ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
And now, a story about loss but also finding meaning in that loss. A boy dies and his mother totters on the precipice of despair. Her story is about faith in one's ability to build from ashes.
NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty takes us to Phoenix, Arizona.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: It's impossible to measure the volume of pain as the dozen or so parents, mostly women, introduce themselves.
SHAUNA: My name is Shauna. My son, Westin, died July 28th, this year, almost four months ago.
TERRY: My name is Terry. My son is Jamie and he was murdered nine years ago.
MAYA THOMPSON: I'm Maya, I'm Ronan's mom. Ronan was diagnosed with cancer at the age of three, passed away eight months later.
HAGERTY: Thirty-four-year-old Maya Thompson rarely comes to this grief support group. A year and a half after her son died, it is still too painful. Ronan was a sturdy little guy with blue eyes so striking you did a double take.
THOMPSON: I called him my spicy little monkey because out of all of my three kids, he was very strong-willed and a little rebel.
HAGERTY: Flipping through a photo album, she says Ronan was her third son and the most robust, rarely having a sniffle.
THOMPSON: So this was about two weeks before he was diagnosed and he looks perfectly happy and healthy. He was fine, right? But he wasn't.
HAGERTY: The cancer spread invisibly until one day Maya noticed Ronan's left eyelid was drooping. At first, the doctors thought it was an infection or a sty. Eventually they realized the boy had stage four neuroblastoma; a cancer of the nervous system.
The Thompson's aren't a religious family. Instead of turning to God, Maya turned on the computer. She began blogging right after Ronan was diagnosed. The first entry is hopeful.
THOMPSON: (Reading) Neuroblastoma is very treatable and even curable. We have our plan in place and the Thompson family combat boots are on. We are...
HAGERTY: Initially, Maya and her husband, Woody, were optimistic even though 70 percent of children with stage four neuroblastoma die.
WOODY THOMPSON: Just looking at him and his spirit, we really did think, yes, maybe the odds are against us but we feel like if anybody is going to go up against these odds, it's going to be him.
HAGERTY: Over the next eight months, Maya wrote in her blog. At first it was for family and friends, but soon it began drawing millions of readers. Maya's writing was raw, lurching from giddy hope to anguish to blazing anger. Here's what she wrote a week before Ronan died.
THOMPSON: (Reading) Everything happens for a reason - bull (CENSORED). God has a greater plan for Ronan. - bull (CENSORED). Ronan wants to go home where he belongs, to Heaven - (CENSORED). Who came up with these sayings? Because the next person I hear say them to me is going to get punched in the face.
HAGERTY: Ronan died three days before his fourth birthday, on May 9th, 2011. The next day, Maya began addressing her entries to him. She describes his final hours when it seemed he was trying to form tears.
THOMPSON: (Reading) I know it was because you were so sad to leave us. I hate thinking of you sad.
(SOUNDBITE OF WEEPING)
THOMPSON: I'm sorry.
(Reading) I'm trying my hardest my to block this memory out and think of you at your happiest times, the times you were here with us and such a carefree healthy little boy.
HAGERTY: For months, Maya prayed she would simply die.
THOMPSON: I went through a very long period of not caring about myself or anybody around me. But to come out of that, I almost feel like I've been reborn again. And you either let this pain kill you or you let it make you stronger. I mean, it's a choice.
HAGERTY: She set up the Ronan Thompson Foundation to try to develop a cure for neuroblastoma. She wrote in her blog every day about her pain and about her plans for the foundation.
A few months after Ronan's death, Maya was given tickets to a Taylor Swift concert and a chance to meet the young star beforehand. Maya thought a friend had set it up. She recalls standing in the green room, her back to the door.
THOMPSON: And I heard this girl come walking in saying, Maya. Maya, Maya, Maya. And I turned around and it was Taylor, who I had no idea that she even knew who I was or who Ronan was. But she'd been reading my blog for a really long time. And her parents had been reading it, as well. And they were just heartbroken over our story.
HAGERTY: They talked. Swift left to perform. A year went by. One day this September, Maya's phone rang. It was Taylor Swift. She said she had written a song about Ronan.
THOMPSON: And she had used a lot of the words off of my blog. So she asked if she could make me co-author with her of the song. And she wanted to perform it on Stand Up to Cancer.
(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG, "RONAN")
HAGERTY: The song has sold more than 500,000 copies on iTunes. Taylor Swift is donating her half to cancer research. Maya is putting her share - about a quarter of a million dollars - into the Ronan Thompson Foundation.
After this, the donations poured in, many from Swift's young fans.
THOMPSON: I mean, I've got these little girls writing me saying, you know, I have $5, it's yours. Or, I want to be a pediatric oncologist now, like, you've changed my life. I mean, all these little 'tween girls that my son is, I feel like, helping them, you know, see what's really important in life.
HAGERTY: With the money, Maya hopes to fund clinical trials and build a world class neuroblastoma research center.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, do we want to move this tree closer to the wall?
THOMPSON: Yeah, but let's do that at the very end, right?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Right.
HAGERTY: At Phoenix Children's Hospital, the Thompson family is decorating a Christmas tree with a "Star Wars" theme - Ronan's passion. Maya spends a lot of her time on the children's cancer floor. It's the only place she feels at peace.
THOMPSON: The world that I used to belong in and exist in will never exist for me again. So this new life is completely different and I find it extremely beautiful and heart-warming, and inspiring and hopeful in a way.
HAGERTY: She says trying to defeat the cancer that stole Ronan is now her life's work.
THOMPSON: I made him a lot of promises. You know, my biggest one to him was that I was going to fix him and obviously, you know, that didn't happen. So my next big promise to him was that I would fix this world and continue to fight for him since he can't be here to fight for himself anymore. And then fight for these other kids, as well.
HAGERTY: The enemy has been engaged. The Ronan Thompson Foundation has raised a half a million dollars and it's just funded its first clinical trial at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. It's a victory that Maya would instantly trade to have another day with her son.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG, "RONAN")
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