Tonight in yoga, I found myself breaking all the rules of breath-focused movement and thinking about something other than warrior twos and vinyasas: death.
Morbid as that seems, it was gnawing at my mind as I mulled over the last 36 hours, in which the world lost Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall, two of its most iconic performers. Maybe that’s why I chose this session’s mantra to be the secret Valyrian utterance from Game of Thrones, “All men must die.”
Death has been at the back of my head for a while now, ever since last month when our company’s founder, president and editor-in-chief, Norm Kamikow, died unexpectedly. On July 14, everyone in the office assembled in the conference room, where about 48 of us stood shoulder-to-shoulder as our vice president delivered the news.
Having only joined the company in February, I had only really talked to Norm once (on my third day) and seen him walk through the office maybe five times. His home in California kept him physically away from our Chicago headquarters, but his influence on the company permeated everything we did. My lack of personal connection with him, however, made it hard for me to grieve — but very easy for me to notice everyone else’s reactions in the room. Two of the most tenured employees let out gasps as their hands went to their mouths. Others looked down, trying to comprehend what had been said. Some seemed to know already, clinging tears threatening to give them away.
And then there was me, sitting on the outside and watching. I wasn’t sure how to react. To mix pop culture references, Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary, upon learning that her betrothed has died on the Titanic, says “I’m not as sad as I should be, and that’s what makes me sad.” It was exactly that for me.
Truth be told, I don’t have that much experience with death even though my lack of grandparents might hint otherwise. My mom’s father died when she was 13, and her mom died when I was 4 and barely able to comprehend what was going on. My paternal grandfather died a little later, but I didn’t feel much because, again, I was only 8 or so. Even when my dad’s mom died while I was in college, it was right at the start of finals’ week, and I had to grieve in between cramming for bio anthropology and finishing a massive news writing project, seven hours away in Columbia, Mo.
Some would call that lucky. I see it as a terrible handicap that’s made it so I have to find other places where I can feel the same loss others have felt in much closer proximity. This week has been proof of that.
Last night I learned of Robin Williams’ death from good old Facebook, font of all indelible breaking news via Buzzfeed “(Insert insane number here) reasons why…” lists. I had to read a series of status updates before grasping that the man who had been Mork, Mrs. Doubtfire and even Sy the Photo Guy was gone. Williams had been a fixture in every stage of my life. When I was a little kid, he was the wise-cracking Genie in my favorite Disney movie. When I was a teenager, he was Mr. John Keating, sage English teacher at a boy’s prep school. After the angst of adolescence ended, I saw him as Sean Maguire, psychologist burdened with having — and wanting — to help problem man-child Will Hunting, and later Sy, the insane but empathetic photo technician obsessed with another family’s happiness. And those were just his film roles.
I’ve read countless tributes, both in 140-characters and longer blog forms. One Bustle writer talked about how his performance in Mrs. Doubtfire impacted her when she was a 1990s child of divorce. Conan O’Brien, having received the news while taping his Monday night show, ended the episode and interview with Will Arnett by announcing it to his studio audience. And then Larry King tweeted how much he would miss “Robert Williams,” while Fox ran a spoof of Mrs. Doubtfire as b-roll behind the story and ABC gave arial coverage of the Williams residence while saying the family wanted privacy.
Well, we can’t all be perfect. Williams certainly wasn’t, as indicated in his struggle with addiction and decision to end his own life. But damn if he didn’t make us laugh, cry and laugh so hard we cried.
But almost 24 hours later, death hadn’t finished its tour of Hollywood yet. Lauren Bacall passed away at 89 from a massive stroke. Her smoldering presence in film — and romantic bond with Humphrey Bogart — made her a Hollywood legend sans the tabloids. Although her death wasn’t a major surprise, she was one of the last great golden-age cinema actors to leave us.
The news about Bacall came in just as I was leaving for yoga tonight, and in the car I started asking myself why I felt so much sadness toward two people I never even knew, while I felt very little when the man essentially responsible for my first real journalism job passed away. I came to this conclusion:
Famous people impact us, whether we want to admit it or not — that influence only multiplies when they have as much talent as the two actors we lost this week. I’m not the only one profoundly affected by the loss of Williams, Bacall, and, earlier this year, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Although these people were just images on a screen and occasional Oscar acceptance speech-givers (in Williams’ case, also a memorable Oscar presenter), they were part of our lives. Williams made us joyful. Bacall made us sizzle. And Hoffman made us go: “Is that…?” “Yeah, I think it is.” “Holy crap, he’s good.”
They say Williams was in almost 50 films, not counting his standup routines. Bacall was just as prolific in her 50-year career. Ask a group of people — cinephiles or not — what their favorite Williams role was, and the answers will vary. For me, it was Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting, a man whose own chinked armor stands up against the battering ram of a troubled kid. Children of divorce might say Mrs. Doubtfire. Teachers say Dead Poets Society, and doctors mention Patch Adams. Ask about Bacall, and the same varied response will follow, from her roles alongside Bogey in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep to her later, darker role in Dogville.
These people weren’t family or intimate friends, but we let them into our life via our televisions and cineplexes. As hard as it is to accept, all men (and women) must die. But that doesn’t mean their memory has to go with them. Just a whistle or a rub of the lamp, and we can continue rejoicing in their legacy by celebrating their greatest achievements.
As for the team at Human Capital Media, Norm’s passing was tough, but we’re getting through it together. Some feel the loss more deeply than others, but we all have equal stake in carrying out his vision, both in the work we do and people we touch while doing it.
That’s how Williams and Bacall did it.
Be sure to read my blog post for Chief Learning Officer on how Williams’ two greatest roles act as examples for aspiring mentors.