IOU, Steve Proffitt

I’ve been putting off writing this for a while, and the increased cognitive load and knock-on delays are forcing my hand. I can either write it, or forget it altogether, and I think it’s too important to future-me so here we go.

Back of the program for Steve’s funeral

One evening, during my second semester of college, I was walking west to east on the north side of campus. For those of you who are familiar with MSU, you can imagine me passing by Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts and thinking about the nights I had played there in the symphony, and approaching Scholars Hall where someone I cared about deeply lived… but she was in the process of ending our friendship and I was feeling lonely and sad. On that night, I had no one to call or spend time with, no one to commiserate with me, and I prayed to God.

Please God, I need some Christian friends. I need a community. I’m desperate, Lord.

And then I decided that I needed a cup of coffee. I could turn around and head downtown to the Mudhouse, but I recalled that there was a coffee shop just east of campus that I had never visited. I’d pop in there and get something, then continue my walk of angst.

I crossed National Ave., climbed the three stairs to the porch of The Potter’s House, and approached the counter, which back then was left of the door but parallel to it so you faced the back of the shop when ordering. I placed an order, perused the corkboard to the right of the register filled with advertisements for roommates and barbers and whatnot, and then accepted my sugary frappe thing while handing over my credit card.

“Oh, sorry, we’re cash only. No cards,” said the person behind the register, or something to that effect. But I already had my drink, and I was suddenly overwhelmed by shame. I probably blushed, and I stammered out that I could run across the street and get some cash from the ATM. Here I was, screwing everything up again, just like I had been all year.

“Nah, don’t worry about it,” said Steve. “We’ll just write you an IOU. What’s your name?”

My brain shut down about then. “An IOU? What do you mean?”

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Goodbye Pops

There are four reasons I like having a new/good gaming computer.

First, gaming is a way to recharge. Like reading, it is typically something that I do alone, and that energizes me.

Second, I enjoy gaining mastery of a system or process. I like figuring out how a game works and becoming skilled at it.

Third, I like having a good computer because it means more time gaming and less time waiting for things to load, or dealing with things crashing. I’m going to have a lot less free time soon, and I don’t want what little gaming time I have to be spent in frustration.

And fourth, it gives me a way to connect with people and have fun with them that isn’t super exhausting. Even when I’m playing with people, there’s enough distance (probably due to a lack of body language) that it doesn’t require as much of me.

I love playing games with people online. I like multiplayer role-playing games in particular, and I like being able to support my teammates and help them succeed. A few years ago, I joined an amazing guild that spans numerous games and is filled with people I enjoy gaming with. The guild’s credo means that everyone is generally kind, supportive, and mature.

Pops was in the guild before me. He has been in Gaiscioch for as long as Gaiscioch has been on my radar. To me, he embodied the guild’s principles. He was kind, patient, funny, and great to hang out with. Admittedly, he could be brusque and a real jackass sometimes… but it was because he cared. He legitimately cared, and he didn’t want to mince words or dance around any subject because he didn’t have time. Instead, he pushed people to be better to themselves and to each other, and he was… good. He was a good guy.

He passed away earlier this week, and we had an in-game memorial for him earlier today. We sat around a campfire and took turns sharing memories and thoughts about Pops.

I haven’t been to a funeral in a few years, but I’ve been to a fair number, and I’ve had a lot of people in my life die. I think that Pops is the first online friend that I have gone through this with. I didn’t know that he had a terminal illness, but Fog shared that Pops told him when he joined the guild. Pops literally lived every day as if it was his last, because it was supposed to be. He lived 6 years longer than the doctors said he would.

Because our guild is so large and diverse, it isn’t uncommon for guild members to die. But Pops was the first that I played with regularly. I’ll miss hearing him on Discord and playing with him. The world is a bit dimmer without him.

I will miss him.

Tears aren’t selfish

When my old friend Mel passed away a week ago, I decided to go to the funeral. Part of me knew it was coming, that his health was failing more rapidly, and that subsequently a funeral would be held, but I hadn’t thought about it. I didn’t feel any particular need to go. But last Sunday morning as I worshiped and prayed and cried, I knew I ought to. I wanted to say goodbye, and to see his family one last time to tell them how grateful I was for the role they played in my life.

Those invited had been instructed to wear bright colours by way of celebration, and we were repeatedly messaged that we were not mourning Mel’s passing but instead were celebrating that his pain had ended and that he was now with God in heaven. I’m not a bright colour kind of guy, but I made the concession of not wearing a suit and I chose a purple shirt, which was about as festive as I felt comfortable being. I get where they’re coming from — yay, he’s not in pain anymore! ((Mel was dying of pancreatitis and had been for a long time.)) — but grandchildren no longer had a grandfather, I no longer had a close friend I could talk with and on whom I could rely, and his community lost a well educated and loving teacher of the Word of God.

The Southern Baptist tradition of which Mel was a part focuses a great deal on the concept of “celebrating, not mourning” people’s death. It seems that not all Southern Baptists take this to the extent that Mel’s church and family did, however; April said she felt like she was looking in on a culture of which she was no longer a part, and yet it felt very different from what she grew up seeing and experiencing. People wore bright colours, but other than their claims that they were celebrating, there didn’t seem to be any actual celebration going on. It was like people had this extreme cognitive dissonance that resulted in everyone present being somewhat uncomfortable.

When I expressed my condolences to Crystal, Mel’s widow, she replied that she was sad he was gone but she was trying not to be because such sorrow was selfish; we shouldn’t want to hold on to someone who is now with the Lord. When I later thanked her for her love and role in showing Christ to me and helping me become Christian, she denied that she really played a part in it and instead ascribed everything to God. When people wept, they seemed to do so bitterly; they were not bitter because Mel was gone, but because they had the audacity to shed tears. As the daughter spoked with a choked voice, she proclaimed herself as celebrating.

It was the worst funeral I have ever attended. ((This isn’t quite fair–I’ve gone to funerals of non-Christians who grew up in a Christian family, and the despair and deep sorrow there is far worse. This funeral was bad in the sense that no one really talked about Mel. April and I have gone to three funerals for her side of the family in the last six months or so, and at every one there were lots of stories told, memories shared, and good times remembered. It is called a “memorial service” for just this purpose, and in sharing the stories we help ourselves remember and hold onto the love we felt for the deceased. At Mel’s, it felt more like people wanted to remember, and yet felt like such actions were like trying to bring him back from the dead and deny him his reward in heaven. Since they couldn’t help remembering and feeling sad, they blamed themselves for feeling selfish instead of just accepting the sorrow and channeling it into a spirit of celebration.)) There were hardly any stories told of Mel, either remembering or celebrating his life. The only person who spoke was the pastor who had known him for a short while, who could only comment on Mel’s enjoyment of cooking, hospitality, and that he was a faithful servant in the church and taught Sunday school regularly. No one remembered him, in the sense that we could have been talking about almost anyone–no one shared what they knew or loved about the man. Instead, a song was sang, and several songs were played, while we all sat awkwardly wondering what these particular songs might have meant to Mel. We watched a poorly edited video of pictures without context ((Provided as a “gift” from the funeral home. It was like they went through PowerPoint and used every slide transition available, then went and downloaded some others to throw them in there so every picture would have a unique, crazy, and random transition.)) and waited for it to end.

When it did, the attendees were dismissed row by row to parade past Mel’s open casket and say our final goodbyes. I have never understood those who grasp at the corpse, touching its face or hands, leaning upon it or hugging it. And yet, I did find closure in reaching out and placing my hand on the casket, and in whispering silently to myself, “Goodbye, my old friend.”

I cried, and if my tears were restrained, they were not out of shame or a feeling of selfishness. I believe that showing emotion is part of being human as God created us to be. Emotions must be tempered by wisdom, but even Jesus wept, and his tears were anything but selfish. My restraint was because I might not have stopped once I started. When I begin to weep over the passing of a loved one–when I throw off all restraint and let the emotional experience sweep fully through me–I recall and relive the death of everyone else I have lost. Tears that are shed honouring life are not selfish. I will not go to the opposite extreme and say they are selfless, but I will declare that they honour life and the memory of the one who is gone from us, who we will no longer see on a daily basis or be able to talk with, and that such honour is understood and respected by God. He does not denounce our tears. God gathers us into his arms and lets us cry as long as we need.

I am glad we went, for in saying goodbye to Mel I found closure. Three days of depression and sadness ended and I was ready to move on. I am glad I knew him, and I will remember all the great and Godly things he did for me, as well as his weaknesses and faults so I might learn from all aspects of his life. I will remember as well how painful it is to have one’s thanks rebuffed, and how cold and inhuman (how odd and unChristlike it seemed!) to present a facade of celebration and curse one’s own tears for being selfish. ((No one can celebrate when they are attempting to repress their emotions–repress one and you repress all.))

Too often, we feel that to live as God wants us to live, we must repress and stamp out our humanity. That to be like Christ is to be like an automaton. I do not think this is what God desires. Instead, we should be seeking to become more human, to be what God had intended us to be before sin entered this world. We should dance and shout and sing, weep and fall and put on ashes, and never deny what God made us. Tears are not selfish. No, they simply express deep and abiding love, sorrow, and perhaps hope for a time to come. We weep not because we are weak, but because we are strong enough to become holy. ((Consider this a postscript: As I conclude this, I am reminded of part of a conversation last night April and I had with our friends Brian and Courtney. We were discussing funerals and the prevalence of caskets in America, and how Americans do their best to dress up and hide away death because they are afraid of it. Is the concept of tears as a negative, and of mourning the dead as unseemly, a Christian interpretation or an American one that has been imprinted on some Christians? In looking at how the Jews and earlier Christians up until a few hundred years ago responded to death, I tend to think the latter.))

First J.D. Sallinger, now this…

Last week I was marveling at how spot on this article in The Onion was. It was acerbic, witty, and incredibly appropriate. It was just right.

I enjoyed Catcher in the Rye, but Sallinger’s passing wasn’t incredibly meaningful to me. That’s the only work by Sallinger I’ve ever read and he hasn’t done much for a while, so I quietly mourned and quickly moved on. I hadn’t expected to be mourning again so soon.

The man who played a large part in teaching me about Jesus, who contributed greatly to my converting to Christianity, and who was an admirable and appreciated father figure for the last half of my high school years and the beginning of my college career, died earlier today. I hadn’t expected to be too emotionally broken up about it–we’ve spoken only rarely in the last five years since they left Springfield, and his health has been declining for the last fifteen years or more. He is with Christ now, at peace and freed from pain. Yet I wept at church this morning, and it’s a wonder I wasn’t sobbing. My heart was nearly uncontrollable.

I’m ashamed to say that I’ve harbored some bitterness since they left Springfield. They left the church I had gotten saved at soon after I became Christian, and called me only once since they left this town. I called occasionally, but with less frequency as the years passed and I realized that they had… I don’t know. Moved on. In both cases, I felt abandoned, and myself grew more and more distant.

I confronted that bitterness during worship this morning and forgave Melvin, let it go. I knew he was going soon, and the thought was… sad. I don’t know, it wasn’t devastating, because I’m not really devastated. Maybe I’m letting my commitment to the accurate use of words get in the way of emotional expression, but I want to be accurate here. I’m not devastated, but Melvin was someone I relied on. Regardless of the time and distance, I knew I could pick up the phone and call him any time, any day, and he’d be there. He was always willing to talk and always happy to hear from me. My bitterness was… inconscionable. Now I am sad.

Melvin was a great man, and I thank God that I had the opportunity to know him. I can’t understand God’s grace in bringing Melvin into my life, in fact–I have trouble comprehending why God has been so good to me. Anyways, the funeral’s on Wednesday and we’re going to go. The town looks like it’s about 3-4 hours away in Arkansas, so we’ll be trying to come back that night.

Thanks be to God, who gives us victory in Christ. I know it, and presumably it lessens the sorrow. But the sorrow still remains. It always remains.

Quick heading out of town post

We’re always so uncomfortable talking about death. Or rather, we’re not really uncomfortable talking about death, but the accouterments of death. We can discuss death philosophically, talk about it directly, and all that’s fine, but I have no good way to refer to certain things. It seems crass to say that someone died. We have to go to a funeral. We try to find better ways to phrase these things, like “They passed away,” but everyone still knows. We’re not fooling anybody.

April’s brother, Adam, is driving down tonight to spend the night with us, and then we’ll be leaving early tomorrow to go to Cape Giradeau for April’s uncle’s funeral. I, for one, was shocked, and that surprise continues to linger. I know his health wasn’t good, but I… just hadn’t expected him to die. I’m still not sure what to think about it.

We were just talking a couple of months ago about a book he wanted to write. It’s the only time we have spoken, really, but I enjoyed the conversation and looked forward to talking with him again. It’s a paltry connection, but it is startling to realize it is broken now.

Back on Friday, when I will try and power my way through 14 pages of research paper on applying structuralist and poststructuralist theory to the medieval inquisition, which is due on Saturday. Considering I’ve been typing and/or transcribing my research/notes as I went along, and those notes are about 13 pages by themselves, I’m pretty confident I’ve got enough material. I don’t know that the paper’s quality will be great, but oh well. It’s not like I need a good grade.

Tie Association

“All I have left is to pack up my laptop and pick out a tie,” I said to the empty room, assuming April would hear me in the bedroom. I was pulling on my shoes in the office, hurrying to get ready so we could maybe leave early for once.

“Oh! Can I pick it out?” she asked. Sure, go ahead. No, not that one, that’s my power tie.

“What about this blue one?” April held it up to show me, a blue tie with a black swirl through it.

“Yeah, that’ll work,” I replied. “I’ve worn that tie to a lot of funerals.”

April and I are headed back to St. Louis today for a second funeral. Her grandfather passed away on Saturday, following her grandmother who died in late July, and the visitation and funeral are both today. After the burial tomorrow, we’re eating with the family and then potentially going to visit April’s grandparent’s home, which had a special place in her youth and which will likely not be visitable again for us.

We’ll return late Tuesday night, I’ll wash clothes and pack and a hurry, and then wake up around 4:30 a.m. on Wednesday so April can take me to the airport around 5. I’ve got a few things programmed into my phone for the Penny Arcade Expo and I’m reasonably certain I can get to the hotel. After looking at the schedule this morning (while also connecting into Missouri State via VPN to update some stuff for payroll and send out a ton of emails because of all the work I won’t be able to do today and tomorrow) I decided to cut out my trip to the Seattle Aquarium, freeing up some time and turning down the knob on the stress.

Nevertheless, I’m still very excited for my vacation on Wednesday, and I think we’ll have a great time. I wish I could write more, or more eloquently, but we’ve got to jet. Still gotta load the car and I wanted to be out the door in two minutes.

Dealing With PTSD

It was at April’s grandmother’s visitation when I met old man Dan. He sat down at the table where Liz, Mollie and I were having lunch and began telling long-winded jokes. The jokes turned into stories about his rebellious youth and the trouble he had gotten into, and the stories of his youth ended in a reference to his time in Vietnam.

Before long the crowd broke up and I went to join April in the visitation room proper. I couldn’t take the stuffiness of the still air or the heaviness of emotion for long and soon fled outdoors for fresh air, and as soon as I stepped down from the small porch onto the parking lot, I heard a voice call my name. Dan was standing nearby, smoking the tiny remnant of a cigarette.

I was looking for small talk, so I mentioned that my dad had been in Vietnam. Despite the fact that my dad and I don’t talk anymore—my choice, not his—I found myself mentioning him regularly over the two days we were there. Some of my most interesting familial stories involve him, and it was the time and occasion to talk about family.

Dan immediately asked if my dad had ditched out on me and my mom, to which I countered no, she had left him. I wasn’t able to say much more beyond that as Dan began to wax elegant about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Take kids who have never killed a man and drop them in a jungle, he said, and it will screw them up. His own nerves were burned up with Agent Orange, but the PTSD is what really messes vets up. He knew a guy who came back and killed his wife and kids, who knows why, maybe he thought he was still in ‘Nam. Knew a guy who came back and lived in the woods, just traveling around and avoiding civilization, for forty years.

He met that last guy in Topkea, Kansas at a center that helps people with PTSD. It’s a seven week program where they were roommates, and for the first couple of weeks the guy wouldn’t even talk to him. Every morning Dan would say hello, or good morning, and the guy would just grunt. Then Dan would take his Bible out to read and leave the guy alone.

After two weeks, they started talking. Around week six, the guy finally broke down and began dealing with everything he’d been repressing since the war.

The problem, Dan said, is that most people who have PTSD don’t know it. He certainly didn’t know he had it. He regularly stayed up until three or four a.m., playing on the computer or just wandering around the house. Around three or four he would think, “Well, looks like everything’s safe and secure, I can go to sleep now.”

His temper was violent and sudden, and he didn’t realize its cause. In the intervening years he figured he had gone through forty different jobs, always leaving or getting fired because he blew up at his boss. Once, he literally threw his boss off the work site. Dan couldn’t keep a job.

“You wouldn’t understand,” he said. “The rape victim understands, because she’s got PTSD. And the guy who has almost died, or who someone tried to murder, they understand because they’ve got PTSD. You wouldn’t understand what your dad is going through.”

Late one night my freshman year I was talking on the phone with a friend from Michigan. Sarah and I had been introduced through mutual friends who thought we would hit it off, and we did find that we had a lot in common. We soon began talking on the phone often, not with romantic intentions (I think we were honest enough to realize that we weren’t compatible in that fashion) but as simple friends.

Sarah was inquisitive, and her questions one night were particularly probing and invasive. As she began digging into my past, asking questions relentlessly and demanding answers, a door opened that had been closed for so long I had forgotten it. Memories from my youth I had been repressing for years came flooding back and I totally freaked out.

I couldn’t sleep at all that night, and for days I was out of sorts. It took longer to damp them back down, to wedge that door nearly closed again.

It wasn’t until I met Brian (our college minister) several years later, and then began dating April, that I really started to deal with my neuroses—with what I wouldn’t have called PTSD until Dan described it to me.

The nightmares, the violent temper, the unreasoned anger and frustration, these are all familiar to me, but I have dealt with them. I didn’t call it PTSD, rather referring to my collection of ill traits as “my neuroses,” but I didn’t let them abide either. I began with my temper when I was in junior high, by which time I had already nearly killed several people when it got out of control. I mastered it, continually work on becoming more even-headed, and I am healthy in that respect now.

I used to escape into books and games. I used to have nightmares, waking and sleeping. I used to wander late at night to make sure everything was safe. I always kept my back to the wall, my eyes to the door. I slept with knives under each side of my mattress.

And I dealt with it. By the grace of God and the friendship of my unflagging friends, I continue to struggle with and overcome my neuroses. I will not let them control my life.

Don’t condemn your dad too quickly,” Dan said. What most people don’t seem to realize is that I don’t condemn and I don’t hold grudges. I’m not angry at my dad anymore. Just as my collarbone is broken and there’s nothing I can do about it, there’s nothing I can do about the injuries of my youth other than to heal and get over them.

What I haven’t figured out is, “to what extent must I put myself out there for abuse?” Let’s say hypothetically that my dad does have PTSD, and that his manipulative, insulting, negative, and hurtful actions are the result of a mental disorder (a conclusion I reached years ago, to be honest). Do I have a responsibility to put myself in the line of fire, so to speak, to try and maintain a relationship with him anyways?

When his actions and words bring me down and make me feel angry and terrible for days, what should I do? I am happier now that I am not regularly going through that, and April at least can testify to the difference since she had to endure my ranting and frustration. I feel like it is expected of me to say, “It’s a disorder, so I should just ignore everything that comes from that disorder and maintain a relationship anyways. That’s what a good son would do.”

A larger part of me recognizes how unhappy I was and how very little I want to put myself through that anymore.
I am dealing with my own neuroses, but I can only do that when I am healthy, happy, and stable. Would I backslide if I were to reengage that relationship?

I’m not sure how to deal with other people’s PTSD, but I know how I am dealing with mine, and it is working out just fine. I recognize that I am still repressing more than I should, and perhaps someday I will seek psychiatric help to unlock those doors and take the next step to becoming healthier. For now, though, I am far more stable and healthy emotionally, mentally, and spiritually than I have ever been. I can find no compelling reason to inject poison into that system.

As Dan remarked, a person’s got to want to help themselves. If they don’t make the decision for themselves to get help, to find a psychiatrist and start dealing with these issues, then there’s nothing you can do for them. Because it is a disorder of the mind, it is an internal problem that must be dealt with internally. Someone else can open the door and help keep the flood from becoming overwhelming, but you’ve got to let them do it.

I’m not the one to open other people’s doors. I’ve got my own to deal with.

Funeral Leave

Flossie EadesApril’s grandmother passed away over the weekend, so we are on our way to Fenton, Missouri (near St. Louis) for the visitation and funeral. We will be back tomorrow (Wednesday) evening.

I don’t really know April’s grandparents that well, and of the two sides, I know her mother’s less. Flossie was already afflicted by alzheimers when I met her, and though she was able to attend our wedding, she and I never conversed.

The general sense I have gotten from April’s family is that her passing is something of a blessing. She lived a long and happy life with lots of children and grandchildren, and the suffering caused by her disease is at an end. She is with Jesus now, and we would all agree that is a good thing.

As I thought about her and her husband last Sunday at church though, I began to choke up a bit. I can’t picture April’s grandfather in any way other than stoic–a hardened old man who doesn’t let anything bother him. I thought about seeing him at the funeral and what he would look like, how he would act, and I pictured him standing normally, accepting condolences, thanking people, but generally speaking he would be OK. He doesn’t seem like the sort who would break down in tears.

When I put myself in his place, however, it makes me weep. The thought of losing the woman with whom I spent my entire life, to whom I have been married for decades, and now being alone… it is terrifying. I met with someone after church to pray for him and for the rest of the family, because I simply cannot imagine stoicism in the face of such loneliness. It is one thing to have always been alone, but quite another to lose the one you love.

In addition, I prayed for the married men I know, that they would become strong husbands who can support their wives, and that they would be vulnerable and devout. I pray that God strengthen us so we can continually support our families better. So we can become holy like God is holy.

With every death, I think of Walter Slovotsky. I leave you with these valuable words:

When you say goodbye to a friend, assume that one of you is going to die before you ever get to see each other again. If you want to leave something unsaid, fine… but be prepared to leave it unsaid forever.

Hourglass Eyes

As my glassy eyes reflected polished ash,
I realized that I never understood
Why the living mourn the dead.
These hypocrites who never cared
For Jones-most never knew his name-
Now standing mute, ranks of inconvenient
awkward office mates.

Mike told me that we all die.
It’s true, I thought, slipping my hand
To the breast of my coat.
The tobacco, held tight in its roll-
Just as we’re held by the sonorous
Supplications of the priest-
Came free. They heard the click of my lighter.
I did not care:
They would be dead someday too.

Thoughts of hypocrites and caskets
Left my head with the first drawn breath,
And it seemed as if all the blood
Drained from this coil to be
Replaced. That incense, holy and pleasing,
Filled me like the fluid that filled Jones,
And I exhaled our obituary,
My eyes reflecting their prison.