The following contains spoilers for The Last of Us Part II.
I’ve thought about the final scene of The Last of Us Part II daily since I finished the game over six months ago. In it, we see main character Ellie reflecting on her final conversation with her father figure Joel, not entirely reconciling after she discovered the events of the original game, but leaving on the hope that they might one day. By the time we reached the end of the sequel, that conversation had taken place around a year prior, as Joel was killed the following night. After Ellie stops thinking of this exchange, she sits in her home in a room with nothing but her old belongings. Her girlfriend Dina and son JJ are no longer here, having left after Ellie abandoned them to get revenge against Joel’s killer. The keepsakes here are all the material possessions she has to remember her life in Jackson, Wyoming, where she and Joel spent years of their lives. It was where she met the love of her life and found her family. In her lap sits the guitar Joel gave her. It’s all she has of him left. And in this final moment, she leans the instrument against the open window and leaves this past behind her.
As I wrote about at the time, my dad passed away when I was in the middle of playing through The Last of Us Part II for review. At first, talking about the game felt uncomfortable, as if I was hashing out my own mourning process in the public eye. But eventually I found the words and wrote them down. As I approach the end of 2020, this last scene is still resonating with me as much as it did when I finished the game the first time, sitting a few feet away from my dad’s bedroom where he passed about 24 hours prior. It feels like I’m sitting in the same room that Ellie was at the end of The Last of Us Part II with the guitar in my lap. I realize I can’t sit here forever.
I’m six months removed from my dad’s passing, and that’s barely a fraction of the life I lived with him. But now that time has passed, I find I’m acclimating to what it means for him to be gone. I don’t instinctively assume the texts I get might be from him when I hear my phone go off. I google what to do when my car isn’t behaving the way it should. And every now and then, I’ll get through most of my day and realize I hadn’t thought about his passing the way it occupied much of my days back in June.
Moments that were once vivid are starting to seem foggy. I remember my dad’s southern drawl as he joked about learning to knit during our last conversation in his kitchen, the smell of the cigarettes he insisted on smoking into his final days despite being in the late stages of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. I remember the momentary panic of walking through his hallway and nearly stepping on the tube connected to his oxygen tank. These are my last memories with him, but sometimes they only come in flashes. I’m having to come to grips with the idea that eventually people in our lives will become memories, and with each passing day, memories fade.
I’m 28-years-old, and my dad was in my life for 27 of those. In the grand scheme of things, that’s nothing. If I live a long and healthy life, I have more years ahead of me than behind me, which means that my dad won’t be here for the majority of my days. He didn’t get to meet my future husband or any of the children I might have. He won’t be there to send me off when I finally get to move out of my hometown. When he finally passed, I took solace in knowing that, after seeing me graduate college and get some professional stability, he saw me achieving goals I’d been working toward for most of my adult life. In that last year, he saw me happy again.
2020 was full of moments of change for me. Not all of them felt great in the moment, but most of them were for the better. I finally cut off all contact from an abusive relationship that had been dragging me into the depths of my depression for years. I became disenfranchised with the idea of queer spaces as I watched queer people attempt to invalidate others’ identities and expression so they could tear down a video game. In a roundabout way, I think that was a good thing, because it made me appreciate how I’d been romanticizing the idea of being part of a community that probably doesn’t exist in the idealized way I’d imagined it. Feeling isolated from a world I wanted to live in has been at the core of my depression for most of my life, and there’s a freedom in knowing it was a fantasy. And because of the coronavirus pandemic, I was stranded in my hometown for a year longer than I intended to be. But by sticking around in an area with a lower cost of living, I was finally have some financial stability for the first time, and it will make the move easier when it eventually does happen.
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Whether it be stagnation during so much of what some might call a “wasted” year, or that some of the most important parts of my life were altered in unchangeable ways, 2020 required a level of introspection, prioritizing myself, and breaking down the “whys” and “hows” of my future in ways I don’t think I had afforded myself. In years past, I was caught up in college, dead end jobs, depressive spirals, and destructive relationships. I was stuck, but without the means for a way out or a definitive direction. It felt like that’s all my life was ever going to be.
The last 365 days had their own roadblocks, but I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m in a position to let go of a lot of things that held me back. For better or worse, I feel like I’ve finally got my head on my shoulders. My life feels like the beginning of the one I’ve been fighting for over the past decade. The one my dad helped me to achieve any time the opportunity arose. But acknowledging that my life is better now means I have to wrap my head around moving forward without him with me.
People like to joke that the new year means nothing, despite the weight we put on it. It’s supposed to be the point where we have a reset, and everything bad that’s happening in one year will magically end when the clock hits midnight. But we know that’s not actually true. The coronavirus doesn’t magically disappear when we hit January 1. But what it does change is the way we refer to events of the past, and I keep thinking about how the way I talk about my dad’s death is going to change multiple times over the rest of my life. It means that I’ll have to start telling people my father passed away a year ago, instead of “back in June.” Then eventually it will be “in 2020.” Then someday, I’ll tell someone it happened “in my late 20s.”
That’s why I’m hesitant to put the guitar down, leave the house, and move forward. As long as time stands still, I can stay within this moment. Saying something happened weeks or months ago doesn’t feel as heavy as saying it was years or even decades ago.
The Last of Us Part II is all about Ellie finding her way to the point when she’s ready to walk away from her anger and grief. The time table anyone, whether that be Dina, Joel’s brother Tommy, or even we as the player project onto how long and in what way she’s allowed to grieve is secondary. It’s why some find a disconnect between her and the violence she commits, and it’s why some people will never want to engage in a story like The Last of Us to begin with. Her recovery is selfish and violent, but it’s what she feels she has to do to reach her own peace in a world that’s taught her that language is the only one that communicates her feelings. There’s a belief that we as outsiders can look at someone and say “that’s enough,” as if their feelings are only valid as long as those around them can tolerate them, but grief is not a linear path forward. I don’t feel the compulsion to cross the country and fight someone or blame them. But I don’t think I’m ready to put the guitar down. Not just yet.
I think I’ll sit in this room for a little bit longer. Long enough for it to feel right. I’ll run my hands over the guitar’s strings, take in the view of the country skyline. When I’m ready, I’ll rest the guitar against the window sill, pick up my pack, then head in whatever direction calls me.