Death

Hills, Mt Tamalpais State Park. California, USA

My only grandparent I’ve ever met died last December, thousands of miles away from me. I remember feeling things, most of them odd. There was shame for avoiding talking with her over the phone, because I’d let my Arabic devolve to a touristic repetoire. There was frustration I’d probably never visit my homeland, Iraq. Fear for a family I hardly knew.

There was one feeling that should’ve been stronger, but it wasn’t. Even now, with time to reflect, that feeling is not as tangible as it should be. That feeling was and is sadness.

When she died, I’d not seen my grandmother in over half my lifetime. When she stayed here with us for two months, I wasn’t even a teenager. I was too young and perhaps too spoiled to really appreciate how lucky, how important and wonderful that time was. I can vividly remember walking through a supermarket with her, chiding each other in broken English and Arabic. I can remember her praying in the dining room, the way she beached on sofas happily like a contented cat, the tutting arguments she had with my mother. Every time I think of her I see her wiry grey hair and gauzy glasses, and whatever she says is sung like a loving chant – she sung hymns with the aplomb and warble of true devotion. I knew I wasn’t religious even at that age, but I loved the way she sung.

Her death was the first I knew to someone I held dear. Yet it felt detached. Hers was a death I couldn’t deserve to be sad about.

In fact, I was sadder thinking about the broken state of my relationship with my parents. I’ve been sadder about a lot more things. I miss my grandmother. But I’ve always missed her, I think. I’ve always felt robbed of her.

One time I felt sadder was a few months earlier, a few hours after I found Laura in bed, unable to get up. It was around 2pm on a Saturday. I wanted to go do something with her, and was annoyed she’d spent the week staying in bed. If I’d had paid a little more attention, I would’ve seen the signs that became truly evident that morning. The slurring, the memory loss, the inability to balance. Over the week she’d seemed tired. That Saturday afternoon, my girlfriend was a drunk who hadn’t touched a bottle.

Soon after I got her to the hospital, the doctors told me it was lithium toxicity, most likely the result of some disorder, imbalance, something. I wanted to know the cause, but I was more concerned by the numbers they were dropping, and specifically the gap between them. This was serious, they said, and it was good I’d spotted it early. But it was serious enough the words “risk of brain damage” could not be unsaid.

Let’s briefly skip to the end here: Laura recovered, and while she’s still unwell – she’s long had a few chronic conditions – those words never came to fruition.

I knew as I watched her in that hospital bed struggle to rest, to talk, to remember where she lived, that I wasn’t ready for death. Or anything. I’d made it more than 30 years on this Earth, and I’d been through some terrible things, no doubt. But I’d never seen anything I felt I couldn’t move on from. Nothing permanent, nothing like this. Nothing like death.

I know I’m lucky to have made it this far. Trust me, I know. I remember trying to talk to my friend Rob at his mother’s funeral. We were teenagers, standing in the cemetery of the church. Rob is a brutally honest person. He has always been a man of few words, but those words are always carefully chosen, ¬†unfrilly and convincing. He says what he thinks and he knows what he thinks. But on that day, the wind just fluttered around our suits, with an unknowing Wimbledon in sight beneath us. And he said nothing. He just stood there and said nothing. I think I blathered some friendly, consoling nothings. Eventually I stopped, and we stood there, looking at the brown and green below. It was the coldest I’d ever felt.

Even then, I remember thinking one day that’ll be me.

When the clock hits 5

ff14

Speaking as someone who loves video games, writing about them in a 9 to 5 capacity is confusing and blurry. On one hand, I genuinely enjoy writing about the subject matter, so even when I’m reporting something as menial as release dates or even – mutter, mutter – pre-order bonuses, that kind of excites me. I don’t let that slip into my news writing, but I do enjoy learning the information and communicating it to readers. Writing for Joystiq is the water cooler of my gaming life, but I don’t want to let on to my proverbial co-workers just how much I enjoy our chats.

What’s harder as a news writer – a job I’ve been doing for nearly two years now – is what to do once the clock hits 5. When I finished a school day I wanted to play games. When I finished a day at university I wanted to get drunk, stumble home and play games. When I finished work days as a secretary I wanted to soberly stumble home and play games. And, even after writing about games all day, at leaving time I still want to play them.

The difference I’ve found between freelance and 9 to 5 games writing is in the case of the latter it’s harder to find a natural non-gaming space. I worked so hard as a freelancer, but I always struggled to find a rhythm with accepted pitches and regular work. So when written work dried up, and after sending out pitches, writing blog posts and racking my brain for ideas, I’d go back to games for inspiration. Playing games became an integral, almost 9 to 5 part of my freelance life. That left more downtime space for my non-gaming life to occur naturally, especially with no contractual restrictions to prevent it.

The difference with writing about games 9 to 5 is I very rarely play any games during those hours. Gaming is firmly an extracurricular activity, even if it’s integral to my job in terms of keeping up with the products, being able to draw from my knowledge, offer opinions when needed, and so on. So it’s fundamental I do this extracurricular activity that I want to do, and that often makes gaming feel like neither work nor non-work. It’s this thing I feel I have to do, but I want to do it anyway. Since that’s how I feel about my job, gaming in the after-hours is almost like the extra-fun extension of my work day. I know I’m contradicting myself here, but that’s kind of the point: The whole thing is a contradiction.

Sadly, it’s a contradiction that sometimes makes the non-gaming space tricky to hold onto. I remember former Joystiq man Justin McElroy stressing how important it was for writers to do things away from gaming to bring into their writing, and he wasn’t wrong. My best freelance pieces were undoubtedly the ones that connected gaming to dots far from its universe – I’m very proud, for example, of my Escapist piece relating psychogeography to gaming. Of course, in a broader sense just gaming all day is not the healthiest or most enriching of lifestyles. But, as a gaming news writer it’s a lifestyle that can be easy to slip into. Then there’s the whole aspect of looking after an often extremely sick partner, dealing with financial restrictions and so forth, but let’s leave those for another post.

In any case, recent months have led me back to MMOs, and I know why. One of the things about writing for Joystiq is our sister site, Massively, covers MMOs, so we Joystiq writers very rarely have to. As a result MMOs aren’t something I need to keep up with too much.

What that makes MMOs is this kind of forbidden fruit as an after-hours game, an experience I can enjoy almost fully without feeling like I’m gleaming something to take back to the office. That’s not to say I consciously approach gaming with the mindset of it being beneficial to work, but rather that happens naturally – I avoided MMOs through most of my life because I wanted to enjoy lots of games and not just a few. But now MMOs like Final Fantasy 14, The Elder Scrolls Online and Wildstar are my quiet little hideouts away from the blurry mesh of a gaming life stretched across work and non-work. Of course, the irony is once I get sucked into a MMO, the grind starts to feel like work.

I’m not sure that’s the healthiest of things. Then again, it can’t be any less healthy than writing a post after-hours about misspending after-hours time away from writing.