When the Lights Go Out at 10:16: A Memoir, is a story of life and friendship—when innocence is lost and reality is confronted—that began the day I learned one of my childhood friends and next door neighbor was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. I was 21 years old at the time I began writing this story; my friend, Jeremiah Hamlett, was 24. It was the summer of 2003.
Note that what you are reading is a draft. Think of it as a behind-the-scenes view of the story as it is being written. At times, it will be structured and follow a linear path. Other times, it will be unstructured, out of order, and fragmented, and you may think to yourself, “What in the world is going on here?” That’s because I am not editing myself as I go. I’m slinging everything against the wall and will step back in July 2017, the time I have given myself to complete this draft, and see what sticks and what won’t make it off the cutting room floor. As a reader, I think you’ll enjoy this approach, and if you do, consider sharing the link with a friend or family member so they can read along too. For me, this approach is very liberating and allows me to simply write as well as tap into memories I thought long forgotten. It’s been a very long time since I last pulled this story from its desk drawer. I wasn’t ready to finish it then. I’m ready now. Enjoy.
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For Jeremiah and our friends and to the childhood we experienced together.
When the Lights Go Out at 10:16 is a story of life and friendship, when innocence is lost and reality is confronted, that began the day I learned one of my close friends was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. I was 21 years old at the time I began writing this story; my friend, Jeremiah Hamlett, was 24. It was the summer of 2003.
For quite some time, it was aptly titled The Court: Jeremiah’s Story, after the basketball court in Phenix, Virginia, where we all lived out our days in childhood. This story isn’t meant to be a linear work, nor is it meant to be a [quote] “cancer story.” It is a quilt of sorts, patched together with vignettes.
While part of the story focuses on Jeremiah’s diagnosis, childhood memories are interwoven to bring attention to what was, what is, and what always will be the most important takeaway: that cancer can destroy a person’s immune system and can even take him or her away from us physically forever, but it cannot take away our memories, our friendships, or our love.
I would also like to state that When the Lights Go Out at 10:16 isn’t a biography of Jeremiah or Jeremiah’s life. It’s a memoir that comes from my perspective; and I think that’s important to note. I say this because I cannot go into detail all of the results of Jeremiah’s tests or every fine detail of what Jeremiah thought or experienced as he battled brain cancer. A lot of what Jeremiah went through was a very personal matter that only he knew or his family knew.
I only know what I know or what he or his family shared with me. The personal aspect of cancer, however, I can understand—at least from the perspective of a family member, specifically as a son who has seen his own dad stricken with cancer twice, once with stage IV appendiceal cancer and then again, at the current moment in time, with leukemia.
There is a scene later on in the story when Jeremiah has his first seizure (and thus learns he has brain cancer), which I was once criticized for writing by someone who was actually there. When I received the letter, I was hurt to be quite honest. Now, looking back, I know the individual who wrote this did not mean anything personal by it; although, how it came off, I can understand why I became hurt and eventually angered. What I wrote in this scene was not for “dramatic effect,” the phrase used in the letter.
What the individual who sent this letter did not know, is that when I sent this story to Jeremiah shortly after his cancer reared its ugly head again, I prefaced my letter to him by saying that I know that this scene, in particular, may not be accurate; that I had written it based on my experience in seeing a former sixth grade classmate named Priscilla, who was epileptic, having a seizure. Jeremiah’s depiction in this scene was largely a mirror image of how Priscilla acted when a seizure came on.1
Jeremiah responded by saying it was okay, that he didn’t care, and to “leave it in.” He went on to say jokingly that he had no idea what happened anyway because he had blacked out.
Memoir is defined as a biography written from personal knowledge of one’s memory of certain events or people, particularly one’s own. I tend to think of memoir in a slightly different manner, which is to say that memoir investigates life’s universal themes under the guise of one’s memory.
Even now, years later, I carry fond memories of Jeremiah with me everywhere I go—and I can say, with certainty, that many of his friends and family do as well. I learned a great deal about myself from this unfortunate experience—about myself, about friendship, about love, loss, the power of memory—and I hope this is portrayed as I mean for it to be in this story.
When I began writing When the Lights Go Out at 10:16, I never intended for it to get out. I never intended for it to be an actual story in the first place. It began as a single paragraph journal entry in a green notebook I used to keep in my car in case a poem came along unexpectedly. The weight of Jeremiah’s diagnosis I did not comprehend at the time. We were young. We were invincible. He’d beat this thing. We’d all live happily ever after. The end.
But sometimes life has other plans despite our own.
There’s a huge break in the story, from Jeremiah’s original diagnosis in 2003 to the re-emergence of his brain tumor in 2006. I think it’s obvious to see the change in mood from these two sections, but perhaps, it’s just obvious to me, because, after all, the story and experience of writing the story is intimate for me in this regard.
I wrote a small chunk of the story in 2003, and that was that. Jeremiah had surgery to remove most of the tumor and he seemed to be doing fine. That’s what we all told ourselves. Then, in 2006, the doctors found another tumor and the remnants of the remaining tumor they could not remove years before. This one could not be operated on.
The downward spiral began. I remember the phone call from Jeremiah like yesterday. It was at this time that a flurry of writing happened. That writing is what is known as “Part II” of the story.
So, one day, in 2006, when I was on the phone with Jeremiah, I told him about the story. I brought it up because I sensed that time was short. It wasn’t like in 2003. I knew what was coming. He knew what was coming. He asked to see it. I pleaded for him not to judge me by the horrible writing. He told me, and I quote, “shut up and send it.”
A few weeks later, I went up to visit Jeremiah. He started talking about little pieces from the story. We walked down memory lane. Then we ran.
The night of Jeremiah’s death, I received a phone call from his mom MaryAnn. Either Jeremiah or his fiancee Melanie, I never knew which, told his mom about the story. I let MaryAnn know there were some things in the narrative she might not want to read (such as a story about drinking and driving). She said she didn’t care. She wanted to read it.
I printed a copy—I actually had to go out and buy more ink to finish printing it because it was so long—and brought it to her at family night. Before Jeremiah’s funeral, MaryAnn approached me and said she had stayed up and read it all and she thanked me for writing it.
It’s been years since I took this story out of its folder and shared it with anyone. For various reasons, all of which are silly that I realize now as I write this, I pulled back from sharing it. Instead of viewing the story as what it was when I began writing it, I started to view it differently. When I began writing the story, I didn’t consider myself a writer. After I wrote it and then went on to write other stories, I did consider myself a writer.
Because of this, I began judging what I wrote too harshly and became very insecure.
I’m a little scared, even now, to pull it out and share it with others for fear that it’ll be judged harshly for its quality. After all, I was 21 when I began writing this story.
But you know what, so be it. It is what it is. I don’t care if it is considered literary quality or quality enough to be published. I’m past that.
This story is more important to me than that. It’s a story about my friend, our friends, and our childhood in a small southern town known as Phenix, Virginia. And I can live with that.
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1 Sadly, I learned that Priscilla was later diagnosed and died from a brain tumor