They wheel her back to surgery, and I squeeze her hand one more time. The wheels of the stretcher squeak, and I hear the familiar hiss of an automatic door opening after someone presses the button. I’ve already heard that sound seventeen times today, once for every time someone enters the room and someone leaves. Once the door closes, I am left alone in a cold, sterile hospital room. The walls are a bit yellow, and as you might expect in an old hospital, a small CRT TV is attached to the wall in one corner. This is a new experience for me. I’ve never waited for someone during surgery. But, now I am. Now, I’m waiting. They said one to three hours, but it could be longer. They said not to worry. They say, she’ll be fine.
It’s a simple procedure. Exploratory. They tell me it’s safe, and they tell me it’s routine, and they tell me it will all be good. But, they can say that all they want. They can’t change facts. My wife will soon be put under, with a surgeon cutting her open, slicing through skin, muscle, nerves. They’ll be shoving foreign objects into her body. They’ll most likely be burning things with a laser while they’re in there. They can talk all they want about how safe this procedure is, but the lady that checked us into surgery this morning made sure we signed plenty of papers acknowledging that with any surgery there is inherent risk. The surgeon is human. The anesthesiologist is human. The nurses are human. When humans are involved, the chances of screw-ups in any situation drastically increase.
A week before the surgery, my mom asked me if I would be okay on my own. I didn’t know what she meant, but now I do. She was talking about “the wait,” the period of time between when they take your loved one away and when they bring him or her back. It’s a terrible period of time when minutes feel like hours, hours feel like days, etc. It’s a terrible period of time when your mind jumps to worst case scenarios, and you try to imagine a life without this person, and it tears you up inside. It’s a terrible period of time when no matter what you try to do, no matter how many walks you take, nor how many TV shows you watch, nor how many lunches you eat, you can’t stop thinking about the person who isn’t currently here, and how much you wish they were.
It doesn’t take long for the restlessness to set in. I turn on the TV and watch some home improvement show about two photogenic Canadian twins buying and renovating houses for real people just like you and me. I’ve watched the series before. In fact, it’s one of my wife’s favorite home renovation shows. It’s fairly formulaic: the clients are, at first, vehemently opposed to renovation, but due to the photogenic twins’ charm and charisma, the clients are won over. Naturally, when all is said and done, the clients are happy with the end product, they are ecstatic that they trusted the photogenic twins with hundreds of thousands of dollars, and they couldn’t imagine doing it any other way. Everyone is happy. The clients are happy with their new home, and the photogenic twins are happy that they got to rake in some of that sweet, sweet mid-afternoon advertising revenue.
The TV show distracts me for a moment. But, only for a moment. When I look at the clock, 22 minutes have passed. Rounding up, I am about one-sixth of the way through the maximum time they gave me. The anxiety starts to rise again, as I realize that my afternoon is really just beginning. This process has just started, and we are a long way from the final checkpoint. “The wait” is just beginning.
The best way I can describe “the wait” is like level-grinding in a Japanese role-playing game. At some point in any role-playing game, the player will come to a point he or she is not prepared to handle. The characters within the game are just not strong enough to handle the challenge. At this point, the player has but one option to proceed in the game: they have to level grind.
Level grinding is an easy enough concept to understand, even for non-gamers. As characters in a role-playing game defeat enemies, they earn experience points. At a certain number of experience points, the characters gain a level. When they gain a level, their stats – the numbers behind the scenes that determine how powerful the character is in game – increase. The characters can deal more damage to their opponents in battle, and conversely, they can take more damage dealt against them. Some characters might learn new skills as they level, like new attacks, spells, or abilities. The fundamental idea of gaining a level is this: the character has fought enough enemies to grow as a character, much like a basketball player becomes better at basketball by running down the court and shooting baskets.
Level grinding is when a player forces this growth to happen for a certain period of time. The player will stay in the same place within a game and keep fighting enemies until his or her characters are of a suitable level to handle the next part of the game. How long the process can take depends on the game itself. Some games are fairly easy to grind, taking only an hour or two to achieve the desired result. Other games require very intensive grinds, often leading to real-time days of fighting the same enemies over and over again. Regardless of how long it takes, however, the grind is always the same: for a certain period of time, the player can do nothing to progress the game other than sit and do the same task over and over and over again.
This is how it feels to wait for a loved one who is in surgery.
Eventually, the TV is no longer distracting enough, and a hospital is certainly not a place I want to walk around in too much. Boredom sets in, and with it comes the anxiety, the questioning, the wondering, the fear. I realize that if I don’t do something to take my mind off of all of this, I’m going to go stir-crazy in this small hospital room. At this point, I do something I should have done at the beginning of the process. I turn to the one thing that has distracted me more than anything else most of my life.
I grab my Nintendo 3DS, and I play a video game.
When video games are under the microscope by the media, as they so often are, critics often work tirelessly to wrap the hobby in some form of grand conspiracy to turn players into killers. Often, after tragedy strikes – at least in the United States – the media will be quick to search for any connection to video games. While the video games as murder simulation is the most common argument in favor of the regulation of video games, it’s not the only one. One of the other common arguments is that video games distract players, keeping them from focusing on what is important. Kids play video games instead of doing homework. Then, they don’t get good grades, don’t get into college, and end up working at a fast food joint, flipping hamburgers, like this is all better than taking the opposite route, getting buried in student loan debt, and defaulting on said student loans because they can’t find a job after graduation.
The argument of distraction does make sense to me. After all, ask any video game player why they play, and the vast majority of them will say that the games serve as a form of escapism, a chance to be something or someone they are not. Video games are a fantastic vehicle for this, especially as they have become more and more sophisticated over the past two decades. For good or bad, most players can find at least one game that makes them feel like they are more than who they are. In light of this, it becomes easy to see the connection between escapism and distraction. After all, if you could leave behind the mundanity of life and live out your fantasy, wouldn’t you?
While there may be some merit to the argument that video games cause distraction, I’m less inclined to believe that distraction is inherently a bad thing. Yes, if video games begin to steal your focus from the important things in life – such as grades, marriages, kids – something should be done. But, this is no different than any addiction. In college, I had a friend who started smoking pot incessantly. He started to fail his classes, and he eventually failed out of college entirely. The pot wasn’t to blame, though. He didn’t realize that his smoking was causing a problem, he didn’t get help. I also shoulder a bit of the blame myself for not getting him help, but that’s a matter for an entirely different essay.
But, just like I don’t blame pot for my friend’s issues, I also don’t blame video games when a child fails out of school. Is there a problem there? Absolutely. No one is arguing against that. But, millions of people play video games every day, and not all of them ruin their lives. Most of us manage to live happy, healthy lives despite the distraction of video games.
And I think this is where the argument breaks down, because at its base, distraction is not inherently evil. It’s not inherently good, either. Distraction is a state of being, and it’s up to us to determine how we will exist within it.
When I was 16 years old, my grandmother had a heart attack and stroke late one night. She lived in Indiana, about 17 hours from Western Nebraska, and the call came while I was sleeping. I remember waking up early the next morning to find people in my house, people from the small church my father pastored. My father was packing, my mother was packing. They told me to pack as well. We were going to Indiana, because they didn’t think she would make it.
We made the 17-hour drive without stopping more than a handful of times to use the restroom. Even now, my father believes the trip took longer than 17 hours. Maybe it did. Then again, when you worry about someone you love, minutes seem like hours, and hours seem like days.
We spent the next week in a hospital waiting room, eating food from the hospital cafeteria. My grandma didn’t die, but she was in intensive care on life support. My siblings and cousins didn’t see her for four days. Our parents didn’t want us to see her with all of the medical equipment attached. They didn’t want that to be our memory of her, of my grandma so vibrant, so full of life, humming hymns as she worked in the kitchen, frying in deep oil whatever meat we were going to eat for dinner that night. They didn’t want us to see, so we waited.
I don’t remember much of the week we spent in the hospital waiting room. I remember talking to other people in the room about why they were there. I remember watching a lot of TV. I remember a concert, my cousins and I escaping for a night of normalcy. And I remember my Nintendo Gameboy and the Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening.
The fourth entry in the long-running Nintendo franchise, Link’s Awakening, came a couple of years after the fantastic Link to the Past on the Super Nintendo. It continued many of the series traditions started in that game, like the key and keyhole mode of gameplay, where the player discovers an item in a dungeon, uses that item to defeat the main villain of the dungeon, and then uses that same item to solve the puzzle that unlocks the next dungeon, rinse and repeat.
Despite playing through the entire game in a hospital waiting room, it’s still one of my favorite Legend of Zelda games with its fourth-wall breaking characters, off-the-wall quests, and unique side-scrolling platforming sections. Before the Legend of Zelda became what it would eventually become, traditional and sometimes formulaic, in the fourth entry of the series, the creators went nuts, even pulling in minor characters and references from other Nintendo franchises. This unique nature of the game actually fits with many of the Gameboy franchise entries, many of them attempting to set themselves apart from their console counterparts. Super Mario Land introduced driving sections to the Mario series, while Metroid II: The Return of Samus eschewed the open-world nature of the first entry in the series, opting for a more linear sequel. It was necessary, really. The Gameboy was a fantastic system, but it wasn’t as powerful or as accessible as its full-size partner. The developers needed to do something to set their games apart. The games themselves are fun and quirky, and many of them still hold up today. Despite my love of Super Metroid, Metroid II is still my favorite entry in the series.
After four days, they removed my grandma from the ventilator, and they let us back to see her. She smiled as best she could when she saw us, but she couldn’t say anything. Her throat was still raw from the ventilator, and she was munching on ice to help ease the discomfort. I don’t remember much about the room. I don’t remember the colors of the walls, or the medical equipment. All I remember is my grandma lying in the bed, and how different she looked. The light in her eyes, at once so brilliant and fierce, was gone. She lived for one more year after that hospital stay, but I would never see that light again.
After visiting her, I went back to the waiting room, loaded up Link’s Awakening, and beat the final boss, the Darkness that threatened the island. It may seem callous, but in that moment, it was exactly what I needed. In that hospital waiting room, Link’s Awakening was more than just a fun and quirky game. Video games often get a bad rap for being distractions. And while they are certainly distracting, that’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes, distraction is exactly what we need. Sometimes, we just need to shut off and distance ourselves from what is happening around us.
There would be time to process everything I was going through. In that moment, though, I just needed to shut off for a while. I just needed to escape.
In a dramatic turn of coincidence that would give even the densest literary critic pause, 18 years later, while my wife was in surgery, I turned my Nintendo 3DS on to the long-removed descendant of Link’s Awakening, The Legend of Zelda: Link Between Worlds. As when I was 15, I again dropped into Hyrule to escape the stressful real world of hospitals and sick loved ones. The minutes continued to tick by, and an hour passed, followed by another, followed by another. I killed monsters, collected treasure, and defeated dungeons.
At this point, my gameplaying may again seem callous, like I wasn’t caring about the fact that my wife was in surgery. Rest assured this was not the case. I’m a worrier, by nature. I felt every minute of that surgery, and I can still recall the bubble of anxiety resting at the top of my stomach that exploded when the clock passed three hours, the top of the time range given to me by the doctor beforehand. In that moment, though, the game provided me something else to focus on. The game gave me a place to escape, and for that, I am eternally grateful. Had I been left alone with my own thoughts, had I attempted to even process my own thoughts, I would have probably suffered a severe panic attack, and my wife would have come back from surgery to find a husband passed out in a chair, stoned out of his gourd on whatever sedative the nurses on the floor gave him.
It was nearly three and a half hours before the anesthesiologist came by the room to tell me my wife was in recovery, and the surgery had gone exactly as planned. About twenty minutes later, my wife’s surgeon came in to show me what she had found and fixed. About a half hour after that, the nurses finally wheeled my wife back in to the room. They told me she was on a lot of pain relievers, and she most likely wouldn’t be responsive for a while. They weren’t kidding. For the next few hours, she would drift in and out of consciousness, sometimes just long enough to tell me about some med-induced dream she was having. I, for one, was just happy to have her back in the room, safe and sound. As the nurses left the room, closing the hustle and the bustle of the hospital behind the door, I put up my 3DS, reached over and squeezed my wife’s hand.
The wait was finally over.