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Writing in Memoriam

If you look for a missing friend for a long time and finally find her the day she passes from this world, how does it affect your memory of her? Do you tell the story of her life as you imagined she lived it or piece together new “memories” from other’s accounts?

Six weeks ago, an old friend sent me a direct message on Facebook about our mutual friend Candace Craig. She’d died that day of lung cancer but had been looking at my posts for several months prior. Too sick to reach out, she’d had the opportunity to view my life decades later, but I had no glimpse of hers. Off and on for 25 years, I looked for her and could only imagine she’d gone into the career she’d been preparing herself for: being a bodyguard.

Without a more suitable way to honor her passing, I sat down and hammered out a short story about this time in our lives. Late 1980’s, San Francisco. Becoming a bodyguard was an idea we were both enamored with but it didn’t take long for me to realize how laughable it was. At least for me. Candace went on to levels of training I heard scattered bits of news about and then we both left town, losing touch in the process.

When writing this story, I continued to struggle with what part of her life after that moment would find its way onto paper. Did she live the life of adventure and travel that she had hoped or had it been something else? If I hadn’t been part of her later life, did it have relevance to my writing?

As I pieced together the idea of becoming bodyguards, how we met and how our friendship arrived at that place, I realized it was enough. This brief swath of time was what we had come together for. Whether she went on to make that a big part of her life or not, really didn’t matter. Just as I’d never known whether she’d lived out her dream, the reader would also never know.

This was a period of my life I’d forgotten and it was a shocking way to be reminded. It’s now become a chapter in my memoir; written about those years in my 20’s when anything seemed possible. I read an excerpt in public and it was well received. I sent that excerpt to her friends to share when they get together later this month to exchange stories and photos, to speak their own memories.

A larger view of this brings up writing memoir as creative non-fiction. I’m on the team that loudly proclaims there to be a fine line between that genre and fiction. The life events we write about really happened. Non-fiction. The settings and dialogue are reconstructed from memory. Almost always. For me, the part that must be true has to do with the characters. If they are still living, I throw a thin veil of name change or physical characteristics over them but it is the colorful array of people in my stories I try to bring to the reader in the most intact form possible.

It’s the crazy parade of human beings in our stories that enrich our lives the most. They deserve the most accurate portrayal in return. And it’s their dreams, no matter how they turn out, that we need to memorialize and hold on to. I hope Candace is happy with my portrayal of hers.

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