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Tom Matlock - Love SurvivesRead the rest or listen to interview.
Tom Matlack talks to photographer Ron Cowie about enduring love, unspeakable loss and staying present when life falls apart.
Listen to the interview here: RonTomInterview
I had never met Ron Cowie before sitting down with him--and his 5-year-old daughter, Kiki--at a picnic table at Coffee Roasters in Tiverton, Rhode Island. I knew only of his series of haunting photographs, "Leaving Babylon," done shortly before his wife's death.
What drew me to these images, and the good man who made them, was his willingness to embrace loss fully rather than run from it. I think we can all learn from that.
TOM: We've been talking a lot at The Good Men Project about fatherless boys being raised by single moms. Can you talk to me a little bit about being a single dad? What's it like?
RON: I was put into it so quickly. You just wake up and suddenly you've got to read stories and you've got to make breakfast and you've got to ... and the decisions get taken out of it. Under my circumstances, I think more help was offered without a lot of strings attached because people just knew that I was in a whole new situation. It wasn't like a marriage breaking up, where there are people taking sides. It was just, "This is a tragedy."
TOM: Tell me in a few words what your wife was like.
RON: Oh, boy. A few words?
TOM: (Laughs.) Maybe how you met her.
RON: I met her at the photo school, New England School of Photography, where I teach now. But I was a student. I was a first-year student, and my tendency was to always kind of fish off the company pier with relationships.
RON: And she was one of these people where there was a slight interest back and forth.
And I'll never forget the thing that really hooked me. I was saying something to her in a gallery that she was running. And without even turning around, she said, "Ron, some of the things you say I just get embarrassed for you." I'm like, "Ouch." (Laughs.) I'm just embarrassed for you. I was like, Wow! OK.
And I don't know what it was, but I knew that she was the one. I didn't want to screw up. I knew I was in a new chapter of my life, and I also knew I had no emotional preparation for what I needed to be in this relationship; I hadn't been in a relationship like it. But she was patient. She was loving. She taught me how to love.
Really, she was generous enough to teach me how to let me be loved. I think that was the bottom line. It's not like she was a saint and never did anything wrong, or that we didn't have arguments. But she was a very loving, gentle person. That's the best way to describe it and everything kind of came from that. And I think part of her shortcomings was--
RON: Yes, Kiki?
KIKI: When am I going to have my bagel and cream cheese?
RON: Oh, when are you going to have your bagel and cream cheese? In a little bit.
RON: That's being a single parent.
RON: That's what it is.
TOM: When did you get married?
RON: September 9th, 2000. I was 30. And it was great. She did a lot of the planning and everything, and it was a good marriage. But I was also learning how to be married. I didn't know how to do that. Kiki, do you want to go up and make an order for a bagel and cream cheese?
RON: Twenty dollars makes you less shy. Go. Bring change back.
(Ron, Tom laugh.)
RON: So, we had to learn how to be ... it's just like anything.
TOM: I've done it twice, so I know.
RON: Well, then, I don't need to tell you anything. I'm going to be doing it twice, too. She died in 2008. In 2007, after we had moved in and Kiki was kind of up and mobile, I realized that a lot of my defenses started coming down.
I was taking pictures that were more personal, and I was able to better appreciate the little things. She would say, "We (Kiki and her) are going for a walk. You want to come?" And my first answer would always be, "You know I have work to do." And then I realized, you know what? This isn't going to last forever. Go.
And I'm really glad I did, because I was able to sort of see, and I took my camera, so it gave me an excuse. And really seeing just what love is, and her interacting with Kiki and sort of realizing that yeah, this is my life, and it's good. It's beautiful. And it's nothing major, nothing grandiose. It was just watching two people interact with each other.
TOM: Do you have pictures from those walks?
RON: Oh, yeah. Those are the most important things. It's just real simple. And because I always feel like I don't belong anywhere, and when you get to--
KIKI: Here's money. No, it's not mine.
RON: Put it right under the--here. Good. Good. (Laughs.) And yeah, that was--that's precious stuff. I never thought that that would be the most important stuff in my life, but that is. At that time I knew it was important, but...
TOM: So, tell me a little bit about what happened.
RON: Well, she had the flu. She had allergies, the flu and a temperature, and she was in bed for a week. And this is an important thing to pass on--she also had a cough. So it was kind of pneumonia, too, a cough that kept her up. But then all of a sudden, her temperature started going down and she got better. That was on a Saturday. She was feeling a bit better.
And then on Easter Sunday she came downstairs and laid out eggs with Kiki, and then she said, "I'm just going to go back up in bed and rest." I said, "Oh, okay. That's fine." And Sunday night, I slept on the sofa downstairs because she didn't want to keep me up with her coughing. Monday morning, she came down and said, "I really don't feel well at all. I think I want to go to the doctor." She didn't want to go to the doctor before, because she said she didn't want to be a bother.
So Monday we went and got a prescription for Mucilex and Robitussin, and then she had a chest x-ray. When we got back, the doctor had left a message on the machine: "You've got pneumonia. I think we're going to check you in." By the time we got to the emergency room, she was really, really weak. She was in septic shock from bacterial pneumonia. It's where your body can no longer fight off the bacteria, and your organs start to shut down.
She was lucid until she wasn't. She became un-lucid just as the doctors were walking in with the results of the blood test. They said, "Your wife is having a really hard time breathing, so we're going to incubate her right now and help her do that. We have to put her out."
She was really scared. And it was tough, because the last thing she saw me say while she was conscious was, "Everything's going to be all right, and I love you." I can still see her scared face. They did a tracheotomy and she went into cardiac arrest because they couldn't get the tube down her throat--it had swollen shut.
That's when I got up from the room and went outside, and that's when I heard "We don't have a pulse," and CPR was done and they got that back. But then she just--she never woke up. She was in a coma. She went into ICU, and when I was up there, she was just like a rag doll. I think they knew--they said, "Your wife is very, very sick. There's a chance she's not going to make it, and you need to know that."
Finally they told me that there wasn't more I could do there, and that I should go home. They gave me the direct line to the ICU. I woke up at 1:00 a.m., called, no difference. Then I woke up later again. And it was really hitting me, and I just started calling out, "Lisa, you got to fight. Come on." Just begging her, just talking to the ceiling in the bedroom. Fight. Fight, fight, fight, fight. Please. And then I had this vision of her in this blue turtleneck that she wore. (Crying).
I thought she looked beautiful in it all the time. And this vision--it wasn't like I actually saw her. I'm not saying she was there. But I can see it plain as day. Right now I see it. And she was smiling, and now I know it was her telling me it was okay. It was okay. And I said, "I can call now. I can call the ICU." And I did, and when I did, the phone rang and rang and rang. And I knew then that it wasn't good.
When they picked up, the doctor came on. He said, "She's been in cardiac arrest for the past 40 minutes, and we've done everything in this hospital that we can do to keep her alive, but the person you know isn't here anymore and the most helpful thing for everyone would be to stop the code." (Crying.)
And I just said, "Okay." I just--it's like you're on autopilot. I didn't even think twice. And so that's what I did. And my sister and her partner were down, and I went into the guest bedroom and told them. She went into the hospital Monday, and she died Tuesday morning.
TOM: And this was in 2008?
RON: March 25th, because it was on one of her best friends' birthdays, too.
TOM: How old was she?
RON: She was--oh, she won't mind that I forget how old she was.
RON: I think she may have been 44, something like that. She will always be 29 to me.