This piece was featured in a December 1st 2019 post on Critical Distance. [link]
Content Warning: This post contains spoilers for the end of Death Stranding, and conversations about my personal experiences with abuse, neglect, and daddy issues. This is some very personal crap that does little by way of analysis or critique of the story.
I don’t know how to start this post. It’s a lot to unpack, so I’ll just jump in and open in 2019.
In August, my sister broke up with her long-term boyfriend and father of her kids. She’s been figuring a lot of stuff out, so I understood. As he moved out, some things came up that are too fresh for me to talk about in detail. Suffice it to say: everyone is fine. But I realized hard and fast that I was willing to do whatever it took to make sure those kids stayed fine. There was no one I was unwilling to call, nothing I was unwilling to do, to make sure those kids were okay, and make sure they felt safe and loved and secure.
Because my sister and I haven’t always felt that way.
Flash back to 1992 (or so), when I sat in the back of my mother’s car and she told my sister and I that the man she had been seeing, the man I had accepted as my father, wasn’t coming back. She decided that things were over with him, and he wouldn’t be around anymore. I was stunned silent and accepted it without understanding. I was eight years old or so. The details are fuzzy.
There was another man I knew. My other Dad lived in another town an hour and a half away. We saw him almost exclusively for holidays, and it was clear he didn’t know what to do with us except buy us toys we wanted. My parents divorced when I was a baby. I don’t remember living with him at all. My sister, a year older than me, says she does. I’ve always had a silent understanding that to her, Dad was Dad1, biodad. For me, Dad was Dad2.
Dad3 would remain my brother’s father, but for my sister and I, he would only leave a legacy of trauma. My skin crawls calling him “Dad” at all, so I won’t.
My brother’s father seemed okay to eight-year-old me. He violated my mother’s boundaries and raised red flags that as children, my sister and I didn’t see. He married my mother. My brother was born when I was ten. As abusers do, he shut my mother off from the other people she was close to: her sister, her brothers, even going so far as to ban us from talking to our father. My mother spent less time on us and more time on damage control with him. I’m sure it kept us safer from his constant verbal abuse, but this neglect would leave a hole in my heart that I’m only acknowledging in full now. I love my mother and I know she did the best she could, but I didn’t get something I needed, leaving me struggling to plug that hole for the rest of my life. Escapism was how I coped.
My relationship with my parents would be in ruins, long after my mother left my brother’s father, when I was fourteen. Reuniting with my father was awkward and didn’t amount to much. I moved out on my own when I was sixteen.
As a teenager, I picked up parental figures wherever I could find them. I pulled them in and as whimsically, I pushed them away. I wanted someone to guide me. To take care of me. I wanted someone who could save me. Someone who could love me, unconditionally. Someone who could give me what I always needed.
To this day, I’m a person who looks after everyone else. No one person can be that magically stable stand-in parent, so I rely on all my friends. (The ultimate love I can show you is to take care of you. The ultimate love I can receive is when you take care of me. Thank you. All of you.)
What does this have to do with Death Stranding?
I made a lot of jokes as I played this game about calling Mads Mikkelsen “daddy”, but what I never expected was for Kojima to reach down into the hole in my heart where that loneliness lives and see it so clearly. That gaze looked deep into me and saw what I’m missing, which was enough to cut in, break the scab, and let all of it come rushing out anew. Having Mads look me in the eyes as the player and tell me that I’m his bridge to the future, I made him brave, I changed his life and gave it meaning… it’s enough to turn this 33-year-old woman into her 12-year-old self. A girl who was sad, scared, and desperate to be saved.
Sam was that child, too.
I finished Death Stranding on a Thursday and spent Friday in a funk, unable to do much of anything, until I had a thought.
Is someone out there who felt that way about me? Is there someone out there who loves me that much, that they’d be willing to put their life on the line, like I feel about my niece and nephew?
Did my Dad feel that way about me?
(If so, why didn’t he save me?)
I can’t say that my Dad (or my other Dad) doesn’t feel that way. Logic serves that the answer is, yes, probably. But I’m too afraid to ask. Not that I don’t think I’d like the answer, but just that I don’t know if I can hear it. I’m not ready to hear something I should have heard, should have known deep down, fifteen years ago. Maybe I’ll get up the courage to ask them. Both Dad1 and Dad2 are alive. Although it’s late for Dawn as a child, it’s not too late for the present me. I’m still alive, too.
Death Stranding feels to me like a poetic finale to one hell of a year that turned me from someone who gently avoids her blood family to cultivate a found family, to someone who is working hard to make money so those children never want for anything. As soon as I thought they might need me, I knew I would do whatever it took. And then I went home to relax and play a game that told me why I was doing it. They’re my bridge to the future, too.
Years ago, when my niece was a baby, I was with my sister when we picked up her partner from a trip. He was away for a couple of days, and started crying once he saw his daughter again. My niece, recognizing her Dad was upset, hugged him with her little arms around his neck.
I cried, too, to see that she had that. I cried for the young me, who didn’t.
And I cry for her today.