Tuesday, February 11, 2020

"I'm on my way" - remembering BethAnne Clayton

I know there will come a time when I will stop counting the days and weeks, and I will become accustomed to thinking of Beth as a memory, and not as someone I can call or see or text. But I am not there yet. Today is four weeks.

Right now, I’m making my way through each day, trying to navigate this new normal. I find myself wanting to stay closer to her other friends, maybe because we all share a similar pain, or maybe because of the piece of Beth each of us carries with us. Maybe it’s just that I’m trying to make whole the hole her absence left. Whatever the reason, I find comfort in these new frequent interactions.

I know if I were the one who crossed over, I would want people to remember me with the times that made them laugh and the way they were changed by our lives intersecting.

So maybe that’s the tribute I can pay my friend, BethAnne, because there were no shortage of laughs and there are ways that both her life and death changed me forever.

...Beth and I moved to Nashville the same week in June of 1996. She moved from New Jersey, and I, from New York. We were introduced by our mutual friend, Robin, and we became immediate friends.

On one of our first excursions together to the mall, she dared me to talk to a salesperson in full southern drawl. Me, I enjoy the occasional dare, so I wasted no time giving it a shot. My new friend, BethAnne, stood a few feet away, laughing her head off.

Later that same day, we went out to eat at a loud, noisy chain restaurant, where I was ordering chicken. The waitress asked me, “Gree-yalled?” I said, “What?” She repeated, “Gree-yalled?” And I repeated, “What?” By the third time, Beth had had enough, and she yelled, “Grilled! She’s asking if you want it grilled!”

Nashville was where we bonded. We played writers’ nights together, wrote together, shopped, and shared holidays.

She was the voice on more of my demos than I can count, as well as background vocals on my two solo records.

We did crazy things, like swap keyboards on an off-ramp of the New Jersey Turnpike. Don’t ask me why. I’m sure there was a perfectly logical reason at the time.

Our lives eventually took each of us back to our respective home states, where we lived 65 miles apart - not exactly near, anymore, but not impossibly far, either.

Of all the things I loved about Beth, I most cherish the kind of friend she was.

She was the one you could call at 3 a.m., if you were stranded on the side of the road, or in any situation, really, who, before you could finish a sentence starting with, “Could you…” already had one foot out the door, saying, “I’m on my way.”

One time, when my father was in the hospital in Manhattan a couple of years ago, he was in surgery and I was in the waiting area. “Are you alone there?” Beth texted me. When I said, “Yes,” her next text was, “I’m on my way.”

She had just finished chemo and it was the first time I’d seen her without a wig, with her hair starting to grow back. She stayed with me the rest of the day, and visited with my father when he awoke. My father adored her.

Beth and I were born three months apart, and we shared the same early pop culture tastes that formed the backdrop of the musicians we later became. Whether it was Carole King, or James Taylor, or Barry Manilow, or Donny Osmond, we spoke the same language and had the same frame of reference.

Speaking of speaking the same language - a word about food. We could be in the middle of any kind of session, writing, recording, you name it, and even if we were eating at that very moment, there was always discussion about what we were doing for the next meal.

“It’s all about the food,” Bethie would say, with me nodding in fervent agreement.

When she thought someone was conceited, she’d say, “He thinks who he is,” and truth be told, I love that expression, grammar notwithstanding.

If there was a special occasion, Beth would write a parody for it. For my 50th, it was a take on “Come on, Eileen,” complete with the accompanying framed lyric for me to take home.

For her 50th, we went to see Beautiful - the Carole King Musical.

By the time we each turned 51, Beth had been diagnosed, and that unspoken ticking clock that marks our length of days was looming larger.

For my birthday, she made me a meatloaf and took me to see Donny & Marie in Atlantic City.

Now ordinarily, a meatloaf might not warrant a mention, but if you’d ever tasted BethAnne’s meatloaf, believe me, you’d mention it, too. Best damn thing I ever had.

In Atlantic City, we took pictures with the cardboard Donny & Marie cutouts near the theater entrance, because why else are they there?

Beth and I had so much fun that for her Birthday, we went to see them do their Christmas show.

By then I had heard the tale of how she went with her sisters to see the Osmonds in concert when she was young. And while her sisters had no issue with rushing the stage and interacting with Donny, Beth was too shy and stayed behind. I could hear the lingering regret in her voice. That’s when I thought, wouldn’t it be nice if she could meet Donny now? How hard could it be?

I’ll tell you how hard it could be - hard. I couldn’t find a manager, agent, publicist, or anyone. I reached out to the venue itself. Nothing.

So we went to the concert and had a great time, but I was privately disappointed that I couldn’t pull this off. I had to let it go.

If there’s one thing I learned in the years leading up to Beth’s death, it’s that life has no shortage of moments to enjoy and that our capacity to look for them and savor them grows when we know how precious they really are.

That’s how I wound up on the phone with Beth one night, watching Hoarders together. She couldn’t believe I’d never seen it and so she had to experience it with me. I could not contain my level of grossed-out-ness as I exclaimed, “Eeewww” repeatedly throughout. I will say that it made me feel decidedly better about the condition and amount of belongings in my house, but mostly I will always remember laughing with Beth that night and how she HAD TO have me watch it with her.

One day a couple of months ago, I was talking to a friend of mine who asked how Beth was doing. I told her Beth was near the end. She asked if I was ever able to reach Donny Osmond. “No,” I answered. Every so often I would search for a name, but to no avail.

“Let me see what I can do,” my friend said. In no time, she had found his publicist, who, it turns out, she knew many years ago.

Within 48 hours, Donny had not only called Beth, but he had also listened to one of her songs and heaped lavish praise on both her voice and the song. He said everything you would hope someone would say. He was heartfelt and authentic and kind. And though I’m sure most celebrities never contemplate being called upon to serve people in this way, I am witness to the blessing it is when they do and I will forever love Donny Osmond for doing it.

Beth passed on January 14th, 2020. The only consolation I have about that is that her immense suffering is over.

The greatest gift she left the world is undoubtedly her son, Paulie, who kept her here and going for far longer than the medicine and surgeries ever did.

Each of us grieves in our own way, I suppose, and in our own time.

Today is the first day I’ve written anything in a long while. Writing is the way I process life. This I know about myself. It’s also the way I process death.

It’s been four weeks today. One day, I’ll stop counting.