Heidi Ehrenreich: Memories of a boy who loved the alien genius of Robin Williams

Last modified: Wednesday, August 20, 2014
HATFIELD — I keep a stash of Robin Williams films ready to be popped into my VCR, yes VCR, for those times when nothing else will lift spirits up and transform my gloom with pure glee. Even though I can quote every word of “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “The Birdcage” by now, each time I watch I roar with laughter as if seeing them for the first time.

In 1978, I was working in a school for kids with differing diagnoses in San Mateo, California. Every morning small buses and vans pulled up outside the stucco school and out would pile a parade of kids of all shapes and sizes.

I remember a 9-year-old boy named Louie who came in a handicapped van. When the door would open and lower his chair down on the pavement, Louie would get out and turn to wave goodbye to his driver. Then he’d take his first step dragging his other leg up to meet his standing foot as he worked his way to his classroom.

Louie’s body leaned to one side and twisted into a curve like the letter C. He wore glasses with what used to be called Coke-bottle lenses and had a smile that spread across his pale face.

He was one of those kids who had a rare childhood illness with a prognosis of not living past 10 years old. He was also one of those kids who cracked open your heart every morning when he said “hello” with labored speech.

I remember so clearly a morning that changed everything for all of us at Los Prados School.

That day, when Louie was dropped off and began the long journey to his classroom, he passed me, looked up, spread his fingers making a “V” between his middle and ring finger, held up has hand and said “Nanu, nanu.”

Mork had appeared on network TV, and Robin Williams leapt into our lives. For Louie this meant he had finally found his hero, an alien, and someone with whom he could identify.

From then on when Louie passed teachers and other kids on their way to class, we all stopped and shaped our hand in the secret gesture, held it up and said our greeting.

“Nanu, nanu.”

We continued to do so in honor of Louie after he passed from our world later that year.

The death of Robin Williams brought the memory of Louie back to me after 36 years. The only thing that seems to console me is imagining Robin getting off his special bus in heaven and being greeted by Louie with his crooked body and wide smile.

I think I am going to write myself a prescription to crank up the VCR, pop in a tape of Robin’s and take the best medicine in the world – his legacy of laughter.

Heidi Ehrenreich of Hatfield is an autism spectrum disorder specialist, a speech/language pathologist and a dance/movement therapist. She is working on a book about compelling children she has known. She can be reached by email at circlesofcommunication.net.