Goodbye to Ronan: On Change and Loss, Leaps and Love

As is most often the case when any number of my relatives congregate, at the time there were about fourteen conversations going on–such that I coudnt tell which one it was (dying marriages? over/under-sexed Orthodox Jews? Beyonce’s intelligence, or lack thereof?) which led to one brother snapping at his wife in such a way that she replied with a sharp elbow and this comment:

“Geez, an hour ago you were so into me–what happened?”

It didn’t matter. (Rather, to me, not being a member of their marriage, it didn’t).

What did (to me) matter was what caused me to, in turn, elbow her, and trade with her a glance referencing something that happened a couple weeks prior.

The something was a conversation I’d had with a guy–specifically, the guy about whom I wrote this piece. (With which, for the record, he claimed to not totally agree–to which I say, now, also for the record, oh lighten up.)

To his credit, perhaps what he disputes is my implication that things between us ended abruptly and purely at his will–neither of which is (exactly) true.

Regardless, end they did, and, at some point during the unraveling, he submitted this remark: ”I just think the power dynamic is screwed up,” he said, “I feel like I have too much of it, more than I want.”

At the time I was: taken aback, unprepared, and feeling the early stages of a cold. I shrugged.

The next day, my wits returned, I ate pizza with my sister-in-law.

“What a dumb thing to say!” I whined. “Power shifts in relationships all the time!

“Totally,” she agreed. “Like, hour to hour.”


On Friday, I woke up to an email that my dear friend Emily’s son had died. Ronan had Tay Sachs, a terribly cruel degenerative disease that kills children born with the wrong genes.

We knew it was coming. Last March Ronan turned two years old, and I’d driven up to Santa Fe from Albuquerque to help celebrate a birthday we all assumed would be his last. A few weeks ago, Em had written that the end was near.

So, at first, the news didn’t shock. It washed over me. I quickly wrote Emily a note. I got up. Walked B. Sat down at my desk and became absorbed in work.

Maybe it was the photos posted on Facebook, prompting memories of that birthday party, of being with Ronan at restaurants and at the house, of his specific beauty–the space between his eyes and the curl of his lips, and all of a sudden the loss struck: I would never see him again. There was an unexpected freshness, a crush, to the finality.

“It’s amazing,” I wrote in an email to my father, “that something this expected can still feel like such a shock.”

“I think the emotional impact of a death, even when it’s expected,” he wrote back, “is not any less than a sudden one.”

My father should know: he’s dealt with death too much in his life, far more than me–a wife, a father, a handful of very close friends. Among my many privileges in life is that my losses, the deaths I’ve known, have so far been few.

And while Ronan’s loss hit me hard, it also didn’t.

On Friday afternoon, I reached to connect with others feeling the loss–friends of Emily’s, her parents. I let myself take some time to feel sad.

And then, again, I got distracted. That evening I wandered around the Metropolitan Museum of Art, immersed myself in photographs and budding romance, and didn’t think about Ronan at all. Walking down 81st street, arm in arm with someone who never knew him, I thought how dramatically my day, my mood, had shifted.

Again and again, I am moved by the fluid nature of things–of compassion, of sympathy, of appetites and desires. The ways, large and small, that we move in and out of experiences and emotions seems, perhaps, the most essential comfort amid challenge.

And yet, death rejects that. It’s permanent, static, final. But still, the ways in which we respond can be as changeable as anything. Perhaps that contrast is among the things that makes loss so grueling to absorb.

It feels wrong to generalize about Ronan’s death. It’s too particular, too cruel, too exceptional a loss to try and connect with others. But as I try to absorb it myself, I can’t help but seek connection with other kinds of experience, other kinds of life.

With why that Girls episode with Patrick Wilson resonated so powerfully, why people come into and out of our lives, why the power in relationships–between lovers, friends–shifts all the time, why longings and hungers and passions can be as fleeting as they are real.

In a few hours I’m going to meet another friend of Emily’s. We’re going to order cocktails and toast Ronan’s life. She’ll go home to her children, I’ll go to my therapy appointment and out to dinner with friends. I’ll think of Ronan later, or tomorrow, or next week, or in ten and twenty years.

The feelings will come and go. His impact will always be.




On ‘Girls’, Boys and Bodies

“I mean, you are beautiful.”

My friend N lay her hand on my shoulder as we leaned against the kitchen counter, having just talked one another into opening a fourth bottle of beer.

As I looked back at her earnestly, our friend B–also the small, MFA party’s host–hustled in looking for wine, prompting all three of us to keel over in booze-addled giggles.

“I didn’t hear what you said,” B assured, laughing as she waved her hands and backed out of the room. “But I could tell you were having a moment. It’s cool!”

“No, stay!” I said. “We were just affirming each other! And talking about how we need to spend less time worrying about our bodies, and boys!”

“Oh,” B said, shaking her head as she leaned against the doorway and turned her face serious. “That’s really hard.”

Specifically, N and I had been trying to remind one another of our worth in tipsy effort to diminish our pesky preoccupations with being thin and finding someone to sleep with. And, more than that, to stop letting those preoccupations take up our time.

The paradox has always bewildered me: the persistent capacity of smart, capable, otherwise well-adjusted women to become uncertain, irrational crumples of insecurity when it comes to matters of their bodies and their relationships.

The body stuff is what angers me most. Lately, I’ve been struck by recent interviews with Lena Dunham in which she describes not being concerned about her shape.

“Hating my body has not been my cross to bear in this life,” she told New York Magazine. “And I feel very lucky about that.”

Lucky indeed. I admire, I envy her that freedom so much–but I don’t understand it. I grew up in the same city as Lena Dunham, around (ahem) the same time, and with parents who–like hers, I imagine–encouraged me to eat what I wanted and not worry about weight. I don’t know how or when it happened, but somewhere along the line societal influences penetrated: gripping me with a suffocating pressure I still feel to be thin. How could anyone have avoided that?

I’ve thought and talked and written about this subject a lot. But I hadn’t thought about it before in terms of how wasteful it is, in terms of how much time so many of us spend worrying about the way we look and whether we are loved, and how much of that time we could be dedicating, instead, to ourselves.

In other words, how much more productive we might be if we were all more like Lena Dunham: I doubt it’s a coincidence that Dunham’s been so successful at such a young age, and that she doesn’t waste energy worrying about her body.

Not that she’s any more immune than the rest of us when it comes to anxiety about men. If not for that, after all, she’d be a lot less long on material. (As B, a poet, put it last night: “If I didn’t think about guys, what would I write about?” “Look who you’re talking to,” I replied.)

We’ll never not worry about guys–or girls, or whoever. It isn’t avoidable, or even desirable. But just imagine what a relief it would be if we thought about them less.

The other night I spent time with a friend who is ten years older than me, and who I tend to think of–in part for that reason, but for others, too–as substantially wiser and more secure. In most ways, she is.

But when it comes to relationships, her struggle is similar. She recently got burned by a guy who, despite his advanced age, wound up pulling the same predictable pathologies I associate with men in their twenties: jumping in too fast and then freaking out; wanting an unstable woman he can “fix” to avoid intimacy. (Seriously: can someone find me a dude with some fresh set of issues? I’m not even thirty and I’m already bored.)

My friend knew this guy wasn’t her equal. And even so, she let herself spend an entire month feeling crushed by him.

“I hardly got any writing done that whole time,” she told me over wine and lemonade. “I was too busy trying to figure him out.”

Her words resonated powerfully: there is something singularly sharp in the recognition that all the energy I expend agonizing about flaky dudes could be used writing essays.

“We’re artists!” I exclaimed to B and N, standing between them in the kitchen, placing my hands on their shoulders. “We can’t be spending our time thinking about stupid boys, and whether or not we’re thin! We have to focus on ourselves! We have to do our art!” I was trying to convince myself as much as them.

“I think it’s biological,” B said, laughing. “At least, it makes me feel better to think about it that way!”

N and I nodded. “It’s just so frustrating,” N said, tossing her thick mane of hair behind her head. “Cause the boys we date who are artists don’t think about us, ever.”

“Nope,” B concurred. “Never. If they’re doing their thing, that’s what they’re thinking about. If you’re there, great.”

To illustrate I made a show of glancing at my phone: the screen of which, I informed them, still didn’t feature a text response from a certain artist I’m seeing.

“He’s in the studio,” I explained, bitterly. They shook their heads in sympathy.

“I’m just trying to catch myself,” I announced, relaying the advice my older friend had offered. “You know, when I like, pass a woman on campus and start to compare myself, or get too hung up waiting for a text, I’m just gonna try to catch it“–I snapped my fingers–”and make myself think about something else.”

“That’s good!” they agreed, as we began to talk about how much distance there is between recognizing a pattern and being able to break it.

Eventually, our banter leavened: we started to debate about a guy in our program and whether he would be a better kisser (N) or a better fuck (B).

“But don’t you think he’d be so tender?” B pleaded sweetly.

“Ugh,” I replied. “Can’t imagine either one. I’m sure he jackrabbits like a teenager.”

At that moment a different guy walked past, innocently seeking beer, and all of us looked at him and buckled over laughing, again.

Because among all the things that make us expend energy on our bodies and our boys, one is certainly each other. And certainly, sometimes, thank god for that.