I am the father of Richard, whom everyone else calls “Rick,” which makes me Ronan’s grandfather.
On the morning of January 11, I awoke to find that Richard had left me a telephone message. I called back, but at least one of our cellphones was misbehaving, as they often do, and the conversation was garbled. Between roars of static I caught the phrase “bad news,” but then Richard seemed to be saying something about a “woman,” and about something called “K-fax,” which sounded vaguely electronic. It made no sense at all, so I asked him to call me back on my house phone. This time what Richard had to say was all too clear, but it still made no sense. This shouldn’t have happened! This couldn’t have happened! It was absolutely the last thing I ever expected to hear.
Suddenly my mind plunged back more than a half-century to my teen years, to the day my father told me that my mother had been diagnosed with a disease that was likely to prove quickly fatal. If it were possible to chart the setbacks in one’s life, these would be the two Himalayan peaks. The same feelings of utter disbelief and helplessness, the desperate desire to escape from an inescapable truth. Back then I would wake up each morning dreading to face the day, and now, all these years later, the same thing has been happening. In between there was never anything as bad, nothing even close.
On the day Ronan was born, I was 72 years, two months and three days old. I had to accept the likelihood that our lives were unlikely to overlap for very long. Like any doting, egocentric grandparent, I saw my grandchild as my foothold in the future. Given his parentage, there was no reason to doubt that he would be anything less than a very great man, most likely — again, given his parentage — a great writer. You may have noticed that the definitive biographies of great men tend to be exceedingly long — more than 700 pages is not unusual — and that the most meticulous biographers start their works at least two generations back, and give inordinate attention to people of trivial significance, like grandfathers. Although I didn’t expect to ever read Ronan’s definitive biography, I anticipated that the details of my wayward youth would be recounted to bored and impatient readers somewhere around page 50.
Which of the great milestones of his life would I witness? I figured there was a decent chance that I could be present for his graduation from elementary school, provided that someone could come along to nudge me awake periodically. I had attended Richard’s elementary-school graduation, and can proudly report that he won every academic honor that was awarded that day. As proud as I was, I had to feel sorry for the other kids.
I also attended his high school graduation. By then he had become the school maverick, as those of you who know him can readily believe, and the school administration was not entirely crazy about him. He had to share academic honors with other students. By the time he graduated from Vassar, he had given the word “maverick” dramatic new shades of meaning. I don’t think he took college too seriously, except as a vehicle for presenting his witty, entertaining musical comedies. Some years after his graduation, an alumni newsletter reported that Richard had taken an African name and was lost or hiding somewhere on the Dark Continent. To their credit, the newsletter editors expressed skepticism as to whether Richard’s response to their “where-are-you” query had been entirely truthful.
The ever-present, mischievous gleam in Ronan’s eye seemed to indicate that he might one day share his father’s satiric outlook on life. But I thought — call it intuition — that he might turn out to be a trifle more conventional, that he might not have as many rough edges as his old man, or other forebears. Everyone who has met Ronan has fallen in love with him, and from his beautiful, broad smile you can tell that he returns the love in full. The great danger seemed to be that he would be too popular, perhaps even roped into an early marriage by a designing young woman who knew a good catch when she saw one. He might have been legally required to have his parents co-sign the application for a marriage license. If this happened early enough, I and my companion with the sharp elbow might have been able to attend the ceremony.
This week I spent a couple of days down in Santa Fe, my first chance to visit with Ronan and his parents since that fateful January phone call. Even though Ronan was suffering from a head cold, he was, as usual, Mr. Personality. He has the most angelic of temperaments, and he has the irresistible habit of looking you up and down, then slowly breaking into a loving smile. Adults well along in years would die for that smile, would die to keep it on his face forever.