Age-Old Questions and Robin Williams’ Gift

God willing, I’ll be 63 in about a week. As the old saying goes, if I had known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.

At this age, I can’t stop looking at other people my age to see how they’re holding up and what they’ve finally done with their lives. Inevitably, this leads me to this observation:

About half of my friends my age are retired.

The others are journalists.

No regrets about this ending though. As another old saying goes — when you get to be as old as I am, you have a lot of old sayings — you have to really love this job to do it. Otherwise, I have no idea why anyone would want to do it, because they would be miserable. And even after more than 40 years, I still love what I do.

I’m also wondering how to make the most of the years I have left in this big old goofy world, and as I’ve noted in the past, I just think “be the best person you can be” is a goal as lofty as any of us can set ourselves right now. As the old Beatles song says – all Beatles songs are old, right? – “And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make.”

That’s why I will always love Robin Williams.

If you’re wondering if I have some sort of weird first-person Robin Williams story…yes. Yes. It actually involves my daughter-in-law, and it contains a lesson in what I think is the most special thing a person (famous or otherwise) can ever do: do something fantastic for others, especially if it means you will never get any credit for it. By all accounts, Williams had few equals in this regard, and I have at least a slice of living proof.

First, about my daughter-in-law. I don’t think I’ve ever written about Alex in this column, but most of my friends know her, or at least know her. Alex is 32 and my daughter-in-law from a previous marriage in the Bay Area. She took special education classes in school and now attends a day program for adults with developmental disabilities.

Like many people who have been given this hand in life, there are many so-called “normal” things that Alex will never be able to do. On the other hand, as I’ve learned many times, she has special gifts that should be the envy of almost anyone.

At the top of this list is his ability to remember a face. Dozens of times over the years, we’d see someone in a store, and Alex would walk up to them, smile, and say, “I saw you!” Usually this would take both the other person and myself by surprise; then we had a conversation, and we found out that two, five or eight years earlier, this person had met Alex at a game or at a restaurant or something.

I quickly learned never to doubt the accuracy of “I saw you!”

But the day she pointed it at Robin Williams, I have to admit I was a miscreant.

In this case, it happened because “Mrs. Doubtfire” was on TV. We were living in Danville at the time and Alex was attending San Ramon Valley High. She walked into the room, saw Robin Williams on TV. and her face lit up.

“I saw it!” Alex said, pointing to Robin Williams.

I did a double take. “Him? Have you seen this guy? I asked.

“Yes!” she says. “I saw it!”

I asked where. And she said, “My class!

I sat there with a dumbfounded look on my face. Robin Williams was in Alex’s class at San Ramon Valley High? Why hadn’t I heard of this? I shrugged and wrote it as a case of “I guess even Alex can get a face wrong once in a while.”

But, as the weeks passed, and “Mrs. Doubtfire” kept being replayed, and Alex kept pointing at the screen and saying “I saw it!” I couldn’t help but wonder if there was something to that.

So the next time I was at his school, I decided to go ahead and ask.

“Um, that may sound stupid,” I told his teacher, “but Alex keeps telling me that Robin Williams was in your class. Is that…”

The teacher smiled, raised his hand and quietly asked me to follow him. We headed to an area filled with pictures of students.

And there, among a collection of dozens of photos, was a photo of this whole group of special needs kids in that same classroom – with a smiling Robin Williams standing right in the middle.

Alex stood beside him with his arm around him, a smile as big as possible on his face.

My jaw dropped. “What how? … “

Her teacher was more than happy to tell the story.

“He comes to our classroom about once a year,” he said, pointing to a second photo of Williams in the classroom from a previous visit. “He has a rule: we are not allowed to tell parents or other teachers that he is coming. He just wants to come hang out with the kids.

I saw the photo again. Williams looked just as happy to be among the children as they were to be around him.

Yes, he was joking a bit with the professor. Yes, he was as child friendly and kind as can be. But no, he was not putting on a show. Usually he would sit quietly for an hour or two and basically be there with the children.

I asked how it started. The professor told me that a few years earlier, Williams – an avid cyclist – was at a nearby bike shop in Danville. A man recognized him, introduced himself and said, in effect, “Hey, my son is in the special education class right over there in high school…any chance you could go say hi?”

Williams basically shrugged, said “Sure, that sounds like fun!” and went straight, out of the blue.

The following year, he did it again. And he kept the tradition going for more years than I think.

He kept his only rule intact: no parents. No other teachers. No advertising.

Most kids in this class probably couldn’t tell you much about Robin Williams, or why he was famous. But they saw him sometimes on television, and they liked it when he came to visit them. It made his annual random act of kindness pretty much the most special thing I could imagine.

I guess I think of those visits today because Robin Williams was 63 when he died – by his own hand. His death shocked the world; How did this incredibly funny and gifted man end up battling such horrible depression, a victim of undiagnosed Lewy body disease?

This is something I cannot understand, and I will never understand the anguish he must have felt at the end of his life. None of us will.

But, I also can’t begin to imagine the amount of joy Williams brought to people over his 63 years, whether he got credit for it or not. If you mentioned his name to anyone in the Bay Area around this time, they usually also had a story of a random act of kindness by Robin Williams.

So, for me, this all represents a very good lesson and a good goal for my 63rd voyage around the sun. At a time when too many people spend every waking minute wondering how they can win arguments or speak ill of other people on social media and still believe they are doing something for the greater good of humanity, don’t all of our problems come down to the fact that we all just need to be better people? And perhaps most importantly, be kind to those who need it most? And sometimes just sit and listen?

So let’s do it. Whether anyone notices it or not.

As yet another old saying goes, “There’s no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

Mike Wolcott is taking the weekend off to celebrate his 63rd birthday. His column will return on October 2.

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