After Fort Walton Beach man loses soulmate, he finds reasons to dance — and wins big
FORT WALTON BEACH — Bryan Martin has a lot of reasons not to dance.
Namely, he’s lonely.
His partner and the love of his life, Clayton Bond, died three years ago, just 10 months after his father, Wayne Martin, died. And all of Bryan’s family lives in Massachusetts.
Not to mention, Clayton died April 16, two years to the date that the couple moved to Fort Walton Beach, and he has to renew his apartment lease on the “death-i-versary.” They didn’t have much time to make friends in the area before Bond abruptly went into acute terminal liver failure and Bryan became his caregiver.
Then came a pandemic.
So yeah, Bryan has a lot of reasons not to dance. That’s exactly why he does it.
Bryan’s Tiktok videos dancing to his favorite songs have not only lifted his spirits, but also those of his growing number of followers. It also won him the grand prize in the trivia dance contest April 27 on the “Live with Kelly and Ryan” show, featuring Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest.
“If I can be a light for other people and help them get out of their darkness, even for just a moment, then my life has meaning again,” Bryan said. “I'd like to think that my dad and Clayton are watching me and they're proud.”
Soul mates 'click' three years after first meeting
Clayton was Bryan’s person.
The two met at a bar in Atlanta through mutual friends. Clayton was in a relationship at the time, so they became Facebook friends and moved on. Bryan ran into Clayton at a pool party at his condo complex three years later.
“I was like, ‘Clayton,’ and he's like, ‘Hey, Bryan, how are you? I live here, too,’ ” Bryan said. “So we just started to hang out. Both of us were single and it all just seemed to click.”
Clayton was an interior designer. He was talented, strong-minded but sweet, and the trifecta: tall, dark and handsome, Bryan said.
“He just absolutely supported my job, my career; we were literally soul mates,” Bryan said. “All he wanted was for us to move down to a cute little beach town, where I could work with animals and he could design people's vacation homes. We were so excited to move down here.”
Bryan is one of the directors of animal management for Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park on Okaloosa Island. Clayton’s mother, Judy Bond, moved from Tampa to Northwest Florida to be near them.
The two loved to paddleboard, fish, cook, eat — Clayton loved food — and garden in Judy's yard. They also loved to travel, often visiting Bryan’s two nephews and other family members in Massachusetts. Bryan’s nephew, Cameron, couldn’t pronounce the name “Clayton” when he first met him.
“We were all playing a board game one night and it was Clayton's turn, and (Cameron) said, ‘Uncle Tin’s turn,’” Bryan said. “So my whole family started calling him Tin or the Tin Man.”
The couple were living their dream life when Clayton was abruptly diagnosed with acute terminal liver failure. He wasn't even eligible for a transplant because his condition had occurred so quickly, Bryan said.
Bryan rapidly went from Clayton’s spouse to his caregiver.
Being a caregiver is intense, and both parties can get upset
Caring for Clayton was intense, Bryan said.
He remembers it as a slew of sleepy memories between energy drinks. He’d keep them on his nightstand, cracking open a can of concentrated caffeine at 4 a.m., another one at lunch time and another before he went home from work — out of character for someone who values health as much as he does, Bryan said.
He had to.
“When you're a caregiver for somebody who's terminally ill, you go through the day with your head down,” Bryan said. “You just have to get it done.”
There were nights Bryan was upset. Clayton would have to sleep on the couch because the bed was too soft for him or stay at his mother’s house, where Bryan stayed as long as he could keep his eyelids open.
But he had to stay strong.
“I got upset a little bit in front of him, but I didn't want to make any of his days sad,” Bryan said. “I didn't want him to feel any guilt or worry for me that he would be gone. You just never really know actually how strong you are until it's the only choice you have.”
Bryan became an expert at compartmentalizing, boxing up each and every one of his feelings.
Clayton returned the favor.
“He put on a really, really brave face,” Bryan said.
Bryan later found out Clayton was upset when he wasn’t around.
“He didn't want me to worry about him and how scared he was,” Bryan said. “He really was just such an amazing man.”
Bryan’s laundry list was everything from making sure Clayton had his medications to taking out the dog to folding laundry to making dinner. He didn’t care about sleep; he just wanted Clayton to have everything he wanted. They were living on borrowed time.
From the beginning, Clayton was weak.
He lost much weight, but his stomach was distended because his liver wasn't working; fluid would leak out into his abdomen. It caused severe pain in Clayton’s ribcage and back, so he would lay down a lot. Bryan would take him to the doctor every few days to have his abdomen drained when the medication stopped working.
“It was really, really heartbreaking,” Bryan said. “Obviously, you can't compare the loss of a loved one in any fashion, but everybody knows it differently. If you lose somebody suddenly, like in a car accident, that has one version of trauma and grief. But if you're with a person and you watch them slowly die, it has a totally different effect on you. I literally watched him fade away every day.”
Clayton ate as much as he could, but he couldn’t gain a pound. The much thinner more skeletal version of Clayton became Bryan’s new normal.
“I had to reach out to friends and I had to share pictures on Facebook of what he looked like because so many people said, ‘We'll come visit in a month,’ or ‘We’ll be there in the spring,’” Bryan said. “And I'm like, ‘He's not going to be. You have to come now.’”
Clayton joined hospice, moving from Bryan’s third-floor apartment to a hospital bed in Judy's house.
“We just tried to take him out and do whatever he wanted to do, not knowing if it was going to be his last month, his last week, his last days,” Bryan said. “We got an opportunity, thank goodness, to bring him to the aquarium and see his favorite penguin, the first one that was born from the time we moved here, Becky. So he got to see her and say goodbye, and we got to go to some of his favorite restaurants before he just became too weak.”
Toward the end, Clayton needed a wheelchair. Bryan had to help him into the bathroom and bathe him. Clayton fought it.
“Finally, he just said he gave up,” Bryan said. “He said that he had to give up his pride for all those little things and allow me to help him, which is a lot. That's a lot for an adult man to have to go through.”
Clayton died in his sleep the morning of April 16 at age 42.
Bryan woke up from strange dreams at 3 a.m. to see their dog, Roan, and cat, Stallone, on the bed staring at him.
He just knew.
Judy had gone to check on him. She called Bryan with the news.
“I lost it,” Bryan said.
Bryan was still operating in full caregiver mode, though, picking out an urn for Clayton’s ashes, making arrangements and calling people. It took a couple of days before it truly settled in that Clayton was gone.
“I went from having no time at all because I was so busy caring for him, and then all of a sudden he was gone and I had all the time in the world to think about everything I just lost,” Bryan said. “It was awful. It was so hard.”
Bryan lived in their apartment, looking around at two year’s worth of memories that just seemed like empty space. Roan wouldn’t eat; he would stare at the front door.
“How do you tell (the pets) that their other dad isn't coming home?” Bryan said. “It just broke my heart again and again to see him so confused. We’d go down and he’d just sit right next to Clayton's Jeep, jump up and look in the window. Just had to tell him, ‘Hey, buddy, we got to keep going. He's not here anymore.’ ”
Two weeks later, Judy had a stroke and was admitted to a hospital. She has been in a nursing home in Illinois since the pandemic.
Because of that, they haven’t had a funeral for Clayton.
“He just sits here on a shelf,” Bryan said.
Bryan said his family at the Gulfarium has been supportive. Clayton’s favorite penguin, Becky, had two boys a couple of years ago, and they suggested Bryan name one of them after Clayton.
“So there's a penguin named Tin there, all because my nephew couldn't pronounce his name,” Bryan said.
Sharing grief on Facebook: ‘Moving forward’ hard when you never move on
You never move on, Bryan said.
Bryan turned 42 this year, the same age Clayton was when he died. You can’t move on; you just move forward.
Bryan started sharing his experience with grief on Facebook. Soaring Spirits International, a resource for widowed grief support, asked him to write a blog post to represent the LGBTQ community.
“Whether you're married or not, if you lose your partner you've become widowed,” Bryan said.
Nearly every Saturday since Clayton died, Bryan has written a post about how his week went.
“I've seen a lot of people kind of gravitate to it, even though they may not have gone through the same (thing),” Bryan said. “Maybe they lost a child or maybe they lost a sibling or a parent, but I share it so people don't feel so lonely, which then helps me not feel so lonely. That's been a big part of my healing and moving forward.”
Bryan hopes to compile his blog posts into a book someday.
“I don't have the answers for anyone else's grief, but if it acts as some version of a roadmap to help them just get through the next minute, the next hour, the next week, and show them that they can, then it's worth it,” he said. “It gives my loss and his life more meaning, which is why I do it. He's such a wonderful person. I just don't want him to ever be forgotten.”
TikTok videos? Dancing brings fun, way not to be lonely
Bryan was writing his blog and moving forward when a friend sent him a video of people dancing.
“She's like, ‘You know what, you don't dance like you used to. You love to dance,’ ” Bryan said. “I do a lot of dancing. I just stopped. I didn't go anywhere. Clayton wasn't around anymore.”
Bryan’s friend suggested he make TikTok videos dancing in his house.
“Of course I was like, ‘I thought that was for 12-year-old girls,’ ” Bryan said.
But he was curious, so he downloaded it. To his surprise, it was fun.
Then, the world shut down.
Bryan realized he could get depressed being at home during the quarantine, or he could make TikTok videos dancing to his favorite songs. He chose the latter.
“It was such an amazing way during a lonely time to all of a sudden not be lonely,” Bryan said. “Everyone was so supportive. It was just people having fun. It was such a relief for me. I started building a following, which I'm so grateful for, and it was all because I was making people happy. I was like, ‘This is amazing. They want to watch me because I'm providing content that makes them feel better.’”
The video that went viral, though, was one of Bryan sharing his experience of how he got stood up for a Zoom date.
“I was crushed,” Bryan said. “I got ghosted for a Zoom date. Who does that? There I was with my food and my wine, and the only good was this TikTok following. And I was like, ‘You know what? I bet you there's people out there that have gone through this and this isn't right. And I need to share this.’ ”
The video received more than 1 million views — many people commenting that they were interested in a Zoom date with Bryan.
Bryan posted a link to a Zoom video conference and invited everyone, even bringing a rose with him like on the TV show “The Bachelor.” Hundreds tuned in.
After sharing his story and answering questions from everything about dancing to penguins to essential oils, Bryan created a Facebook and Instagram page under the handle @sealionbryan to keep the network going.
Bryan has since been interviewed by The Huffington Post about one of his TikTok dance videos and by BBC about dating during a pandemic. One of Bryan’s followers was featured on “Live with Kelly and Ryan’s” Trivia Dancer contest.
“He messaged me and said, ‘This was only because you told me it was okay to dance again, so submit your video,’” Bryan said. “And I was like, ‘Okay, I guess so.’”
Bryan was featured in the contest one week and won $500, then submitted for grand prize voting. He won $2,500 with more than 2,000 votes.
“It's absolutely amazing,” Bryan said. “Some people could say that this is just the universe, giving me a little bit back, after everything I've put out there for everybody and everything I've lost. I would give everything away for one more minute with Clayton if I could, but I can't.”
Clayton always had been his No. 1 supporter, Bryan said.
“I think he'd support everything,” Bryan said. “He’d also go, ‘Of course you. You're always the one to walk in the room and be the first one on the dance floor. Of course you would do all this stuff.’ I think he and my dad are probably moving things in and out of my way and guiding me through some of this stuff.”
The world is a hard place, Bryan said. If he can make someone smile; it’s worth it, he said.
“I want other people to know that when you lose somebody that it doesn't have to be the end of you,” Bryan said. “You can honor your grief and you can give yourself grace on your tough days, but you can find things that help you move forward. If you help inspire other people to keep moving forward, you're not alone anymore.”