Monday, September 1, 2014

Goodbye, New Friend
This morning a young boy died. I met him last November at the Ronald McDonald House in Fort Worth, playing games as we’re wont to do on third Fridays each month. I only met him once. I remember speaking with his mother, talking about the games they play with his older brothers, talking about his treatment, and why everyone loved him so much.

This kid - he was hands-down the best gamer I’ve ever met at the RMH.

We played Set, and he got it right away. He just ate up anything I put in front of him, so we naturally got into a discussion about the finer games in life, which ended up being a conversation about my favorite games, which ended up with me making a late-night dash to Evolution Games to pick up a copy of Ticket to Ride to give to my new friend.

I can’t remember everything about that night, no matter how hard I try. I’ve been teaching games with my wife for more than two years now, and we meet a lot of people. Some stick with us because we see them every month, and we try really hard not to think about how messed up it is to see somebody more than once at the RMH.

This kid – I met him once. I talked to him for an hour. He’s stayed in my head for a year.

For those of you that don’t know, the Ronald McDonald House serves as a safe place for families to live while their children receive treatment at local children’s hospitals. In Fort Worth, that hospital is Cooks Children’s, and those kids are the bravest, toughest, nicest bunch you ever ran into. I’ve seen so many smiles on little faces – if I could get them all going at once, they’d light up the whole state of Texas in a wink.

This kid – he had the biggest, brightest smile. He knew it, too.

When I brought that copy of Ticket to Ride back to give him, he and his family were off doing whatever families do when they’re trying to make personal hell feel like a family vacation. I don’t have kids, but I can imagine… actually, I can’t. They were gone, that’s all, and I dropped the game off with one of the ladies who’s always at the house, always there to say “howdy” and chat about nice things.
Find your local Ronald McDonald House

Funny thing is, this time I did more than chat. I’ve been to the RMH dozens of times in all sorts of moods, but this time I wanted to talk. I wish I remembered more about the conversation, but it had to do with her story and why she volunteered to stay there on weekends and help out around the house. It turns out even the volunteers have stories, have personal pain and heartbreak, and they have the same smiles the kids have – warrior’s smiles.

This kid – he had a warrior’s smile. Like he was fighting something I couldn’t understand, and kicking its ass so easily he had time to make me feel better about my problems too.

I dropped that copy off with the receptionist/volunteer/gladiator and chatted for a bit, and left just in time to turn my back to the desk before I started crying. I was thinking about how lucky I am that my life isn’t hard, and how much I appreciate the really brave people out there who deal with things that I can’t imagine and do it with more composure than I can muster. Seriously, if you read this, volunteer/gladiator/queen-of-the-Vikings, I want you to know how much that conversation meant to me.

His mom sent me a friend request on Facebook the night we played games together. I reached out to her to make sure they got the game and were able to play it, and I made a video to try to help out. I have no idea if they watched it. It has 3 views. I think they might all be me. I hope the kid saw it, but if he didn’t, that’s ok. I just hope he played the game.

Games mean something. We play them together because we’re more than just machines, automatons living programmatic lives. Play is a part of what makes us human. I think it comes from the same place that love does, from the same place as respect and joy and friendly hugs. We all have hobbies we love, and sometimes we get to share them. It’s the sharing of the things I love that makes them most special for me. I didn’t know him well at all, and I almost feel like I don’t even have room to be sad. But that’s the power of a big bad smile, of a kid armed with more chutzpah than his body could handle. We shared a love for games for a few hours, and that was enough to trick me into feeling like he was my best friend.

This kid – a year later I can’t get his face out of my mind, no matter how many times I tell myself I don’t deserve to miss him.

Ticket to Ride fits in a box about the size of two dictionaries, and neither of those books have the words I need to express how I feel tonight. Can I honestly mourn the life of a kid I met a year ago, and only for a weekend? I haven’t talked to him since. I’ve followed Facebook posts and watched from afar, waited for good news and been crushed by the bad. Does that make me more or less noble? Should I have inserted myself with a word of encouragement, a word of kindness? This family seemed to have been surrounded in love, both from within their family unit and from the community around them.

This kid – yesterday morning, his last morning, he woke up and asked about school. Science, Math, and History were in, but no English. At least that’s what his Mom’s post yesterday told me.  No time, man, got to learn the real stuff, the stuff that matters. Go get it, kid – Neil deGrasse Tyson would be proud.

I’m going to turn on Cosmos and play Ticket to Ride on my iPad right after I post this. If you’ve got kids, go hug them. If you’ve got love in your life, take a second and say out loud how much you appreciate it.

This kid – I’ll miss him. And so will hundreds of other people, all of whom knew him better than I did.

Goodbye, old friend.

JR Honeycutt is a full-time husband and game-player, and co-host of The Nerd Nighters. You can find him on Twitter at @JayAhre or at a Friendly Local Game Store in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas. 

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