WHEN YOU shake the hand of a right-handed artist, you are not merely gripping fingers. You are, in the parlance of show business, shaking the moneymaker — the very instrument that, by putting idea to canvas, also puts bread to table.
So it was that in 2005, I shook hands for the first time with Richard Thompson, who made a point to come over and introduce himself to a fellow cartoonist in the Style section of the old Washington Post building. As we did the obligatory male five-second handshake, I noted that his fingers were thin but strong, like some Celtic scrivener of yore who labored long hours with that right hand. I was, in other words, shaking not only his moneymaker, but also his perfected tool of precision and expression and craft.
(I am a southpaw myself, so social convention gratefully protects my less-perfected instrument. But I have long thought that artists should concoct a safer means of greeting — perhaps a clownish bow, or a cluck and a yuk, known only to this creative tribe.)
Richard warmly complimented my recently Style-published panda satire. I complimented a recent “Richard’s Poor Almanac” — can’t remember which, but then again, each is a slice of high comic inspiration. Then we fell into the natural trade talk of people who lovingly mock things for a living. We agreed to grab beers someday soon, and then shook hands again, firm but ever careful.
So that’s what the artistic mitt of a genius looked like, eh?
We stood on the street outside the NPR building, weighing where to go next. It was 2011, and Richard was running low on his medicine.
In the six years since our first meeting, Richard had lived an artistic lifetime. His weekly Post Magazine comic strip “Cul de Sac,” merely a yearling in 2005, had gone daily and been discovered by a syndicate and then the world, winning a major comics award and winning over millions of fans, including industry luminaries such as Garry Trudeau and Bill Watterson.
And Richard, having scaled an artistic Olympus and working at the peak of his world-class powers, had discovered right at that crowning moment that he had Parkinson’s disease. The diagnosis had arrived like a thunderclap about three years earlier, when he was barely 50.
Just weeks earlier in 2011, I had sat parked outside one of Richard’s main childhood homes, in the suburban Maryland neighborhood of Montgomery Village. This leafy cul-de-sac, which had provided so much inspiration, sat just past Ironhorse Lane — a name that harked back to Lou “Iron Horse” Gehrig, the Yankee legend whose career, and then life, was cut short by a neurodegenerative disease.
As I took in this bone-white two-story home, I spoke on the phone with artist Nick Galifianakis, Richard’s longtime dear friend who, along with his father, had first suspected Richard’s physical symptoms and had made arrangements that led to the official diagnosis of Parkinson’s. The view and Nick’s narration all unfolded like a deeply poignant multimedia tour.
Nick recounted his first meeting with Richard, a couple of decades earlier, as they shared their portfolios. Nick was struck not only by Richard’s profound brilliance, but also by his profound humility.
I had interviewed Nick for my Washington Post Magazine profile of Richard, which was published in print that May 22. The following day, Richard and I went on NPR’s “Tell Me More” to talk with Michel Martin. When we exited, standing on that sidewalk, Richard decided to share my cab back to the old Post newsroom.
We climbed in and I snapped up. But when I looked over, my sense of events came crashing down. Richard’s hands began to shake and wobble as he suddenly, powerlessly, struggled to buckle his seat belt.
For months during interviews, I had never seen Richard’s glorious right hand ever really tremble, even as his legs gave out. Now, the truth was undeniable. The comic strip that would win the esteemed Reuben Award one week later, in Boston, would end sooner rather than later.
So this is how an artistic genius, gradually sapped of his dexterous powers, copes with brave grace and acceptance, eh?
Last month, in Arlington, Va., I sat behind Richard at the world premiere of “Cul de Sac” the kids’ musical, as adapted by his wife, Amy, and presented in an Encore Stage & Studio community-theater production.
There, on stage, Gabriella Flanagan pranced on a manhole, showing remarkable self-possession in character as 4-year-old Alice Otterloop — the cartoon girl whom Richard had dreamed up just miles away, 13 years earlier, while his younger daughter was at preschool.
As I watched Richard watching Gabriella-as-Alice, I was struck by what it must be like: to know that you have passed along this inspired creation to future generations — art that will outlive you, yet stand as your great inky mark on the world.
When the curtain came down and the house lights came up, I shook Richard’s right hand, but now, the standard male five-second shake was more like my hand holding his as I offered the warmest thoughts I could summon.
(A few minutes later, I glanced at my cellphone. Muhammad Ali, the greatest, had just died from the effects of Parkinson’s.)
Two hours later, at the after-party, I shook Richard’s genius right hand for the last time as I kissed the top of his brilliant noggin.
So this is how you thank a man for the profound gift of friendship, eh?
Richard Thompson died Wednesday, at age 58. And so I mourn by poring over the observational humor and impish joy and winking insights into human nature that populate his every last comic.
So much cartoon pleasure delivered through a single, perfectly attuned right hand.
The old Post building where I first met Richard was leveled this year. There now sits rebar and rubble, as the hum of human life motors past.
Richard could have spoofed this Washington street scene like no other artist I know.
Year after year, he extended the gift of profoundly funny self-reflection to us all. Let’s take it.
Read more about Richard Thompson: