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Jo Clayton's Online Lifeline

Copyright © 1999 Brenda Clough (all rights reserved; published here with permission of the author)

Jo Clayton was a friend of mine. I will never meet her. I first saw her face the other week, in a photograph on her web page (http://www.dm.net/~mjkramer). The Internet was where we met and talked, and it saved Jo's life.

An Oregon writer, Jo wrote 35 science fiction and fantasy novels. In 1996 she was 57 years old, reclusive and in poor health, no longer able to get out much. Instead she traveled through her modem. In on-line bulletin board forums, she kept up with old friends and made new ones, checking in several times a day to chat about every topic imaginable.

In July she fell and hurt her hip. Self-employed, Jo had no health insurance. For a week she hobbled around her apartment, hoping the injury would improve. But suddenly the flow of messages from Jo ceased. As the eerie silence dragged on, people began to worry. From California one friend phoned an Oregon friend who didn't even know Jo, and begged her to go pound on a stranger's door.

In a post to the group, Jo herself tells what happened next: "Here's the story of the day I almost starved to death (and I'm not kidding). That day so far I had eaten 4 saltines and some water, and not much more the previous days. The hip I'd fallen on had got so much worse I could barely get out of bed, let alone walk across the apartment to where the phone was.

"God, that was scary -- no more ties to important parts of my world primarily food, with the group in there too. I was about to give up when I heard a knock on the door and I heard Mary Rosenblum's voice asking if I was all right? There was some more chitchat, then Mary asked if there was anything she could get me. Till that moment stupidity and shame had me in their evil little claws. But something went sproing inside, and I yelled "FOOD!!!" Well, half an hour later, I was flat on my back in bed, chewing pieces of cantaloupe and half a roast beef sandwich."

Disabled and foodless, unable to call for help, Jo would certainly have died without her unseen family. But she wasn't alone now. E-mail flew coast to coast until a Portland-area chiropractor was found who would make a pro-bono house call. Jo's diagnosis was grim: aggressive multiple myeloma, a cancer that eats through bone. Her online community swung into gear. A member of the group helped enroll Jo into Oregon's fine Health Plan, and set up a trust fund for donations.

Money poured in, as well as toys, chemo hats, books, cards, and e-mail letters. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America chipped in. People cleaned her apartment, fed her cats, downloaded posts, and raised funds with charity auctions at science fiction conventions. Writer Harlan Ellison made a plea on the Sci-Fi cable channel for donations on Jo's behalf, saying, "When someone's in trouble the community always comes together."

A post from that time shows how extensive the support group became: "Some of the Portland branch of Team Clayton met at Mark and Elizabeth Bourne's house last night. The trust fund is all but officially engaged, with Jim Fiscus ably handling the bureaucracy, the lawyerspeak, and the forms signed in triplicate. Mary Rosenblum, to whom Jo has granted temporary power of attorney, is also taking care of many of the incidental nitty-gritties. Elizabeth is the medical contact, dealing with the doctors, nurses, and Jo's family in California. Ruth Sachter and John Lorentz are the liaisons with the local science fiction fan community, and will make sure that local convention events happen smoothly. Much applause all around, please. Kudos also to Javanne, for visiting Jo often, reading topic posts to her, and communicating things that need to be communicated."

We knew something special was happening. Group member Susanna Sturgis posted: "This network of friends, writers, readers, fans, on-line buddies, and (previously) total strangers just blows me away. I want to walk up to Pat Buchanan and say, 'You want traditional family values? Here's traditional family values.'"

Jo herself knew it too. Another lister remembers: "Jo told me on more than one occasion that she would never be as much of a hermit as she had been. She had learned the value of interacting with people. Her renaissance was the discovery not only that she was loved, but that she enjoyed people. She said, 'Once I get out of the hospital I shall become a butterfly.'"

Fueled by the love of hundreds of friends, Jo fought valiantly for life. She continued to write through six rounds of chemotherapy, finishing two novels and many short stories. Alas, love and friendship can't always triumph. The myeloma won this one. Jo passed away in February 1998. From around the world her virtual friends gathered together in an online roundtable to say good-bye. Almost her last words were, "I'll miss you guys."

We haven't forgotten. The trust fund, now the Clayton Memorial Medical Fund, is dedicated to helping Pacific Northwest writers facing medical calamity. SFWA's Emergency Medical Fund prepares for the next Jo by conducting wildly original fundraisers and auctions. As Sen. Tom Harkin said, in his Congressional Record tribute to Jo: "We all should be fortunate enough to have friends willing to bear witness in ways such as this." Like e-mail, love knows no boundaries.

Brenda W. Clough is a novelist, journalist and fibrist. Her next novel, DOORS OF DEATH AND LIFE, will be published by Tor Books in 2002.

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