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Original post by Dan Starkey on Numbers

Days Since I Lost My Second Mom

People are defined by the tragedies they face. One year ago today, I found out that a woman I came to call "Auntie" had passed, one that taught me, that raised me. She was a priest and a powerful medicine woman. Shortly after her passing, my family made her a medicine bundle with the most sacred objects and herbs on her alter. I was told to pray over the bundle and mourn her loss for a year, and then I had to let her go. Then I'd have to use her name sparingly, or disturb her sleep and call her back to me.

A year ago today, I got a text message from my mom just saying "we need to talk, when r u free."

I'd "forgotten" to pay a bill. "Oh shit, it's the 26th, okay I think I know what's wrong. I'll fix it."

"Um not anything to do with date and I am okay just need to talk when u get off work." When my mom says she's fine it means someone else isn't. I borrowed a phone from a coworker (mine was broken and couldn't call out, just text), and called her.

"She's gone. She crossed over last night. It was peaceful."

My skin was tingling. "Wai… how? Why?" Of course I knew. "Cancer".

Auntie had been sick for a few years at that point. She had thyroid cancer, and her battle wasn't going well. They pulled out her larynx, and replaced it with an electronic system that needed a few switches to use properly.

She hated it. She also blamed my mom for making her get treatment. She wanted to die, but we, rather selfishly, prodded her to go see doctors she didn't trust, and take drugs she believed were spiritual poison. After the first week in the hospital, she tried to walk out. IV and all. Still makes me chuckle everytime I think of her marching out of oncology with a pack of nurses and orderlies chasing after.

My initial reaction to just about any tragedy is to play Majora's Mask. Time and again I find that it's something of a living bible. Last year as I ran it through again, I noticed just how cleanly playing the game matches the grieving process. In the game, you try to heal the land and address problems with each stage of the Kübler-Ross model. You move through denial, anger, etc. but you don't do so consistently. Throughout you perioidically revisit each area and flip through those stages again and again – all the while gathering the items and tools you need to finally break the cycle.

That realization was therapeutic for me, if only because it brought me a kind of solidarity. It's easy to sit and think you're the only one who's suffering or has ever suffered when you're so close to such a tragedy, but that's a false and often dangerous assumption.

Shutting people out because you think they can't possibly understand is a juvenile response, and it was my first mistake.

I took the classic, clichéd path of a young adult suddenly overwhelmed with the reality of their own life. I drank and pretended that I was brooding for a legitimate reason. In truth, I was doing the exact thing I said I wouldn't – steeping in deppressive languor and self-pity. I had shit myself off to my own development as a human being. So much so that I avoided going back home to visit my family, even for the holidays.

This past Christmas Eve was my first one totally alone. I picked up two large bottles of wine and decided I should try and play through all of the Game of the Year nominees I'd missed out on up to that point. First up Papers, Please. Enjoyable enough, but I noticed early on that I was almost encouraged mechanically to let some of my family die to better care for the ones I had left. It left me feeling cold and detached going into Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.

If you haven't played it, I'd recommend that you 1) stop reading this now and 2) go fix that because there are some pretty big spoilers coming up.

Brothers is about death. It opens with death and it closes with death. However it is learning and personal growth that are the true heart of this gut-wrenchingly morose tale. The game opens with a young child struggling to save his mother from drowning. Shortly therafter the father falls terminally ill. The young child with the memory of his mother's passing still fresh in his mind, sets off with his elder brother in a desperate attempt to save their father. There's a lot of heavy stuff on the front-end of that narrative, but understanding the stakes and the fear of these two children is vital to understanding their journey.

Throughout the two kids play around and find things they think are neat or fun. It's humanizing and it establishes the context of these boys. They know their trek mattes, but they don't immediately grasp the depth of it. They are still children, though, and that comes with an appropriate joie de vivre. Their path winds through the ruins and over the broken bodies of war, but no matter how dark it seems, at least one of the siblings can usually muster a half-hearted smile long enough to keep them both going. All the while they learn and grow through and because of their interactions with each other.

When I was visiting Auntie, she'd often exclaim that I'd teach her as much as she taught me. Our relationship was an exchange – we were equals. That's how any healthy relationship works. We came from different tribes, and I had a bit more experience with the modern world than she did. I'd tell her about Chokfi, the Chickashsha trickster spirit, and computers, while she taught me Tsalagi songs and the history of sacred dances. Always an exchange, and always a mutual understanding and respect.

Brothers works in much the same way. Each child has a different set of skills that compliment one another. Without both, their quest would fail. But that relationship doesn't last. Ultimately, the older, stronger brother is killed by a spider in the guise of a woman. And while there's more than a few questionable bits surrounding the circumstances of his passing (namely the "woman as temptress" trope), it's still an evocative scene. Up until that moment I was sure the younger brother would be the one to go. He was weaker and more vulnerable. It was obvious, until it wasn't.

If you've lost someone you felt was a pillar in your life… you know how that feels. That's why denial is so easy. It's hard to accept that a core piece of you isn't there, at least not in the same way, as they were before. And it's telling that, in Majora's Mask every time you reset the game, every time you try to heal the world you start back in the heart of denial.

The last scene in Brothers takes all of those messages – about learning, growth, and the raw desperation to preserve at least a piece of the waning family – and distills them into a few moments of ludic perfection. Here you see the spirit of your lost mother, pushing you, encouraging you to believe that you can succeed without a single word. Here you face your darkest fears and your deepest failures. And to do so, you must use the controls for both brothers. Because, even though he's not their physically, he's still with you spiritually. Guiding you and protecting you.

Auntie always believe in community. When she passed, I closed up. I walled myself off, I lived only my world. On that Christmas Eve I was alone and crying, but that had been my choice. It took another few months for that lesson to finally sink in. It took my partner noticing that, much like the young brother, I was avoiding my problems. Too terrified to confront and move on.

Last month, I decided I was done running. It was time to come home and pray. The medicine bundle had been closed for a year, and I know why. Sometimes we need to feel what it's like to fall. Sometimes we need to fall so far that the only way back is with the help of someone you can't hold in your arms anymore. I feel her now, though. And even though she's not with me physically, she's still guiding me and protecting me.

You're reading Numbers, a blog on Kotaku that examines games and culture through the lens of math and statistics. To contact the author of this post, write to dancstarkey@gmail.com or find him on Twitter @dcstarkey.

Majora's Mask Pic

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