Words to live by

"Justy: Did I ever tell you about the time you were born?" asks Jim Bowen in one of dozens of letters he wrote to his daughter.

"I know that someplace in your heart there will be a happy place for me ... for you have given me the chance to know uncomplicated love," he writes in another.

And in numerous others: "God, I love you girl."

Bowen wrote the letters to Justine Bowen-Jones when she was a young girl and he was struggling with pancreatic cancer.

The letters are the base of "Almost Finished: A Father's Letters to his Daughter," a book Justine wrote that was published in January by Transmedia Books. Justine will read from the book at 7 p.m. Monday, March 4, at Bloomsbury Books, 290 E. Main St., Ashland.

The Ashland resident's memoir features the letters in a sort of call-and-response format. After a letter, she responds to it, detailing the effect her father's particular words had on her. The format paints a vivid picture of who he was and who she is.

The idea for the book took root several years back, at the beginning of 2009, when Justine became fearful that the handwritten letters she had been given could somehow be lost, possibly in a fire. So she began to type the letters and save them digitally. Soon, the idea of turning them into a book was hatched.

But the journey of the book's creation began many years before, in 1987, when Justine had just turned 2. It was then that Bowen, a writer, editor and English professor at then-Southern Oregon State College, was first diagnosed. After the diagnosis and treatment, he went into remission for a while, but the cancer returned.

Bowen wrote the letters to let her know how much he loved her, to provide instruction for the times he would not be there, to pass on bits of family history, to celebrate her future birthdays.

Bowen died in 1991, when Justine was 6. She estimates that he wrote between 45 to 50 letters to her before his death.

Her mother, Kathi Bowen-Jones, waited until Justine was 10 or 11 to give the letters to her. Kathi says some questioned whether it was a good idea to hand over the letters then, fearing they could have negative effects on the girl.

"I totally trusted what would be in the letters," says Kathi, an English teacher at Ashland High School.

Justine, now 27, says that much of what her father wrote to her did not fully resound until she had gained more life experiences.

"When I was younger, it was really about having a connection to my dad," she says. "As I kind of grew up, I would read a letter here and there."

As her father battled cancer, Justine says he always seemed happy, whistling and singing when he was with her. She remembers fondly the mornings they spent at the college student union before he dropped her off at the day care on campus. She remembers his coffee and her chocolate doughnut. And the still-sleepy students who visited with her dad, searching for help with assignments. His caring, concerned demeanor in return.

He wasn't going to let his daughter see his struggle, she says.

"He tried to hide that part from me as best as he could," Justine says.

Kathi says Bowen did not live as if one day he was going to be gone.

"He tried to stay living right up till the end ... trying to eke out each essence of life and really for her," she says, nodding to Justine.

The book is divided into four parts. In the first, Bowen's letters speak about having cancer. The second part includes letters he wrote about future birthdays. Justine's grandmother plays prominently in the third part, which deals with family history. And in the fourth, Bowen offers words of wisdom and life lessons. In each, Justine reflects on his words and details her life in response to the preceding letter.

She says one of her father's paramount lessons in his correspondence was to "be present in the journey you're taking," something at which he admits he failed during times in his life.

He writes in one letter, "I think that once I learned how important it was to search and to seek — and to enjoy the searching and seeking — my attitude toward life changed and for the better."

The journey, for her, included growing up without her father. But she was not bitter. In fact, a couple of years after he died, her mother remarried. And though her adopted father, David Jones, did not replace Bowen, Justine details Jones' importance in her life.

"What I've always felt," she says, "I was one of the lucky people because I got the opportunity to have three parents who loved me unconditionally."

Working on the book was sometimes a cathartic experience, Justine says. Sometimes she came across a passage she had read numerous times but at that moment shed a new light. "And I would be in tears," she says. "I took it as a time to get to know my dad in a different way."

Though Bowen was not there to see Justine grow up, he was able to help shape who Justine has become, says Kathi.

"She learned from him things she would not have learned from him otherwise," Kathi says. "Those letters ended up giving her real, grounded, deep permission to say yes to life and go for it."

Vince Tweddell is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at vince.tweddell@gmail.com.

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