Westeros.

The day before the season seven finale of Game of Thrones, I left Los Angeles. All that remained of the eighteen years I’d spent there was contained in three suitcases, a duffle bag, and four cardboard boxes. The luggage was coming with me, on a one-way flight to Seattle; the boxes would be shipped to my new address in New York City, once I knew where that was.

Daenerys, Tyrion and the dragons (from IMDB.com)

I had no job and no place to live, a fact that should have concerned me more than it did. But as I bid farewell to my roommate Jen, bound for the vacant house in western Washington that once belonged to my grandfather – the house where I planned to “figure things out” – my priorities were elsewhere. “I can’t believe I’m not watching the finale with you!” I wailed. Jen and I were friends who, for years, had dissected every GOT plot point and character arc like it was our job. “What am I going to do?”

More than a year and a half later, I’m looking forward to the epic series’ final season with both eager anticipation and a palpable sense of loss. For eight years, Game of Thrones has been my companion throughout the most difficult experiences of my life. When it premiered in 2011, I’d never lost anyone close to me; before season three was over, my parents, my grandmother, my dog, and a close friend from college were all dead. As I grappled with disorienting grief, the brutal, you-win-or-you-die rules of the world GOT unfolded before me provided welcome catharsis. A show where the writers didn’t hesitate to kill off beloved characters was – oddly – comforting. No one was safe. Anyone could die. Just like in real life.

Watching Game of Thrones in L.A.

At my father’s funeral in the winter of 2013, I sat at a table with his younger brother, Jimmy. The last time we’d seen each other, I was four years old and the flower girl in my half-sister’s wedding. With no relationship as adults, we had little to talk about. Jimmy was also gravely ill, requiring an oxygen tank to help him breathe. But he’d been a professor of film at a university in Nevada, and somehow, Game of Thrones came up. Our stilted, awkward conversation quickly gave way to a spirited discussion about Jimmy’s favorite character, Daenerys Targaryen. Jimmy died a few months later, and, in the years that followed, whenever Daenerys conquered a city or triumphed over one of her enemies, I felt a nagging sadness that he didn’t live to see it. “Jimmy would have loved that,” was my common, wistful refrain.

There are no knights in my story, no dragons or sorcerers or white walkers. But so often over the last eight years, the struggles of GOT’s characters have felt like heightened, fantastical versions of my own. I have loved them, learned from them, cried and cheered for them. But nowhere in the Game of Thrones universe did the stories of two characters resonate more personally with me than those of Arya and Sansa Stark. While their brothers were off getting killed (and occasionally, coming back to life!) or turning into a three-eyed raven, those two sisters were learning to survive in a world that constantly underestimated them. My life circumstances were – obviously – far less dramatic, but like Arya and Sansa, I too knew what it was like to suddenly lose my parents, to have my family ripped apart, and to be thrust into a new reality where everything felt cold and cruel and unfair. Every time one of them was hurt, I was outraged. Every time one of them triumphed, I saw it as a personal victory. Which is why the season seven finale, when they worked together to finally bring justice to the man who had been the architect of so much of their family’s suffering, was so, damned, satisfying.

Arya Stark (from IMDB.com)

There are plenty of people who will say GOT is just a TV show, and plenty more who will brag about the fact that they’ve never watched an episode. But for me, it’s more than just a compelling drama. The community that formed around watching Game of Thrones made me feel less alone during the loneliest period of my life. As Vulture.com pointed out in a recent article, in the age of binge watching, GOT might be the last show we watch together, each episode an event that must be experienced in real-time, with all of its awe and horror unfolding before our eyes. Which is why, even now, with so many of my friends and loved ones three thousand miles away on the opposite coast, I’ll still feel like, tonight, when I tune in for the season premiere, I will be watching right alongside them.

The final episodes of Game of Thrones are done. All that’s left to do now is wait, and watch. I am equal parts excited to see how my favorite characters’ stories will end, and terrified to learn their fates. And while I know no one is safe in the land of Westeros (or in the lands beyond), I do have one final request. Hey David, D.B. and George R.R.? Please don’t kill Arya and Sansa. I have survived many things in my life, and I’m sure I can survive that, too. I’m just not sure I want to.

Until next time, friends.

Jon Snow and Sansa Stark reunite (from IMDB.com)

The God of Death.

“What do we say to the God of Death?”

“Not today.”

– Game of Thrones

Today, I think I will swim. I announce this to Grandpa first thing in the morning, and he looks at me as though I’ve lost my mind. “It’s too damn cold!” he sputters.

It is too damn cold. Especially without the aid of vodka to warm my blood, which, today, on my seventh day at the beach, I’ve decided to stop drinking.

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It’s sort of shocking that I would drink at all, really, given the fact that it’s what killed my mother, and given the fact that here I am again, confronted with another family member with another failing liver. This time, the organ occupies the body of my 89-year-old grandfather, Gerry. But drink I have, vodka tonics every night as soon as the clock strikes five, with Grandpa’s symptoms on full display before me like some sort of ghastly cautionary tale: jaundiced skin and eyes lit up like a neon school bus, distended belly covered in bumpy red scabs, swollen ankles, flaking, itching skin and eyes that burn and sting and scratch like sandpaper. The dark, blood-colored bruises that cover his bony arms are the things that scare me the most, for they foreshadow the potential horror a hospice nurse warned us about: the bleeding. The tremendous amount of bleeding that can occur “when the time comes.” I think I can handle just about anything but the bleeding. “If that happens,” the nurse tells me, “Call hospice immediately. You shouldn’t have to deal with that.”

There is comfort in hospice, in knowing that they exist. There is less comfort in the “comfort kit” they provide, equipped with drugs I hope we won’t have to use. One of Grandpa’s caregivers tells me she’s not comfortable administering morphine, because she doesn’t want to “do it wrong.” “I’m not trained for that,” she says. Right, like I am, I think, but instead, I just say, “Thank you for telling me.” And I mean it. The business of dying is full of surprises, so the fewer we can avoid up front the better, as far as I’m concerned.

It has been a busy day. There is an appointment with a social worker, then another with a nurse. I send emails back and forth with a chaplain who’s arranging a small ceremony at Grandpa’s home to honor his years of service in the Navy, during both the Korean War and World War II.

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Throughout all of this, Grandpa is tired and intermittently naps, but stays mostly upbeat. It is amazing to me how open he is, how willing he is to talk to the strangers entering his home, to do his best to answer their questions. He keeps asking how he can help them, which they find endlessly endearing. Though he’s confused and groggy, he seems aware that these people are trying to make him feel better. He even accepts a blessing from the chaplain, which shocks me as he hasn’t practiced his Catholic faith in decades. Maybe he’s starting to make peace with what’s coming. At least, I can hope.

Every morning that he wakes up – his razor sharp wit and perfect head of thick white hair still intact in spite of his failing body – feels like a miracle. And every evening that I go to bed, I pray that the next morning, he won’t wake up. It’s not that I don’t want him to live; in fact, quite the opposite. It’s just that I know this won’t get any better, and for every day that remains, the fear of decline into the horror that may come – the pain, the hallucinations, the blood – becomes more real.

So I pray. I haven’t prayed in years but it’s amazing how quickly you can pick it back up, if you’re desperate enough. I know the thing I’m praying for – the quick, easy death – is unlikely. All the nurses say so. But I pray for it anyway. I pray that this kind, gentle man who has been through so much in his 80th decade – a debilitating stroke, the deaths of his daughter, his son-in-law, and his wife of sixty years – will be allowed to slip quietly away, in his sleep.

I don’t know what is coming. And the not knowing is terrifying. But today, on my seventh day at the beach, I decide to face it without the aid of vodka tonics. After all, they’re not working anyway. They aren’t enough to numb this out, or to help me pretend, as some other members of my family would like to do, that this isn’t happening.

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So instead, I wait. I wait for high tide and a break in the rain and then, like the California girl I’ve almost become, I slip on a mismatched bikini top and bottom under my clothes. I find Grandpa, who is seated at his dining room table, looking out the picture window at Case Inlet, as he does during most of his waking hours. I give him a quick hug and then I tell him I’m going for a swim. He gives me a confused look and I’m not sure that he understands, given it’s close to his bedtime and the meds are kicking in. I go outside, strip down to my swimsuit, and grab the faded orange Sears brand flippers that I scribbled my name on years ago with a sharpie (as though anyone else would want them). Fins in hand, wrapped in a towel, I walk down to the water’s edge.

I know that – in late October – the steely grey salt water will be a shock. I also know that the only way to do this is to plunge in quickly, before I feel ready. I’m not ready, I think, just before I hurl my body into the sea. I hit the water with a scream as the icy cold sears through me. But it doesn’t matter because I’m in, dogpaddling through the sound. I only last a minute or two before the shivering overtakes me, but as I make my way toward shore, I see Grandpa, watching from his seat by the window, a grin spread across his face.

Maybe diving into the frigid waters of Case Inlet during this overcast, rainy fall day does make me a bit crazy.  But as I approach the beach cabin, dripping wet and trying not to shake, I see Grandpa flashing me a thumbs up sign through the window, just before his caregiver wheels him off to bed. Maybe I am crazy. But maybe I’m his kind of crazy. And maybe – in spite of what lies ahead – that’s why I’m here.

Until next time, friends.

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