How Spider-Man got me through my mom’s death

I’ve had this sticky note on my desk at work that says “write more” on it for years — so here we go. Thanks, sticky note.

The subtitle of this post could be “Wow Tyler, you’ve been reading a lot of comics!”

There’s something crazy about how the human brain deals with grief. Eventually I’ll have some fancy hyperlinks in here that’ll point to the other two stories I have to tell (How Hearthstone Got Me Through My Mom’s Death, a story about the EVIL TYRANNY of Tuesday Server Maintenance, and How You Got Me Through My Mom’s Death, a tale about a boy that is probably worth telling someday), but for now we’re going to talk about comic books. Bit of an upfront warning: this is a rambling and at times incoherent mess of a story…but the punchline ends up being a really great Spider-Man and LSD joke, ok? Ok. Cool.

When your primary residence is a rotating mix of hotel rooms, attics, and friend’s couches, keeping up to speed on which bad guy the Avengers are fighting this week isn’t the easiest priority for your folks to justify. That being said, my parents loved to occasionally surprise me with one-off issues they were able to scrounge up for me: a back issue of Uncanny X-Men here, a used paperback collection of Captain America there. (Some of you know the “my mom went without medicine one year to get me Christmas presents” story — they really went all out to make the best of the situations we found ourselves in.)

I loved those damn books. My imagination went wild: I remember using my walks to and from school as sessions to work through crazy scenarios in my head: “WHAT IF RED SKULL ATTACKED ME WHILE I WAS CROSSING THIS STREET? I’D THROW MY SHIELD OFF THAT CIVIC AND IT WOULD BOUCNE AND HIT HIM IN THE HEAD. BOOM.” I wanted more — I wanted to know if there was ever a story about Captain America bouncing his shield off of a Civic.

Fast forward to the “Tyler drops out of high school and starts working” plot point: one of the first things I bought with my first real life paycheck was a stack of Daredevil comics from the secondhand store near work (which in hindsight might be why I briefly wanted to be a lawyer?) and obsessed over Bendis’ interpretation of this small microcosm of a universe that I knew was out there but couldn’t even begin to chart. I could get lost in it all, and feel safe doing it.

For one reason or another I was drawn to Marvel comics in particular. DC’s superheroes were cool, but to a not-very-creative-yet mind they felt dark and sad. At that point in my life, life was hard enough as it was already, I didn’t need to dive into Batman’s fucked up Gotham and feel bad about his issues too. Instead I dove into Captain America, The Avengers, X-Men — I knew even if there was going to be some heavy shit to deal with, there would be a joke lurking around one of the next few pages ready to lift me back up.

But for some reason, I missed out on Spider-Man. To me, Spider-Man was Toby McGuire, and Toby McGuire just wasn’t cool. I never gave him the chance to prove he was Amazing — he was always just the funny quip or snide joke after the real heroes beat up the bad guys. When you’re already juggling a few weekly serials and college and dating and work and etcetcetc…who needs Spider-Man?

And here’s where I’d hyperlink the story about the days immediately following my mom dying and the subsequent Hearthstone Hole I fell into trying to escape reality until one day the servers went down and I completely lost it. No joke here guys — I broke. Hard. And so I panicked, and when I panic I find the first next-biggest-hole to jump into and dive head first. Enter stage left: the Marvel Digital Comics app.

Here’s how the logic worked “I need something to do. Open the App Store. See the app. Remember it’s been years since I read anything. Temporarily feel shitty about myself for not keeping up with Captain America. Download the app. Buy the membership. Read the first thing that pops up — Spider-Man. Fuck. Fine, Spider-Man.”

I gave him a (web)shot, I really did. And he was a great escape from the black void monster in the corner of my living room where the Hearthstone Servers were being eaten alive, I’m sure, but he just didn’t stick. A friend and I argued vehemently over text — he claimed Spider-Man was better than Captain America. I claimed he was an asshat.

Then I decided to read the entire Marvel main canon continuity. Alright I know that’s a pretty big narrative jump in this story, but man I made some really rash decisions that week [did I mention the thousand dollar personal trainer I bought the day after ma’ passed?] It was the deepest hole I could find, and it worked; I lost weeks to Marvel Knights, into the early 00s and Disassembled. It was an amazing feeling — I had escaped this world that my mom wasn’t a part of anymore and could make my biggest issue turn from “I miss my mom” to “I need to know what happens to the Avengers next.”

And eventually, Civil War happened next. If any of you are Spider-Man fans, you might finally see where this story is going. Spoilers incoming.

After Civil War, Aunt May gets shot and eventually dies in a story arc called “Back In Black.” For a number of reasons, Back In Black is Spider-Man’s darkest hour. It ended up being mine too.

Peter and MJ at Aunt May’s bedside.

It was nearly impossible to not put my mom in Aunt May’s hospital bed. The years I spent in random ICUs sitting next to mom came crashing down on me. She struggled for the better part of my entire life with health issues (hell, when I was 16 she went comatose and was pronounced brain dead before fighting back from the brink of whatever light was at the end of that tunnel and made a damn near full recovery) and never ONCE stopped smiling. She never let on how much pain she was in, she never asked for help, and she never, NEVER wanted anything but the best for me. I just wanted to make her better — I just wanted her to be okay. Which makes this next part so hard:

For those not in the know, I wasn’t by mom’s bedside when she passed — I was across the country, and sleeping soundly in my own bed, woken by my aunt apologizing over the phone. “I’m sorry Tyler. I’m so sorry. But your mom is gone.”

I hadn’t been there. I hadn’t said goodbye. I hadn’t reminded her for the trillionth time that I loved her. I hadn’t…I hadn’t done everything I could. I didn’t make her better, and I never made her okay again.

To anyone who says Peter Parker didn’t do everything he possibly could to keep Aunt May alive, you’re insane. Insane like the guy laying on his couch sobbing over an iPad, literally-can’t-even-ing, WEEKS after his mom died, who can’t think about the word ‘mom’ without his knees buckling, who had been hiding from the fact that there was a real world going on around him with real issues that he was avoiding thanks to his imagination and the Marvel Comics Universe.

But that guy was me, not Peter Parker. There was something fucking special about Parker’s resiliency, even when he snapped. His knees buckled, sure…but he didn’t fall — he just used it as a jumping start. Suddenly I got what makes him special— when you have every bad guy gunning for you, when you can’t seem to make the right move, when it’s easier to run, you project evil upon the world. And you have a choice to make: do you blame that evil world, or do you challenge it? Peter Parker always challenged it — he was the boxer who wouldn’t stay down. But why?

Because no one (see also, I) wants to read about a guy who lost everything and then died. I want to read about the guy who even when he loses everything says “This fucking sucks, but there’s more out there to gain, there are bad guys to bring down, and in the end I’m going to win.”

I may not have been by my mom’s side when she passed on. I sure as hell wasn’t tracking down the sniper (or going to school to be a brain surgeon, but you get the point right?) — but I wasn’t about to be that character I didn’t want to read about and lose everything then die. I needed to believe there was still more out there to gain, and I needed to believe I could win in the end.

And suddenly I was a Spider-Man fan. Now I look at Peter Parker differently (differently enough to read thousands more pages of Spider-Man stories). He stands for someone I want to be — someone who faces the evils of the world head on. Someone whose character is defined by ideals, not realities. Someone who is willing to make sacrifices to protect those ideals because he truly believes there’s a greater good out in the world waiting to be gained by everyone. Someone whose name evokes a sense of trust and clear purpose. Someone who is going to make a big fucking dent in this universe, if only to leave a mark big enough for his mom to see from the stars.

With great power comes great responsibility, right? I’m still trying to figure out what my responsibility is going to be, mom, but no matter what it ends up being I promise I’ll make you proud.

Or I’ll run around a music festival tripping balls in a Spider-Man costume.

Maybe both…probably both.

Alright, definitely both. Sorry, Mom. You’d understand, promise.