My son, David, was, in the end, a welcome, if unexpected, addition to my family. After my wife Susan and I got married in March of 1969, we took off on a cross-country honeymoon on our way to California where I was to spend my sabbatical leave in Berkeley. Each of us had a daughter by a previous marriage, and when our kids met, they decided they would like to be sisters. So, Susan and I, with some measure of misgivings and ambivalence, which turned out to be well-warranted, decided to oblige them by marrying. The girls would join us later. This was our honeymoon and we were determined to have a ball on the way out to California.
Susan assured me that, as she had been on the pill forever, there was no chance of her getting pregnant any time soon.
Famous last words, as they say.
Dave was the product of her miscalculation, but it was one of her best since that boy turned out to be a joy and a father’s pride – but then, I am proud of all my kids.
As a boy, Dave was a charmer – so very sweet and loving. Cool, too. This photograph shows him in his youthful exuberance. He was always breaking his big glasses during those years. After one such mishap, he greeted his optician by saying, “Long time, no see.” A born wit.
Indeed, at least with regard to his sense of humor, he has taken after his old man. For example, when I was in high school, I was voted “class wit.” Dave, not to be undone, was voted “class clown.” But even when he was young, he was funny and possessed an antic and zany wit. When asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he said, “a head of lettuce.” Another time, when he was about three years old, we were having dinner at a local restaurant when Dave had to go to the bathroom on his own. But when he came out, he shouted so all the restaurant patrons could hear, “Mommy, I shit in the toilet!” Yes, Dave was really an exuberant and funny kid.
And he has only got better with age. Perhaps his greatest coup as a wit occurred when we had travelled to Hawaii for a vacation when Dave was a teen-ager. Originally, I had planned to go with my then wife, Barbara, and my daughter, Kathryn, but by the time it came for us to travel, my wife and I had split up. I still had her ticket, however, so I invited Dave to go in her stead.
Now, in those days, travel by air was not the fraught and security-ridden affair it is now. It was much more casual. For example, I once used a ticket that a friend of mine named Ronna Kabatznick had given me. Although I did not enjoy being addressed as Mr. Kabatznick, I was grateful to get a free ride on that flight. Anyway, when we flew to Hawaii, Dave used my soon-to-be ex-wife’s ticket.
All went well until our return home on New Year’s Eve. When Dave handed the stewardess (as they were called in those days) his ticket, she said, “What a minute. This says Barbara.” Without missing a beat, Dave corrected her. “No,” he said, that’s BarBARrah. That did the trick. Dave is not only a card but a crafty kid, quick to quip on his feet.
But I hasten to add, there is a depth to Dave that you wouldn’t infer from these jocular anecdotes I’ve used to introduce him to you, and you will learn about that soon enough.
These days, Dave works at a posh private school in Eastern Connecticut. For a time he was its chief librarian, but in recent years, he’s become an English teacher (another way we are similar, both being teachers) as well as coaching its cross-country running team. And although not a part of his school duties, he’s become quite a hit as an actor in the town’s amateur theatrical productions. In any case, at this school the staff is sometimes invited to give what is called a “chapel talk,” where the students and faculty gather to hear the speaker. Dave, still relatively new to the school at the time, used the occasion to introduce himself to his audience. So, without further ado, I am now going to paste in that talk and use it to introduce Dave to you in a way that will show you that he is more than a wit, but a very wise fellow with depth of soul. Take it away, Dave….
Many of you know – or have seen - my son Max. He’s the blond, curly headed, nearly 5-year-old, whirling dervish that you might see as a blur around the dining hall. Max is now in kindergarten. He starts his school day sitting on a rug for “circle time,” when his teacher reads his class a story. Every night at bedtime, we read him stories. Max loves stories. We humans - we love stories. From the dawn of language, humans have shared stories. Before the written word, stories were told orally, and passed down from generation to generation, altered and elaborated on. Stories - be they told, read, or watched - take us places, teach us, scare us, humor us, and humble us.
And when stories are shared with friends or with the whole community, we all have the potential to gain a new perspective on life - to see things in a new way, and hopefully to appreciate something or someone in a way that wasn’t possible before. Before I begin my story, I thought I’d share a few random things about me - perhaps just to give you all a chance to know me a bit differently - and to put this story into a context.
(1) I was born just 30 minutes from here during a December snowstorm in 1969.
(2) I was voted class clown by my high school senior class peers.
(4) My sister - technically my half-sister - is half black, my mother having broken what were some serious taboos back in the early 1960s.
(5) I can speak pretty decent German.
(6) In addition to Connecticut, I’ve lived in Key West, Boston, Cape Cod, Portland, Maine, London, Amsterdam, Toronto, Zurich, New York City, and Long Beach, California.
(7) I’ve hiked over 200 miles of the Appalachian Trail.
(8) I’ve traveled to, among many other places, Malta and Madrid, Poland and India, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
(9) I’ve been a dishwasher, a bus driver, a flower delivery person, a parking lot attendant, a deputized official of the town of Wellfleet, a waiter, a tour guide, an English teacher, a graduate student, a consultant, a marketing director, a systems analyst, and only just recently a boarding school librarian.
(10) I grew nearly 5 inches during the summer between my junior and senior year of high school.
(11) I’ve run a marathon - in a nor’easter storm.
(12) One summer while working in a lumber yard, I was the unfortunate victim of a forklift accident and broke this arm in half.
(13) I was one half of a tandem team that amazed crowds as I could throw grapes well over 150 feet so accurately my friend could catch them in his mouth.
(14) For several years, I often wore a large afro wig to big events - parades, road races, and even my own wedding reception.
(15) And here’s something else most of you don’t know: I moved to Pomfret about three years ago shortly after the most trying circumstance of what had been an otherwise carefree and adventurous life.
As some most certainly know, life is a weird and wondrous thing. After spending the first 17 years of my life in rural northeastern Connecticut, I was quite determined to leave and didn’t think it likely I’d ever return to live. But life rarely goes according to plan. Some 17 years after leaving Connecticut I ended up marrying Linda - a woman who, while raised in Texas, had ancestral Pomfret roots. In fact, going back several generations, Linda’s third great aunt’s husband, Charles Grosvenor, sold the very land upon which this chapel was built to one William Peck, Pomfret School’s founder and first headmaster. Charles Grosvenor's wife was Elizabeth Mathewson who - now pay close attention here - was the sister of Edward, who was the father of Henry, the father of Jane, who was the mother of Polly: Linda’s mother.
My in-laws live just down the road from here on what Pomfret old timers still know as the Mathewson Farm. Many of the Mathewsons are buried in a family plot in a nearby cemetery few of you have probably ever noticed, though all of you have surely driven past. The Pomfret Street Cemetery is just a hundred yards down the hill from the Vanilla Bean on the road leading to Putnam; it’s nearly across the street from the Xtra Mart. There’s a small white sign near the road away from which leads a rarely traveled grass covered path. It passes through the heavy, but never locked iron gates to the small and infrequently visited graveyard. On sunnier autumn mornings, the often-overgrown grass is wet with dew; light trickles through the canopy of leaves and illuminates the mostly ancient stones. Many engravings are hard to read: weather worn, beaten by years of sun, snow, wind and rain. The Mathewson plot is toward the southeast corner, where a prominent, and no doubt expensive marker notes the location of the family. There you’d find, among many Mathewsons, Darius, George, Amaryllis, Hannah, Helen, Henry, Edward, and Elinor. Linda’s beloved grandmother, Jane Mathewson Bush, who went by the term of endearment ‘Newie’ has one of the newest headstones. She died just over 20 years ago in 1992.
But Newie’s grave is not the most recent one in the Pomfret Street Cemetery. Buried next to Newie, underneath a marker installed just a few years ago is another Mathewson descendant: our son, Leonardo Mathewson Ring.
Leo only has but one date on his stone - for he was dead the day he was born, July 20th, 2009 - one month shy of his due date.
Before this event, I often delineated my life into chapters: my youth, college, Boston, Europe, and so forth. Now I divide my life into two parts. Before Leo and After. Leo’s absence - and his presence - continues to guide my life. But for you to truly understand - and I hope benefit from this story - you ought to hear about the wondrous circumstances of his birth.
Linda and I got married when we were each 34 years old - just over eight years ago. We were older than some newlyweds, but certainly not old. We looked forward to having a family, something we’d talked about while we were dating and engaged. However, after a year of not having any success, we grew concerned. We sought medical help. We were examined inside and out, poked, prodded and pricked; our genes scanned for abnormalities and our personal histories scoured for clues. Our medical histories were laid bare before us and our medical inquisitors; no stone - or kidney - was left unturned. After months of examinations, the result of all the testing was that they couldn’t find anything wrong with us. Nothing. As far as the doctors were concerned there was no known medical reason for our not getting pregnant. It’s what maddeningly known as “unexplained infertility” and about as unsatisfying an answer as one could get.
Not to be deterred, we made the next logical step and sought fertility assistance. This is when we learned, intimately, about abbreviations like IUI, IVF, and ICSI. Linda had to get numerous hormone injections. Instead of romantic candle-lit dinners for us, our Saturday nights involved carefully filled syringes, alcohol swabs, and Band-Aids. Our efforts to have a baby, something that by all rights ought to be very private, became the common and public knowledge of our families, our friends - even our remote acquaintances. We went through two years of treatments only to have exactly zero success. It was tiring, at times embarrassing. There were nights, after yet another failed attempt that Linda and I sat together on our couch, but very alone with our own disappointments and unanswerable questions.
Eventually we sought the second opinion of a fertility specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He reviewed our now extensive and bulging medical file and also concluded that there was no reason why we weren’t getting pregnant. He said that given that fact, and our history of treatments, there was no reason for us to keep on trying. My chest tightened. Air vanished from the room. We were left with little reasonable hope that we’d ever have our biological baby. Then the doctor paused and looked at us and said that he had a question. He said, “What does being a parent mean to you?” This was the first time anyone - a friend, a doctor, a fertility specialist - anyone had asked us that. He said that if being a parent means getting pregnant, then I am not sure what we can do for you. But if being a parent means being a father or a mother, then there are many ways that can happen. And that was the first day that Linda and I seriously considered adopting.
In April of 2007 – just shy of our three-month wedding anniversary, we decided to proceed with adoption. I could - and perhaps should one day - give a seminar on the adoption process. It’s a daunting thing to undertake. There are scores of choices to be made and unlike people who conceive a baby, Linda and I had to fill out dozens of forms, get police and FBI background checks, letters of recommendation, provide years of back tax records; we had to demonstrate that our water was potable and that our cats didn’t have rabies. I’m pretty sure that the parents of those of you who are not adopted had no such hurdles to clear. For them it’s possible it might have been a simple as a lobster dinner and a chocolate dessert.
Many of you know the result of our efforts: Max! Linda and I were at the hospital in Newton, Massachusetts when Max was born in November of 2007. We spent three wonderful, stressful, and awkward days with Max’s birth mother and her parents in the hospital. On the fourth day, when we arrived to the hospital, the birth family was gone and shortly thereafter, we walked out of the hospital with our baby. I drove and Linda sat in the back seat with Max. I looked in the rearview mirror and saw tears streaming down her cheeks. After more than three years of trying to grow our family, after medical exams, treatments, hope and wishes dashed time after time after time, after adoption counseling and filling out more forms than a hopeful CIA agent, we were, at last, parents.
And you know what? When you come home with a 5 lb., 11 oz. infant, and he’s counting on you to take care of him, it didn’t really seem to matter by which way he came to us. Max was our son and we his parents.
The months passed and our lives, in respect to being parents, was no different than that of other new parents. We were so busy that we - or at least I - only gave fleeting thoughts to where our next child would come from. We still held out hope that we’d have a biological child of our own, but knew that the chances were slim. The prospect of another adoption was a bit too expensive and onerous for us to undertake. So we just let the days and weeks and months pass. We enjoyed Max’s every developmental change, took literally thousands of pictures, and went about our lives.
One month after Max’s 1st birthday, in December of 2008, while we were visiting relatives in Texas for the holidays, Linda went out in the evening to catch up with some old high school friends. I stayed home with Max. I was asleep when near midnight Linda came home. I heard her come quietly into our room. I sensed her leaning down toward me. She whispered in my sleepy ear, “I’m pregnant.” It felt like a dream, but it wasn’t. Unbeknownst to me she’d purchased a home pregnancy test that evening. It was positive. When, a few days later, we returned to Massachusetts, the doctors confirmed it. She was pregnant - and without any fertility treatments. We were beyond the moon. And for the next seven months, we stayed that way.
Now keep in mind, this is late 2008, early 2009 - the same period of time that the global economic meltdown began. Jobs were being shed by the tens of thousands every month, homes were losing value at rates not seen since the Great Depression. And we were caught in the very middle of it! My job went away, but our mortgage didn’t. My job prospects at the time were slim and as stressful as that might sound - or as you might imagine, all of it was counterbalanced by the fact that Linda and I were going to have a baby; Max was going to be a big brother.
Ever since Max was born, Linda and I had been drifting away from wanting to live in or near the city. We were tired of traffic, noise, commutes, and concrete. We craved space - both literal and metaphysical. So with a baby on the way, my job gone and our condominium’s value sinking by the week, we took it as a cosmic sign to make a leap of faith. We planned our escape from Salem and decided to move to Pomfret. Pomfret - the ancestral home of Linda’s family; Pomfret a town just a short drive away from my childhood hometown - where I thought I’d only return for high school reunions! It would be here, in this bucolic and idyllic haven, close to our families - and our roots, that we’d raise our family: Max and his little brother or sister.
We made plans. I got re-certified to teach high school English in Connecticut. We found a house to rent, started to look for the second car we’d need in the country. In between making plans, we went to birthing classes and packed boxes. We didn’t know exactly what I’d do for work, but felt confident that everything would pan out. After all, Linda and I had made several leaps of faith in our lives. We’d taken several chances in order to lead a fulfilling life, and each time, it had worked out.
The date is now July 17, 2009. The baby is one month away from its due date. I’d found a used Honda up in Lowell and after getting a ride up there from my sister, was driving it back down Rt. 3 toward Salem. It was mid-morning, the sky was bright, blue - and though warm, I don’t remember it being humid. I was listening to the radio, and feeling how the car felt on the highway. It was a Friday and Linda would be off for the weekend. My sister and her family were visiting from Texas, renting a house in Marblehead. We would all spend the weekend together enjoying each other’s company. Everything was going according to plan. It was all going according to plan....
My cell phone rang. Linda was calling. I answered.
She said, “You need to come to the hospital.”
“Something’s wrong,” she said weakly. “They can’t find the heartbeat.”
“I’m on my way,” I said.
But my brain struggled to figure out how to cut across the North Shore of Boston to Beverly Hospital. I had to both navigate the complex web of roadways and at the same time grapple with what was happening, what to do. My mind raced with every possibility and though I wanted to believe there was some other potential outcome, I couldn’t help but consider the worst. Quickly - and really without much warning, I began to seethe. There, in my new/used Honda I threw what could only be described as a tantrum. I slammed the steering wheel with my fists; I punched the roof of my car, and yelled as loud as I could. I was angry, hurt, bewildered, and scared. Life had just punched me in the gut and kicked in me harder in the teeth. And even as my rage poured forth from my core, I was also keenly aware that I needed to purge the anger out of me - for Linda. I simply could not be in a state of anger when I went in the room. I had to be calm.
And I was.
I walked into the room to find Linda in a hospital bed being attended to by nurses and a doctor. Indeed, they couldn’t find the heartbeat and soon we found out it was because there was no heartbeat. The baby had died in utero. It would take three days before we could deliver Leo. Three very, very, odd days. Odder still: going to a funeral home to arrange for the cremation of your newly stillborn infant son. And here’s the kicker - the doctors couldn’t tell us why Leo died. There was no known medical reason. It just happened. I know what you’re thinking. This is a real downer, Mr. Ring. I hope it has a happy ending. It does, sort of; but at the time, that wasn’t a given.
Six weeks after Leo was born, Linda and I moved to Pomfret as planned, just with one less child than we’d planned on moving with. We spent several weeks and months in a daze, with only Max able to pull us out of our wanton sadness.
But here’s the thing - the thing I want you to remember. Somehow, coming from the soaring high of thinking we were going to have a baby to the crushing low of his being born still, I gained something. It’s called Perspective.
Through this trauma and in the personal search for meaning that followed, I had to make some kind of sense of the senseless, find comfort in the pain. And here’s what I’ve come up with: Though Leo hasn’t aged a day since he was born, I’ve grown. I have gained so much from the experience. To me, Leo is wholly present in his obvious absence. If Max’s presence is like an electric current, constantly giving off energy, Leo was like a bolt of lightning that flashed brilliantly, struck me, changed me, and then lingered only in essence - a scent in the air, an aura of light, morning mist, the babble of a brook, a latent image just beyond my peripheral vision. His corporeal being might be gone, but his influence continues to guide me.
You know, it might sound odd in light of what I’ve revealed so far, but I am grateful for what happened. I am grateful that Linda and I initially had trouble conceiving, for it brought Max into our lives and I can’t imagine our life without him. And I am grateful that Linda did eventually become pregnant - that it happened - spontaneously. That we got the joy of watching her belly grow, that we got to experience the excitement and anticipation of an impending birth, even though it didn’t end as we’d hoped. And I am grateful that Linda and I have each other, that we have gone through these great tests of character and marriage. We are richer for it and our relationship is stronger as a result.
And here’s another direct consequence. It took a couple of years to be able to breathe deeply enough to be able to consider having another child, but in our hearts, Linda and I knew that Max wasn’t going to be an only child. We again relied upon the generosity of our family, and humbled ourselves to the stacks of forms, fingerprints, and background checks that is the adoption process and signed ourselves up again. But this time it wasn’t a matter of months, as we’d been lucky enough with Max. It was nearly a year and a half. You might just imagine our elation and our relief when we got a call last May telling us that we’d been chosen to be the parents of a healthy, baby, girl.
Ruby Jane Ring is four months old and had events not transpired as they did, exactly as they did, she wouldn’t be with us. And that’s another scenario I can’t fathom.
So what’s the point, Mr. Ring? I am glad you’re doing okay now, but what’s this got to do with me? My life? Well, one day, if it hasn’t already happened, life is going to punch you in the gut and then kick you in the teeth. Sadly, the question isn’t if, it’s when, how hard, and how often. But the more important question is how will you respond?
Listen, I didn’t make lemonade out of lemons, it’s not that trite. Challenges, no matter how humbling, traumatic, or seemingly unfair, are opportunities for growth. It’s like muscles that have to be torn to grow stronger, or lungs that have to burn with effort before you can breathe easier. Life’s hurdles, they beg you to jump - jump right in, if you will.
I haven’t been at Pomfret long - but I’ve been present in enough chapel talks to know we all face tests and I know about the strength of the individuals who comprise this community and of this community as a whole.
Let me be clear. I’ve not gotten past what’s happened. It’s fixed inside of me. Often when I’m in this chapel, listening to senior talks, Mr. Fisher or other chapel speakers, there’s better than a 50% chance I’ll tear up. And sometimes, it’s not just for the obvious reasons. When I watch student dancers embracing the moment. When I see a student sing a solo, or play an instrument. When I spot an instant where one of you students has a moment of real growth, I find myself welling up with … unguarded emotion, I guess? Is it joy, sadness, pride, melancholy, hope, love? It’s all of that. It’s a celebration of life - your rich and promising lives. But there’s some grief, too.
Grief for Leo who won’t one day give his own Senior Chapel talk.
And that’s kind of what life is like - at least to me right now. It’s a mixture of tremendous gifts - Linda, Max, Leo, Ruby, and each of you, this community that gives so freely, so easily. And it’s also periods of great iniquity. Life is unfair. You won’t always get what you deserve.
So here’s your challenge, my challenge - our challenge:
Be grateful for every moment. Try not to regret the past. Or worry about the future. Do not forget that you are lucky, no matter how unlucky you may occasionally - or even persistently feel.
And while life will assuredly not go according to plan, be open - be very, very open to where it takes you. It’s a weird and wondrous thing.
Dave got a standing ovation after giving that talk, which was delivered more than ten years ago, not long after Dave began working at the Pomfret School. Many in the audience were moved to tears; so was I when I re-read it. Dave is in his early 50s now, and here’s what my boy looks like today:
And here is a photo of Dave, Linda, Max and Ruby Jane, as they look today.
I think you can now see why I am so proud of my son, and I hope you have enjoyed getting to know him and his wife as well as their three children.