FARRAGUT, Tenn. — At first it was hard to make out the caller's voice. Her words came slowly with a mechanical gasp in between.
"Ma'am, I can't understand what you're saying," I interrupted, annoyed. "I think we have a bad connection."
It wasn't a bad connection, Robin Williams was gasping for air. She was dying of COVID-19.
She had called the WBIR newsroom to share her final words, and I had answered the phone.
Viewers call 10News all the time, 24 hours a day. Sometimes they want to know the weather. Other times, the score of the Vols game. They have story ideas, questions, compliments and sometimes complaints.
This was unlike any other call, though.
My notebook was out of reach when I realized what Robin was trying to say. I still have the purple sticky notes I wrote the bullet points of her message on.
"Robin Williams. 64 yrs. Parkwest hospital. Raised in Blount Co. On a BiPAP machine. Ventilator tomorrow. Vaccinated, cancer survivor."
My colleague Eric recorded the message she wanted broadcast:
"I just want people to know that, even though I took all the precautions, it is still something that needs to be dealt with. It may not have helped me, but I hope it helps somebody else."
I wished her good luck—and hung up.
For weeks, that late August phone call was all we knew of Robin Williams. We had her cell phone number—and the number for her son, Chris. A few weeks ago, I called it. Robin was dead.
Her family held a memorial service Saturday. Chris graciously agreed to meet on Sunday and tell me about the woman who shared her final message with a complete stranger on the other end of the phone.
Robin Williams, 64, was born and died in East Tennessee. In the interim, she raised three kids—at times working three jobs to make ends meet.
"Because of that we really didn't have to want for anything. She worked real hard," her son Kenneth Robinson told me.
She faced a long battle with various medical issues. Her first bout of cancer came at 28 and she faced the disease three more times in later life. In 2005, she had a stroke. A chair lift along the interior stairs of her Farragut home betrayed a decline in mobility.
But Robin also had spunk; she wore cheetah print and drove a green Jaguar. This spring, she checked herself out of the hospital while facing another health issue to drive to Kentucky to watch her eldest son retire from a 30-year Army career.
"That's just the type of woman she was. There was nothing that was going to hold her back. Once she put her mind on something she was going to do it," Chris Carter Sr. said.
Every morning, family and friends woke up to inspirational messages from Robin. Bible quotes, memes and gifs arrived via text and posts to her Facebook page. She loved her seven grandkids and her three great-grandchildren.
Robin's cooking melted in your mouth. Fried chicken, greens, pinto beans and cornbread was her Thanksgiving specialty, but she passed the recipe for her legendary sweet tea to her grandson Chris Carter Jr., he said.
When the Coronavirus pandemic began, her family said they knew her compromised immune system put Robin at an elevated risk. They had groceries delivered, limited her trips and made TikTok videos to pass the time. When the vaccine became available, she got her shot.
It wasn't enough. By August 28, Robin was in the ICU at Parkwest hospital. She struggled to breathe and doctors told her they needed to put her on the ventilator. She told me she knew the odds were not in favor of her ever coming off it.
Through it all, Robin still sent inspirational messages to her family. When she couldn't talk, she texted.
"I got some form of text or inspirational quote, I got that every day from her," Robinson said.
She called the newsroom around 5 o'clock. By 1:30 the next morning, doctors intubated her lungs, Carter Sr. said. She died September 13.
"She was a fighter," Robinson said. He expected she'd fight off COVID-19, too.
Carter told me he had no idea she'd called Channel 10.
"My mother is full of surprises," he said.
I asked why he thought she called. He paused and thought, as if trying to channel the spirit of his mom.
"I think she wanted to give the world her last words, her last statement about what she was going through," he said. "She also wanted to give people hope to continue to fight and continue to do the right thing."
One last inspirational message from Robin Williams to us all.