This article was originally published on March 14, 2014. It was important to me to share it with you again on this 20th anniversary date.
The day Robert J. Ringer, Jr. was born was one of those handful of joyous times that stay with you all your life. Millions of men would like to have a son, but, for one reason or another, it didn’t happen for them. That’s why I consider myself to be extraordinarily blessed, because I ended up not with one son, but four, and all of them are special people.
Robert Jr., to whom we gave the nickname “Robby,” was the first to arrive, and that made him very special. I can still see him in his little Dr. Dentons, his chubby pink cheeks bookending his million-dollar smile, sitting on my lap as I rocked him to sleep while humming “Rock-A-Bye Baby.” It all seems like a delicious dream now.
What I remember most about those nightly rocking-chair sessions with Robby was my pausing every minute or so to kiss him on his perfectly shaped little head. Then, when I was sure he was in a deep sleep, I’d get up and put him in his crib. For me, it was nothing short of bliss — pure, unadulterated bliss.
After Robby learned to walk, it was a thrill for me when I’d come home from work and, on hearing my car pull into the garage, he would rush to the screen door excitedly shouting, “Daddy! Daddy!”
By his fifth birthday, I was absolutely convinced that Robby was destined for greatness. He was amazingly precocious, with a personality that could light up any room, and his sense of humor was priceless. Above all, he was incredibly kind and gentle.
I remember often thinking that he could end up being anything from a billionaire businessman to the president of the United States. I couldn’t fathom any limits on what he could accomplish in his lifetime. I was just certain that whatever it was, it would be big.
But there’s a dangerous innocence in having an expectation of a future formed on the basis of one’s normalcy bias. Even if you do everything right, from time to time a harsh reality will, without warning, collide with your desires and best-laid plans. And so it was in my son’s case. Robby was buried exactly 20 years ago today — ironically, on his birthday, March 14, 2000. This is the first time I have been able to bring myself to write about it.
What makes it all the more painful is that no one will never know for certain whether Robby died on March 12 or March 13, because when the paramedics arrived, it was shortly after midnight and they weren’t sure how long he had been dead. Death is always a devastating dose of reality, but to not even know for certain on which day your son died leaves an open wound in your heart for eternity.
From reading and watching the news, we are all aware, of course, that these things happen to other families. It’s just part of life. But it’s not supposed to happen to our family. Seneca described it well when he said:
So many funerals pass our doors, yet we never dwell on death. So many deaths are untimely, yet we make plans for our own infants: how they will don the toga, serve in the army, and succeed to their father’s property.
Seneca was right — thankfully, most of us do not dwell on death. We go along merrily in life — especially when we are prosperous and healthy — not really thinking about the inevitable dark moments that lie just over the horizon. And it’s a good thing that we do have the capacity to ignore the almost certain sadness that looms ahead, lest we be perpetually depressed.
We make plans for ourselves and our children as though there were no such thing as untimely death, for to do otherwise would almost certainly saddle us with the most premature of all deaths — ceaseless anguish. Better to plan for a long and healthy life and have hope and faith that premature death will not intervene.
In his book Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton says:
Though the terrain of frustration may be vast — from a stubbed toe to an untimely death — at the heart of every frustration lies a basic structure: the collision of a wish with an unyielding reality.
The collisions begin in earliest infancy, with the discovery that the sources of our satisfaction lie beyond our control and that the world does not reliably conform to our desires.
One of life’s harshest realities is that no one, no matter how rich or famous, escapes the tragedies inherent in human existence. Notwithstanding our efforts to control our environment, there is such a thing as the inevitable and, no matter how positive we may be about life, we are powerless to alter certain events.
And so it is with death, which is not only an integral part of life, it is the most certain thing about life. No human being in the history of our planet has managed to escape it.
Even so, those of us who are members of that most solemn of all fraternities — parents who have experienced a reversal of the natural order of things through the loss of a child — have a special cross to bear. Losing a child is something that cannot be fully comprehended by anyone who has not paid the fraternity’s oppressive membership fee.
And so, Robby, that time of the year has rolled around once again, and I hope you know that I am thinking about you on this special day and that I love you more than ever. In fact, I think about you every day of my life and fantasize that someday you will greet me at the door to the other side when I come home from work for the last time.