When I die, my voice will echo through the internet forever. Social media is the only sustainable practice I’ve ever found in journaling. I chronicle everything across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram — hell my college years are forever burned into a long forgotten Tumblr and I forgot the password to my MySpace page so that will forever live on as a capsule of teen angst. They are so present, the lives and loves and troubles of the world, so carefully and carelessly typed and tweeted and screen-grabbed and quipped, that when we die, everything will be there for those who long to know and remember us.
It is this fact, along with the obvious, that has always made me feel so fundamentally cheated by losing my father in the first chilled days of 2003. There was never an opportunity for him, a computer geek who worshipped Apple and mastered online gaming to make his indelible mark upon the digital landscape. I am left with small scraps: a physical letter, some scrawled notes on the back of his business cards. My mother engaged my siblings and me in a scrapbooking project a few months after his death, spreading out the hard copy mementos on a table and having us select what we wanted in our personal albums of him. There were mostly photographs I’d seen before, some of his old music reviews from when he was a journalist, some stuff from his high school yearbook. We each filled about half a book and shelved them, our little time capsules, reopened each year with nothing new.
But in early February of 2018, I kicked the corner of a long forgotten website, and uncovered something I never expected.
When I was 10 years old, I came home one night and walked into my parent’s bedroom to see my father sitting under a single lamp, waiting to deliver the worst news a parent can ever give their child. 15 months and a shattered world later, he died, in a hospital bed in our living room, the tumor in his brain winning the battle it always had the upper hand in.
This experience taught me many things, about how to rebuild, about how to love my siblings and my mother in ways I did not think possible, about what the power of love and grace in the face of horror can be. But it also left me searching, wandering around my life for signs or answers that would never come, until I finally understood that what I was looking for was the comfort in the unknowability of this grief, and that that journey was just beginning.
There is something mythic about losing your father at a young age. In my desperate search for narrative arcs to contain my sprawling chaotic grief, I would frequently return to ancient mythology. This might be because I was so into it when he died, or because so many of my favorite figures visit the Underworld as a prescribed part of their Hero’s Journey, or because losing a parent before you know them as a person means your grief is not for that human you knew, but for Unconditional Paternal Love. For Platonic Father. You mourn for a lost idea, an experience you will never get to have. A part of you that will never arrive. And so you mythologize.
John Gray stood tall at 6’ 6’’. He was consistently the smartest person in the room. His best friend was a famous musician. His name is in books about The Beatles. He had his own chair in our living room. Our cat loved him best and would perch above him like a familiar each night, watching him read. He once swam across an icy river in winter clothes to avoid the police, and it worked. He seemed to know everything about anything. He was respected and beloved. The plaque on his office door read “Computer Guy.” He was a Titled Character, a Mythic Man. And he was excellent at games.
My father won every game he ever played, or at least it always felt like that. He could see the patterns and learn the algorithm in record time. Pair this with his career in IT, and you have a very early adopter of internet culture, and especially internet gaming. In the world before search engines and social media, he discovered a corner of the internet that became one of his favorites, an online game called SiSSYFiGHT.
SiSSYFiGHT is a little hard to explain, and not particularly 2k18 compliant. Launched in 1999, it’s essentially a turn-based strategy game where players take damage based on other players actions, except it’s set in a school yard, the players are all demonic little girls, and the damage is the progressive lowering of the girls’ self-esteem points. Moves are Scratch, Tease, or Tattle. You get it. SiSSY was one of the first web-based games to feature real-time in-game chat, creating a robust online community within and outside of the actual website. Players made friends inside the game, online forums were created, and there were SiSSY meet ups around the country to tattle and tease in person.
I had heard of this game many years before, and in true Mythic Father form, I only remembered him being the Best In The World, Number One On The Leaderboard. But late in the day at my desk at my work study grad school post, where our story begins, I came across an old email from my mother that mentioned the game, and as a time killer, I decided to see if it still existed.
A quick Google search uncovers the game, and I go about the work of creating myself a demon child avatar. As an homage to my father’s old pseudonym in his music journalism days, I name my girl LittleSUZY, which he wrote under for years. I know he would have made that his username, so I alter the capitalization to avoid collision. After I build my avatar, I’m faced with a row of schools, four in total, and as I scan through my possible schoolyards, I feel the breath get knocked out of my chest. All the way to the right, the last school is named in beautiful cursive: Little Suzy Memorial High.
Instantly, the scavenger hunt begins. I am filled with adrenaline and all thoughts of my remaining Excel sheet tinkering are pushed aside. Clicking through the website, I discover a few things.
- There is a Facebook group dedicated to the game. I find the admins, message them all, and request to join immediately.
- The game had gone offline in 2009, but in 2013, there was a Kickstarter to relaunch it.
- There is an In Memorium wall on the website, with my father’s name emblazoned up with a few others.
What follows is a fever dream of five hours. I head home, buzzing and on the verge of tears, slightly unable to process what is happening. I start texting my family and messaging my friend.
I land on my couch, somehow, and begin a frantic google search.
The old Kickstarter page reveals that the game used to only have three schoolyards to play in. The $1000 donation level allowed the backer to name the fourth school when the game was relaunched. I check the old pictures. Little Suzy Memorial High was not a part of the original game.
My hands begin to shake.
The website thanks all the backers on a “Credits page,” and a quick cross reference shows that the person who donated has the username “crabbygal.” This, of course, tells me nothing. I call my mother to ask if she knows, but she doesn’t pick up the phone. I’m still not into the Facebook group. I look at the time and I’ve passed the deadline to submit an assignment and I dash off a quick email to my professor with something along the lines of “a family emergency has come up.” I don’t feel as though I’m lying. Back to Google I go.
This is not the first time the universe has presented my family with a gift like this. In 2008, Neil Young released a live album of a show he did in Ann Arbor at Canterbury House in 1968. My mother, strolling through Border’s, saw the album and laughed, remembering that John had been at that concert and had coughed as much as possible during quiet points so he would “be on a Neil Young record forever.” She picked it up and opened the case and saw, emblazoned on the left hand side, the review he had written for the Michigan Daily about the concert.
We all got it for Christmas that year, and I imagined a chorus of his coughs echoing from each of our rooms that night, an alchemical transformation from mundanity to treasure, his cough to a sacred recording of his voice. We were told by the publishers that the story was passed along to Neil. I always hope he heard it and thinks about it sometimes, those kind people in Middle America whose lives he touched, never knowing that we would have traded the whole album for just the coughing fit.
The combination of “crabbygal” and “sissyfight” finally yields results, and I find an old school forum dedicated to the SiSSYFiGHT game from the early aughts. Believing to have struck gold, I search Little Suzy and wait for the posts to roll in. Nothing. People mention the name a lot, but there aren’t any posts written by him. I deflate. But curious to the opinions of his peers, I begin to click through some of the more interesting looking links, until I find one titled: My Parents are insane.
A SiSSY is complaining about the perils of planning her wedding, and someone has commented “Seriously though, what Little Suzy said.” I scroll up and see that some of the posts are attributed to Guests, and I figure that with the many years in between, my father’s lack of re-upping whatever membership he had to this forum has deleted his account.
But not his posts.
I quickly scroll and find a post detailing the writer’s three weddings. My breath catches. My father had three weddings, his wedding to my mother being his last. I feel something almost like a panic attack coming on; my breath starts coming quickly in gasps and my eyes are scanning the page so fast I can’t slow down enough to take in the words. It feels like discovering an extra chapter at the end of a beloved novel, one I had read thousands of times. I had found him.
I spiral down the forums for hours, cross referencing everything the best I can. I discover two more small inconsequential posts about his computer system and the story about how he got his nickname. I marvel at how familiar his voice sounds when I read it out loud.
I also discover a fake interview with him, something it seems like they did with a lot of frequent players. I remember how funny he was, and burst out laughing a few times reading his irreverent answers.
He ends the interview with this:
My family has started texting back, and I compile the interviews I found and send them in an email. I promise to update them as soon as I learn who crabbygal is.
A ding lets me know my request to join the Facebook group has been accepted and I write a post just before bed, falling asleep with the day swirling through my brain like cream through coffee.
What I awoke to was beyond anything I could have hoped for. (Note: Any public names and pictures have been shared with consent.)
Stacey shares a link to a forum post I couldn’t find before, with photos of him at a meetup in Ann Arbor. I send them to my family, my Mom sends back, “Holy cow! I’ve never seen this before!”
Reeling, I ask the question that’s been nagging at me since 6pm the day before.
And just like that, my treasure hunt comes to an end. I follow up with Ruth privately, and learn that she had never even met my father, but she had specifically donated at that level so she could name the school for him. She said he was never angry or mean to anyone, always patient and good natured. She said she knew he and my mother had once sent a little money to a fellow SiSSY who was having some family trouble. And that she was so blown away that a stranger could be so kind.
She has no idea.
I ask for her email address, and my mother sends her a note. Ruth lets us know we could come visit whenever we wanted. She tells us how many people she had connected with through the game, and seemed just thrilled that something she loved so much had brought joy into someone else’s life. In the dark early days of February, I felt a kind of warmth fill me that I wouldn’t feel again until the sun peeked out from behind the clouds and spring brought everything back to life.
Months have passed since this discovery, and the possibility of this essay has been kicked around in my head, never fully explored. It’s such a delicate thing, this story. So breakable, so easy to chip. The legacy I will leave forever in the metaphoric Cloud and the literal server bank somewhere Out West is a promise of this Internet age, but it’s also permanent. It can be checked, picked over, researched. My father’s mythology, the man who I have morphed and built up and altered, is an oral tradition. I will never know him the way I want to. But I still get to discover him. Unearth these treasure chests, buried in the yearbooks of his high school friends and the hearts of his siblings. In the forum posts of a ghost town internet game. In what I hope will be new memories, pieces of him I have forgotten but will return to me as I lift a future child onto my shoulders, knowing suddenly what it’s like to hold the very small hand of someone I love more than anything. Someone who will find this and read it one day, maybe. A little gift to know just a very small piece of my heart.
I live now in New Haven, CT, studying at Yale School of Drama. My apartment is next door to a funeral home, and I sometimes pass the mourners on my way back at the end of the day. Late one evening, late in May, I stopped on my doorstep, keys in the lock, and turned to see a family treading the soft ground back to their cars, dressed all in black. Eyes down and trailing behind, a girl no older than eight is tugging at a well ironed black outfit that looks brand new. Like she’s never had to wear it before. I didn’t own a black dress when my father died. I had to borrow one from my mother. I watch this girl trail along, and I want to tell her that the world is so very large, and time is so very strange, and there will be a moment, years and years from now, when the universe will turn over a stone and give just a little piece of the dead back to her. It will be small and mundane and even a little silly. But it will be Zeus walking among men, an echo of Eurydice in Orpheus as he turns back, Persephone bringing her mother such joy that the world comes back to life. And she will carry that stone with her always, heavy in her pocket, middle smoothed down by her thumb.