There is a video game about a child slowly dying of cancer.
It is, admittedly, an unexpected premise for a game, but it mixes actual audio of a terminally ill 5-year-old named Joel interacting with his parents and brother, along with stunning animations produced after his death.
“That Dragon, Cancer”harnesses the immersive power of modern video games, while teasing the illusion of control. You move through the world of Joel’s family, but you do not change it. In that sense it is the opposite of a traditional video game. You travel around and watch the characters interact, spurring them on to their next moments—from playful walks in the park to unconsolable nights while the medicines torture as they try in vain to heal. But you are there to bear witness, not to save. The cancer exists and it will soon enough consume. There is nothing to defeat. No strategy or skill or secret combination of buttons pressed will overcome it. The controller is an illusion. To play the game is to lose it.
The controller is an illusion. To play the game is to lose it.
In one scene you take on the viewpoint of Joel’s dad as he cradles his son in his arms through the night on the hospital room couch. The monitors slowly beep and the sterile lights from the hall pour in as Joel lays silently, curled up against your chest. You feel viscerally the anguish and the instinct to never, ever let go. To fight with every ounce of your being for this child who deserves so much more. To love these strangers in the midst of their dark night.
I could not help but feel it is a deeply Catholic game. We would move mountains to offer a moment of relief to Joel and his family, but when the mountains will not budge, there is still dignity in the pain. The grief may not be beautiful, but recognizing the courage it takes to bear it is. Before solidarity there must always be vulnerability. How else can we learn the reality of such a deeply human aspect of life if we are not willing to watch, listen, even play along, when someone says, this is my story?
Not long ago I tried to imagine what someone would see if they tried to play against the dragons of my own life. It may sound egotistical to imagine a video game of one’s life. But I promise you: Nothing would terrorize me more than letting you walk around so many of these memories I keep locked away.
If you were to boot up your computer and load an interactive version of my life, I think it would open on a middle-school lunch table. Linoleum floors, long particle-board tables, a stage lines one wall. You see me seated, surrounded by boys. They speak crudely of which girls are the hottest and who is out of whose league. I quietly move around the contents of my brown-bag lunch, occasionally forcing a smile and laughing when it seems like the right time.
Nothing would terrorize me more than letting you walk around so many of these memories I keep locked away.
“Patrick,” one of the boys leading the conversation calls. “Who do you like?”
“Oh,” I laugh nervously. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t like anyone?” the boy scoffs. “What’s wrong with you?” There are no chuckles now, only stares.
“I guess I like Claire,” I say.
“Well yeah, so does everyone,” the boy rolls his eyes. Then he yells.
“Hey Claire! Claire! Would you go out with Patrick?” The entire lunchroom falls silent, and for a moment, in the awkwardness clutching your gut through the screen it feels like she just might shrug her shoulders and say yes.
“Naw!” She calls out from two tables over and turns back around to her meal.
The hum of the room picks right back up but slowly fades out as you see me get up and walk out. Before walking into the bathroom you see me pause and look back, gazing at a boy with dusty brown hair and square shoulders. Then I close the door behind me and sink to the ground in one of the stalls.
In the next scene, you would find me sitting on my parents bed. The sheets are perfectly tucked and tightly hug the queen-size mattress. A woman, my mother, sits against a set of pillows and my father is poised on the edge of a chair in the corner. The door is shut, but the conversation still happens in whispers, unfolding slowly.
“If I could take away this pain from you I would,” my mother says. “I would do anything. I would live these attractions myself, if it meant you would no longer have to.”
“If I could take away this pain from you I would,” my mother says. “I would do anything.”
You see me look at her, then slowly look away. The view would pull back to an overhead shot and just rest there as the three slowly breathe. You hear my sniffles as I stare at the carpet.
“What would make it any better? What do you want?” my mother asks. There is a hint of exasperation in her voice, and you feel it yourself. Why won’t he respond? You think. Say something.Anything. Why would it be so hard to say what you want?
Finally, after enough time that you are tempted to turn off the game and walk away, you hear, “I just wish I could tell somebody.”
“What is it anybody else’s business if you are attracted to the same sex?” my father asks.
Another exhausting pause.
“I’m just tired of lying.”
Next, you see me asleep on the couch. Older now, maybe 20. A college textbook rests on my chest and pumpkin decorations sit around the room. There is a glow and a crackle coming from the fireplace that enchants and feels instantly like home. You hear voices from somewhere offscreen and the view pans out over the top of the couch into the kitchen where my grandfather and my mother are talking. They do not seem to realize I am just one room over, and their voices slowly wrest me from the nap.
“It could be so much worse, though,” my mother says. “He could have run off to San Francisco or some godforsaken place.”
The focus zooms back in on me, tears streaming down my face. I grab the pillow from under my head and wrap it down tight over my ears. Through the muffle you hear, “At least he’s not one of those gays.” I place my hand over my mouth to suffocate any noises, and the room continues to glow warm.
Now you see me sitting outside a church, on a bench with a priest in a roman collar. It is dusk and there are fireflies flickering in the church’s courtyard. The priest is older and sits slightly hunched, his head tilted aside to look me in the eyes.
“Well,” the priest says, “I think you’re brave, Patrick.”
“I don’t,” I reply.
“Not many have chosen to be faithful to the church like you.”
I look up at him. “Maybe I’m just too scared to do anything else.”
The priest smiles and shakes his head. “Why do you say that?”
“Everyone knows me as the guy who went to seminary,” I reply. “Who gave talks and was Mr. Pious-Church-Guy. I would lose everything, everyone I know, if I change that. Sometimes I wonder if I’m faithful or just terrified of what I would lose if I followed my conscience.”
“Sometimes I wonder if I’m faithful or just terrified of what I would lose if I followed my conscience.”
The priest does not give this much thought before saying: “I think you’re selling yourself short. You’re a good man. You’ve helped a lot of people.”
I sit in silence. The priest presses on, “Don’t you think that matters?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. I’m just saying if people knew who were really sitting next to them at Mass they might treat us different. A little less quick to call us inherently disordered and a bit more willing to understand why someone who feels the same way as they do about their wife or husband but about someone of the same sex might act upon those desires.”
The priest pauses at this, nods, and says: “If people knew you had these attractions they might not demonize you so much for it. And you think you have some kind of duty to show them?”
“I am just tired of being called disgusting for feeling the same way as everyone else.”
“I’m celibate,” he responds, maybe a bit defensively. “And most people don’t understand that. Most, if they’re honest, think it’s weird.”
I shake my head, “You’re a hero around here, Father. When was the last time you had a night of the week a family wasn’t begging you to come over for dinner?”
“That’s more exhausting than I think you give it credit,” the priest tries to joke.
I do not give up. But there is hurt in my voice this time. “Gay people aren’t even allowed to donate blood in this country. That’s what most people think of us. Not that we are a little weird. That we are toxic. It’s not that people don’t want us to get married. They say we are not even capable of it. The whole point of your celibacy is that your sexuality is good and you are offering it to the church. The whole point of mine is that I have nothing to offer.”
The next scene is an empty chapel at sunset. You wander around the rows of wooden pews until you find me on the floor in the back, sitting cross-legged, a journal on my lap. You come over and sit down next to me, but I do not look up. Words appear on the screen as I journal.
I don’t understand, God. The words write steady but are far from polished. I’ve tried so hard to do this right.How many times have I asked you to take this pain from me?Or to give me the strength to bear it?I don’t feel like I am bearing it.I am drowning.I am alone.
Everything in me is dying to fall in love, so how is it that I am only capable of being alone?
You see me set down my pen and a teardrop falls on the word alone, smearing it and making it run down the screen.
Everything in me is dying to fall in love, so how is it that I am only capable of being alone?A woman could never love me.Not the real me.And I am not allowed to love a man.Because it is disordered. As am I—intrinsically.How is that made in your image?
The screen fades to black and one final sentence scrawls on the screen. How am I supposed to survive life if I am incapable of love?
I have often been told that my sexuality is worth the pain, for in its repression it can purchase paradise. A straight afterlife awaits me if only I would act the part in this one.
To be honest, I have theological and philosophical issues with this position. But more than that, I have an emotional one. For so often I am told this line by my fellow Catholics who know not and care less about the weight of the burden they ask their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters to carry. We are an abstraction. Something the Catechism speaks about, not someone they speak with. Known of, though not known.
I wonder what you would feel if you knew me. If you saw what the lives you ask us to lead are actually like.
As silly as a video game feels, I wish I could break open my life and give my fellow Catholics an immersive look at what it was like to believe I was incapable of romantic love and partnership, unable to raise a child and unfit for a family—how deep that wound cuts your soul and affects every corner of your life.
Would you care enough to witness it, even if you could not change it? At least then I would no longer be an abstraction. You would know me. You would have the opportunity to care about my struggles and sit with me in my pain.
And you might even understand if I say I cannot do this anymore. That I believe my sexuality is not evil but normal. You might even hear me tell my story and see it not as an attack on the church but as a deeper embrace of her.
I wonder what you would feel if you knew me. If you saw what the lives you ask us to lead are actually like. If you got to know the real us, the gay Catholics already all around you.