded me of the times I wrestled with Dad and Bob when he was a boy.
I’m sitting near the gate at Dulles that will take me to Long Beach and all I can think about is that I miss my family on both coasts. That and the free airport WiFi has hijacked all of my tabs and why would they do that?!? Next to simple sadness, the most prevalent and enduring emotion of my grief has been anger. I’ve been angry with God, of course. But also with complete strangers going about their day oblivious to the fleetingness of life. And with the reporter who initially wrote that the circumstances around Bob’s death were “unsuspicious” which is as suspicious a way to word the sentiment as can be conceived. And with the commenter who pointed out that odd fact. And with Bob for dying. And his doctor for letting it happen.
And I’ve been angry with nearly all of my family for reasons that are entirely obscure. I’ve nothing against them and a far as I know, they aren’t angry with me. I’m at least irritated with just about everyone who wants to console me. And plain old outraged by those who don’t. I’m even annoyed with people who surprise me with just the right word of comfort. Not to pull a pop psychology trick or anything, but I suddenly discovered this morning that I’m mostly angry with myself.
Bob’s death is the very definition of an “act of God” and the only two people who warrant being angry with in this situation are Him and me. When I think of what I failed to do in life and what I’ve been tempted to do, I’m disappointed in myself. How could I have forgotten to give Bob one more hug before we last parted? How could I get excited that so many people started reading this backwater blog because I started writing about his death? Why don’t I start writing about life while I can? And why didn’t God give me more time with Bob? Just one more year would have made all the difference.
And now it’s so tempting to add shame to my troubles. At moments like this, I praise God that in His mercy He gave us a model like King David:
Cast your burden on the LORD,
and he will sustain you;
he will never permit
the righteous to be moved.
(Psalm 55:22 ESV)
He didn’t say “Cast your burden on the LORD, unless it happens to be anger with God”. He said that the LORD with sustain you if you cast whatever burden you have on Him. This is the real reason I continue to write about my brother’ death—as long as I write I’m putting my burdens out of my hands and into God’s.
After several days with more relatives than I could hope to catch up with, today was reduced to my parents, my brother Dave, and I. We all did some work in an attempt to return to normalcy. But I think each one of us had a moment or two when we noticed something (or rather someone) missing.
How lonely sits the city
that was full of people!
How like a widow has she become,
she who was great among the nations!
She who was a princess among the provinces
has become a slave.
(Lamentations 1:1 ESV)
I’m not sure what else to write about in the grieving process. There are more stories of Bob and a few more moments of “institutional mourning” as Dave astutely calls them. But I miss my wife and children. I’m ready to go home, but I don’t want to leave my parents alone. I bought a return ticket for next week, but I doubt the timing will be good no matter how long I delayed. We are in the long-haul of grief.
The story of Joseph (the last chunk of Genesis) keeps surfacing in my memory. None of us were quite so jealous of Bob and I know that my parents’ grief will not exclude love and compassion for the remaining sons. However, there’s something missing in the house and it will take far too long to work out what God intended from the loss. Future reunions do little to ease current suffering. Perhaps the trial of faith will result in even greater joy, but at the moment we can hardly hope.
There’s even a measure of guilt from going back to regular, pedestrian tasks as if we deny Bob’s very existence. Some of us have commented that at times the fourth brother seems almost like a dream we all shared. But there is the train set he never quite put back together and the papers he didn’t have a chance to sort and the medicine he was scheduled to be taking today. All of these things will slowly disappear or scatter. Will Bob’s memory do the same?
Today I gave my brother’s eulogy. I’ve included the text I spoke from below and the video of the entire service. (My part starts at about the 18:45 mark.) It’s been an exhausting, yet wondrous, day.
Bob was full of surprises. I had given up hope of another sibling just around the time my parents announced a baby on the way. Around the dining room table that night, we laughed and talked and cried with joy. Though we didn’t ask at the time, my parents had been as surprised as we were. Mom asked me to share this from her journal:
Sept. 25, 1991
Another marker on the road to baby: sonogram today. We saw the little guy yawn, saw his hand up above his head, saw his heart beat at 139 beats a minute, saw all four chambers and his kidneys, his diaphram, his stomach. I am not sure I saw, but the technician pointed out his fingernails—we saw his nose, his mouth, his beautiful hand, even a tiny foot.
We need to get busy—shellac the bassinet, paint Doug’s room, paint the changing table, buy a car seat, a back pack, a front pack! We need to buy diapers, a few basic clothes, hunt up the snow suit—or get a new one.
We need to choose a name!
Robert Christopher? Norman, Leif, Joel, James, Michael, Joshua, Jacob, Charles Robin?, Gregory.
This, I think, goes to show: Mom’s first instincts are best.
Another surprise when he was born: Dad expected me to call all the relatives with details. I didn’t know it at the time, but 10 lbs. 4.8 oz must have surprised many of them; Robert Kristoffer was a large baby. But he was little to us boys. We nicknamed him Bob because Robert seemed too formal and Roberto didn’t fit him. Soon we were learning valuable fatherhood skills: changing diapers, holding the head steady, rocking to sleep, and giving a crying infant to Mom. In a way, Bob had 4 father-figures, not just one.
But soon we left the house to start our own lives; every four years like clockwork. And Bob became something of an only child. I do not think those years were so difficult since he was loved deeply and richly by Mom and Dad. Each summer and Christmas we brothers caught up with his growth. Faults and failings were part of his growing pains. One summer he ate nothing but white things: rice, bread, pasta. But he surprised us with new passions and talents: fencing, airsoft, board games, card games, video games, reading, football, rowing, Scouting, the outdoors, the environment, guitar, a capella, mission trips, South Africa, girls. This Christmas, my wife and I knew that Stephanie had become part of our family; only the formalities were missing. The baby of the family became a man and I hardly noticed until too late.
For every story about Bob you have heard this week, my parents were co-authors. God had given them a final chance to perfect the craft of parenting, and they excelled. We saw in their relationship with Bob a model of how to raise a Godly man prepared to leave and become a father himself. I thought at times that they had spoiled the boy… and I was wrong.
My own son surprises us often too. But it was no shock to learn that he loved Bob the best of his uncles. With a rich legacy of fathering, Bob himself cared for Joshua and always had time for him. He loved my children and Dave’s children and Doug’s children. He taught them how to light fires and put them out, to carry a loaded pack and set up a tent, to read stories and to wrestle, to work hard and to play harder. Bob demonstrated patience with my children that I often lack.
Just as we were not prepared for his birth, death took us by surprise. Who can doubt that it had a purpose? Who can deny that this life, this boy, this man was given to us for a reason? Bob’s life offers wisdom:
Remember your Creator before the silver cord is loosed,
Or the golden bowl is broken,
Or the pitcher shattered at the fountain,
Or the wheel broken at the well.
Then the dust will return to the earth as it was,
And the spirit will return to God who gave it.
I will not accept that Bob’s life was a tragedy. Good Friday had tragic consequences this year, but it will only become a tragedy if our sorrow fails to bring us to the creator of the places and people Bob loved so well. By all means, let us cry rivers for a lost child. But let us also tap into the wellspring of life that flowed through him.