“I’m a hysterical mess, so you called me at probably the worst time,” Maya Thompson warns me when we get on the phone hours before Red (Taylor’s Version)’s release. “I just got to hear the song.” She’s talking about “Ronan,” the ballad Taylor Swift wrote for and named after Thompson’s 3-year-old son, who died ten years ago of stage-four neuroblastoma, a cancer that develops from “immature nerve cells” throughout the body. Thompson tells me she also just finished watching the lyric video Swift released to accompany it, featuring home-video footage and photos of Ronan that Thompson personally sent Swift. She’s understandably worried she might come off frazzled — in truth, she’s a composed, determined, grateful woman who’s grown protective of the pop star who’s ensured her son’s legacy will have further permanence.
As a young mom, Thompson blogged her way through Ronan’s cancer treatment and kept writing through her grief when he died in May 2011. Her words on her site, Rockstar Ronan, affected Swift such that she wrote a whole song using them, co-crediting Thompson; “Ronan” was released as a charity single for Stand Up to Cancer in 2012 under Big Machine Records. In 2019, however, Swift and Thompson lost the rights to “Ronan” when Big Machine Records CEO Scott Borchetta sold the masters of Swift’s discography up until 2017 to Scooter Braun, which Braun has since sold to an investment fund. (“Can I call them motherfuckers?” Thompson bluntly asks.)
To get “Ronan” back, Swift officially put the song on Red (Taylor’s Version) in November 2021, restoring both her and Thompson’s creative control over it. I spoke to Thompson about Ronan, the legacy Swift has helped her build for him, and what it felt like to lose the rights to her son’s song and get them back with Swift’s help.
What do you want people to know about Ronan that we couldn’t know from your blog posts and the song?
Ronan has become this huge, constant, bigger force in my life that, even though he’s not here, he’s still everywhere. And I think that’s just so apparent in the way he makes things happen in my life. Even this weekend, my very best friend in the world is getting married and his song is being released. Taylor pushed her date back a week and it lands on the day of my best friend’s wedding. This is so serendipitous. Somebody wanted us to be together during the release of the song. That’s where I go in my darkest of times. He’s always watching out for me.
There’s a song on Fearless called “The Best Day.” What was your best day with Ronan?
A part of me knew I wasn’t going to have him forever. Every day he was running into my bedroom, so excited for what we were going to do. Even if it was nothing. I always say, every day with him was like Christmas. Whether we were just at the grocery store or playing in dirt in the backyard.
We spent a lot of time in New York when he was sick. Whenever we got a chance to escape the hospital, we would just take that city on, the two of us. Go around to his favorite ice cream place, to his favorite pizza place, to Central Park. It just felt like it was him and I against the world while we were there. So, our time in New York always brings back really special memories for me.
What did it feel like to know that the song was going to get a permanent home on Red and that you and Taylor would get the rights to it back?
I was terrified when everything happened with her, and Scott and Scooter “stole” all of her music. I was completely devastated for her. Just on a personal level, and then when you add the layer of “Ronan” on top of it, and thinking that these men are now going to kind of own my child in a way … I didn’t sleep for months. I feel like Taylor has been the one keeping him safe, right? He’s been with her. That’s his home.
I’m so angry for her. But being the intelligent prodigy that she is, I knew she would figure out a way to get her music back and she’s getting it back ten times. I feel like I have my baby back in a way. It’s the only way I get to have him. And Taylor did that for me because that’s who she is.
I know you keep a lot of your correspondence with Taylor private. But can you just expand a little bit on what your relationship with her means to you?
Everything [laughs]. It’s just so sacred to me and it’s so pure. You’re right, I do keep it very private because I would never want to exploit it. Everything that’s happened between Taylor and I has happened because Taylor wanted it to happen. I never wanted people to feel like I was taking advantage of the situation.
Taylor and Ronan are not from this world, or they’ve been here before and this is their little master plan to make sure that I’m okay. It just seems like when I’m going through my hardest times in life, either a little sign from Ronan will appear or Taylor will go and do something crazy, out of the blue. It’s like she knows when I’m hurting.
Can you put into words what it means that Taylor has taken Ronan’s legacy into her hands and protected it but also shared it with so many people?
I’m still trying to process all of this. Even today. She’s really anchored him into this world. I hope people take the time to look up who he was and who he is and everything he embodies and maybe take the time to educate themselves a little bit about childhood cancer, because it is so underfunded and it does not get the attention and research that it deserves. And so maybe the song inspires a kid to go on and be a doctor in his life and fucking cure cancer, finally. So these kids do not have to continue to die from it.
You have been so open about your experience with grief on your blog. What words of support can you give to newly grieving parents?
I wish that nobody has to know what that pain is like. One of the biggest things I’ve learned through this process is there are no steps to grief. People want to cure you and say “wonderful” things to you like, “Oh, time heals all wounds,” which are not wonderful things to say; those are actually really harmful things.
Somehow you just have to find the inner strength to listen to how you need to get through this, rather than how everybody else wants you to get through this. And just keep holding on to the little bright moments in your life when you feel like giving up, because there are going to be a lot of those days.
I know you have a book coming out. What can you tell me about that?
After “Ronan” was first released, I got a ton of inquiries from publishing houses that wanted to just take my blog and make it into a book. But that would’ve been the easy way out, and that just didn’t feel right to me. I knew I wanted this book to be world-changing, life-changing, my best work.
All of these years later after losing Ronan, I feel like I have enough perspective on my life that I feel like I’m not just some open wound bleeding everywhere profusely. I’ve got some perspective and knowledge and guts behind me, so I can tell my story in the right way.
How did you feel watching the lyric video for “Ronan” and hearing the final version of the song?
I just can’t believe this is my life and this is my story. I would give anything to have him back here with me. But having him captured in this way, other than having him here, it’s the next best thing. Taylor has continued to just make sure that Ronan’s memory gets carried on and stays here with all of us and with her. What more could a mom ask for?
What was the experience of putting the video together like?
Fucking horrifically hard. I had to open up a computer I had not looked at in probably eight years and go through videos I had not seen in ages and it sent me into a rabbit hole where I was pretty unable to function for about a week.
But it was also beautiful. And I had my little 8-year-old girl, Poppy, sitting next to me and her arm was wrapped around me, kissing me and talking about how beautiful Ronan is. So, that’s how she gets to know him is through those videos and through what Taylor’s done. So to have her by my side during that time was really special.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Donations to The Ronan Thompson Foundation, which funds childhood cancer research, can be made here.
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