I realized that I was an atheist sometime in my senior year of high school.
I wasn’t raised in a religious household, though my mother was raised Catholic. I used to tell people that I was “non-practicing,” which drew a strange look and a change of the subject. Before that, I discovered agnosticism, and I held on to it for a while. At the time, it was a nice compromise between what I felt in my head and heart and what it felt like the world expected me to believe. Deep down inside, though, I was lying to myself. It wasn’t that I felt there was something greater than me, but didn’t know what it was. No, I didn’t believe in God. Not then, maybe ever.
This has been a year of facing mortality for me. In September, an infection spread to my heart and caused me to have a heart attack (coincidentally, this is what killed my uncle a few years ago). I spent 4 or 5 days in the hospital, searching for answers. In the end, the doctors told me that this sort of thing was random and that it was actually quite common.
Then, a few days before Thanksgiving, my mother called me to let me know that my grandmother was in the hospital and had about 24 hours to live. She had two strokes during my junior year of high school, and she had been living in a nursing home here in Florida ever since. Apparently, she recently contracted a urinary tract infection, which had spread to her blood and made her septic. This is also an alarmingly common occurrence for seniors. I called my wife to let her know the situation and to figure out how we were going to arrange picking my daughter up from preschool, and when I got off the phone there was a message left for me. It was my mother. My grandmother was dead. She didn’t last 24 hours. She barely made it 30 minutes.
I have been thinking about the games I’ve played this year, and my mind keeps coming back to Journey, the PSN-exclusive game released by thatgamecompany. I managed to play through it three times before my Playstation 3 broke, and each time I shed a tear during the end of the game, in which (I believe, anyway), the player ascends to Heaven/Paradise/etc. There’s something so freeing, so beautiful about the representation of it that I found myself overwhelmed, even as an atheist. Journey made me want to believe in something more.
Sitting there during my grandmother’s funeral services, my mind drifted back to Journey. I imagined her spirit flying up that mountain, twisting and turning, with the game’s beautiful score playing in the background. I thought about how much better that was than her fight to live these last 10 years, a blur of pills and doctor’s visits, her body slowly withering away, her mind receding further into the murky depths, unable to remember anything but the most recognizable face.
I thought about the time last year I brought my daughter to visit her. There was life in those eyes, then. She saw the lightness of my daughter’s being, the carefree way she jumped and ran, whooped and skipped through the halls of the nursing home. Somewhere inside, she felt it.
There was no lightness during the funeral service, only the heft of grief. The last level of Journey is a slog through an ice-cold tundra, with the player slowly losing life as the level goes on. The trademark scarf barely illuminates by the end of it, and the cute chirps that peppered the soundscape earlier in the game is barely audible by the end. All of the life is sucked out of the player with each step until nothing is left.
That was the last 10 years of my grandmother’s life. Each passing day, more life was taken from her until she had nothing left to give, not even 24 more hours.
I’m still not a religious person. In fact, my disdain for organized religion has probably only grown over the past few years, as the culture war has gotten more divisive, more intense. Journey did something to me, though. After my experiences this year, I want Journey’s version of life after death to be true, even if I don’t believe it, and I understand why people believe in places like Heaven. When your loved ones pass, you want there to be something for them to go to, something better than whatever the end of their life was. In the case of my grandmother, I wanted the waterfalls and the music to make up for the snow-covered hell she had to deal with for so long. I wanted brightness and the lightness of being that would allow her to skip and whoop and do all the silly things that she hadn’t done in her life: 60-plus years of struggle punctuated by a swift death at the hands of an infection.
Maybe my wishing for something more is selfish, too. Maybe I am drawn to Journey now more than ever because of my own brush with death. Maybe I need to find my own lightness. Maybe I need to be able to skip and whoop when I feel like it.
This wasn’t an easy piece to write, and I find myself conflicted by how I want to close it. What did I learn from all of this? I’m still not religious, I still don’t believe in God. I still roll my eyes at One Million Moms protesting the use of Ellen Degeneres in a JCPenny ad.
Maybe the idea is that every day should be its own little Journey. Maybe I need to live every day in search of that lightness, and strive to find the good in everything, in everyone. Maybe I should stop being so serious. Maybe I need to live every day as if tomorrow is the day I meet with the yawning void of nothingness. There’s no promise that what’s at the end of this road is flying and waterfalls and mountains and music, but maybe we can make our own paradise, right here, right now. Maybe I should be more like my daughter.
I think that’s how I’ll end this. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to teach her how to play Mario.