"Hi," I wrote to him in an email, "I just sold my first book — a memoir — and you appear in the opening chapter. I'm writing to ask if it's okay if I use your name." In the hours before his response arrived, I mused on the night we'd shared 15 years earlier when he was a senior and I was a freshman at Marlboro College in Vermont.
Deni Bechard and I met when I visited the writing center for help on a paper; Deni was the writing tutor on duty that night. What surely would have been a banal session turned into something else entirely when I broke down crying halfway into it.
Just before the session my father had called to tell me that my mother was dying, and that I would be spending Thanksgiving in a hospital in Washington, DC, rather than returning home to Atlanta. I thought about canceling the tutoring appointment after hearing this news, but my dorm room felt stifling and lonely, and when the clock ticked over into my appointment time I gathered my books and papers and trudged through the snow to the writing center.
I still remember the way the stairs creaked as I made my way to the topmost room where Deni was waiting. We'd never formally met, although I knew who he was, partly because the school was so small and partly because he was so handsome. We sat at a table together and I reluctantly handed over my poorly written paper. As he read, I stared out the window at the snow and the parked cars, thinking about my father's words on the telephone. My mother was dying. My beautiful mother was dying.
I couldn't help it; I began to cry. Deni put down my paper and turned to me. His reaction and what transpired between us in the hours following became an experience that I would return to over and over as I began to write my book.For the next decade I would write about that night countless times, haunted by it and all that followed, until eventually it became the first chapter of my memoir.
Deni and I lost touch after that semester, although every now and then I would look him up, certain that he would make it as a writer one day. In 2007, when his first novel, Vandal Love, debuted to critical acclaim and awards, I wasn't surprised. Only a few years later I wrote to Deni with my own book news. He responded kindly but briefly, and told me that he also had a memoir coming out.
When my book was finally about to hit shelves, I emailed him to say that I wanted to send him a signed copy. No need to send the book, he replied. He was in Africa doing research and would get it on his ereader. My heart sank a little but I persisted nonetheless. "I want to send you the book anyway," I wrote, and when he finally gave up an address, I carefully inscribed a copy and mailed it off. I knew our shared time in college couldn't possibly have meant as much to him as it did to me, so I chided myself for feeling disappointed.
A week later at the airport in Los Angeles, as I was about to board a flight to New York so that I could record my audio book, my phone buzzed with another email from Deni. He was in Rwanda, he wrote, leaving for the Congo the next day. He'd started reading my book that evening while dining by himself at the rooftop restaurant at Hôtel des Milles Collines. It was an experience he'd never forget, he said. He wrote about what it was like to see himself through my eyes all those years ago, and about the reverence with which he was once again able to view our connection.
I boarded my plane with tears in my eyes. Deni had also included a copy of his own memoir, Cures for Hunger, with his email, and for the next week I curled up in my hotel room at night reading it, knowing that he was somewhere in Africa, reading mine. Deni's memoir ended where mine began, and when I'd read the last page, I lay back in bed, staring up at the ceiling.
It's a funny thing to publish a memoir, to bare your life for all to see, to write about the people who've changed your days, and your heart. The most you can hope for is that they read with an open mind, that they forgive you your memories and experiences, that they trust your intentions, and that they see, a little more clearly, all the things you meant to say all along.
÷ ÷ ÷
Claire Bidwell Smith is a therapist specializing in grief. She lives in Los Angeles. The Rules of Inheritance is her first book.
Books mentioned in this post
Claire Bidwell Smith is the author of The Rules of Inheritance: A Memoir