Alissa (Aliki) McElreath teaches English composition at Saint Augustine's University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her fiction and non-fiction has been published at Literary Mama, in the anthology Mama, Ph.D., on the websites Love Isn't Enough, and And I Ran, and at the Family Education Network. She recently completed her second novel, Ficus Way.
It is a weekday night, and rainy outside, and there is a pot of hot water bubbling on the stove. I stop upstairs briefly to deposit a pile of laundry on the bed, before heading back downstairs to begin dinner in earnest.
My youngest, she is eight, is having “rest time” and watching a show on PBS. My oldest—twelve years old this past July—is in his room, hunched over his beloved laptop. “Dinner will be ready soon,” I call out to him, not really expecting a reply. This time of the day invariably finds him with his orange earbuds jammed into his ears, and his knees crunched up under his chin, as he gives himself over wholly to the world of Minecraft, his latest obsession.
If you have no experience with Minecraft, let me just tell you what I know: it's a sandbox, or open world game; in other words, a place where gamers can roam relatively unrestricted by the more linear parameters of traditional video games, and use the resources they might stumble upon to advance closer to the objectives of the game. Before you are too charmed by the image of a giant, friendly, sandbox filled with a scattering of colorful toys, be warned that the open world of a sandbox game like Minecraft can also contain its share of monsters in the form of zombies and gigantic, lurching spiders, and the Creepers, of course—the hissing and handless green creatures in Minecraft that, like many of life's unexpected dangers, will creep up on you out of nowhere and explode. Game play involves building structures entirely by using cubes of different colors and textures in a three-dimensional environment. That is all. But, as my son would be very quick to tell you, it is most certainly not all, even if appears that way to those of us who are woefully uninitiated into the wonders of the Minecraft world. Before Minecraft there was Garry's Mod, also a sandbox game, and before that there was Clone Wars Adventures, an online computer-generated world for Star Wars: Clone Wars fans, and before that the Playmobil and Lego websites. And before that? I don't know, but there was something, I am sure.
In my mind, life with our son is divided up into two sections: BC and AC or, Before Computer and After Computer. Of course I know that the situation is not as clear-cut as that, but the computer is an easy scapegoat. It sits there, emitting a warm glow from its screen, hunched like some animal on my son's desk. It takes him away from us, daily, and daily we do battle over the amount of screen time he has earned (or not earned). I love my own MacBook; the folders and files on its hard drive represent hours of work, and contain the words that give shape to my life. I often hate my son's computer with an intensity that is shocking. If left to his own devices my son, who has Asperger's Syndrome, could literally spend every waking hour of his day on the computer. If given his own choice, he would rather stay inside on his laptop, than leave the house, even for treats and thrills that would tease most twelve-year olds out of their comfort zones. Yet I also clearly see that the internet-based, computer gaming worlds he inhabits are comforting to him, and the hatred I often feel for his computer is rooted in this contradiction. When he is online, my son tells me, he doesn't have to worry about things like body language, or tone of voice, or whether or not people are judging him based on things he can't control. A game like Minecraft gives him a “safe” space to venture out into the world, with a confidence and purpose he finds difficult to muster up in real-life. The chaos and stress of the school day—all “noise” that his body and mind have so much trouble processing—dissolve in front of the colorful screen. He is good at gaming, and proud of his skills. He has taught himself the basic coding needed to play the open world and multi-player games he enjoys; a few lines of what looks like gobbledygook to me and he has changed the backdrop, the textures of an object, and, in some cases, whether or not his character lives or dies. He is good at not just mastering but enjoying games like Minecraft, even with all its zombies and spiders and Creepers. This game called Life, however, so often gets the best of him.
Sometimes I try and cast my mind back to those BC days, those days before my son fell in love with the computer. I try and recall what life was like back then—for him, and for us, too. Yet it seems almost a fated thing, this magnetic draw to virtual worlds and the allure of the vast, unspoiled, terrain of sandbox games like Minecraft. As a very little boy he was always drawn to the mechanical things around us, and his ability to control them. When he was an infant and I held him in my arms and made slow circles around our bedroom in our upstate, New York apartment, he would fixate on the clacking air conditioning unit in our window, and on the metallic rattle of the shades against the air vents in the front of the unit. His favorite toys were the ones which did things in a clear cause and effect sort of way: push that button, hear that noise. He had no interest in toys with faces, or toys that didn't produce immediate gratification. Looking back, I see now that he sought comfort in the mechanical, just as he does now. After all, people do unexpected things, and are noisy and smelly and unpredictable. Life hurts sometimes, in huge and immeasurable ways, but the mechanical things in life chug steadfastly on, doing just what they are supposed to. Until they don't.
When he was three and a half my mother-in-law took him into the museum gift shop, while I sat on a nearby bench and nursed his new sister. The museum was hosting an exhibit on the Titanic, and the gift shop had been filled with Titanic-related souvenirs. She sat with him and told him the story of the Titanic, and let him flip through a picture book. What followed can only be described as years of nightmares and explosive anxiety about the sinking of the Titanic. Boats don't sink! Surely a boat as large and steadfast as the Titanic would not ever sink! One picture haunted him: the great ship upended like a bath toy, its signature four smokestacks pointing to the side, not skyward as they were meant to. That picture fractured his sense of the world, right then and there. We could see the fissures for years afterward, snaking across his psyche, shaking his sense of how he could be safe in this world, this place where boats failed. He could not reconcile the image of the Titanic sinking with his sense of how the world should look and function. At night we would wake up to his terrified shouts. He refused to sleep unless the bedroom lights were on, blazing, his radio tuned to the classical music station. At the end of his kindergarten year he brought home a picture book from the library about the Titanic, and I found it stuffed under a pile of clothes. He couldn't bring himself to look at it, not yet. In a remarkable display of wisdom and self-care he had checked out the book in the hopes that looking at it would lay the terrors to rest. But the sinking Titanic was quickly replaced by other fears—ones that lacked a name and face but took hold of him at night, like Minecraft's Creepers, hissing and exploding into his dreams.
As a mother I was unprepared for how to help my son through all of this. I knew how to ice a fat lip, how to wrap my arms around my child and pull him close, so that he could breathe in the safety and warmth of his mother. I knew how to read bedtime stories, and play imaginary games. I knew about healthy eating, and the dangers of too much sugar. I knew how to be a safe harbor for all sorts of things that could and did go wrong, but I didn't know how to mend this. I didn't know what I needed to do. Nobody had prepared me for that, and nothing I had read had equipped me for my son's debilitating anxiety and emotional outbursts in the years that followed. Nothing had equipped me for the rage, for the blows against my body, for the ugly words that poured forth, or for the sight of his small hand upraised one night when he was six, a table knife clutched in his fist. While my other friends were cheerfully proclaiming Year Six to be The Best Year Ever, we were finding it to be utter hell. Then came improbable rescue: after several long months of psychological testing, our son was diagnosed with AS one month before he turned seven. Ironically, the day we found out the news was the same day he learned to swim for the first time. I will forever merge the two memories in my mind: my son's slender ankles kicking away from me as he glided through the water; the phone call from the psychologist, her kind voice struggling to find the right mix of hope and strength and remorse and encouragement.
All that seems so long ago now, yet as any parent who has survived the journey to such dark places and back will say, you never ever lose touch with those memories—they never let go of you. I will always carry them with me. In good times they are a marker of how far we have come; that we made the right choice in seeking help, in trying to understand what was wrong, even if it came with a label that would haunt us all. That the hard work we've all done, my son included, has paid off and we've reached a better place now. But in the bad times, for there are still bad times now and again, the memories spring to life, vivid and throbbing. They bring guilt (we didn't do enough) and fear (are we losing him again?) and sorrow (why can't I fix this?).
On that weekday night, the one when it is raining and I am so busy, and the bubbling pot is harping at me from all the way downstairs, I call out to my son: “Dinner will be ready soon.” To my surprise he answers, immediately: “Mama! Come look at what I did.”
He is seated at his Ikea desk, a look of flushed triumph on his face. “Do you want to see my Minecraft city? I finally finished it!”
I feel like my limbs are strung up on wires, I have so many end-of-the-day chores pulling at me from every direction, but I shove them away and sit on the padded stool near his desk. He is so proud, and there I am, not even realizing that all those hours in front of the laptop had purpose and design. A thought pops into my head: How are those hours any different from the ones I spend at my own laptop, crafting words, playing around with the textures of language, assembling sentences so they form a symmetry of their own? He hits a few keys, makes some adjustments, and the screen is filled with what looks like an immense glass city, laid out in pleasing geometric grids. From my seat on the stool, the city is breathtakingly impressive. If I lean back and narrow my eyes slightly I can barely tell that each building is constructed out of Minecraft's signature textured squares, each cube placed painstakingly on top of another, over and over again, to form angles and height. Up close the buildings have that stacked, symmetrical look my son loves, yet the details are truly awe-inspiring. The basic textures in Minecraft can limit a player, but my son has downloaded what are called modifications to the game: different texture packs that allow him more freedom to design and create elements of his city by applying different textures to the cubes. He takes me on a tour, zooming me up to the doors of an enormous structure. He clicks the mouse to swing the door open, but right away our tour hits a bump, and he groans in frustration: There is something wrong with the way the front door opens and it's not lying flush with the frame, which bothers him immensely. Another click of the mouse and boom! the door explodes away. One more click and it's back again, just where it should be. My son lets out a satisfied sigh and we proceed with our journey. There are floor-to-ceiling windows, and sweeping staircases, and skylights and even abstract art adorning the walls. He shows me his bedroom, stark and immense. The bed looks all right angles and not at all comfortable to me, but there is no question that the room is stunning. A nearby balcony gives us another view of the city, spread out before us. From there, he “flies” us over a part of town where we alight in front of a replica of his favorite real-life Chinese restaurant. When we go inside I note that the menu carries only his three favorite foods: vegetable lo mein, spicy tofu, and teriyaki noodles. There would be no waiting in line here: the restaurant is completely empty. We could sit anywhere we like! Be served immediately! If there were anyone there to serve us, that is.
It doesn't take long before I feel disquieted. The city is so beautiful, so perfect, so symmetrical. But it is also so empty. Where are the people? I ask my son. Why aren't there any people? He explains that he built the city in something called creative mode and that there aren't any people. Do you like that? I ask him. No people?
He does. It's all his and he is the Master of his Cubed Domain. He can go anywhere he likes, and fix all the niggling imperfections with just a few clicks of his mouse. He roams around the buildings and along the corridors and rooms with incredible ease. He knows every inch of this kingdom and there is no doubt that it is astoundingly beautiful and impressive. There are certainly no upended steamships, no noise, no smells, no chaos, no people. I play around with the idea of finding myself inside his Minecraft city. I would wander the streets, gaze at the breadth of it from one of those tall rooftop observatories he built. I might try and find the Chinese restaurant in the hopes of a meal but it would be empty inside. The buildings, made up entirely of the straight edges of cube after cube, are sharp enough to cut. I imagine wandering the streets for hours on end until the buildings begin to look the same, until I feel like I've seen the same abstract art over and over and over, the same skylights cut out of the same sharp rooftops, all caught in some endless loop.
“It's beautiful,” I tell him, because it is. But I have to swallow hard because I feel suddenly sad inside, through and through, right down to my toes.
“I know!” he says. “I wish I could live there.”
“Wouldn't you be lonely?” I ask, because I can't help myself. I know I am projecting my own emotions onto him, thrusting my own perceptions onto his own. “Not really,” he says. We are silent for a few minutes, while I watch him clicking and pointing, the landscape of cubes blurring and straightening over and over again as he zooms in and out. I look at his face, at his small, straight nose, and at the way his cheeks still puff out a little when he is concentrating hard, just as they did when he was a small boy. I feel my love for him flare up suddenly, causing a deep but familiar ache. I want him to invite me there, to tell me he would be happy living in such a beautiful and empty place, as long as I was there, too—but he doesn't. So I supply the image for myself, because I am his mother, and because, again, I can't help myself. I will wander the empty streets, craning my neck to marvel at the size and enormity of the buildings around me. I will cross street after street, and stop from time to time at one of the square parks he's designed—like the one with the stair-stacked green trees and the reflecting pool. Just when the sheer hollow emptiness of it all begins to affect me, and my feet are growing tired of the endless walking and circling, and night is more than just a possibility lurking in the corner of the pixilated sky, I might turn a corner and find my son standing there. He'll be just outside of his building, the one he is especially proud of, as if he'd been waiting awhile for me now. One hand will lift slightly in surprised recognition. My heart will quicken. I can scarcely wait to be near him, to hear the sound of his voice. There you are, Mama, he will say as he proudly holds open the door (the one that now lies perfectly flush with the frame). What took you so long to get here?