Sometime, toward the end of 2015, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. I don’t remember the exact date, not even the month. I could dig through text messages with my dad, scrolling back and back, watching the content, the tone of the messages play out in sequential reverse–mundane, hopeful, mundane, subdued, depressed, panicked, worried, mundane–but it doesn’t really matter.

She would die of this cancer about four months from her diagnosis. In retrospect, her death was always inevitable, of course, but even at the time, I remember regarding it as such, and so did she.

I retain a small amount of vivid memories from this time, like snapshots depicting various scenes, each representative of one crushing, difficult emotion or another, or awkward interpersonal interactions between myself and some concerned third party, frustratingly unable to be resolved through any conventional, comfortable narrative. I remember what my dog looks like through tear-filled eyes.

And, like a single stack of un-dated polaroids, these memories are both discrete and gestalt. As such, revisiting them now is as jarring and immediate as living through them was then.

Nobody knows how to talk about truly profound loss. And when experienced personally, nobody knows how to regard it, themselves, either. The necessary tools inhabit none of us; we go hunting for them, reflexively, when the need arises; we cannot refrain.

During this time, I delved deep into a playthrough of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.

In my effort to exploit a familiar, lifelong hobby in hope of maintaining an illusion of normalcy, I found myself drawing parallels between events and concepts in the game’s story and my own life. I found myself slowly beginning to experience the game and its characters as surrogate counselors, slowly guiding me through my own struggle, at the same time providing a comforting fantasy of control.

This way, I could quietly sneak up on unpleasant feelings, examine them carefully through this lens. Attaching bulging balloons to unconscious guards, I imagined they were the little bits of the way I felt, but could not yet understand, suddenly jerking away, skyward, to salvation or ruin, I did not know. I still don’t know.

I saw Miller, limbs lost or ruined by war, refuse prosthetics. He would remember, he would honor, he would not hide his loss or the way it changed him; he would confront it unflinchingly, and forever. His mangled body became a potent metaphor. Miller was strong and resolute. I tried to be that way too.

This one’s easy: I remember Big Boss landing at his new mother base, his fledgling new home, to be greeted by his enthusiastic diamond dog, just as I am greeted by my own dog when I return home from work. I remembered to be like Big Boss–I would take careful stock of the small, good things in my life, even in the midst of a nightmare. We were unspoiled by horror, we were uplifted by compassion.

By the time I had finished the campaign, my mom was dead. After many weeks, and ever so slowly, things began looking familiar again. Like mother base, major parts of my personal landscape had been destroyed, radically shifted, and, over time and with great difficulty, rebuilt.

Gaming as an escape often involves transposing oneself with the main character, the hero. Perhaps readers remember playing any classic JRPG, naming the main character after themselves, and the party characters after their friends. What a joyful thing–to crave fantastic adventure, and to want to bring your closest friends along.

What a joy when, in real life, they do join, even when the story is not so bright and the ending is not so tidy, and you don’t have to bear your phantom pain alone.

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