I Woke Up And I Was Crying

I have a vivid dream about my grandfather still being alive.  The circumstances vary, but a few key details always seem to be present: I’m happy to see him, as is the rest of my family, because I know that he’s been dead.  We’re thrilled to be reunited, but on the edge of everything is the sense that it won’t last.  In the most recent version, things had changed up a bit because my grandmother, who passed three years ago in May, was also alive.  For whatever reason, that wasn’t important; she had never been dead, and she was celebrating my grandfather’s return along with the rest of us.  At the end of the dream (which always feels only vaguely like an ending), I found a note from my grandfather wishing us well; he had already left.  The details are fuzzy, but I think the note was in a stack of papers that were supposed to be instructions for repairing an old computer; I thought it was charming how old the technology appeared to be.  Anyway, the note was addressed primarily to me.  My grandfather had been reading my blog, and he wanted to encourage me to keep it up.  He liked my thoughts.  It was at this point in the dream that I began to sob because he was going away again, and I already missed him.  Not long after that, I woke up and felt actual tears on my cheeks.

It’s a strange feeling to describe this experience; I don’t typically remember much about my dreams, and, being dreams, they tend to be nonsensical things that aren’t worth spending much thought on.  Even this dream, when I try to impose some sort of narrative sense on it, still feels disjointed and random.  The remarkable thing about it is the way it made me feel.  I miss my family members that aren’t here anymore, but most of the time it’s a detached sort of missing.  If you’ve ever heard the metaphor for grief of the ball in the box, it’s probably the most accurate way to describe how it typically feels: long stretches where everything is fine punctuated by brief acute sorrow.  What strikes me as weird for how it hits me is the way that it’s consistently my grandfather who seems to trigger the feeling.  If I remembered being especially close to him when I was younger that would make sense, but I’m not sure that was the case.  Memory is a terribly unreliable thing, but what I mostly remember about him was how hard it seemed for him to have to take care of my grandmother, who was particularly ill during the last few years of his life.  I know that my dad and my aunt felt close to him, and I wonder if it’s awareness and empathy for those relationships that stirs the part of my brain that will randomly decide to remind me of something missing.

All this seems to be connected with my recent reading of Fun Home, the graphic memoir by Allison Bechdel about her life growing up with her closeted father in a small, rural Pennsylvania town and his sudden death while she was away at college.  Bechdel’s narrative surrounding her father is preoccupied with trying to make sense of his life and how it relates to her own; she makes it clear from early on that her father was a distant parent, someone infinitely more interested in his own pursuits than the work of raising children.  The central thesis of her recollections is that her father’s death could have been suicide (he was hit by a truck while doing yard work) precipitated in response to her own coming out, a decision that he had been unable to make when he was younger.  There are a lot more moving parts than that built into the memoir, and it’s all relatively circumstantial (there’s no evidence his death was anything but accidental), but the purpose of the book’s narrative isn’t to establish hard facts about a life; it’s to make sense of feelings of alienation and lost opportunity that Bechdel experiences in relation to her passed father.  Practically every page is punctuated with a tragic moment from their relationship, but the method of presentation is so relentlessly matter-of-fact.  Bechdel is working through something extremely complex on the page, but she places the narrative at such a remove that the most heartbreaking bits (her initial eagerness to study literature at college as a way to connect with her father giving way once she realizes he’s more excited about the books than about her thoughts on them, for example) just slid past me on the way to the book’s conclusion.  There’s a cerebral quality to the way Bechdel depicts her grief in Fun Home that makes sense to me, precisely because it feels so detached.  It may in reality be far more visceral than that (in talking about the book after we both finished it, Rachael explained that her experience while reading was far more emotionally taxing), but what I found most relatable about Bechdel’s grief was how it turned into a thing she wanted to figure out and make sense of.  I don’t understand why certain things strike me as sad or if there’s something unresolved about relationships I had with lost family.  Once I’m past the moment where the grief has hit intensely, I’m left wondering what just happened.

Before too long the wonderings tend to slip away like the dream itself with just the impression of a memory and a feeling.


A Brief Reflection

[TW: discussion of suicide]

Last week, the day before the inauguration, I was sitting in a meeting with one of my grade level teams when I got a text from a friend about one of our former students who had recently died.

Longtime readers and folks who know me in person are aware that this isn’t the first time I’ve had this experience; two years in a row at my old job I heard about students and former students who had died suddenly.  Both times were difficult, especially because they were kids that were known by the other students; it’s hard to describe the stress that comes from trying to manage your emotions while your helping a group of kids who already have difficulty managing their own emotions work through this kind of bad news.  For months afterward, those students’ deaths hit me in weird ways.

This time I felt vaguely sad, but it was a pretty detached feeling.  I was texting with my friend about this while my coworkers went on talking about how we were going to proceed with teaching Othello this week; I didn’t bother to tell them anything had happened.  This wasn’t a kid that they’d ever met, so the only reaction I felt like they’d be able to offer was the same sort of abstract sympathy that you reflexively present whenever you find out someone’s received some really bad news that doesn’t impact you.  Even as I’m writing this, I’m still trying to figure out my own emotions and whether I’m feeling personally impacted; it’s hard to judge, especially since I’m beginning to understand that my process for working through grief isn’t really an overt thing.  I’m five years removed from my last interaction with this student, and I honestly don’t know how this news is going to shape my emotions over the next few months.

There is one thing that I know I’m feeling more sensitive about after this latest loss; this student committed suicide.  I don’t have any details, so I don’t know the circumstances surrounding their decision to end their life, but given what I remember about the student, it’s likely an expression of their mental illness.  In light of that, I’ve felt much more acutely aware of all the immature jokes that some of my students make about killing themselves over minor inconveniences, and I’m feeling less inclined to chide their jokes and move on.  It’s a pervasive fear among educators that we might miss signals that children are in need of help or fail to act when we do recognize them.  Once this year I’ve had to stop class to deliver a serious talk to my students about the importance of not joking about suicidal ideation and also making sure they tell an adult if they are having thoughts along those lines.  That was a weird, somewhat uncomfortable shift from the upbeat tone I usually try to take in class, but it felt necessary in that moment.

Now I’m wondering if there will be more of those moments, and if so, do I mention the incident with this student?  Personal connections are powerful tools for making lessons stick, but I’m not sure if this is a personal connection.  The news is less than a week old as I’m writing this, and I still don’t know how I’m affected.  I don’t want to cheapen what happened to my old student by using them like some kind of object lesson.  That’s a hard thing to weigh against the importance of teaching children that it’s okay to seek help when they’re having suicidal thoughts and feelings.


Given the nature of this post, it feels like it would be irresponsible not to include links to some resources for anyone coping with suicidal thoughts.  If you are experiencing suicidal ideation, please seek help immediately.  You are a unique and irreplaceable person, and the world will absolutely be lesser without you.

What Have We Done?

I slept poorly the night of the election.  Things did not look reassuring when I went to bed, and I found myself waking in anxious fits every couple hours until the morning.  Every time I woke up, I thought about reaching for my phone to see what the results had been, but I had to weigh that against the need to get more sleep.  Whatever the outcome, I needed to go to work the next day, and a potentially miserable day didn’t need to be compounded with lack of sleep.

I woke up with my alarm, and Rachael immediately showed me the headlines on her phone.

He won.

I’ve gone through a variety of reactions as I’ve been processing the news.  I imagine I’ll be processing it for a long while.

The analytical side of me wants to know how the polls were so off.  All the data pointed towards a likely win for Clinton, and the data was catastrophically off.  I’ve been saying for months that he couldn’t win because his electoral strategy involved only appealing to one subset of the whole population.  The numbers didn’t add up.  It did not math.

The violent side of me rages, even if only internally.  We elected a monster.  We knew he was a monster.  Not one day since the beginning of his campaign has he hidden who he is, and we picked him.  I want to scream constantly; I want to curse in the faces of people I know voted for him, want to tear things down, want to lash out so badly.  It feels like it would be easy to exchange hurt for hurt.  I’d just have to let go, indulge those base desires.  It would be cathartic; there’s that tiny, electric thrill that comes from just thinking of doing it.  How much more intense would the relief be with the actual act?

The self-loathing side of me has trouble looking in a mirror.  I look like the people who elected him.  It echoes in my head, “You are the problem,” and I can only muster a whispered response, “I’m not like that; I voted for her; I spent months pointing out everything wrong with him; I did everything I thought I could do.”  It’s small comfort in the face of the reality that to people who will be most hurt by the next four years, I look like the enemy.  It hurts immensely to realize I’ve come to thinking about enemies in my own country.

The afraid side of me rises in terror in between breaths.  We elected a man so intemperate, so unstable, that I worry about the safety of the world.  I wish I were being hyperbolic, but I’m just not.  He’s going to have access to nuclear weapons.  He’s going to command the strongest military in the world.  He throws temper tantrums when people point out things he’s said and done on the record.  I am afraid.  I don’t know when I’m going to stop.

The sad side of me is the strongest.  Every thought it punctuated with grief.  Every moment I’m alone threatens to resolve in tears.  People will die because of this man.  My friends who are female, Black, Muslim, Latinx, and LGBTQ are going to suffer more because of what we’ve done.  Children will grow up in a country where they will see that we indulge our worst impulses on a national stage, and they will learn that is what it is to be a citizen in America.  I’ll have to watch that play out daily at work, and my admonitions to be better to one another will fall on deaf ears.

What comfort is there in this new world in which we find ourselves?  Where do we turn when our neighbors have betrayed us and themselves?  How do we go on into the future?

Reading “Chapter One: Which Occurs in the Wake of What Has Gone Before”

The final arc of The Sandman is an emotionally difficult one to read.  I find myself getting weepy pretty much every time I read it.  The important thing to understand is that this story is a funeral in three parts, plus an epilogue.  The final two issues of the series are one-off stories (issue #75 is something of a sequel to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but that’s for later), and they finish things out simply because the second Dream has to be introduced for the first story to make sense and Gaiman is just bold enough to implicitly compare the ending of The Sandman with the end of Shakespeare’s career as a playwright.

I’m digressing though (again, mostly because thinking about The Wake is an intense experience).

I don’t know if this is a universal experience, but the thing I always note about funerals is how they remind me of the funerals I’ve attended before.  Each new incident of leave taking cleaves to me in small, imperceptible ways that don’t make themselves known until it all happens again.  When I weep at funerals, I’m often weeping for multiple people at the same time.  Long after goodbye, small reminders, a thought, a turn of phrase surprises me and the tears beg to come.

This is my experience of reading The Wake.

The first time I read this story, about seven years ago, I thought it was sad, but mostly because of how it offers catharsis for Dream’s story.  Last year, when I re-read The Sandman and reached The Wake for the second time, it affected me much more deeply; half a decade hangs a lot more weight on a person’s soul than you realize.  Saying goodbye to Dream was harder, because I was saying goodbye to more family than the previous time (and for the first time, some old students; God, I wasn’t prepared for that).  Re-reading it again now, well.

I’m not sure what point I’m trying to make with all this.  I simply think that The Wake is an exquisite ending to a remarkably well told story, and because it’s essentially an exploration of all the ways we express grief it only gets better with age.


Besides grief (Matthew and Hob Gadling are pitiful), we also get to explore Dream’s renewal in his new aspect.  It’s an odd bit of mental gymnastics to make sense of Dream here.  His old aspect, the dark and brooding man who was most commonly referred to as Morpheus (among a host of other names he collected for himself), is who died, and yet because Dream is an anthropomorphic personification of a universal concept, he’s still alive.  His new aspect grew out of Daniel Hall, and Daniel’s identity still exists as a part of this Dream, but he’s more than that.  Different people react to Dream’s identity in vastly different ways: Cain at first fails to understand that the new Dream is still Dream in all the ways that matter for the sake of his office before he over corrects and assumes that Dream is still Morpheus; Matthew rejects Dream completely with the understanding that he’s not “the boss.”  Even Dream struggles to comprehend what he is in small ways; the moments of grief in this issue are interspersed with scenes showing Dream undoing the damage done by the Furies (this issue takes place the day immediately following The Kindly Ones‘s resolution), and he frequently hesitates before reacting to different situations as he seems to be processing what parts of himself are still like Morpheus; the moments where he chooses to be gentle show how different he is.

This is the most lavish drawing of Dream that we get in this arc. It’s quite good, but I always wish there were more artwork of him. Also, note the way Cain struts in the background. (Artwork by Michael Zulli)

It’s this gentleness that tempers the tragedy of Dream’s death.  It’s been a long time, but you’ll recall that many of the early Sandman stories revolved around Dream inflicting a harsh, but in some cases arguably just, punishment on various people who crossed his path (the two big examples highlighted in this issue are Alexander Burgess and Richard Madoc).  We see here that these victims of Dream’s wrath have been universally freed from their punishments.  It’s not enough to suggest that these punishments expire with Dream; he’s still around fulfilling the duties of his office.  What’s changed is Dream’s personality; the new Dream appears to lack Morpheus’s capacity for holding grudges.  I want to assert that Dream’s death teaches him mercy.  Of course, we’ll have to wait a little bit longer to see that demonstrated more fully.  Here it’s only implied at best.

There are a few minor things I want to note before we move on from here.  The Endless’s visit to Letharge to retrieve the cerements for Dream’s funeral is a nice callback to that one story in Worlds’ End.  We get to the see the payoff of all the little bits of lore that were sprinkled in that previous issue, from the inhabitants’ studied respect for the family (after the previous Necropolis was razed when the Endless needed the cerements for the first Despair’s funeral and they were treated with disdain) to the catacombs where the cerements are located (recall from before the woman who discovered this room by accident and had her hand shriveled as punishment).  The cerements room is one of the major mysteries that Gaiman leaves unanswered in the original Sandman series.  The Endless are supposed to be the eldest beings in the universe, but then there’s this place where some mysterious power stores the things that are needed for putting these beings to rest.  The facts in this issue that the Endless can’t gather the cerements themselves leaves it wide open to wonder who is responsible for this duty.

Lastly, I have to gush about the artwork of this final arc.  Michael Zulli’s style is a far departure from the highly exaggerated look that Marc Hempel uses for the majority of The Kindly Ones.  Every panel is inked in a way that preserves the look of pencil sketchings, and the colors (Daniel Vozzo and Dave McKean share color credits on this issue) are done in a more subdued palette than the vibrant one of the previous arc.  It signals to the reader that this isn’t a high excitement, or even a high tension, story.  The worst has already passed, and we’re just going to deal with cleanup from here to the end.  Dream is a particularly fascinating character here, with his shift from an all black wardrobe to an all white one.  I confess that I always want there to be more story featuring the second Dream just because I want to see more artists draw him.  As it is, Zulli’s the only one to do any extensive work with the character, and it has to be good enough.

Fear and Loving at the End

My grandmother died this morning.

I mean, my grandmother died the morning that I’m writing this post.  It happened early, I think before I went to my last day of work at my old job (it’s strange to think of it as my old job so quickly), but I didn’t learn about it until I got home.  I left work early because Rachael and I were going to drive to Atlanta to see her for the last time and visit with my family; we still ended up going to visit.

I know it’s been less than a month since I last saw her; I can’t quite place what the context was though.  Was it the morning I got back into town after visiting friends in Los Angeles, when I was exhausted from half a day spent in an airport and an overnight flight spent next to an unfortunately anxious elderly woman and had to help lift my grandmother back into bed before I could get some sleep myself?  Was there another time after that that’s slipped my mind?  Does it matter if there was another visit after that one if I can’t remember it?

So perhaps that was it: my grandmother slipped out of bed, and I helped my aunt lift her back up, both of us exhausted for very different reasons.  It echoes the last memory I have with my grandfather who died of cancer a decade ago; he was in hospice care, and my mother, my aunt (two years last Christmas since she passed; my last memory of her is that Thanksgiving; she was on oxygen and looked sickly, but she was happy we were all together in her mother’s house again), my cousin and I went to visit him for the last time.  His body was shutting down, and I’m not sure he was really lucid, but he needed to go to the bathroom, and I helped walk him down the hallway; we didn’t bother with closing the door, just in case he fell off the toilet.

Dying is an undignified business.

Perhaps a more preferable memory is of the visit Rachael and I had with my grandmother before our trip to Los Angeles.  We told her about our plans for the trip, and we shared the latest news about ourselves.  It was pleasant, but still sad.  I’d not seen her bedridden before.  Even without being able to project the precise gradient, you could tell she was in decline.

Maybe it’s better to go back a few more months to Christmas, when my aunts Melonie and Beverly were beleaguered by my grandmother’s steady stream of demands, which we had all born in relatively good spirits for years because we’ve all buried too many elders not to appreciate the ones we still have.

I could go further back to the time right after my grandfather, her husband, passed (his heart failed while he was cleaning the gutters of their house; I have no clear memory of the last time I saw him; sudden deaths rob us of those crystalline moments, leaving in their place only the sharp impression of what was happening when you heard the news; I was watching a movie with my father that we had to interrupt so he could go check on his parents).  She struggled to be independent after a life time spent depending on him.  I remember her biggest fear being that he had gone to hell because he hadn’t been to church in decades; she insisted on putting in his obituary that he had been a deacon at the last church he’d been a member of many years prior.

This is the grandmother I knew for most of my adult life: thrust into a predicament she hadn’t been prepared for, forced to carry off being a widow with as much dignity as she could muster despite limited independence, and always, always, somewhere in the back of her mind, afraid of what was ahead of her.

In the wake of my grandfather’s death, she rekindled her faith.  Her family has strong ties to south Atlanta, and she sought comfort in the church they helped found many generations ago.  This renaissance of faith coincided with my own conversion, and for a few years our Christianity was a common bond.  On reflection, I think we had similar motivations: the repulsion of fear.  One of the most terrifying things that haunted me when I was an atheist was the experience of death.  It’s easy for me to say now that I converted because I wanted to find comfort in the belief in an afterlife.  I craved certainty that there was something more.

I think my grandmother wanted the same.

Her brand of Christianity is built on selling certainty that God rewards you with heaven if you believe the right things.  It’s an incredibly comforting system as long as you remain inside it, but that’s a difficult thing to pull off, and it comes with a high social cost.  For my grandmother, that meant regularly alienating her daughter, who was also her primary caretaker.  The tragedy of their relationship is that my grandmother traded away good moments for the promise of heaven, and I’m not sure she ever fully felt the comfort her beliefs were supposed to bring.  She lived in doubt where she had been promised certainty.

The redemption of this life exists in the way my aunts cared for my grandmother and loved her even in her worst moments.  They did everything they could to make her comfortable; where I helped her up once because I happened to be there, they did it multiple times because that’s just what needed to be done.  They loved her tirelessly to the end, and with every bit of service, they did their best to keep at bay the fear.

I believe in a loving God who takes everyone in at their end regardless of the state of their lives.  I don’t have any evidence for this belief other than the fact it seems to me like the logical conclusion of the example set by Christ.  I go through periods of intense doubt where I still crave that certainty that my grandmother held on to at the end of her life.  Instead, I cling to hope in things unseen, not only for me, but also for my aunts and for my grandmother, who loved and feared together in beautiful imperfection to the end.

Reading “Brief Lives – Chapter 9”

Before I get into the issue proper, I wanted to note a thing that I just read before I sat down to work on this post which I think gets at the heart of the distinction between Dream and Destruction.

It’s the difference between voting as taking responsibility and voting as preserving purity by avoiding complicity. The former is our obligation — legally as well as ethically. The latter is an illusion — a form of self-deception.

Fred Clark

Clark is discussing here the distinction between two attitudes regarding voting in a political sense, but it struck me how well the concept maps onto Dream and Destruction’s personal philosophies of power.  Dream, for all the messed up stuff he does (and he does some really messed up stuff), always, always honors his obligations no matter the cost because he believes it’s a core part of his character to do so.  Destruction, in contrast, is so caught up in his idea of avoiding culpability that he refuses to exercise any of his power, even when it means that his inaction allows innocents to suffer.  Granted, the perspective of Dream and Destruction is supposed to be much larger and complex than what any human can understand, but as ciphers for a human scale version of this difference, Destruction’s philosophy appears much more problematic.

But that’s to do with last issue.

Chapter 8 ended with Destruction taking off for parts unknown and Dream and Delirium being left to figure out how to go back to their lives, and while Delirium, through the extensive mercy of her madness, is able to accept the fact that she failed and move on, Dream is left to deal with the consequences of his actions.  Multiple people were killed or injured by Destruction’s warning system and Dream and Delirium’s search, and Dream, being the responsible sibling of the three involved in this particular story, does what he can to make things right.  Perhaps the biggest dangling thread that Dream has to resolve is the meeting with his son Orpheus, who told him where to find Destruction in exchange for a boon.  Orpheus, being an immortal severed head whose wife died and family abandoned him many millennia ago, has requested that Dream kill him.

For such a momentous event in the series, Gaiman doesn’t dwell on it for too long.  The actual death occurs on the fifth page of the issue after a brief recap of the dinner at Destruction’s villa across the strait from Orpheus’s perspective and one last conversation between Dream and his son.  The vast majority of the issue is more concerned with examining how Dream copes with what he’s done.  There’s a strong contrast in this issue with #42 where we had half the book devoted to Dream’s very public, very dramatic display of grief over his recently ended relationship.  That issue is all about the way Dream enjoys performing a certain kind of persona even in circumstances that are supposed to be emotionally trying, and this one is all about showing how Dream reacts in a situation where his grief is deep and genuine (while there’s no doubt that he’s broken up over his break up, it’s pretty easy to suppose that getting dumped just doesn’t compare with having to kill your own son).  In this case, Dream chooses to keep his mourning as private as he can manage.  Besides the rest of his family, Dream doesn’t discuss Orpheus’s death with anyone (he does send Orpheus’s old guardian Andros a dream explaining what’s happened and that he and his family are free to do as they wish now, but that reads pretty solidly as a bit of necessary business).

It’s important to remember, as we’ve been discussing, that Dream is possessed by a rather single-minded devotion to keeping his responsibilities.  Concluding his business with Delirium, he immediately busies himself with getting things in order back in the Dreaming.  Besides sending the dream to Andros, he also has Lucien dispatch messages to the surviving people from Delirium’s list to let them know the danger’s passed.  Even as he’s telling Lucien that he’ll be taking the rest of the day for himself, he focuses on the number of responsibilities he needs to attend to the next day.

This entire sequence is incredibly poignant.  Dream’s doing everything he can to try to present a front that nothing is wrong, but the entire staff notices (except for Merv Pumpkinhead, but he’s always presented as remarkably oblivious).  The castle gatekeepers fail to recognize Dream for a moment; something ineffable has changed about him even though he appears the same as always.  Nuala is startled to find that Dream, who was previously terse with her when he encountered her dancing when she should have been cleaning, takes a moment to have a conversation with her and shows a bit of kindness.  Lucien, though he has enough tact not to say anything to Dream, clearly recognizes that something bad has happened.  It speaks to the affection Dream’s staff feel for him that they notice something off even when he’s trying so hard to appear unaffected by his trip.

Oh, Dream. (Art by Jill Thompson, Vince Locke, & Daniel Vozzo)

Even as the staff’s responses are heartwarming, I really empathize with Dream’s perspective here.  As one of the Endless, Dream has very few peers, and he certainly has none among his servants.  Being in a position of authority, he has to maintain a certain distance from all these people, even as he’s grieving.  It’s a remarkably uncomfortable position.  When he finally gets alone and washes his hands (they’ve been coated with Orpheus’s blood for the entire issue, but Dream’s kept them hidden since returning to the Dreaming), Thompson’s art does a remarkable job of illustrating his gradual sinking into mourning.  We leave Dream alone in an armchair.

The last couple pages of the issue (and of the arc) are devoted to reminding us of all the people who were impacted by Dream and Delirium’s adventure.  The mortals who survived the experience all come through with various levels of mental and emotional damage, many of them directly affected by their brushes with the Endless.  It’s a nice echo of Dream’s more immediate grief, and does an excellent job of hammering home Gaiman’s themes around the nature of life and regrets.

Next time we get a one and done story about an ancient city of wonders.

On Grief and Resurrection (And Chrono Trigger)

The other day, one of my students came to me in the morning and told me that she had had a dream about her grandmother the previous night.  It was a strange dream, apparently, because it involved my student’s grandmother telling her that she should eat a placenta, because those things are very healthy.

I couldn’t help smiling when she told me about this dream, because it was so odd, and it was about her grandmother, who passed away a couple weeks ago.  It reminded me of many dreams that I’ve had about family who’ve passed.  For me they’re always a little bittersweet, because typically I know in my dreams that there’s something weird about being around this person (maybe I even know that they’re dead, but the fact that they’re with me is still joyful).  Those dreams are some of my favorites, because they invariably leave me feeling a little wistful after they’re over.  Waking up is a case of reality literally settling back in, and I often have a moment of disorientation as I remind myself that that person I dreamt about isn’t alive anymore.

I really like when I have those dreams.

They always precipitate a little moment of renewed grief, but the brief resurrection is worth it.

That’s a lot of thoughts and feels that I didn’t really have the time or ability to communicate to my student when she brought up her dream, so all I was able to tell her was that I have dreams like that too, and I think they’re really good ones.

Chrono Trigger comes into this because, like many large scale adventure stories in the RPG genre, it features a heroic sacrifice by a beloved character.  Anyone familiar with Final Fantasy VII will probably get that this story device can offer a good player punch, particularly when it’s done to a party member, but they’ll also point out that it’s pretty heavily used.  I’ll agree with that assessment, but I’d point out that Chrono Trigger is a game that revels in JRPG tropes and then tries to subvert them in mildly surprising ways.  In the case of the beloved party member’s heroic sacrifice, Chrono Trigger does two things: it kills off the protagonist, and it does it when the player is expecting the story to end but then forces em to play on through the fallout of the protagonist’s death.

Crono FMV1

Chrono at the moment of his death. (Image credit: Chronopedia)

The thing about RPGs, particularly RPGs from the 16-bit era, is that the silent protagonist serves more or less as a proxy for the player.  That character’s the blank slate on which you’re supposed to impress your own personality, and Chrono follows that tradition nicely.  He honestly doesn’t have any real character traits (whatever people may say about his inherent heroism, I’d point out that at every major plot point that relies of Chrono doing something heroic, the designers gave the player the option to at least be reluctant about it; you can waffle about before leaping into the Gate to follow Marle to the past, you can be obstinate and say you don’t want to deal with Lavos, you can take your time before walking Chrono into Lavos’s maw to save everyone else who’s stuck there; the player may have to eventually choose heroism in order to continue the story, but they at least have the option to do it grudgingly).

Anyway, the mechanical details are a tangent from the thing that’s really interesting about Chrono’s death.  Since he’s the player proxy, and the game continues after he dies, the player finds emselves in a position where ey have to carry on after their own virtual death.  Ey get to see the fallout from this event as the rest of the party mourns eir passing while also trying to figure out what to do next about Lavos.  It’s a weird little inversion where the player kind of grieves for emself, even if only briefly (the game’s constructed so that the player only has to complete one major quest before getting the chance to resurrect Chrono).  At this point it’s pretty typical wish fulfillment being employed, with the narrative taking advantage of the time travel conceit to allow the player to both get the feels from seeing a heroic sacrifice and not actually having to pay the cost of said sacrifice.  I’ve read that the developers originally considered a scenario where Chrono could still be recruited back into the party, but it would have been an earlier version who was returned to his particular moment in time after the adventure ended, leaving Chrono permanently dead at the story’s conclusion.  The idea resonates as particularly bittersweet, but it does undermine Chrono Trigger‘s essential theme that the course of events are never fated, which is probably why the developers went for a more unambiguously happy reunion.

Despite the original concept having the greater emotional weight, I like the way Chrono’s death and resurrection is constructed.  Yes, it’s wish fulfillment; I don’t care.  Saving Chrono reminds me of all the best parts of my and my student’s dreams about our lost family: we can snatch a few more moments with them from our memories, and hope that someday we’ll enjoy their company again for real.