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.