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O Captain My Captain

08/12/2014 08:56 am ET | Updated Oct 11, 2014

The summer after I finished high school I came to New York with my mother. I'd been to New York a handful of times before, usually to visit relatives, and it never failed to amaze me. I grew up in small towns in California, at times without electricity or running water, let alone anything fancy like stop lights. So you can imagine how Times Square and Yankee Stadium and 42nd street before it was cleared of street hustlers, hookers, and seedy porn shops seemed to me an entirely different world.

My parents grew up here -- in a different world as well, a 1940s and 1950s New York shaped by European immigrants of two world wars, an industrial city on the rise. I know of that New York from stories, many of them told by my dad, sitting in his brother's kitchen in New Rochelle with my cousins and my aunt, all of us listening to the brothers Dominitz telling stories about a New York that even then was already so different from anything they'd experienced as children.

And even the brothers, ten years apart, were separated by a generation of sorts -- my uncle born in Vienna, fleeing Hitler, a history of experience shared with his parents, separate from my father, born here a few years later. Things change suddenly -- in an instant what was permanent, gone; and in no time at all present becomes history, and history can disappear.

So, 1989, New York City, and to escape a scorching, humid, muggy August night, I went with my mom to watch a new film, Dead Poet's Society, in a theatre somewhere in midtown. The film is set in 1959, around the time my mom graduated high school, although at the time I didn't make the connection.

High school wasn't easy for my mother and me. We fought. We went months without speaking -- both of us headstrong, both of us struggling to find ourselves -- at very different stages. She gave me ultimatums that included therapy, I gave her, I'm sure, many nights of anguish and frustration. We were in New York together, but we were far from united -- in fact, not many weeks later, she would deliver me to Los Angeles for college, our anger and will eliciting a wordless parting.

It's a beautiful film, still, Dead Poet's Society. Robin Williams, through poetry, and honesty, through love and defiance, becomes much more than an English teacher to a group of young men -- he becomes a father, a friend, an inspiration. Walking out of the theatre -- between high school and college, between fighting my parents and loving them, between dependence and freedom -- I was acutely aware of the world and utterly at a loss as to what to do with it or my place in it.

I didn't speak, couldn't, for a good hour. I remember walking the streets in the hot night, my mind reeling, moved by a movie to a place of wonder that couldn't be contained within the boundaries of where my mind had been only two hours before. What was my purpose? Where was I headed? What was love? What was worth standing up for -- standing on top of my desk for, o captain, my captain -- or even, what wasn't?

The world was laid out in front of me, mysterious, like a word you know is there but just can't grasp -- that sense of utter frustration when you feel a solution, an answer, a direction, is lurking just outside consciousness. It was like some sort of semi-epiphany -- a feeling that is so powerful it overwhelms you and there's nothing you want more than to connect to it, to have it open a door to another plane of understanding, and yet it's out of reach, outside your vocabulary, outside your experience. But it's there; you sense it's there...

I don't know what age we are when we truly understand that we die. We learn it early enough as fact, sure, as part of what happens on this human journey. And we go on to lose friends, relatives, teachers, icons. And still, it remains 'out there', removed, happening to other people, because we're still here.

I have a picture of my father, taken two years ago, sitting in my living room. He's with the two friends he's known longest, three men with nearly 250 years between them, three men who started out as boys in Washington Heights in the 1940s. I remember listening to their conversation -- who had cancer, who was sick, what didn't work, who had died -- and laughing, lightly, with them, about the inevitable, about the facts of life for men in their 70s, men who had grown accustomed to losing what was familiar, to declining health, to the general demise of a body not meant for keeps.

Robin Williams died today, Monday, just north of San Francisco, a couple hours from where I went to High School. Robin Williams, who when he was alive was more alive than most of us. Robin Williams, who could make us laugh so deeply on levels at which we didn't even know we understood; who could move us so intensely with his passion, with his kindness, with his talent, with his humanity.

I believe it just hit me, death. Not because I loved Robin Williams -- I did, of course, transfixed since Mork. No, it hit me because I am again at a crossroads in my life, again in between stages, and feeling particularly raw and vulnerable in that way that a single man in his 40s can after having spent a joyous weekend being the fun uncle to amazing kids and coming home to a particular kind of emptiness that can only follow days so full of love. It's not a sad empty, but it's poignant, and present.

It is not only the people who die, not only our friends and family for whom we grieve. It's our version of the world too, that moves on. Our movies. Our foods. Our films. Our music. When our reference points become obsolete, how do we find our centers, stay relevant in our own existence, remain inspired for the future in the way you do when you are finishing high school and the world is wide open and every day holds the promise of so much new?

Again, then, to the film, to John Keating, Williams' character, the teacher, who starts with Whitman, and ends, beautifully, with the rest of us:

"O me! O life!... of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless... of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?" Answer. 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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