It was a grey and gloomy day, and I suppose now it couldn’t have been otherwise.
I’d brought my daughter to the park. This is our daily rite, meant to initiate her into the mysteries of play and society. We’ve succeeded on that count, I think; at eighteen months old, she will scale any colorful lump of metal to its summit, and she thrusts herself into the games of other children with no compunction. The park was empty when we arrived, but within ten minutes a bedraggled minivan pulled up. Out came a woman of perhaps forty limping along with a cane, and racing ahead of her was a girl with glasses and long brown hair. I guessed her to be around six or seven. To my daughter’s delight, the girl ran over and began climbing the equipment alongside us.
It was this strange, sad experience that was on my mind when a few hours later I fired up Lost Odyssey, the 2007 Xbox 360 role-playing game from Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi. I’ve been revisiting classic Japanese RPGs over the last year as part of a writing project, and as it happened it was this grey solemn day I’d reach the scene I’d been both looking forward to and dreading the most: the death and funeral of the protagonist’s daughter. In a narrative already marked by loss and suffering, Lirum’s deathbed scene is notably heart-wrenching.
A decade after its release, Lost Odyssey is perhaps best remembered today for its relentless emotional gravity. If you are pulled into it, it will crush you. The game tells the story of a band of immortals who, struck by amnesia, set out to recover their identities one bittersweet memory at a time. After a thousand years of roaming the world, there is pain enough to spare. For them, the passing centuries form one neverending death procession. Noble strangers, dear friends, mortal spouses and equally mortal children—each pass like a flower that blooms but only for a day. At the start of the game, Kaim is entirely bereft of his memories, yet he walks with a weary, dead-eyed slump. The accretions of a thousand years of loss having indelibly pressed into his physical stature.
Early in the game, the protagonist Kaim and his companions rescue a pair of children from bullying soldiers. In gratitude, the brother and sister Mack and Cooke bring Kaim to their ill and bedridden mother, Lirum. Unbeknownst to all, Lirum is Kaim’s long-lost daughter, believed in a locked and distant memory to have died in childhood. Kaim does not recognize her. He does not even remember he had a daughter; Kaim has only terrible dreams of a girl falling from a cliff into the sea. Lirum remembers his face and cries out to him, “Father!” Kaim sinks the floor, weeping. His memories return in all their cruelty. But just as his daughter and his memory of her are returned to him, Lirum succumbs to her illness, dying moments into their reunion. Kaim has lost countless loved ones over the millennium, but even he is not dulled to the pain of bereavement. He grieves with flowing tears over her body.
Of course, one need not be immortal to be laden with the burdens of grief. Relationships are ingrained in our nature; we’d never escape infancy without them. We cannot help but build deep bonds of love with family and friends, and it is these bonds which provide our greatest happiness and deepest sadness. It is a part our very essence to love and depend upon others, and we are made vulnerable in these relationships by the threat of losing them. As the years stretch on and the web of our relationships grow, so too does the inevitability of encountering pain. As C.S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves:
Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.
A couple years ago, I spent several months volunteering at our local hospital to visit with patients, to give them someone to talk to or pray with. I noticed something among the elderly patients: Almost invariably, their conversation strayed from quotidian topics like the weather and the food to reminiscing over the many loved ones they’d seen die over the years: parents, siblings, spouses, children, friends. In the twilight of their years, the elderly become living eulogies, testaments to the departed individuals who’d shaped their lives. Some patients spoke with bitterness, others with fondness. Some were angry. Others were hopeful. All had loved, and by the end of their lives had felt the deep pangs of loss.
As I watched Lirum’s death scene, I thought of the little girl at the park and her loss. One needn’t live long at all to suffer grief—Mack and Cooke mourn the death of their mother alongside Kaim, after all. The spectre of death is often an easy thing to forget in our era. It’s increasingly possible to reach our thirties or even forties without seeing the death of a close friend or relative. Communicable diseases are largely controlled. Preventative care is excellent. Starvation is unimaginable to even many blue collar workers. Safety regulation is good. Overall, we tend to live a pretty long time. In the ordinary course an ordinary Western life, death looms only at the periphery of our consciousness, obscured by the myriad mundane concerns of our lives. We even feel obliged to supplement our deficit in personal tragedy with heavy doses of news and entertainment.
After her death, a small funeral is held for Lirum under a grey and mournful sky. Her body is placed in a flower-strewn boat on the seashore and cast adrift. Kaim has lost his daughter to the sea twice over, and Mack and Cooke have lost the pillar that held up their world. Mack, the younger of the two siblings, has brought in a pot one of the flowers he and Cooke saved from the soldiers. It is his mother’s favorite, but it is delicate and didn’t survive being uprooted. Cooke, the older sister, chastises Mack for his foolishness. Then, before their eyes, the dead flower returns to life. Mack expresses hope that their mother’s spirit watches over them. Cooke is skeptical, and Kaim is agnostic. There is a veil that obscures our world from the next, whatever one believes; and none save perhaps the dead could speak about it with certainty. As G.K. Chesterton’s character Father Brown says, “We are on the wrong side of the tapestry.”
At the close of the funeral scene, I wiped my cheek with the palm of my hand, took a deep breath, and saved the game. That was enough Lost Odyssey for one day. It was surreal to watch this scene again after so many years the same gloomy day a strange little girl came up to me to talk about death. I shut off the Xbox and reached into my pocket for my phone. I had a text from my wife. It was terse and unexpected.
“Grandpa passed away today.”
To live is to love, and to love is to be vulnerable. The pain of losing a loved one is unequalled and inevitable, but it is the price we pay to love at all—and what would life be, were it unfragranced by the sweetness of our loving friends and family?