Sunday, February 8, 2015

Beginnings and Endings

My mentor and fiction-writing coach, James N. Frey, says in a good story the ending is often implicit in the beginning. And there is something immensely rewarding about this circle where characters come back to the place they began—changed by the events of the novel.

This has proven true in real life for me during the last month. Many of you have been following the journey my family took this Christmas. My children’s father died last Tuesday, January 20th. While he’d lived a good life and was ready, it was still difficult to let him go. 

My daughter asked me to find a photo of the first time her father had held her. She wanted to put it beside the last time she’d held him. I knew how important it was to her and I knew the photo existed. I went through twenty years of albums, but didn’t find it. I eventually discovered the photo in a scrapbook where I’d placed cards and letters from friends and family welcoming Bonnie into the world. Next to the photo, printed in her dad’s very neat script, was the following journal.  He’d written it around midnight on the day she was born.

 Within the hour May 5th 1973 will recede into history along with all of its predecessors. To some it must have been an ordinary day that won’t be missed in the mélange of life. To me however, it was the day on which something unforgettable happened to me:  Let it be herewith recorded for history and posterity that on this day I, John Wesley Clayton Jr., saw Bonnie Elizabeth Clayton, my daughter born. I actually stood by the side of my wife and saw Bonnie emerge from her body.

To describe this event is to attempt to describe the indescribable. I don’t mean that the functional or anatomic components of the birth of my daughter could not easily be described as indeed these events have been in the medical texts on obstetrics. I intend something far different from the biological event. I’m referring to that overwhelming unity that I had with my wife. Something unique in the universe happened to us when Bonnie was born. It was as if I felt a part of her as I never before felt. We held each other’s hands during those final contractions. When I saw that God had given us a baby girl and then told this to my wife, a sensation of warmth and joy poured through me. We both shed tears of joy and in so doing experienced the ultimate in sharing. We were truly one in this act of love.  When Bonnie was born, the love we shared was reborn. The nurses and physician present realized something new had occurred because they were happy too. But they will never, never comprehend what transpired between the two of us. It was truly a renewal.

Tonight, in the hospital we reviewed the sequence of events that had occurred on this historical day. We recalled the details of labor and delivery—stopwatch in hand! After Bonnie was born (officially 12:23 a.m.) and her mother was taken to the recovery room, I followed. We embraced, and she said that I had now given her everything. I had known that she had wanted a daughter because she wanted to know that special kind of relationship that exists between mothers and their daughters. Neither of us spoke of this wish because we would have welcomed a second son into our family. But this baby—this Bonnie Elizabeth Clayton—received a welcome into our hearts as no other child before born of woman ever received.

Thank you God for this new life and the love that gave it birth.

As beautiful as those moments and others in our life together were, our family didn’t stay together. John and I separated when David was 14 and Bonnie 12. They were sad and difficult days, but somehow we managed to get through them and actually became friends—good friends. 

This Christmas I saw John for the last time. Many of you know this because of my blogs and my entries on Facebook. I thought I’d said it all. But there was something that happened in the hospital I didn’t mention in my previous entries. My son, David, had taken a break to get some fresh air. Bonnie and I remained in the hospital room with their father. She on one side of his bed, I on the other.  I was holding his hand while she talked to him, smiled her radiant smile, and later read from I Corinthians that amazing passage about love.

I had a feeling of overwhelming love for this other human being. I did not see the skeletal old man with a missing tooth, I saw the man who’d held my hand through my contractions during the birth of our incredible daughter. I saw the man who’d “given me everything” when he gave me Bonnie. We already had a son that we loved with all our hearts. I wanted, really wanted, a girl. I had a great relationship with my own mother after whom I named my daughter. My mother died three years after Bonnie was born. I often think of them as the bookends that held up the story of my life. 

And so, when I found the journal John had written all those years ago, I thought about what Jim Frey said about beginnings and endings. As I held John’s old and withered hand, it was hard to know where I ended and he became. We were one again. The three of us in another hospital room more than two thousand miles away from that first one. Bonnie was no longer an infant—she was a bright star in the dark sky of that dying room. She radiated with love for the man who’d fathered her. She ushered him out of this life with the same intense love with which he had ushered her in.

Susan Clayton-Goldner was born in New Castle, Delaware and grew up with four brothers along the banks of the Delaware River. She is a graduate of the University of Arizona's Creative Writing Program. Susan has been writing most of her life. Her novels have been finalists for The Hemingway Award, the Heeken Foundation Fellowship, the Writers Foundation and the Publishing On-line Contest where she received a thousand dollar prize. Susan won the National Writers' Association Novel Award twice for unpublished novels and her poetry was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies including Animals as Teachers and Healers, published by Ballantine Books, Our Mothers/Ourselves, by the Greenwood Publishing Group, The Hawaii Pacific Review-Best of a Decade, and New Millennium Writings. A collection of her poems, A Question of Mortality was released last summer by Wellstone Press. Prior to moving to Oregon and writing full time, Susan worked as the Director of Corporate Relations for University Medical Center in Tucson, Arizona. 

Susan shares a life in Grants Pass, Oregon with her husband, Andreas, a blue-eyed feline named Topaz, her fictional characters, and more books than one person could count. 


Sue Coletta said...

Love seeing the old pictures, CP! What a beautiful tribute to a great man/father. Shared widely.

Peter Hogenkamp said...

That was a really moving post, Susan. Thanks for sharing it. peter

Caryn Caldwell said...

Wow. That was really beautiful and heartfelt. And I love how you framed the whole story. I'm so glad you have these wonderful memories.

Eliza Cross said...

Beautifully written, Susan. I am grateful for your introspection and transparency in sharing the story of John's life and passing. Thank you.