The man on the phone sounded drunk. That was my initial reaction. I was wrong. I soon realized he was crying and trying to tell me something, something so horrible that he couldn’t form the words, couldn’t compose himself so he could speak.
The man’s name was Danny Lucier. He called to tell me his 7-year-old son, Ryan, had died.
It was late on a February afternoon in 2009 and I was sitting at my desk in the sports department of The Fort Myers News-Press when my cell phone buzzed with an unfamiliar number. It was Danny. He called because he wanted a story written about his son. He wanted all of Southwest Florida to know about Ryan, the little boy he tenderly called Ry-Ry.
I didn’t have the power to make a story happen but I could certainly suggest it to the editors. The editors quickly agreed. Danny wanted me to come his home in Estero that evening and find out about his little boy and hear about all he’d done and all he meant to so many people.
Why am I bringing this up now? I was at Golisano Children’s Hospital earlier this week doing a freelance story about a new pediatric intensive care ambulance that is about to be added to its fleet.
As I sat in a conference room with hospital administrator Susan Ryckman discussing the new ambulance my thoughts flashed back to the visit to the Lucier home in Estero and what I learned about Ry-Ry’s ride in an another ambulance.
He was on the way to HealthPark, in the back of the ambulance, his father by his side.
This is what Danny Lucier told me that Monday evening in his living room: “He said, ‘Daddy, am I dying and I said, ‘No, Ry-Ry, you’ve just got the flu.”
It wasn’t the flu. It was myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. He died on a Friday, four days after trying out for Little League.
I told Susan Ryckman the story, focusing on what Ryan asked his father in the ambulance. She said the story of Ryan Lucier will always stay with me. She’s right.
It’s been nearly five years since Ryan died and I still recall much of that visit to the Lucier home. I remember photographer Kinfay Moroti, one of the smartest and most talented people I’ve ever worked with, parking in the street outside the house about the same time I did.
It wasn’t my place to tell a pro like Kinfay anything about his job but I asked him to leave his cameras in the car. I jammed my reporter’s notebook in the back pocket of my slacks. I didn’t want to bang on the door like soulless paparazzi eager to pop in, get some shots and comments and leave as quick as we arrived.
I wanted to make sure the Lucier family was OK with having two strangers in their home as they mourned Ryan. Two strangers who would ask questions and take photos. Strangers holding cameras and notebooks.
During my career I often thought of a quote from a comedian named Fred Allen that I kept tacked to the wall above my desk when I worked at the St. Petersburg Evening Independent in the 1970s and 1980s.
This is the quote: “To a newspaperman, a human being is just an item with the skin wrapped around it.”
I vowed way back in the 1970s that I would never become Allen’s stereotypical, heartless newspaperman.
The Luciers invited us in. Kinfay captured some moments of ultimate sorrow. The lead photo on Page 1A was of Danny and his wife, Cindy, hugging on a couch, crying, the grief unimaginable and palpable, just about jumping off the page.
I was on the couch next to them when that shot was taken. Kinfay also returned to the office with a photo of Joan Lucier, Ry-Ry’s grandmother, clutching her face and crying. She was sitting in a chair next to me.
It’s been nearly five years but I recall that visit clearly and often think of the Lucier family.
How have they moved forward? How is Ryan’s brother, Cameron, who was 8 at the time?
On that evening, I sat on the end of a couch listening to the Luciers talk about Ryan as Kinfay compassionately took his powerful photos. We left the house that evening and would go on to many other assignments in our careers.
But the passing of Ry-Ry was not just an assignment. It was chronicling the life of a little boy who loved sports and his family and was loved in return.
“This kid was filled with nothing but promise,” Danny said that night. “He was smart. He was articulate. He was great in math. He used to tell me, ‘Daddy, I’m going to Mee-chigan, Boston College or be a Florida Gator.’ I told him, ‘Ry-Ry, I’d be honored if you went to any of those schools.’ He said, ‘Daddy, I’m going to go.’ … He used to call it Mee-chigan.”
Susan Ryckman, the hospital administrator, was right when she told me that Ryan Lucier and the visit to the Lucier home that winter night will always be with me.