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Question of the Month: Endings and Beginnings

by Susan Henderson on September 1, 2013

Tell me about an ending for you that was also a beginning. What was that moment, how did it impact you emotionally, and what did you discover about that moment over time?

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Last weekend, Mr. H and I dropped off our oldest son at college.

The week before the move, I would spontaneously burst into tears. Is this the last brownie mix I’m going to buy until Thanksgiving break? Is this the last load of laundry I’ll wash for him? When will I hear him play the piano again?

In those last days, he and his girlfriend would hold each other, playing sad sad music. All I felt was the impending goodbye and how loved he is here. As he packed, choosing what to take and what to leave behind, it was so clear that I view him differently than he views himself. He packed his Zappa posters and soldering gun, his keyboard and his graphing calculator, but for me, he is not just the 17-year-old going off to college. He is also the little boy who’d climb into my bed after a nightmare and run through the house with a dish towel pinned to the back of his shirt. When he was finished packing, he left behind so many things that are still a part of how I see him—the teddy bear he used to sleep with, the catapults and Lego he built, the this-and-that he made from paper and all kinds of etcetera.

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But here’s a truth about this creative boy I raised: a lot of things he most wanted to do with his free time were not things any of the rest of us could do with him. He has made many amazing friends over the years but when he engaged in his deepest passions, he was always alone with them. When he applied to M.I.T., understanding the near-impossible chances of getting in, it was because it was the one school we visited where he sensed he’d find like souls.

And so we set off for Boston with the car stuffed to the roof and feeling the heaviness for what I believed was going to be a sad day. And then we arrived on campus and saw this… chop saws and piles of wood set out for the meet-and-greet.

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And this…

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Also, his dorm allows cats!

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The idea of leaving him in this place didn’t feel so much like the ending I’d anticipated, but rather leaving him in a community where he will finally, finally be deeply understood and nurtured. These are his people. These are his passions. And more than anything, as we drove home, I just felt happy for him.

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Our home is different without him. I’m used to hearing the piano. I miss him plugging his iPod into my car. I’m not used to the empty bed in the morning where he usually sleeps in with the cat curled up beside him. Sometimes I’ll pass a stack of records he left behind or come across something in his handwriting or accidentally set an extra plate at dinner, and the tears come again. Not constant, just now and then, the feeling of how much I enjoyed having him here.

Endings. Beginnings. And knowing when I see him next, there will be something new about him, a transformation that’s only possible to make by going away.

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Thank you for the nice mention my book at  The Kindness of Strangers and Frequency. And thank you to the talented Heather Fowler who interviewed me over at Fictionaut.

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

McKenna Donovan September 2, 2013 at 2:29 am

This is so beautifully expressed, Susan–to the point of my tearing up at all the memories evoked. Of the ending of my first marriage, but the beginning of a life being true to my Self; the ending of small children at home, but the beginning of their lives (both in grad school – one at MIT, the other at Harvard); the ending of a corporate career that allowed for the beginning of my writing.

What this most brings to mind is how fiction–really, really good fiction–uses this. As James Plath said, “The best endings resonate because they echo a word, phrase, or image from earlier in the story, and the reader is prompted to think back to that reference and speculate on a deeper meaning.”

Thank you for this reminder to reflect back and speculate on that deeper meaning. Your son will always have those memories. As will you.

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Susan Henderson September 2, 2013 at 11:59 am

McKenna, That’s a gorgeous quote. And what poignant examples of your own endings and beginnings. I’m really moved by them (and glad to know our children are there in Boston together).

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billie hinton September 2, 2013 at 1:08 pm

I had the same sense of endings and beginnings the week we took my son to college. It’s hard to believe it’s only been two weeks ago – it feels like months to me.

I’m having an active dream life right now, clearly processing this big transition in my (and his) life.

I am so impressed that MIT allows cats. Wow.

One thing I’m wondering about myself as a writer – what will change in my writing, if anything, now that I have lived through this? It’s true I’m not done with this process, but even the act of leaving my firstborn on the campus felt huge, a milestone, a turning point in my road – kind of like that saying about scenes in novels – where something happens so that the character can’t go back to things the way they were before. I feel like I’m right in the thick of that right now.

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Susan Henderson September 2, 2013 at 1:29 pm

I remember my writing changing so much after my kids were born. I had much less time to write but I felt things more deeply and turned my eyes outward much more often. The world got bigger, little moments became more important.

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McKenna Donovan September 6, 2013 at 1:58 pm

I love your last comment, that the world got bigger, little moments became more important. “Little Moments” would be a fabulous title for an old-fashioned photo album given to a hi-tech son!

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Susan Henderson September 6, 2013 at 2:22 pm

I’ve been thinking of that very thing!

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Christopher Lincoln September 2, 2013 at 1:16 pm

I was handed an ending and am now on the hunt for a beginning (work related). It’s a seesaw time for me, a lot like starting a new story, as I feel my way through uncertainty and self-doubts. But always trusting that I’ll end up somewhere unexpected and interesting. As an added benefit, I’ve had oodles of time to pour into my latest manuscript. Pretty sure my agent’s going to be happy about that.

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Susan Henderson September 2, 2013 at 1:27 pm

Wow, these stories are so beautiful. I’m getting all teary. I hope all of you are reading each other’s endings and beginnings.

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Despina Yeargin September 3, 2013 at 6:21 pm

It’s a social world. How can we help you find your new beginning?

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Russell Rowland September 2, 2013 at 2:17 pm

I love ‘all kinds of etcetera.’ What a great phrase. This was beautifully written. Those moments where we get the opportunity to shift our perspective from how something is affecting us to seeing the gift that the world is presenting to someone else are really precious. I love the fact that you saw that window and opened it. My best example of seeing something as an end that ended up being a beginning was quitting drinking. But it would take too long to describe. Thirty years later, it’s still the best thing that ever happened.

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Susan Henderson September 2, 2013 at 3:05 pm

Sometime I want to hear the long version. That’s pretty amazing will power. Or is it something other than will power… curious?

Are you guys reading this book? http://www.amazon.com/High-Inside-Russell-Rowland/dp/0982860188/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1378134300&sr=1-1&keywords=russell+rowland+high+and+inside

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Russell Rowland September 2, 2013 at 3:52 pm

You’re too kind, Susan. Not will power. Power from others who have been through it, mostly. It’s all about asking for help.

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Susan Henderson September 2, 2013 at 4:32 pm

Ahh, some wisdom I’ve needed!

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Elizabeth Crane September 2, 2013 at 2:24 pm

Wow, the wood welcome is pretty hard to beat. Sweet post, Sue.

Ending/beginning – finally leaving NY and moving to Chicago. Almost feels like everything really good began for me there. That ended too, of course, but everything is still good. Had to leave in order to come back… though we’ll likely leave again someday.

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Susan Henderson September 2, 2013 at 3:06 pm

I’m just glad you’re back in NY for now. But you’re so right, there’s something about leaving that helps you see things more clearly.

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Aurelio O'Brien September 2, 2013 at 6:04 pm

Mine is nearly the story you tell but first-hand. I recall my whole life in three cardboard boxes and an old suitcase as I moved out of my parents’ house at 18 with the hope of art school and a low paying but full-time job. I had lofty goals but no clear plan. No road map and no outside help. Me against the world. Weird for a kid from a family of 8 to feel so lonely, but I was asea on a one man raft. All I could do was pick a star to follow, scan the horizon for dry land, and paddle wildly.

What saw me through was my love of learning. New challenges did not intimidate me. Hard work did not intimidate me. What intimidated me, my limitations, were money and access (of which I had neither.)

But it is exactly when my own individual personhood started. This life was scary but exciting and to this day continues to provide me with adventure. I smile as I think of your son, because I know exactly how it feels.

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Susan Henderson September 2, 2013 at 8:40 pm

That’s a gorgeous story. Would love to see it storyboarded.

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Despina Yeargin September 3, 2013 at 6:23 pm

Aurelio, LOVE!

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Nathalie September 2, 2013 at 6:39 pm

To me, this is mostly related to every time I change country. The turning a page feeling, even if the story and its characters remain with me and I revisit it from time to time. I can’t get stuck in the old place, there is a brand new story demanding to be written, carrying me away in its flow.

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Susan Henderson September 2, 2013 at 8:38 pm

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always gotten a huge rush out of change, whether it’s moving furniture, looking at a blank page where I hope I will write a new story, visiting a a country where the culture is different from what I’m used to, or moving to a new city. It’s not that I don’t feel the loss of change, but I do love the sense of learning something new, of reinventing the self, of going places I haven’t gone before.

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Despina Yeargin September 4, 2013 at 4:01 pm

I love what you say here, Susan. Agreed.

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Despina Yeargin September 3, 2013 at 6:45 pm

Susan, I think this piece deserves a wider audience. Beautifully written and touching.

Ending—>Beginning
Leave Greece for Australia. As an 8-year-old, a new language was easy and adapting was no problem.

Mother dies in Australia at age 47. As a 19-year-old, after seeing my mother suffer, I was ready for that to end and for her peace to begin. This was a new way for me and my sister and for our father. He managed and his two daughters found a way to go to school, do the grocery-shopping, cook and clean the house. This was more of a slow transition for us, because we’d been doing this for several years, during our mother’s slow health decline. Life really does go on, you have one new callus and you become stronger, ready for your next ending/beginning.

Two years later, we wave goodbye to Australia and find our way to a small town in South Carolina in the U.S., where we’ll be joining my father’s older sister in her home. Leaving Australia–my friends, a way of life, my identity, my new job with the Prime Minister’s office–this was tough. I hated the small town, the quiet, the lack of people my own age, the shift in culture and the feeling that I had no purpose. Somehow, because humans learn to adjust, I made a new friend and began my life once again.

Fast forward through two more moves, many obstacles, a few false starts and lots of endings and new beginnings. I find myself with so many stories to tell. So many endings lived-through make so many ways to help others in their transitions and offer just as many new beginnings in the first pages of books, essays, short stories and poems. Right? 🙂

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Susan Henderson September 4, 2013 at 12:54 am

What an incredible journey… tenderness, adventure, heartache, lifelong learning.

So true about these life experiences turning us into mentors and better companions for others. Also, when we live through the things we’d never wish upon anyone, we are often humbled, opened up, and more empathic as a result.

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Susan Henderson September 9, 2013 at 11:48 am

Video from the first week of school: http://youtu.be/FHX0WIXGO44

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