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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 life. I have been changed by events of 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. 

A few days ago, 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 was profoundly struck by this desire. 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 it 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 at 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 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 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 sat 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 that amazing passage about love from I Corinthians .

As i watched her tenderness toward him, I had an overwhelming love for those two other human beings in the room with me. I didn't 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 a girl. I had a great relationship with my own mother after whom we'd named our daughter. My mother died three years after Bonnie was born.  I sometimes think of them as the bookends holding up my life.

And so, when I found the journal John had written 41 years ago, I thought about what Jim Frey said about beginnings and endings. I thought about how lucky I am to be a writer--to be able to think through my words and have epiphanies about what really matters in our lives. I learn things about life and myself I may not have otherwise realized.  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.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
 Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
 doesn't make any sense.

From Essential Rumi

For me, as I suspect is true for many writers, I need to write about powerful experiences before I can fully comprehend them.  This Christmas my son and his family from Chicago rented a house In La Jolla and we travelled down from Oregon to spend Christmas together.  My daughter lives in San Diego. The day before we arrived, their father, my ex-husband of almost 30 years, was admitted to the hospital.  He has been suffering from Alzheimer's Disease for several years. 

December 20,  2014 – I am in the hospital in La Jolla with my two kids and their dad who is near death.  He has pneumonia and a urinary tract infection. He can’t eat or drink anything without aspirating it. And he can't cough. So he is receiving no nourishment.  He looks as if he weighs about 80 pounds. His directive indicates he does not want a feeding tube, so I suspect he will die while we are here or shortly after we leave. 

When I stood over John's bed, he was awake and his face broke out in a big smile when he saw me. He was having a lucid day and he knew exactly who I was. It was clear he wanted to say something to me, but his voice was barely more than a whisper. I put my face very close to his and he said, "I'm sorry." It was heartbreaking, but beautiful and sincere. I told him I was sorry, too. I told him it was okay. 

After the divorce, we made a big effort to stay friendly, to share holidays so the children didn't have to choose between their parents. I'm not saying there weren't rough times, there were, but something fundamentally strong and good remained between us. 

December 25, 2014

This turn of events certainly changed the face of Christmas.  But not in the way one would expect.  In many ways, it was the best Christmas ever. John gave us the kind of gifts that matter. The ones you don't have to unwrap or open. He gave us moments of lucidity, laughter, forgiveness, reunion, memories, and his profound courage as he fought to hang on a little longer. Our family was reunited in this final act of love.  

It will be with heavy hearts that David and I leave La Jolla tomorrow, but we are comforted by Hospice and the enormous support and relief they have already provided to Bonnie. She has worked hard and long on her father's behalf. He could not have had a better advocate or daughter.  My heart is bursting with pride for these two remarkable adults our children have become. 

It is hard to see my grown children crying as they so tenderly care for him. They read to him from I Corinthians.  As I watch them, I see such love on their faces.  I suppose no one can ask for more than to be surrounded by the people who love you as you pass over. At first I thought I'd be really uncomfortable here--what is my role? John and I divorced nearly 30 years ago. And yet what I see is that love doesn't die.  You can get pretty angry with someone, but if you ever loved, you always will.  

There has never been a time in my life when I've been more proud of Bonnie and Dave as they watch over their dad as he passes from this life into the next. Today, they read to him again from I Corinthians—such an incredibly beautiful passage about what it really means to love—and before we left, they stood together at his bedside singing acapella every verse of Amazing Grace--one of John's favorites. The halls in the hospital quieted as others stopped to listen. All I could do was stand beside them with tears streaming down my face. What a testament to the power of love. I have been blessed with incredible children and how could I not continue to love, on some level, the man who made them with me.

December 26, 2014

This morning my son and I visited the assisted care facility to say goodbye to his dad. We both knew we wouldn't see him alive in this life again. He looked so small, still, and weak. Hospice has taken over his care and no extraordinary measures are being given to keep him alive. He is fed only if he asks for food. I stood by his bedside for a moment, touched his cheek and kissed him on the forehead, whispered, "I'll be seeing you in all the old familiar places." His eyes fluttered, but didn't open. I stepped back and our son moved into my spot.

When David spoke, his father opened his eyes and said, "Davey, I'm trapped in this cage," then shut his eyes again. Dave and I spent a few moments crying in each other’s arms. I told him he'd been a wonderful son and that his father had been proud of him his entire life. I told him that I saw his father when I watched David be daddy to his own small children. 

And then we left the room, closed the door and walked out to the car. There were no more words.

As Rumi said, "The world was too full to talk about."