My cousin Ryan and I used to play this game whenever our families got together for the holidays. The premise was elementary, as were we. We dreamt up this large, imaginary dog that was in his basement, waiting to chase us, but if we ran fast enough across the room and jumped onto a sofa or a chair, then we’d be safe. It was up to interpretation what the dog looked like. I pictured sort of a white, shaggy dog, like a Komondor. My cousin could have been picturing any dog, really, because I discovered later that this game he created was based off of a real phobia of his, which dampens the memory a little.
The fear, however, never outshined the fun of screaming and running through the basement, jumping on furniture, tripping, laughing, and enjoying this strange game that always had two winners.
I don’t remember what age we grew too old for make believe, but it was somewhere around middle school. The next logical transition was video games, which are basically still make-believe games, but more socially acceptable. Ryan is about two years older than me, so as we grew up he usually dictated how we spent our time. Crash Bandicoot was my favorite game, probably because I was younger and the main character looks like a stuffed animal. Ryan, however, loved Golden Eye, so that’s what we played the most. He would try to teach me how to be James Bond, but I was more of a Johnny English. That said, I usually just sat and watched. But that was fine with me, because it still saved me from sitting at my parents’ side listening to the adult conversations that bored me to death. We didn’t have the time or patience to be bored with stories about grandma’s sister’s ex husband who recently passed away, or the rude phone call that Aunt Carroll got at her new temp job. Didn’t any of them care that there were Russian space weapons to take down?!
Ryan ended up beating the game without me. We only saw each other a few moments every year, so I wasn’t hurt about it. What did hurt came later: quiet and unexpected.
It wasn’t growing up, or growing apart; it was both, all at once.
Ryan hated school more than anything. He almost didn’t finish high school because it was so excruciatingly boring to him. He didn’t get anything out of reading books or writing papers. He wanted to build massive vehicles like monster trucks and semis, with a cold beer close by and a radio blasting 70s rock—and he appears to be living out that dream right now.
And then there’s me; the guy who became so passionate about education that I not only went on to college after high school, but then went on to a graduate school of education where I’m being educated about education every day.
We weren’t opposites, Ryan and I. We were family, after all. But that familial bond seems to have changed so drastically with us: from held hands to handcuffs.
I can’t remember when or how, but one day Ryan decided that it was time for us to go upstairs and rejoin the rest of the family. I didn’t understand, because I was having so much fun. Maybe Ryan thought that since there were other children in the family now, they needed the basement space for their own fantastical adventures. Or maybe I did something that upset him.
It probably wasn’t even a conscious decision, just a quick one out of boredom.
As I imagine Ryan running up the stairs before me, I imagine myself knowing that it was the last time we would hide away in his basement together. But what I couldn’t imagine at that age was that it would be the last time we would play together, or laugh together. It was the last time that I would think, “At least we have each other.” What I didn’t know when I reached that final stair and saw Ryan sitting quietly, watching whatever football game was on TV, was that this was how we would spend every holiday after: watching the game, and watching the clock, from a few more feet apart each year.
Michael Kelly (’14) graduated from Calvin College with a double major in psychology and writing. Shortly after graduating, he began his graduate level study of educational research, measurement, and evaluation at Boston College. When he is not studying learning and teaching, Michael learns and teaches through stories and writing—fiction and nonfiction, comedy and tragedy, and everything else in between.