I walked to the front door of the Staff House and knocked. This time of year, it was still warm and light out at seven in the evening. Cheryl opened the door and said, “Hey, Greg! Come on in!”
“Here’s my letter,” I replied, handing Cheryl the piece of white paper in my hand. I had outlined a large letter E in black marker, and inside the E, I had printed pictures of Star Wars characters that I found on the Internet.
“Give that to Alexa,” Cheryl said. “She’s making the sign.” I walked into the living room, where a brown-haired senior girl named Alexa Lafferty sat in a chair. She stood on the chair and taped my E to the wall, about seven feet above the ground, next to a brightly colored S, with a red R some space to the left and another R below the other letters with a high jumper vaulting his body over the middle of the R. Janet McAllen, who lived in this house with the other Jeromeville Christian Fellowship staff, had called me a few days ago. She explained that, for Brian’s going away party, we would be making a sign on the wall that said YOU’RE A BLESSING, BRIAN. Each guest would be assigned a letter from that phrase to draw and decorate, and the letters would be hung on the wall as we arrived. Some people, like me and whoever drew the high jumper, drew specifically Brian-themed decorations, and others just made designs or patterns.
“Hey, Greg,” Brian said, emerging from another room. He looked up at the sign, now with my letter added. “Nice!” he said. “But you know I’m gonna have to quiz you now. Who’s that?” Brian pointed at one of the characters on my letter E sign.
“Han Solo,” I replied. Although I had some knowledge of Star Wars before living with Brian for a year, I was new to being a true fan, and I had seen Return of the Jedi for the first time just three months ago.
“And him?” Brian continued pointing to characters on my sign.
“And here’s a tough one. What’s that thing Luke is riding?”
“A Tauntaun, I think it’s called. Is that right?”
“Very good. You will be a great Jedi Master someday.”
As more people trickled in, and Alexa added to the letters on the wall, Brian kept making comments out loud, trying to figure out what it spelled. Lorraine Mathews arrived with the letter O, and like me, she chose a Star Wars theme. Lorraine had drawn the O as the Death Star, with Luke Skywalker’s X-wing, Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon, and a few TIE fighters flown by Darth Vader’s minions flying around it. “YEAH!” Brian shouted excitedly when he saw it.
“Dude!” Lorraine replied, high-fiving Brian.
Eddie Baker and John Harvey arrived next, bringing the I in Brian and the apostrophe in YOU’RE. “Hey, Greg,” Eddie said. “What’s up? Glad to be done with finals?”
“Yes. What about you?”
“I had a long paper to write, but it’s done. Now I’m in the middle of planning for China.”
“When do you guys leave?”
“Next Thursday. Six days. It’s exciting to see how God will move.”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m looking forward to hearing about it.”
John spoke up, asking me, “You’re going somewhere this summer too, right? To do research, or something like that?”
“Yeah. Oregon. An undergrad research internship with the math department at Grandvale State.”
Lars Ashford had walked in during my conversation with Eddie and John. “You’re going to Oregon?” Lars asked me. “I love Oregon!”
“Where is Grandvale State?” John asked. “Like, how far from Portland? That’s all I know in Oregon.”
“About ninety miles,” I replied. “South.”
“How exactly do you do math research?” Eddie asked.
“Yeah,” Lars added. “I hear math research, and I think of something like, ‘Today we’re gonna research the number three. What else can we learn about the number three? Where does it come from? Why is it called three? And when we’re done with that, we’re gonna research the number seven.’ But what is it really?”
“Not that,” I chuckled. “I’m not really sure myself. That’s why I’m doing this, to get a feel for what grad school will be like, if I decide to go to grad school. I think math research is, like, proving new theorems.”
“What new theorems need to be proven? I remember all the math I had to take for engineering. It didn’t seem like there was a lot more to discover.”
“There are a lot of open questions to research in mathematics,” I explained. “But it mostly has to do with really advanced theoretical stuff, the kind of stuff that wouldn’t apply directly to engineering.”
“But—” Lars continued. “I don’t get it. Why research something that isn’t relevant to the real world?”
“Because you never know what connections might be made someday. I heard a good example once. The ancient Greeks knew about the reflecting properties of parabolic surfaces. But they had no idea that these same properties would be used centuries later to invent satellite dishes.”
Lars stared off in the distance. “Wow,” he finally said. “That’s deep.”
“So what exactly will you be researching this summer?” Eddie asked.
“I’m not really sure,” I explained. “I think I’ll find out when I get there. There are three professors working with the project, and the students will be put in groups to work on three different projects.”
“Is that for sure what you want to do with your degree? Math research? Weren’t you also thinking about being a teacher?”
“Yeah. I helped out in a high school classroom this quarter. I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do. I’m exploring options.”
“That’s a good way to look at it.”
More people arrived: Kristina Kasparian. Joe Fox. Chris, the 1997 Man of Steel. Melinda Schmidt. I noticed that the party guests mostly seemed to be juniors and seniors. This made sense, since these people knew Brian the best. Brian had graduated a year ago, so he was the same age as current fifth-year students, a year older than current seniors, and two years older than me. Also, most freshmen had probably either left Jeromeville already, or were busy packing tonight since the dorms closed tomorrow at noon. I was disappointed to realize that this meant that Carrie Valentine would probably not be at this party, and neither would Sadie Rowland.
Scott Madison and Amelia Dye walked in next. They handed Alexa two exclamation points. “I like the way you made signs for punctuation,” I told Janet.
“We already had enough people for all the letters, and more people were coming, so we had to include them too. So we made lots of exclamation points,” Janet explained.
“That works. But I wonder if there was any other punctuation you could have used. Like maybe, put it in quotes. ‘You’re a blessing, Brian,’” I said, making air quotes with my fingers.
Janet thought about this, then started laughing. “I thought you meant, like, ‘You’re a “blessing,” Brian.’” She paused and made air quotes, with a suspicious grin on her face, during the word “blessing” only.
“Greg?” Scott said after Janet and I were done laughing. “How did finals go?”
“I think I did well,” I said. “I only had two actual finals, plus a paper to write.”
“That’s a pretty easy schedule. Did your family enjoy the chorus performance?”
“Yes,” I said. “They brought Grandpa too. He really wanted to hear me sing. His hearing isn’t what it used to be, but Mom said he said we sounded really good.”
“That’s good. My family didn’t come for this one, but they’d seen other ones before.”
“How were your finals? I forget, are you graduating this year?”
“No. I’m definitely going to be here a fifth year.”
“Me too,” Amelia added.
“Well, that’s good. I get to see you guys around for another year.”
After about an hour of mingling, as more people trickled in and Brian figured out what the letters spelled, Brian, the McAllens, and Cheryl attempted to get everyone quiet for a few minutes. “Brian has a few words to say,” Cheryl announced. All the chairs and couch spaces were taken, so I sat on the floor to listen to Brian.
“So,” Brian began. “Thank you all for coming tonight.” Brian often punctuated his speech with notable pauses, then spoke his sentences quickly in between the pauses. He gave the talk at JCF a few times this year, speaking this way, and last year, when we were making plans to get an apartment together, he left a few long rambling messages like this on my answering machine. “Some of you have known me since freshman year… I was a new Christian then. And God led me to get more involved in JCF… I started leading Bible studies.
“But if my life had gone to plan… I wouldn’t be here at all right now. I took the MCAT and applied to medical school last year… and I didn’t get in. But that allowed God to open the door for me to stay here… and go on staff with JCF. And…” Brian gestured toward the letters on the wall. “Your sign says that I’m a blessing… But you have all been a blessing to me too. You’ve encouraged me when things didn’t work out the way I expected… You encouraged me to keep trying medical school. And God opened another door. So… as you know, I’m headed to New York Medical College in the fall. So thank you so much… Come visit me if you’re ever in New York. And save the date… because I’ll be out here for the New Year’s party!” A few people cheered at this. I was not sure what Brian was referring to, about the New Year’s party, but Brian told me earlier that he would be emailing all his friends periodically, so hopefully I would find out more as the end of 1997 approached.
After Brian finished speaking, Janet got back up in front of everyone and announced, “We’re gonna play a game now,” Janet explained. “We’re gonna play Telephone Charades. You’ll be in groups of five. You’re all gonna go in the other room, except for one of you. We’ll tell the first person something to act out. Then the second person will come out from the bedroom and watch the first person acting it out. Then the third person will come out of the bedroom, and the second person will act out the scene for the third person. Then the fourth person will watch the third person act out the scene. And we’ll keep going until we get to the last person. And the last person will have to act it out for Brian, and we’ll see if he can guess what you’re doing.”
Janet explained again, because someone did not understand. My group went first; I went into what appeared to be Dave and Janet’s bedroom with Alexa, Eddie, and Lars. Brian came with us, since he had to be part of every group and go last. Amelia was also in our group, but she stayed in the living room. Amelia came to the bedroom to get Lars a minute later, and after another three or four minutes or so, Lars came to get Eddie. Next, Eddie came to the bedroom to get me.
Eddie began acting his scene for me when I got back to the living room, with Amelia, Lars, and everyone not in our group watching. Eddie mimed sticking something to his shirt; I thought maybe it was a name tag. Then he sat in a chair. Suddenly he stood next to the chair, his mouth moving, and his arms extended up above him slightly at an angle. Eddie then sat back down, looking up at the place where he had stood a few seconds before. What was going on here? Was Eddie portraying someone who was sitting down and standing up every few seconds? Or was he playing two characters, the seated character looking confused at the standing character? The way Eddie held his arms while standing reminded me of the way some people stand and raise their arms while singing worship music, but I did not understand what the part about sitting in the chair meant.
Next, Eddie just sat in the chair, looking more and more bored, his eyes starting to close. Eventually he appeared to fall asleep entirely, then he jerked back and sat upright in the chair. Eddie then repeated the whole thing, as if his character nodded off a second time.
I started at Eddie after he finished. “I have no idea what I just saw,” I replied.
“Oh no,” he replied. Others watching seemed to react as well. I walked to the bedroom, feeling like I was going to let my team down, then came back out to the living room with Alexa. “I apologize in advance,” I told her.
“Uh-oh,” she replied.
I attempted to act out everything that I saw. I did the same thing Eddie did, alternating between sitting in the chair and standing next to it, moving my mouth and raising my arms. I did this a few times, then I sat in the chair and pretended to nod off and wake up.
“Okay,” Alexa replied. She then performed what she saw me doing for Lars, and Lars performed the same thing for Brian. Lars’ performance had not changed much from mine, although his portrayal of the guy standing next to the chair with his arms raised was a bit more animated than mine.
“I don’t know,” Brian said. “I’m thinking maybe I’m doing The Wave at a football game, then falling asleep because it’s a boring game?”
“No,” Janet said. “Actually, it’s Brian’s first time at JCF.” I made a note that I was correct in connecting the guy raising his hands with singing worship songs. “A lot of new people at JCF think it’s weird when people raise their hands in worship. And you told that story about the time you fell asleep because you thought the talk was boring.”
“Oh!” Brian replied. “That makes more sense.”
“Is the next group ready?” Janet asked. “The next group is Lorraine, John, Scott, Kristina, and Joe.” Lorraine stayed in the living room, and after the others went to the bedroom, Janet said, “You’re doing the scene from Star Wars where Darth Vader fights Obi-Wan, and Luke sees it.”
“Oh yeah. I got this,” Lorraine proclaimed confidently. She went to the bedroom to get John, then she began performing. Lorraine acted Obi-Wan’s part, walking into the scene, then pausing. She pantomimed switching on a lightsaber, then she swung her arms around to fight Darth Vader with it. After a few swings, she turned toward the people watching, with a knowing look on her face, making eye contact with an invisible Luke. She then raised her hands in front of her face and crumpled to the ground as the imaginary Vader struck her down. Lorraine stood back up in the place where she had looked before, now performing as Luke. She opened her mouth widely as if to scream, then began shooting an invisible blaster. After a few seconds, she paused to hear Obi-Wan speak to her from beyond the grave, then ran to the far end of the living room. Everyone cheered at her flawless acting.
As the successive contestants acted out the scene, it became corrupted and less recognizable. I was not sure if the others were unfamiliar with the scene from Star Wars, or if they just did not know the scene from memory as well as Lorraine. By the time Brian saw Joe acting, the lightsaber fight looked more like dancing, and after Joe fell to the floor, he just ran away, shooting, no longer clear that he was now a different character.
“Huh?” Brian exclaimed. “What was that?”
“Lorraine?” Janet asked. “Will you act out yours again? Because I think Brian might know it if he sees you do it.”
“Sure,” Lorraine replied. She stood up and performed exactly the same way she did earlier, and I could tell from the excited look on Brian’s face that he knew what she was acting out. When she got to the point where Luke paused and heard Obi-Wan’s voice, Brian shouted, “Run, Luke, run! That was great!”
“Yes!” Lorraine replied.
There were no more structured activities for the rest of the party. I stuck around and hung out and mingled until around 11:30. When I left, only a few guests remained besides Brian and the hosts. My plan had been to stay up late, start packing, and leave for my parents’ house early in the morning. But that did not happen; I was ready for bed when I got home from the party. Brian had driven separately, and he arrived home after I was asleep. The next day, I wasted a few hours on Internet Relay Chat and answered emails before I started packing, and I took a break and went for a bike ride before I finished. I had much more to pack than I usually do for a quick trip to my parents’ house, since I was leaving Jeromeville until late August, so I did not finish until late afternoon.
“Have a great summer, Greg,” Brian said, shaking my hand, as I was leaving. “Keep in touch. I’ll see you at New Year’s?”
“Sounds good,” I replied. “Good luck in medical school.” Turning to the other housemate who was home, I said, “Shawn, good luck with the running store.”
“Thanks,” Shawn replied. He also shook my hand. “So you’ll be back up here at the end of August to finish moving out? Is that right? We’ll clean up our parts before we leave.”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Have a good summer,” Brian said.
“I will! You too!”
Brian sent mass emails periodically for the next few years to update his friends and family on his life. He eventually decided to specialize in pediatrics, and after completing medical school in 2001, he moved to California to begin his residency at a large, well-known children’s hospital. At some point a couple years into his residency, Brian got too busy to send the emails regularly, so we lost touch for about a decade. I found him on Facebook years later, when Brian was a groomsman in Shawn’s wedding. Brian does not post often, though.
To this day, I have only seen Brian in person six more times. Brian’s New Year parties were a long tradition going back to his high school years, and he continued this tradition for a few more years, when he returned to Valle Luna to visit his parents over the winter holidays. I attended three New Year parties with Brian. He also came back to Jeromeville for Scott and Amelia’s wedding. (Oops, I guess that was a spoiler… Scott and Amelia did end up getting married.) In 2002, I went on a long road trip to California and visited a few people I knew there, including Brian. And both of us were in Jeromeville in 2017 for a JCF 1990s reunion.
By the time Brian got to California, Alexa Lafferty had gotten a job not far from where Brian was. Alexa and Brian started spending more time together in person, and this eventually became a romantic relationship. They got married and had two children. And just as Brian had said years earlier, he did multiple mission trips over the years.
It was warm as I drove west on Highway 100, the sun still a little too high in the sky to be directly in my eyes. I turned south on Highway 6 to San Tomas, where it ended and merged with Highway 11. After a week with my parents in Plumdale, I would come right back here to San Tomas to board an airplane to Oregon. I could have driven to Oregon in one long day and brought the car, but I did not particularly need it, since I would be spending most of my time on campus. Also, after finally getting to experience flying on the Urbana trip, I wanted to fly again. Airplanes were fun, and air travel was fitting for a new adventure.
Author’s Note: This is the end of Year 3, so I will be taking a break for a while. But I will have a year 3 recap post next week, and I have a few more posts I want to write before I start year 4. Make sure you are following my other projects, Greg Out Of Character and Song of the Day, by DJ GJ-64.
What was your favorite moment of Year 3? Let me know in the comments!
Disclaimer: All Star Wars properties are trademarks of Lucasfilm Ltd. LLC. Lucasfilm was not involved in the production of this story.