Eulogy for James Timothy “JT” Olsen
7/30/1975 – 9/16/2017
Delivered by W. Paul Olsen
September 26, 2017
I’d like to say thank you to everybody who is here. A lot of you are here because you knew JT, and I cherish your presence. It is good for my soul. Others may not have known JT, but you have walked along side my parents, or maybe Chris or me, for part of our journey with JT. You are a blessing. We will need you in the coming weeks and months as we prepare to take our first steps toward healing. And when the day comes that you need somebody to lean on, we will remember how you have been with us.
I have just a few minutes. I can’t possibly say everything. I know that for certain, because my first draft took me 42 minutes to read, and there was lot I left out. I tried to limit my second draft to just the things I thought were important. That one took 31 minutes to read. So, I’ll just have to leave a lot unsaid. At every turn there is so much more to say. I’ll have to paint every point with an unfairly broad brush, so I hope you will forgive me for that.
It is no secret that JT struggled with Severe Mental Illness for most of his life. He had Borderline Personality Disorder, a diagnosis often considered untreatable. But, it would be tragic if we defined him by his sickness. A cancer patient retains her personhood apart from the sickness. No matter how far the cancer progresses, we think of the sickness as being an outside invader consuming the body. Though the sickness may dominate the patient completely, we never consider the patient to BE the sickness. And yet, too often in our culture we make this very mistake when it comes to people with mental illness. It’s important to differentiate between JT, who was beautiful, and the illness that made him miserable.
JT had a great sense of humor. He was always turning the ordinary into something unexpected. He loved leaving jokes in places to be discovered by others. Like the time he expanded Mom’s Precious Moments collection. Here are a couple of examples. [show figurines]. And here is the one JT surreptitiously added to be discovered at a later date. [show the plain rock.]. We all wonder how long it was there before Mom first noticed it. I don’t know, but this is the one that means the most to Mom.
I have occasionally wondered about the people who had used Christmas lights to write the word “PEACE” on their privacy fence so everybody on Clarkson Road would see it. Did they think it was as funny as I do, that thanks to JT’s re-engineering they one day came home to find their lights gloriously proclaiming “FENCE?”
Open a gift from JT, and it might be a twelve year old can of sardines. AGAIN. It could very well be a whoopi cushion or fart machine. But just as likely, it may be a flashing LED dog collar so you can see your dog in the dark. Or his final gift to my daughters, which they received after he was gone: golden kazoos. He told me these were coming by email.:
“I ordered a Kazoo for each of the girls,” he said. “I figured they can practice their tone with singing if they got some relentless, annoying practice with these things! Sorry about that!”
Thank you, brother.
I think JT loved his nieces and nephew more than he loved anybody. They were the only light I have really seen in his eyes for years. JT loved so, so deeply. He always has. Maybe the thing he loved the most was innocence. Maybe that’s why he loved animals as much as he did.
JT just wanted to help people. If he could see a way to help somebody he would do it, even if it was against is own best interest. He wouldn’t have a second thought about stopping to help somebody on the side of a dark road in a bad part of town. If he found somebody hurting, he was the first to try and make it better. He hardly had money for groceries, but he wouldn’t have a second thought buying gas so he could drive friends all over town to get them where they needed. He was often taken advantage of, because he was so open with his home and so ready with a place to sleep. I could go on a long time about JT’s compassion. It was deep and abiding.
He was a person of humor and wit. A lover of justice, truth, honesty, and perhaps most of all, of integrity. JT may be the most authentic person I have ever known. He refused to make himself acceptable to others by hiding himself. His yes meant yes and his no meant no. Full stop. No making nice for the sake of letting others be comfortable in their personal inconsistencies. No triangulation to fool others into thinking he might be something he wasn’t. And almost without exception, if he thought you were a hypocrite, he told you so. And if you might try to point that finger back at him, well hypocrisy was not something easy to find in JT’s life.
His commitment to authenticity demanded that people meet him on terms he could live up to. And like a modern day Holden Caulfield, his search for authenticity left him feeling utterly alone. Everywhere he looked he saw artifice. His laser-like perception penetrated every facade. He HATED FAKE. He hated hypocrisy and despised a liar. Perhaps it was his aversion to hypocrites drove JT to live so authentically. JT lived out his life as a thunderous roar: “Here I am! All of me! Not one thing is hidden! Isn’t there somebody who will love me on my terms!? Anybody?!”
There are a lot of us who loved JT, but precious few could do it on the terms his sickness demanded. Not me. I couldn’t. In the last few days I’ve heard from others who tried, but the sickness sucked them dry too. Mom and Dad were the only ones.
JT was taken from us far too soon. The medical examiner’s report will say September 18, 2017. Based on the evidence we know it was likely the 16th. But those of us who loved my brother know JT was taken long before that. Over the course of decades, he was increasingly obscured from us by the ever advancing cancer of severe mental illness.
I hope you will allow me to show you some of JT’s pain. The starting point for his sickness was a depression deeper and darker than anything I am likely ever to know. Then, on top of that darkness, downward cycles would plummet him into the deepest states of despair imaginable, his sickness hiding all hope from his view. For him, there was no reprieve from the hellish cycles, one after the other, year after year. While he was with us, his brain chemistry rendered him unable to experience joy or happiness. Consider a few joyful occasions in your life. Maybe you got married. A child was born. You reunited with a long-time friend. Imagine if, in these times, your experience of happiness was limited to an empty cognitive awareness that this is the place were happiness should be. Imagine your whole life, being with others around you as they experience joy; and because you care about those people you desperately want to come along side them and share in their moment. But your only reward is an even sharper familiarity with the jagged cutting edges of the joy-shaped crater in your own heart. What if every happy moment experienced by those closest to you just wounded you deeper?
If that was your world, what would you do? What would I do?
I would learn to protect myself. I would learn to distance myself from the pain and the loved ones who, through no fault of theirs, caused me to ache so deeply. And once I succeeded in distancing myself, I would look around and see that I was alone. With a panicked sense of abandonment, I would realize what I had done and frantically try to pull those same people close again before they leave me for good. Only to start all over.
This was JT’s sickness. But it was not JT.
Over the course of decades, the beast of mental illness swallowed, but did not consume, JT inch by excruciating inch. It sucked him in, covering him like a giant tumor. Over time, it became harder and harder to look past the sickness and see my brother. Mom was the only one who never lost sight of him.
Most tragically, when the sickness was at its worst, even JT would lose sight of himself. The sickness would fool him into believing that above all else his misery was his very identity. As if it were a ring forged by Sauron in the fires of Mordor, the sickness enthroned JT’s misery as both JT’s protector and his nemesis. The sickness guarded the misery with ferocious jealousy, lying to my brother that he was only unique in the world because no other person had ever been so miserable, and that nobody would ever be so miserable again. And if JT ever saw the slightest glimmer that he might escape the misery, or if somebody might say something suggesting he could, the sickness only tightened its grip and thrashed about in a violent rage inside of him until it could once again take another swallow and suck my brother deeper still inside it’s bowels.
Slowly, the sickness taught us that we were not allowed to help JT except within carefully prescribed boundaries designed to protect the precious misery.
Such a dark place, and this is just a tiny sliver of JT’s struggle. I would have preferred to skip all this unpleasantness. But JT’s story cannot be told without it, because if you don’t understand the darkness, you can’t understand what comes next. Next comes two of my favorite words in the whole Bible! “But God!’
But God, in His amazing grace, provided a lifeline to JT. My mother fearlessly stared down that all-consuming beast and from her knees she daily reached down it’s wicked throat and held on to JT. She would never lose sight of him. No natural force could have sustained her, BUT GOD buttressed her. Time and time again she loved JT back from the abyss. My father engaged in daily, hand to hand combat
with the sickness, and against all human inclination would not give up. He often felt like it, BUT GOD strengthened him even when he didn’t feel the Lord in it. Left alone, the sickness would have fully consumed JT. BUT GOD gave him my mother and my father, who together kept open a window of hope for my brother. I mean HOPE* in all capital letters. Because of HOPE, JT was always able to find himself again. Because of HOPE JT knew, and said with his mouth, that he believed in Jesus even if he didn’t understand him. But who can understand the One whose ways are so vastly higher than our own?
In the depths of his soul, I believe that because of Mom and Dad, JT had the same hope, which rests in Christ Alone. Today, JT has been saved from the menace of his broken flesh. Today, JT is finally freed from the terrible shroud of sickness. For the first time, he no longer needs to fear other people’s joy bringing him pain. Praise the Lord for his ultimate healing!
I am sad that I must wait the rest of my life before I get know what my brother is like without the terrible sickness that has always poisoned our relationship. BUT GOD has given me HOPE that I will know JT!
Brother, we will see each other soon. So, close your eyes now, JT, for just a moment. When you open them I will be there, and finally we will be the brothers both of us always wanted to be.
*HOPE – As explained by Pastor Jerry Marshall later in the memorial service, the Biblical definition of hope is not “wishful thinking.” Biblical HOPE means an expected certainty.