The Day the Neighborhood Changed Forever: Missing Mr. Rogers

Originally posted Feb. 27, 2008

“Oh my God! Mr. Rogers died,” I gasped, my inner child forgetting to censor herself, as I scanned the breaking news on the AOL welcome page.

“No he didn’t, Mommy, he’s on T.V.,” Noah assured me, with the sturdy confidence of a four-year-old.

It’s ironic that I learned the news of Fred Rogers’ death, five years ago today, while my kids watched a re-run of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood just a few feet away from where I sat with my laptop. Since little ears miss nothing, a convoluted discussion about death and the magic of television ensued. It wasn’t pretty. Mr. Rogers would not have been impressed.

PBS began airing Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood in 1968, the year after I was born. I was raised on a full helping of “Won’t you be my neighbor?” along with my breakfast cereal every morning. Decades later, I watched the airing of the last episode with my own children, two-and-a-half years before his death. He sang the closing song, same as always, as he unzipped his familiar cardigan sweater and slowly took off his blue sneakers:

“I’ll be back, when the day is new, and I’ll have more ideas for you. And you’ll have things you want to talk about. I will, too.”

(I still know the tune. I bet you just hummed it, yourself.)

The words to the song may have been the same, but it felt palpably different this last time. I felt his grief, which was plain to see in his trembling lips and glistening eyes. I heard it in his voice as it broke over the words he’d sung at the conclusion of nearly a thousand episodes of the Neighborhood. I cried with him as he closed the door on his television house and on his show, with a final wave to his television neighbors. That wave. My heart ached for him.

Rogers’ magic was his simplicity, and his ability to quietly convey messages of affirmation and acceptance: “You always make it a special day and a special week for me, by just your being you. There’s only one person in this whole world like you; that’s you yourself, and I like you just the way you are,” he alwaystold us.

No bells or whistles were necessary to grab our attention. No flashy sets or elaborate special effects were employed to sustain our interest. He wasn’t even acting. He was just there. He was present. His affirmation of us was captivating enough, a model we parents would do well to emulate as we wonder what it is that our kids really need from us – while we’re out there scrambling tosatisfy them with Ipods and the right brand of jeans.

As Rogers so eloquently stated in an old television interview with PBS’s Charlie Rose, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” This quote from Antoine de Saint – Exupery (The Little Prince) was one of his favorites, and hung on his office wall as a reminder that what is important is connecting with others. What is essential to life and healthy development can be experienced in those moments of connection. I believe they are both right.

As a family therapist, Mom and child of the world, I am intrigued by the primitive need we all have, beginning in infancy, to attach to and experience connection with at least one other person. The nature of the attachments we experience in our formative years, whether they are positive or negative, sets up our expectations for future relationships. If we are lucky, this first experience of attachment or connection is with a parent, hopefully one who interacts with us in healthy ways. I sadly imagine that for some children, especially those with chaotic family situations, their daily encounters with Mr. Rogers, now made possible only in re-runs, gives them their only sure sense of connection – even if merely a ‘virtual’ one.

Several years ago when we lived in Pittsburgh, where Rogers taped his show for thirty-eight years, my husband Todd, also a Mr. Roger’s devotee, spotted him crossing the street several yards away. “That’s Mr. Rogers!” he sputtered in disbelief, looking like a stunned four -year- old who’d just seen his favorite superhero leap out of a comic book.

“See if you can get his attention,” I implored, tugging at his sleeve.

“Mr. Rogers! Mr. Rogers! Thank you!” my fully grown boy-man yelled frantically out the car window as he struggled to roll it down. Much to our surprise, Rogers wasn’t just a figment of our imaginations. We were real to him too, and he waved back. He waved at us, just like he always did on T.V. He took my breath away.

I regret that I never actually got closer to him than that simple greeting on a Pittsburgh street. But in that brief moment, I felt like he truly was my neighbor, just like I did when I sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the television with my cereal, so many years ago.

Maybe my little boy was right. Mr. Rogers will never really die. He lives on in re-runs, after all. But it already feels like a different neighborhood somehow. I miss him.

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