Writing on

My father died.

Leo Baldwin was good at living, amazing at aging, determined to continue contributing up to his last days. He remained cheerful and present even while suffering the pain, indignities, and procedures of his final trip through the medical system. He was 98 years old and had never had an illness that he didn’t fully recover from with a little Tylenol and determination. It took him (and me, and us, and his community) a month to admit that his body wasn’t going to carry him any farther: he’d come to the end of his road.  And when he let go, he let go fully and was gone in 28 hours.

I am happy he was able to finish as himself. I am swept into waves of missing him. He was a much loved and respected central figure in our island lives. Ann and I move through a community that misses him as well. We pause and tell each other stories of his influence and friendship.

“A man and his butte,” photo by Becky Dougherty.

His local memorial service was teary and celebratory and the hall was packed with his wide range of friends. His descendants and extended family will gather in Montana next summer to bury some of his ashes in the soil that birthed him and to lift some of his ashes to the prevailing winds around those buttes and valleys.

And when my father died, my editor died.

I am writing a novel based on a fictionalized version of the town where my father grew up in west central Montana. The story takes place during the early years of WWII, when the first generation of homesteaders is ready for their sons to take over—but many of those sons are called into the war. The central story revolves around the Cooper family: an older beekeeper/Methodist minister named Leo and his relationship with his sons and their wives and the community at large.

My father, Leo, was the age of the young men in this story, and the lineage of the Baldwin family—the bees, the homespun ethics of Protestantism and citizenship, and the social justice issues that lay on this land—are a blend of family heritage and fiction. My ability to capture this time before I was born has been greatly enhanced by the spidery handwritten commentary my father added to my first drafts, and by the hours and hours of conversation at his dining table as we went through the story page by page. He found the typos, tweaked the dialogue, and dived into exploring the themes that activate the subtext of the story. He drummed into me his knowledge of bees and beekeeping.

This process was the most powerful experience of transmission I have ever received from another person. Novelist Barbara Kingsolver, in speaking of writing and rewriting said, “It is thrilling to take an ending and pull it backward like a shiny thread through the whole fabric of a manuscript.” We were pulling threads. I was writing my way forward, forging the story as the characters worded themselves into being. I was working the loom of the first draft. He was reflecting his way backward, seeing his life transformed and woven through the voices of the Coopers. It was a mystical interaction we each surrendered to in different ways.

All this past year I noticed him wearing down and wrote as fast as I could. He asked me once, “Does Leo Cooper need to die in this story? Does the father need to step aside to make room for the next generation to fully become themselves?” We talked about it as a literary device. We talked about it in terms of the emotional maturation of the story’s characters.

“I don’t want Leo to die,” I told him. “I love him…”

Blue eyes looking deep into brown eyes, he assured me “I know you have the courage to write what needs to be written.” I wept all the way home, the eleven miles between his house and mine. That was July: we had two more months before he would turn his attention to letting himself depart.

In the story, it is June 1943. The fight against fascism is not won. People don’t know the outcome; don’t know who will live or die, or what will ultimately be asked of them. They may be far from the battlefields, but their lives are fraught with the tension and chaos of a world in shift. A young war bride and her baby are making a place in the valley. Her faraway husband has just been injured in battle. The angry brother is trying to make peace in himself, his family, and the community. Under the hot Montana sun, Leo Cooper has a stroke in his bee-yards.

In my life, it is November 2018. The fight against fascism is not won. We don’t know the outcome; don’t know who will live or die, or what will ultimately be asked of us. The battlefield is everywhere. Our lives are fraught with the tension and chaos of a world in shift.

I rally my writing skills to reach back to then and to them; I reach my imagination into the brokenness and openness of the Coopers to discover the story map that can help me live honorably in our world of dire consequences in which the lives of ordinary people may shine.

Dad and I were on Chapter 42.

I am on Chapter 43.


46 replies
  1. Karl
    Karl says:

    Stunning. Riveting. Now, the novel, too. The courage to write what needs to be written…I agree with Leo. Carry on. You have a light–or two, or a whole host! Carry on.

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      He bought us tickets to the October Brothers Four concert, but couldn’t attend due to his illness. He loved “the American songbook” and your singing. You, too, carry on… holding out that reflection of America to itself, reminding us of ourselves. love, cb

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Thank you. I am heading into a week of teaching Self as the Source of the Story–going to reattach to my writing self. Your book, You and No Other, always comes along to inspire others. love to your day.

  2. Meredith Jordan
    Meredith Jordan says:

    Riveting, Christina. Mesmerizing, as I imagine the novel will also be. To have had such a father is a great gift which you carry with you, as you, wherever you go. Thus, Leo’s light lives on. Thank you for sharing such an intimate process of living and dying.

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Here’s a favorite Mary Oliver stanza that reflects my thoughts now:
      “Now is my father circling the deepest forest–
      Then turning in to the last red campfire burning
      In the final hills,
      Where chieftains, warriors, and heroes
      Rise and make him welcome,
      Recognizing under the shambles of his body,
      A brother who has walked his thousand miles.

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Yes, dear Joanna, this is the part of it that makes me cry, too. I couldn’t even speak it for the first month. Now I sense the “Coopers” are coming back to me as I emerge from the intensity of being the warrior daughter walking my old man to the gate.

  3. Bonnie Rae
    Bonnie Rae says:

    As I read that first paragraph I sat in stunned silence. It was my grandfather’s story right down to the last 28 hours. (His name was Howard Webb Baldwin and I can only hope that some of that gracious spirit found its way into my DNA.) Howard’s story  departed your fathers from that first paragraph but despite a very emotionally charged week of my own, I am welcoming this new story with my deepest gratitude. Thank you for sharing the tenderness. 

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Well once upon a time there were just a few Badldwin brothers who landed on these shores from England, so I’m sure we are related in some way. May your grandfather fly free into the realms of mystery. Thanks for writing.

  4. Lucinda Herring
    Lucinda Herring says:

    I so loved reading this today, Christina. Brought me to tears – tears of joy celebrating the remarkable relationship you had and have with Leo. What a gift, and what a gift to us all. I am celebrating today that you are on Chapter 43, and that your lovely resonance continues now in a different form.. one that will birth a novel into the world infused with exactly the kind of love and connection we all need to face the joys and sorrows of our present days.
    Bravo to you, my friend. Thank you for your courage and for walking the beauty way. xoxo

  5. Gretchen Staebler
    Gretchen Staebler says:

    This made my chest tight and my heart ache. I know you know how lucky you are to have had this beautiful bond. Karen Maezen Miller wrote to me recently, on my own post about missing my mother, “Missing is the best part of love. Someone once said that to me, and I had every reason to doubt him, but at least missing reminds you of the part you might have missed.” I am discovering many parts of my mother I missed, and I content myself with seeing them now. The story goes on. And on and on.

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      I know how deeply you have shared this journey–anyone reading this who hasn’t checked out Gretchen’s writingdownthestory.com is in for a treat. The part of the above comment that shimmers for me is that remembering gives us more of the person than we might have known in the middle of the relationship. And, for you, my friend, the phrase “content myself with seeing them now.” Yes, the story goes on and on.

  6. Diana Smith
    Diana Smith says:

    I was so moved and inspired by the love and respect in this powerful and tender writing. Thank you for the grace of your presence. Personally I am WELL, having just finished radiation and stepping forward on the journey…the ongoing quest.

  7. Tenneson Woolf
    Tenneson Woolf says:

    Oh, dear. Tears well within me as I read this, on an early Tuesday morning. To think of Leo. To think of you. To think of my own relationship to father. To know a bit about deep uncertainty in times such as these, that somehow connect with times such as those. Thank you Christina.

  8. Ann Linnea
    Ann Linnea says:

    With integrity, courage, giftedness, and creativity you walk on now. Both Leos are with you. The old man will continue to work to figure out how to contribute and cope in a world that is rapidly changing. And your spirit father’s presence will continue to help you craft that long ago world and live in this one.

  9. Jeanne Petrick
    Jeanne Petrick says:

    Reading this made me cry and at the same time to smile widely. I feel for your heart.

    Your Dad died in the physical but certainly remains loud and clear in your heart and your writing. Your book will share this important man’s life with us all, and or that I can’t wait and am grateful. Write on, Christina, write on. XOXO

  10. Jean
    Jean says:

    Dear Christina. This is one of the most powerful pieces I’ve ever read. Full of power. Your Emperor energy manifested. Blessings to you and this task to finish. With love, and appreciation that our paths have crossed.

  11. Sandi Chamberlain
    Sandi Chamberlain says:

    Once again I appreciate the way that you offer your life and your learnings as a gift to all of us, with such beauty, with emotion so accessible. The blessing of your father and your relationship leads me to pay more attention to what I could be missing or taking for granted in my own life. Thank you. I look forward to the book. <3

  12. Anne Stine
    Anne Stine says:

    It brings tears to my eyes, Christina, I’m swept into the inner landscape of the story as thought it were happening ‘now’. What a legacy and tribute, his story lives on through all of us. Gratitude, Anne

  13. Katharine Weinmann
    Katharine Weinmann says:

    I have no words, my dear friend. Others here have said so beautifully what I, too, feel and know…about you, your father, your writing, this journey of Life that we all walk. So deep my appreciation and love. Heart wide open. Tears falling.

  14. Margaret
    Margaret says:

    Bless you, buddy, for this beautiful and courageous piece of writing. I would write more but I need to go wipe my eyes…xxoo

  15. Deb Lund
    Deb Lund says:

    Tears here, for all the reasons and all the words you’ve already heard and written. I woke this morning thinking of you and the chapters yet to come.

  16. Laurie M Greig
    Laurie M Greig says:

    Blessings to you and your father. What an incredibly wonderful legacy to bring forth…..on every level.

  17. Anne Peek
    Anne Peek says:

    Just beautiful Christina. So many gifts here: your father’s magnificence; your thoughtful and crackling self; the novel and the collaboration between you; your post describing it all and bringing it into present times and the future. Thank you for sharing all these lovely gifts with us. Blessings and love to you in your grief and in your creativity.

  18. James Wells
    James Wells says:

    In the story — your father’s, yours, the book’s — I sense a core lineage, a life-honouring mantle that is passed from one to another to yet another. The mantle morphs according to the skills, interests, and hearts of those who say “yes” to its invitation, yet the fabric is always just the right blend of courage, love, justice, and openness. I ring the bell to pause before the mystery of this.

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Thank you James–so well said. And thank you to EACH commentor–my heart of overflowing with gratitude that so many of you “get it” and boy I’m committed now to writing and finishing the Cooper’s story! Love to you, James, love to you each.

  19. Betty Till
    Betty Till says:

    Thank you for sharing your journey with your dad, and the continuing journey with the Coopers. This is such a tribute to aging and the gifts and wisdom that keep on giving. Your book will touch so many lives and reminds me that our ancestors are never far away. My heart is with you, Christina.

  20. Barbara Lamb
    Barbara Lamb says:

    Dear Christina, Tears and blessings and holding and gratitude to you, to Leo, to Ann and your family – and to all of us who find ourselves in Chapter 43 – or 75 – or 106 – by ourselves, without the one or ones who companioned us through the early chapters, for so many years. Deep love to you, dear one.

  21. Jeanne Guy
    Jeanne Guy says:

    The bond you and your dad had, the bond you two created, fills my heart with happiness and is also heartbreaking. I already know this magical novel of yours will tell a tale readers will never forget. It will be yours because of your gift of writing, and it will also be Leo’s because of his love for his daughter and his editorial insight. It just doesn’t get any better than that. Onward to chapter 44…

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Thank you, writing friend. What I take from all these comments is the support to keep writing and diving… and the prayer that my own health and stamina holds steady so I can fulfill this dream. When writing the “first” anything in one’s 70’s the clock is ticking! Love to you–and to all of us still striving to fulfill our dreams as we age.

  22. Cynthia Trowbridge
    Cynthia Trowbridge says:

    Bless those hours of conversation and transmission around the dining room table. It is easy to picture your heads together, digging and tilling the rich

  23. Cari Ferraro
    Cari Ferraro says:

    Dear Christina, this was such a poignant pleasure to read your bittersweet loss and the way you are bringing it forward in the story writing. I am honored to have read it, and also to have dipped in and felt your community gathered around you here in the comments. Blessings on the journey.

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Oh thank you, Cari. I am always learning from and within this community–both the on-line and far-flung friends and colleagues of the journey and those on the island. May you have or find such gathering in around your life.

  24. Audrey B Denecke
    Audrey B Denecke says:

    Sorry to be coming to your loss so late, my condolences. The profile of your father provided here endears me to him, his strength, his heart, his gift of storytelling partnering.

    I believe your father’s presence will continue to speak to you as you complete this book. Based on your description, I suspect he would not leave the task undone nor desert you as a writing partner. My father who died in 1999, still offers me guidance through his life of service and love for his children. I hear him through his way of living as I sit with various concerns. And now my mother is gone (2015) and her voice joins in.

    Although it has been a very long time since I sat in circle with you and Ann, I continue to hold the rim while sitting in my hoop. I am adding “writer” and soon to be author (if all goes well), to leader coach, consultant, and always social justice advocate. It gives me strength to know circles continue to gather spiraling out from the guidance you and Ann provided to all. This also gives me hope for the world. Audrey

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Dear Audrey, it is always good to hear from you! I am delighted you are writing–and soon publishing. Let us know when that comes to pass. Blessings to your day.

  25. Lori Wostl
    Lori Wostl says:

    I want to presence for you the far-flung and mostly unrecognized impact you and your writing have on others. I am one of those others. I don’t take workshops with you, I accidentally met you at a Journaling conference in Colorado a decade ago. I was born on Whidbey Island and hope to make my way there permanently soon…and I read your newsletter and Drewslist to keep up. I met your father wandering around Langley in one of my recent trips there and didn’t realize he was yours…I am moved, touched and inspired by your writing, your relationships, and your courage. Thank you for always sharing.

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Thank you, Lori for this note which warms my writer heart and my daughter heart. I hope we meet at The Commons when you are back on island. I am holding your words and reading them aloud to “him.” Christina

  26. Sandra Marinella
    Sandra Marinella says:

    Incredibly powerful piece, Christina. I love the metaphoric alignment of your novel set in the past with our real life current struggle. There are many levels in this piece that connect us to our past, our losses, our present, and our future. Most admirable is your portrayal of your father who walks so vividly through these words. I love how he lived his life, how he lives in your novel, how he introduces you to his death, and how he walks this journey with such grace and beauty. Love and blessings to you both.

  27. Wallace Cason
    Wallace Cason says:

    Leo was a kind man. He slept on his back and slept soundly. He was generous and loving toward all. Never saw him anything but calm, friendly, and quiet. The epitome of “still waters run deep.” Underneath was bravery and the courage of his convictions. Best of all was the way he loved his family. I will miss him too.

  28. Kerley Carol
    Kerley Carol says:

    I wish I could have known this special man, your Father.
    I will look forward to your new book.
    Two wise women living among our midst and we floating by one another on the island, glad that has changed.

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