My Dad died yesterday. After 20-something years of heart-wrenching decline at the hands of depression and early onset dementia it finally came to an end. To the sounds of Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross and in the hands of his superhuman carer, advocate and beloved (my Mum is simply amazing) his journey on this earth ended in peace.
Whilst he was far from a wayward son, the rest of this chorus sits comfortingly this morning…
Carry on my wayward son
There’ll be peace when you are done
Lay your weary head to rest
Don’t you cry no more
The tears that we shed as dementia tore at his mind and the bonds with those around him are now just ours, and the sun rises anew with the knowledge that his earthly troubles are resolved at last. I’ll need to bring together reflections of the good times we shared over the coming days, so I’m starting here with the familiar backdrop of video games.
I don’t know whether it was inspired by my Grandfather’s skills as a radio engineer in WWII, or his own work in telecommunications back in the UK, but technology always seemed to pique Dad’s interest. Watching Beyond 2000, attending an enthusiasts group for the Apple II (an early home computer), purchasing multiple Atari 2600s purely for the sake of River Raid and Frogger, and building a formidable library for our Super Nintendo Entertainment System were activities that Dad and I took great enjoyment in even as he struggled to deal with his mind and memory’s betrayal. No one knew why his internal RAM was diminishing or data storage becoming corrupted, and treatments did little to ease the symptoms or bitterness. What remained, however, were the moments we shared playing the puzzles, shooters and arcade games Dad was so fond of. I think he continued to return to those positive associations throughout his decline for the same reasons that I’m starting with them now. Doom, Bomberman, Probotector, Sunset Riders, Tetris; these were some of his favourites back when he still resembled the Dad I knew as a child. A text message I received yesterday from a dear friend recalled Dad staying up to oversee our late night gaming sessions. He was good like that.
Searching video and Cash Converters stores for rare SNES games was another pursuit we undertook as a family. My brother was there for a lot of this shelf trawling but he would have been too young to remember it vividly. The first and only time that I played the short-lived Sega Dreamcast was at a shop called Hitech World in the city. I think we purchased the original Super Bomberman on that trip as well, which turned out to be a game that brought the whole family together in riotous fashion on many occasions.
Tetris Attack on the SNES was Dad’s gaming companion through the early phase of his illness when life was all too hard and explanations too few. He never transitioned to the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation of my brother’s formative years, which is a shame for them both. As it happens, Tetris’ combination of visual pattern recognition and coordination is fantastic cognitive therapy for dementia after all, so that was a pretty fortuitous crutch to fall back on. Sad was the day a few years ago when Dad and I loaded up Tetris Attack and he could no longer match the tiles.
As Mum and I drove away from the care facility that Dad spent his final fortnight in, I realised that I was unable to conjure the sound of his voice in my mind. I am a musician. I can audiate the tone of a trumpet, the interval of a Major 6th or create and tinker with chord progressions without an instrument in hand. But can I reproduce the voice of a father who loved me and filled my earliest years with encouragement and excitement? Apparently not.
I introduced my own little boy, now three, to one of Dad’s all-time favourite SNES games earlier this year. Super Strike Gunner is in the Raiden mould of top-down arcade shooters; fly your plane, blast the enemies, work as a team. As we made our way through the first few levels – me doing my best to keep my boy alive and him doing his best to crash into anything that moved – I realised that my exclamations, warnings and celebrations were the very phrases that my Dad voiced two decades earlier. I had absorbed his positivity and, more importantly, the knowledge that I was loved way back then and was passing it on in the same way.
Perhaps it was the unexpected power of this foundational bond between us – something that was rarely remarked upon even as his personality gradually withdrew – that pushed through my measured acceptance as Dad’s earthly life came to its permanent halt. Through all those years of grieving the disappearance of my loving father that bond had remained buried deep within me. Yesterday in those measured moments before his passing I felt it break and I broke with it, yet I know the love he gave me remains.
Were you to only know my Dad through the handful of times he’s appeared in this blog you would be forgiven for thinking that all we did was play video games. Rest assured that our adventures extended into the wide open real world as well, but it is here that I lay my tribute.