Side Quest – 6 Months to Live

I’m 39 and this was my first father’s day without a father. My dad passed away 2 months ago in April. Every time I launch a game on my Switch, I’m asked whether I want to play as myself or my dad. So every time I sit down to relax, I see this and am reminded that I’ll never get to have another conversation with my dad.

Photo showing nintendo e-shop and option to choose my account or dad's account.
Oh, hi dad, hadn’t thought of you for awhile 🙁

So, as part of this oddly complex grieving process, I wanted to document my dad’s progress in Breath of the Wild. This was the only game he ever played on the Switch and it became a beacon of hope and enjoyment in his final days.

This was originally posted on reddit and there are some great comments in the thread that might help you in some way if you are grieving.

My Dad

My dad was a man’s man. He was creative, intelligent, a voracious reader and could master any activity that involved using his hands. He loved science fiction, fantasy and technology. He worked in the correctional facilities for a decade starting in the 70′. He was a Lieutenant at Walla Walla State Penitentiary during the era where the prisoners and biker gangs controlled the prison. He somehow acquired the nickname Rammin’ Slammin’ Frank because he was known for pinning insubordinate inmates heads to the concrete. He later moved on to work in Assisted Living, which he loved. The man was a force, he wasn’t someone you wanted to mess with, he never backed away from conflict but was also generous to a fault. If he witnessed some injustice he would try to correct it, he also had a great sense of humor. He was an amazing dad. This is how I remember him.

My dad standing on a trail doing a silly pose wearing a hiking backpack and funny hat and looking super fit.
My dad wearing his adventurer hat

His Condition

In May of 2017, my brother and I brought my dad to the ER because his face was yellow. We discovered that he had liver failure and was given 6 months to live. In addition to this, my dad had a recurrent case of osteomyelitis (a bone infection) which rendered his left shoulder and his right wrist practically useless. The end result in terms of symptoms were that my dad couldn’t feel his feet, couldn’t lift more than a pound with either arm and couldn’t feel 3 fingers on each hand. A lot of this was building up for years while some of it hit very suddenly (it’s amazing how fast someone can deteriorate when laying in a hospital bed for weeks).

So, given the 6 months to live thing, we got referred over to the transplant center and met with them and were on a hopeful path to get a new liver. The orders were to clear up his bone infection and eat 90g of protein per day to get stronger. It was June and my dad was now living between my house and my brothers, it was a weekly struggle as we tried to figure out who could take him to various appointments during the week, stay on top of his prescriptions and also decide when we should force him to go to the ER. Uhhh, dad, you’re bleeding out of your belly button, this is not normal!

The Switch, Guilt, Reflection

One of my dad’s favorite stores was Fred Meyers, and it was honestly one of the few things he looked forward to, wandering every aisle, finding snacks, finding new protein drinks to try and match this 90g/day bar that the transplant center had set.

So rewind a few months to March, I was at GDC in San Francisco and as I was walking back to my hotel I saw a line of people standing outside of a GameStop. I went in to see what the heck was going on.

“What’s with the people lined up outside?” I asked an employee.

“The Nintendo Switch releases tomorrow!” he said.

“Oh, right on. So… how many do you have in the store?” I ask, thinking they probably had a few hundred.

“Uhh, 7” he says.

“Uhhhhh, there’s like 50 people out there with sleeping bags, might wanna let them know” I say, probably sounding like a dick.

So from then on, I’m looking for a Switch. Now, back to June, every trip to Fred Meyer to let my dad do his shopping is also a chance for me to find a Switch.

July 2017, I still hadn’t found a switch. I stepped up my efforts, knowing when shipments arrive, driving to Fred Meyer’s before they open, racing to the electronics section, being hopeful but then disappointed.

Taking care of my dad was stressful, I was searching for an escape, the glee of a new toy, the return to childhood again. I didn’t know how to balance my life properly, I felt constant guilt because caretaking is hard and I wished I didn’t have to deal with it. But I love him and he needs me, so I continue as best I can, realizing that with the reversed roles of parent and child that I truly am an adult now.

I got addicted to physical exercise and turned to it as a coping mechanism, oftentimes jumping rope in silence downstairs before my dad woke up, waiting for the endorphin rush to take some of the melancholy away.

Some days I would get so lost in tending to his day-to-day needs that I didn’t have time to think, helping him shave, trimming his nails, helping him off the toilet. It sounds tedious, but he was so thankful and always made the biggest deal about how good it felt to be clean shaven, to have his nails trimmed, to be able to shower, to feel human again. This made me thankful for being able to help him in some small way, and it was super awkward at first for me but somehow became normal life eventually.

Other times, all I could do was reflect as I sat by his hospital bed alone, watching him sleep, watching the heart-rate and blood pressure readouts. Seeing his broken body and wishing there were more that I could do… I’m an engineer, I create, I repair and yet I am entirely useless. These quiet moments were the hardest for me. I would often try to keep busy by educating myself about his condition, trying to find action items for myself that could make a difference, researching about some herb or medicine, looking for real studies that could prove their efficacy. Many times I would go through his chart data, digitizing it, graphing it, plotting trendlines, trying to figure out whether I could create a tensorflow model to solve some medical mystery using machine learning.

A picture of a hospital room with a hospital bed in the center. My dad lays in the bed but I have obscured him from view by framing the medical equipment over him. His table is covered with cups and various daily necessities.
Sitting beside my dad in the hospital. Trying to document life while being respectful.

Some of my fondest memories are the discussions we had at the hospital. It was a situation where his needs were fully met by others and I could hang out and just be his son for a while. Conversations would often stray to Star Trek, cool new technology and… candy, particularly his need for certain types to be brought to him.

Breath of the Wild

July 5, 2017. The wifey surprises me with a Switch and Breath of the Wild. I feel reconnected to a long lost friend, it has been 30 years since I first plugged in that golden NES cartridge, my soul feels quenched. I carry the switch with me everywhere, my free moments are lost entirely in the beauty of Hyrule, often playing in bed or at the hospital, it is the greatest game I have ever played. We took a weekend trip to Whistler BC and I ended up going solo one day. I climbed the tallest peak and sat and played BoTW in solitude on those snow-covered mountains until my battery died. It was glorious.

A photo of the mountains and some rocks stacked to look like a distant mountain. I sat here and played BoTW.
Playing BoTW in the mountains.

October 2017. I get a Switch for my brother because Breath of the Wild is so good it has to be shared and the Switch is widely available now. My dad has seen us playing BoTW but has never really feigned any interest until one day at my place he says:

“You know, I don’t know if my hands could do it, but I wouldn’t mind giving that Zelda game a try”

Knowing how long it had taken me to get comfortable with switching weapons/shields and thinking of some of the boss fights, I have my concerns. But I figure he might enjoy it so it’s worth a try. I had previously purchased a rolling TV stand so that I could bring the TV to him.

I put the switch dock on the TV stand, wheeled it up, made him a profile and handed him the Pro Controller. The first hour was difficult, he kept hitting the triggers and bumpers on accident because he couldn’t feel a few of his fingers. This is clearly frustrating for him, but he kept making small adjustments until he could navigate well. This is when I got an entirely new perspective on BoTW and how brilliant it is. There’s no clock to race against, no urgent business to attend, no quest marker or pre-ordained path that you are forced to seek out. No, this is a game that you play on your terms.

BoTW quickly became a highlight in my dad’s daily life. When we would transition between my brother’s house and mine, he would always ask whether I had remembered to transfer his profile to my brother’s Switch. A few times I forgot and made an extra trip just to copy his profile over so he could play.

Being very goal oriented, I played Botw to accomplish the overall quest. So when I first considered my dad playing, I thought only of the fact that he may be unable to complete the harder portions of the game and that this would make the game unsatisfying for him.

The reality was quite different. My dad didn’t care about the goals of the game, he simply enjoyed spending time in the beautiful world of Hyrule. When he tamed and stabled his first horse it was like birthday level excitement.

Picture of Babe the horse looking at Link.
Babe, his first horse.
A picture of the stables showing the names of the horses.
My dad’s stable. Somehow he had 2 Eponas.

Most of his time was spent exploring on his horse, hunting wild game and cooking (something he used to enjoy in life when he could do it). I remember him excitedly telling me about finding sneaky snails in a well and testing them out in several recipes, about flipping his controller over to solve some shrine puzzle in a sneaky way and about finding some Korok guy that increased his bag size but who was now gone and had to be found.

BoTW gave my dad a true sense of accomplishment in his life at a time when he could do little for himself. From discovering new recipes to solving shrines, these things gave him the full cycle of being challenged, failing and then rising above the challenge through effort and ingenuity. It sparked his imagination and his sense of wonder, giving him the ability to climb the next mountain to see what was beyond (although at first he would distress about leaving his horse behind, asking me if it would be ok).

Photo of my dad's inventory and the tons of meat he had gathered.
Ok, seriously, this is soooo much meat.

Amiibo & Wolf Link

I had stumbled on the BoTW Amiibo set by luck and my dad’s daily ritual was to get his Amiibo in before he started playing because “it’s like printing money”. I remember a few times during his unexpected hospital stays he would lament at losing an opportunity to have treasures fall from the sky, “ah man, I didn’t get my Amiibo in today”.

I eventually found a Midna Amiibo and hacked it to get a full star Wolf Link, I gave it to him on his birthday, Dec 14. He was like a little kid, he loved that wolf. It was really perfect for him to have a protector since he wasn’t really fast on the controls. He knew everything about that wolf, where you could and couldn’t summon it, how long its respawn was when it died etc.

I remember him telling me that he discovered a way to make the wolf to stay put and when he came back he saw that there was a shackle on its leg and he felt terrible about that. This was an accidental screenshot he made, but as you can see the wolf is out, it was always out.

A photo of wolf link accompanying link and his horse.
The wolf was always out, a constant companion for my dad.

My dad discovered that you could buy your own house, something I had skipped out on because it felt like busy work at the time. He excitedly showed me how you could store weapons and shields there for a rainy day and also how there was a small stable for his horse. Here is how I found it.

A shot of the interior of my dad's house in BoTW. A few decorations line the walls, while some decoration areas are empty.
How I found the house.

How BoTW Helped Me

In addition to giving my dad something he could look forward to, my dad playing BoTW also helped me balance my life in several ways. I would often feel trapped in the house, being worried to leave my dad alone for any length of time. But somehow, knowing that my dad was sitting in his chair having a blast exploring Hyrule game me permission to go and spend an hour with a friend.

Another thing it did was give us a positive mental focal point. So much of our day would center around his health and trying to improve various ailments, many which had no solution. It was difficult to stay positive and hopeful, so having a shared topic that was purely positive and hopeful was a relief. And frankly it was exciting for me to see my dad actually looking forward to something.

His BOTW stats

My dad didn’t get far in BoTW, but completion was never his metric for success. He fully enjoyed his time and got exactly what he wanted out of the game.

My dad's final stats for BoTW.
Dad’s Final Stats.

His Hero’s Journey, you can see that most of his time was spent in the nicer areas although he did trek into Central Hyrule.

Shot of my dad's hero's journey.
Dad’s hero’s journey.

Closing thoughts

My dad was hospitalized in March and a month later his time in Hyrule and Earth came to an end. I will probably never have the chance to thank the creators of BoTW personally due to the language gap, so Domo arigato friends. Thank you for a ray of light in a dark time.

Dad, Happy Father’s Day, I love you… I miss you. But I also need to move on a little bit, I know you would understand.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*