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When David Frum's daughter unexpectedly died, she left him with her dog Ringo

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Writers, even really good writers, can struggle to find the words to capture the most painful chapters of their lives. This was the challenge facing David Frum, who was a speechwriter for George W. Bush, who is today a really good writer at The Atlantic. His most recent piece is headlined "Miranda's Last Gift: When Our Daughter Died Suddenly, She Left Us With Grief, Memories - And Ringo." David Frum is in the studio. I'm so glad to see you.

DAVID FRUM: Yeah. Glad to be here.

KELLY: I'm so sorry.

FRUM: Thank you.

KELLY: So sorry for you and your family's loss.

FRUM: Thank you.

KELLY: You're writing, as the headline makes clear, about the death of your daughter, Miranda, last month. But I have to say, she comes across as so alive, the way you write her. She's, like, smart and a total smartass. And, like, she just took no nonsense from anyone. Is that right?

FRUM: That is absolutely right. Can I say this on NPR, that one of her pieces of advice she gave her more bashful friends was, you have to say [expletive] you to more people more often?

KELLY: (Laughter).

FRUM: And some people took that to heart. She was - I wouldn't say she was fearless because she had a lot of fear. But she was very brave, and she put herself into dangerous situations. She worked as a fashion model. She worked as a war correspondent. She traveled all over the world. And in 2018, she was diagnosed with the brain tumor that we thought we had saved her from, but that instead did eventually kill her in 2024.

KELLY: Yeah. Yeah. How old was she when she died?

FRUM: She was 32.

KELLY: Thirty-two. As people will also have gathered from the headline of the piece, she had a dog...

FRUM: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Named Ringo, who you chose to put front and center in your tribute to her in The Atlantic. Introduce us to Ringo.

FRUM: Well, I began with Ringo, and I talked mostly about him because of something I actually did learn from Ringo, who is a small black-and-tan King Charles spaniel. He looks like he's the color of a cup of espresso. He's mostly black with a little brown foam at the tip of his nose and the tip of his tail. And he was - he's the very opposite of a good boy.

KELLY: (Laughter).

FRUM: He's the very opposite. And, you know, he attacks birds. He would bite my leg if I was slow opening the door for him. He would take his food bowl and throw it at the door. But when you walked him, if you came across a deer, he wouldn't see it. He saw birds. He saw squirrels. But he couldn't see a deer because a deer was too big to see. And I think when you write about some things, there are things that are too big to see and too big to say, and so you need to find an indirect way in.

KELLY: So you can write about an 18-pound spaniel...

FRUM: Yes.

KELLY: ...In a way that's bearable.

FRUM: Yes.

KELLY: Yeah.

FRUM: You know, when you write about a loss, you have a problem, which is you're asking the attention of the world for your loss in a world in which everybody has losses and there are wars going on and innocent people dying by the thousands. Why is your grief entitled anybody's attention? And so you need to discover what is in you that is universal because suffering is the great equalizer among human beings. And so you take something little, and you use that as a way to see something big.

KELLY: Tell the story, David, of how you came to be known within your family as assistant No. 2.

FRUM: Yes. So this dog, Ringo, who, as I said, is not a good boy - I complained to Miranda that he was just treating me in a not-very-respectful way. And the piece is filled with many examples of his disrespect for me.

KELLY: (Laughter).

FRUM: And anyway, she said, well, he doesn't think of you as an owner. He thinks of you as his assistant. And I said, well, that's a reputation of trust at least. And she said, don't flatter yourself. He's a Hollywood dog. He has a lot of assistants. Mom is assistant No. 1.

KELLY: (Laughter).

FRUM: You are assistant No. 2. And this convulsed everybody, and so I became known ever after in the family as assistant No. 2.

KELLY: And it stuck. Yeah. He was very much Miranda's dog? You write about how he stayed with her when she was sick, when...

FRUM: Yeah.

KELLY: ...She had surgery, when she was recovering. He was with her when she was found.

FRUM: Well, this is the miracle of dogs. As I write in the piece about her final hours, he lay beside her. She was - she died at about 3 in the morning. She was discovered at about 9 in the morning. He lay beside her the whole time. And then through the ordeal of moving her from her apartment in New York to her resting place in rural Ontario, he was there all the time and was a transformed animal. And this is a little grim, but when her body was moved by air from New York state to Ontario, he lay on her the whole way until almost the end, when he jumped off her and jumped into my wife's lap as if to say, OK, I understand what has happened, and now you take care of me.

KELLY: I guess back to the theme of talking about something that's smaller and that's bearable instead of the big thing that's too hard to talk about, instead of asking how you are doing, I'll ask, how's Ringo?

FRUM: (Laughter) At first, he was very hesitant to let anyone touch him who wasn't Miranda. Miranda was a very challenging adolescent. And you'd try to put an arm around her, and she would wriggle out of it. And my sister observed that sometimes it's the kid who seems to want the hug the least - (crying) excuse me (ph)...

KELLY: Take your time.

FRUM: My sister Linda said to me, sometimes it's the kid who seems to want the hug the least who needs the hug the most. And so we experimented with this on Ringo. And it - he feels now like he's closer to my wife and to me and allows us to pick him up and to hold him, and he's much more calm about it.

KELLY: Well, I guess I'll bring us toward a close by quoting something from your piece. You write about how when you gave Ringo to Miranda - you and your wife gave her the dog - that she told you he was the best gift you'd ever given her. And it seems like, in the end, she returned the gift.

FRUM: When you lose someone unexpectedly, there's always unfinished business, and there are always regrets. And however close you were, however loving, there's always the thing you didn't say. There's always the moment when you said the wrong thing. There's - and what wakes you up at 3 in the morning are those moments of self-reproach.

And so in taking care of this very difficult dog, I get an answer to the self-reproach, which is OK, OK, yes, I did fail that time. I didn't understand what you were telling me. You know, I was impatient. You know, there's a time I could have - I said no, and I could just as easily have said yes. And it would have meant something to you, and it wouldn't have meant anything to me. So I didn't say yes that one time. But I'm taking care of Ringo. And if that doesn't make up for it, I don't know what will.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: That's the writer David Frum, aka assistant No. 2...

FRUM: (Laughter).

KELLY: ...Talking with us about his daughter, Miranda Frum, and her dog - now his dog - Ringo. Thank you, David.

FRUM: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kai McNamee
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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