OBITUARY: James Stephen Graham

There are so many people who knew and loved Jim, from so many different places, that I feel like a poser talking about him. I only knew him for the last few years of his life. During that time, he and I were never on the same continent. We were barely in the same hemisphere. Even so, we were friends.

We weren’t the incredibly close secrets-of-the-soul kind of friends. You know, the ones where you go walking through the park, looking up at the stars and talking about what it’s all about, trying to make sense out of life and existence. I don’t claim any massively hugely deep insights, and as I said there were so many people that know him so much better than me. But we were friends, and I feel like I have to say something.

I don’t mean “I feel obliged to say something,” I mean, “My heart demands I say something.”

I first ‘met’ Jim when I was the head writer on a now-defunct website. He’d just written a book called “Birdie Down” – his second novel – and he asked me if I’d review it. I got a fair number of requests to review self-published books, and I wasn’t enthused. They’re generally terrible. Most people can’t write for sour apples, and I usually couldn’t print a review anyway, because it would be very negative and hurt their feelings. Just the same, there was something about him – maybe just how polite he was, or maybe his lack of pretension – so I said, “Sure, I’ll get to it when I get to it.”

When I finally got to it, I really enjoyed it. I wrote a glowing review and posted it, and Jim was so happy that he reposted parts of it on his website, and used part of it for his cover blurb.

As a self-published writer myself, we naturally got to talking about the craft, and how hard it is to get paid and/or discovered, and we hit it off. You know how it is when you meet a total stranger in the dorms in college, and something just clicks and you sit up talking about vampire movies or some other dumb thing until it’s time for class the next morning? And then you just know that you’ve made a life-long friend, and thirty years from now you’ll still be calling up and annoying each other about movies or TV shows, or ideas for TV shows, or some dumb funny thing or another? It was kinda like that. I figured Jim and I would be yammering on for the rest of our lives.

And here we are. And I find myself missing all those conversations we’ll never have.

I read his first novel, and enjoyed that more than “Birdie Down,” and I may or may not have reviewed that too. I don’t remember. I probably did. He told me that he was working on a third novel, Army of Souls. By this time it had come out that ancient arcane theology and forgotten heresies are a hobby of mine, and as “Army” touched on some of those subjects, he asked if he could use me as a resource. I said sure. I don’t think I was very useful. The novel ultimately had exactly one line that I’d had any hand it. That made me laugh.

During that period he asked me if I’d be a reader for him. I said, ‘sure.’ This basically entailed me reading his manuscripts, and making notes about flow; pointing out when the American characters used Anglicisms in conversation rather than Americanisms; spelling errors, stuff like that. Nothing substantial. During that period we emailed several times a day, and conversations frequently sprawled away from the topic to whatever dumb random things struck our minds. It was a lot of fun.

My kid is special needs, and during that period he was going to a Christian school. I needed to be on hand, just to be safe, so I spent most of my days in the chapel when they weren’t using it. I did most of my readerly duties there, and when Jim found out about it, he was amused, given the somewhat sacrilegious nature of his book.

We talked less after the project was done, but still kept in fairly regular touch. No big deal. Friends for life, right? Thirty more years? Levels of chattyness wax and wane. No need to force it.

On October 12th he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He’d been working on another novel. It was about 80% done. On the 13th he gave me the bad news, and asked me if I’d please finish the book for him. He said he really liked my writing, and he liked me, and trusted that I’d do a good job with it.

He also said – and this is probably the best example of what a great guy he was – he said, ‘I don’t know why your books don’t sell better, but you can put your name on the final one of mine as a co-author, and maybe that will help my readers find your stuff.’ I paraphrase slightly, but that’s the gist of it.

My God, how selfless is that? Who turns their death into an advertisement for a friend’s crappy career?

He asked me not to mention it for a while, because there were people he needed to tell about his condition, and he wanted them to find out from him, not by accidental online blathering. After that was done, he said, he’d send me the notes and manuscript and stuff. I said sure, I’d wait to hear back from him.

I asked him what his prognosis was. “Not years” was all he’d say. I was determined that I would write the best damn ending to his book that I could come up with, and that I’d get a finished copy to him before he passed.

A week went by, two, three, more. I figured he had more pressing matters, but I really wanted to give him that finished story.

Yesterday, the November 10th, Vivien told me that the cancer was much more aggressive than anticipated and he had died.

Well, what can you do? I was stunned. I said, “I’m sorry for your loss,” I prayed. I binge-ate to make myself feel better. I had trouble getting to sleep last night, writing this obituary over and over again in my head all night long.

Jim was a nice guy. He was kind, he was honorable and brave, as his long service record in the British military attests. He was interesting and smart and, although he never talked about it, I gather he was a pretty good businessman in his later years. He was a good writer. The places he wrote about felt like real places. That may not sound like much, but trust me: It’s high praise. Most can’t pull that off.

And of course he was my friend.

I’m envious of you, who knew him better. You were blessed to have him in so much of your lives, and I can only imagine the sorrow and anguish you’re going through. If it’s any consolation, the last time we talked he told me he wasn’t despairing, that he wasn’t angry with the world. I don’t know if that helps, but I hope it does. He was only in a little bit of my life, for just a few years, but I consider myself better for having known him. He was a good man.

He was also a good writer with a lot of stories left to tell. His mind was like a library that burned down. Now we’ll never get to read all those books he never got to write; hear all those stories he had yet to tell. There’s just an empty space where all that imagination and talent used to be. It’s a terrible absence.

My prayers go out for the well being of his soul, and for the comforting of his family and friends in this terrible time. He was a good man, and he will be missed, but he will not be forgotten.

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