Endings

I have last chapters in my mind before I see first chapters...I usually begin with endings, with a sense of aftermath, of dust settling, of epilogue.
— John Irving
Everything has to come to an end, sometime.
— L. Frank Baum The Marvelous Land of Oz

I’ve been thinking a lot about endings lately, both personally and professionally. After almost a year and a half, I’m winding down on the first draft of a novel. When I started writing the story I had a good idea what the last scene would be. I wasn’t sure how I was going to get there, but I knew what it would look like. The characters, the setting, the emotional impact of the scene fluttering around my heart all these months like a loose feather. Endings are my favorite to read and to write. It is in the closing of the book, when that last image burns its indelible mark on my psyche, that I know the author scored. If I can’t remember how a book ended weeks after reading it—I lose the story all together.
Not everyone feels this way. Any agent, editor, publisher or creative writing teacher will tell you that the first 50 pages of a manuscript must grand jete off the page like a prima ballerina in a sold out performance. Many readers won’t stick around a narrative world that doesn’t engage them from the beginning. I’m the kind of reader that takes pleasure in seeing it through to the end even if I’m not blown away by the early pages. I’m down for the journey to see how in the world the author stirs the watery mess of humdrum characters into a hearty stew that leaves me, the reader, full?
We’ve all been in social situations where your first impression of someone is “eh.” And aren’t you pleasantly surprised when you put a little effort in and find out after really listening that the woman’s not aloof at all, but a retired astronaut who spent time in outer space but is uncomfortable with earthly chitchat? Think what stories you would have missed if you had given up and left the party early?
“Because stories are different they resolve themselves differently. Some stories lend themselves to epiphany, while some end with a question. Other stories end with a flash-forward of something that my or may not happen. Some stories will end with an inner realization for the character—not necessarily an epiphany, but an understanding or a re-seeing of something that’s been there all along. Sometimes a whole new image will come in that is only tangentially related, but thematically related. I’m always reading other writers and what they’re doing.”—Chitra Banerjee Dvakaruni
Me too. Invincible Summers’ ending involves a scene with all three siblings—a simple scene—but one that lets the reader decide for themselves how Claudia, Burke, and Penny tackle their futures together and apart. It gives the reader a stake in the characters and everyone has a different opinion how that should look. That’s part of the discovery, part of the unexpected by allowing the reader’s imagination to launch these characters into the future.
The beginning versus ending question speaks to my contention that most people are either a sunrise or a sunset kind of person. What part of the day are you most contemplative, most open to reflecting on yesterday, today, and tomorrow? We are happy to witness both, but what if you had to choose only one to see everyday?
The first book club my friend and I formed was made up of a hodge-podge of women who said they liked to read. One member, in particular, refused to read a book selection if the ending wasn’t a happy one. Seriously, she said she stopped watching Oprah because she only selected “depressing books.” Suffice it to say, we ditched, slowly but methodically, the small core group of unlike-minded readers for a group of
crazies to equal no other book group—the One Brainers. But I’ve already discussed these ladies, my loves, all different in their reading preferences, shopping, eating, and political habits. And a mix of sunrisers and sunsetters, too.
And then there are the harsh endings that real life brings. My family experienced a big one this week. We said goodbye to Hazel. I can’t imagine my life without brown dog lying next to my feet everyday as I write, or outside with me on walks or watering the plants or running down the dock at the lake house. But I must. She’s gone. Her end was pushed into the New Year to have one more Christmas with her. When the vet told me last month that we needed to think about putting her down it was as if she were speaking Swahili. Selfishness on all our parts kept her alive long past her overdue date. But she fought a hard fight with spine issues and pain, poor eyesight, dementia, and deafness. Some days she could barely stand up. But stand she did for us, right until the end, collapsing outside the vets office as we took her in and said goodbye.
Who gives a thought to endings when you bring that pet into your home and the love affair begins? When my youngest entered first grade I decided we needed a dog. My husband thought I was nuts. You finally have your days to yourself, he told me. But I guess I needed to take care of something, and I thought a dog would complete our family. The only criteria the kids insisted on was that the dog had soft, floppy ears and it was brown. Brown dog was the runt of the litter and her momma wouldn’t let her feed because why waste precocious milk on a puppy who was probably a goner?
She sounds perfect, I told the breeder. When can we pick her up? That was 14 plus years ago. She had a great life full of kids and chaos, running and swimming, and so much love a dog could drown in the overflow. She stole food out of tiny fingers, swiped pizzas and bag lunches from the kitchen counter, ate cigarette butts on walks, and greeted strangers with a high five paws to the chest. Skittish one moment, goofy the next, we spent thousands of dollars on ruined shoes and furniture and failed obedience training (one trainer suggesting she was the worst he had ever seen!) Hazel was a loose canon of Labrador retriever energy. Until middle age and she retired to a more contemplative life—watching more, feeling more, sleeping more. The impulsiveness that fueled her young body gone.
For many years my younger daughter was her favorite until she left for college and the dynamics in our home changed. Then my son, a big goofy puppy himself, loved her up. I was the consistent alpha dog, feeding, disciplining (well, we know how well that went), taking her for vet visits—the caretaker—the role I’ve always assumed. Brown dog looked for me when the fun in the room left.
In later years the sparkle in her eye happened when my husband was around. He would let her ride in the car to Home Depot or the bank, and most days when he was in town, to his office where she had her own bed and a few other co-workers’ dogs to play with. That was the last great happiness she knew, going to work with dad even when she was on so much pain medication we were surprised she could walk a straight line.
Our lives were better because of her. The empty house, the empty yard can’t even come close to our empty hearts. She looked so peaceful at the end, more peaceful than she looked in several months, and I am forever grateful for that. But of course we always want more. One more day, one more summer on the lake where she loved to pretend she was a puppy all over again. I wished that for her. Instead we’ll have her memory to last us through to our own endings. But oh how I wish she could have seen one more sunset this summer. Brown dog always loved a sunset.
RIP Hazel
August 8, 2000—January 10, 2015