Creative Nonfiction

Whispers from the Field

YOUNG TREES GLOW with branches that double as lamp posts, bringing gold warmth to the blue light that engulfs the mist-shrouded island of Teldrassil, home of the night elves. Plants and trees in shades of green, pink, purple, and lavender shroud the forest floor. Owls, boars, massive spiders, and cat-like creatures called nightsabers peer from behind trees and bushes. I’m strolling around the island with a newly created night-elf toon1, picking herbs, occasionally killing a nightsaber or spider and remembering the last time I was here with my son, Gray, completing some quests.

“Dude, what is that, mom?” he typed in the chat box. Although we lived a thousand miles apart and often played World of Warcraft from that distance, this day he was visiting me in Pittsburgh. He was on the third floor, using my desktop; I was on the second, using my laptop. His toon, a nightelf hunter, jumped up and down on the screen and pointed in the direction of my mount, a riding goat loaded down with food and various supplies.

“Hah, it’s my mount,” I said, slightly embarrassed. I had gotten it for some cooking achievements on a higher-level toon. At the time Gray and I were playing, the max level was 100 (today, players can advance their toons to a level of 120), and I had several at that level. I always enjoyed creating new toons, though, and the one I was playing with Gray was level 20. Serious players possess mounts much more impressive than my goat—dragons and multi-headed flying serpents, for example—but I’d gone for something much humbler. My goat bleated and tossed her head.

“That is so bad,” Gray said. “I love it.”

I smile now, remembering the compliment. In real life, he never went for anything that called attention to himself, so it made sense he’d like my mount. We spent the rest of the day questing and running dungeons before it was time for him to catch a plane back to Dallas, where he lived. He was nine months out of rehab, working, and seemingly drug-free, and I didn’t know then that this was the last time I’d ever see him, that watching his toon die in a dungeon we ran that day was a virtual prelude to his actual death from an overdose a few months later, in December 2014. All I knew then was that in the “real” world, it might have seemed odd, or at least uncool, for a young man to be walking, traveling, and playing a game with his mother, but in this virtual world, no one knew we were mother and son, and we were free to travel together while chatting through a box on our computer screens, sharing intimacies we might have found difficult to share “IRL.”

I’ve written elsewhere about playing with my son and the various ways in which that playing enhanced our relationship and my understanding of him. I’ve continued to play the game since his death, though, and am interested in thinking about why I continue and how playing has introduced me to people I might never have met outside of the game.

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