By Michael Belkie
“Who are you?”
These were the last words my 12-year-old ears heard from her as she was dragged out of my parents’ house to the ambulance, my father in tow to make sure she was okay.
The house was locked, and I stayed in my room, in a daze. I went back to the video game on my old Nintendo Entertainment System. I would sit and wait, and time would blur. I couldn’t think – I couldn’t figure it out. I was young and innocent back then, but I was so disillusioned by these words from my own mother that I never went to visit her in the hospital. I didn’t want to visit someone whose ability to recognize her own son was robbed from her by cancer. I didn’t want to go through that again. I wanted my caring, loving mother back - the woman who would take us to play softball, who always had snacks and a hug ready for her little man. I wanted the woman who actually recognized me to come back.
My childhood was broken. My mother was gone. It was time to begin picking up the pieces and moving on.
When I finally came out of my daze, I found myself in a suit attempting to entertain my entire class in the basement of the Kelly Funeral Home. My elementary school had given all teachers and pupils the choice to go to the funeral if they wanted to. In hindsight, it’s overwhelming that the school made it possible for every single student to be at my mother’s funeral. I remember my father on the podium, near my mother’s body, crying that he would have arranged for a bigger church to fit the people lining up outside the door, if he’d realized there would be so many. I don’t think we could have predicted the turnout, or what a profound impact my mother had on the world.
I continued on to high school, but at that point, I was disassociated from the world around me. I began to wear long black coats, and I felt the need for time to myself. Mostly, it was an attempt to garner some sense of self-reliance. Without my mother to draw strength from, I had little choice but to grow up quickly. I never took the time to get over my mom’s death, simply dismissing it as “something that happened.” I began to delve deeper into something I could take pleasure from, in the same way being around my mother used to comfort me. I chose to escape into video games. I threw myself at them hard. I became better. I became stronger. I developed the ability to overcome and destroy video games like they were made for toddlers.
It was also at this time that a new player entered the field of my video gaming life: Massive Multiplayer Online games, or MMORPGs. Ultima Online was one of the first real MMORPGs to hit video game markets. Naturally, and without hesitation, I got into the game. I slowly became more disconnected from my surroundings, as more and more happened in the game. School became less important to me, friends became guild mates, and opponents became corpses before me. I got involved in an online relationship in-game, and while nothing serious came of it, it was important to the state of my psyche when things went wrong.
At one point, I lost contact with my online partner for awhile. No one saw or had contact with this player at all. She simply disappeared from the universe, and as a result, my character became depressed over the loss of his love-interest. What I hadn’t expected was the impact of this situation on me directly. I began to channel the emotions of my character into my own life, and became even more reserved and isolated as a result.
These are common symptoms of video game addiction, and they’re better understood these days. But back when I was 15 or 16 years old, I couldn’t have interpreted or diagnosed this kind of behaviour in myself. In a strange way, this was actually a good thing for me. It would be this addiction that set me straight.
Eventually I hit rock-bottom in the world of Ultima Online, and I decided I’d had enough. I stopped playing the game, but now I was truly alone— without a mother to love me, without my video games to make me smile, and without school to occupy my time. My father didn’t know it, but I had dropped out and was actively lying to convince him I was still going. I don’t know why I did it. I can only speculate it was a defence mechanism to try to sort out what the hell to do with myself.
I began to walk, looking for ways to pass my time. I would leave the house first thing in the morning, pretending to go to school, and then wander. I’d end up along the banks of the Rideau Canal, in the food court at the mall, on the streets of Ottawa South… I walked a lot. It wasn’t for fun. It was me trying to sort myself out. I was a mess, a disgrace, a waste of time.
Sitting near the water one day, watching the rapids crash down towards Carleton University, I came to terms with something—this wasn’t how I wanted to live my life. I didn’t want to be some useless, wandering vagabond. When I was still that innocent little boy, I wanted to work in video game development. I wanted to create stories for Sierra Interactive Studios, after playing dozens of their games as a child. But I needed something else before I could do that, something I was missing.
I needed to be happy again. So simple, isn’t it? I wonder why it took so long to figure out.
Even with my black coat and isolated gamer personality, I still had friends to rely on. I still had people out there who liked me for who I was. I had people who were counting on me to do the right thing. I never talked about this struggle with my friends, but I’ve always been a self-teacher. I had to start at the bottom and work my way back up.
So I finally told my father I’d been lying.
It was the single most difficult thing I’d ever had to do, breaking his heart to end the darkness that was dividing us.
I’m not going to suddenly one-eighty this story and say that life was all sunshine and rainbows after that, but things did get better. Once I got on track again, it was simply a matter of applying myself to something, and being happy while doing it.
School became a focus again. I rekindled lost friendships. I didn’t fall back into that dark place I once was. I stayed away from Massive Multiplayer games, but continued to conquer other types of games – ones that had an ending. Since Ultima, I’ve been wary of gaming addictions, and I made sure never to fall into that kind of depressing world again.
But through all this, the death of my mother continued to loom over me.
I stopped having depressing thoughts about my mother when I started dating my wife, during the final years of my work at Adult High School. She made it clear that if we were to continue our relationship, she came with attachments – specifically, children. But that didn’t scare me. My father did his best to raise us right when mom passed away, and I like to think that some of his parenting abilities passed on to me, because I didn’t hesitate to take on the role of stepdad.
It’s been 18 years since my mother passed away. I’ve been a father to my wife’s children – whom I adopted, and consider my own - for seven years now. I’m no longer the little boy that my mother’s mental state caused her to forget – the mother that cancer stole from me. I often find myself pondering whether my mom would be proud of me, even now. Someone will always try to praise me on her behalf, but it’s not the same.
Even as I move forward, there’s still that child deep inside who wants his loving mother back. A boy who wants to show his mom everything he has accomplished in life. Graduating, falling in love, taking on the responsibility of being a father to three wonderful children who will never meet their grandmother. Anyone who has lost a parent understands that notion.
I’ve even wondered what my kids’ futures will be like, having both their mother and their stepfather around for the length of their lives. They’re growing up with two parents, which is something that circumstances denied me. Will they follow down that same dark road I found myself on? Will my influence set them on a different path, away from my own personal failures?
I don’t wager I’ll ever truly get over the loss of my mother. I work hard each and every day to try to build a better life for myself and my family, despite past tragedies. I can’t say that I’m in the best position in the world – I’m not rich, I’m not powerful.
But I’m doing just fine, Mom. And I want to hope I’m going to be. You and Dad raised me to be strong. Your last words to me might have been “Who are you,” but I can tell you proudly now. My name is Michael. I’m your son, and I always will be.