Last night, I, like many humans across the earth who have access to HBO, spilled into a culminating episode of Game of Thrones entitled “The Long Night”. In this episode, for folks who don’t watch the show, we see a battle between the living (many of whom fight each other under less pressing circumstances in order to sit on top of the iron throne and rule the seven kingdoms) and the dead (led by the Night King). This impending confrontation is what is meant by the tagline “Winter is Coming”; winter means the army of the dead, and in this episode, they’ve arrived. My daddy says that when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail: for me, this eighty-some minute portrait of what it feels like to lose to death, only to be saved at the last minute, reminded me so strongly of what it’s like to have cancer that I had to write about it today.
First, a bit of context. I started watching Game of Thrones in 2015, after the show had been around for awhile. Each episode is an hour long, and in general, the show is not the sort of story I usually enjoy. There are tons of characters, creatures, and languages, and while fantasy fans find this a marvel, I often find it distracting from the most complex thing of all: feelings. So. In any case, I wanted to participate in the cultural conversation, and so while I recovered from my bilateral mastectomy, my first bout with chemo, a coinciding soft tissue infection that nearly killed me and resulted in surgery to remove an expander from my chest, I watched just about ten hours a day of GoT while taking copious amounts of narcotic painkillers. In that context, I wanted no part of my true feelings, and the flight of fancy represented by the show was more than welcome.
I’ve continued to watch it ever since, throughout my active treatment, and now, after my active treatment is over and my scans are clear. I take last night’s episode, and the episodes before it (and really, the whole “winter is coming” idea), as an allegory for how humans interact with death in general. We know that it is coming. We fight it anyhow. We prepare for it as well as we can, and when it is imminent, we sit by fires with one another and sing, or extend sacred rituals, like when Jaime knights Brienne. But, in the end, death wrecks our shit.
As I watched last night’s episode, it struck me that the feeling of being swarmed relentlessly by death mirrors the experience of cancer, especially when it’s genetic. Whereas folks like to think about cancer as a bounded thing, beginning with a bad scan and ending with a better one, it is actually more like the experience of fighting against an army of the undead, which grows bigger the longer you fight. The relentless, steady onslaught of zombies reminds me of the way that cancers eats your life, so that every component, every person, event, relationship connected to me has been bitten by it. My existence is populated by white walkers now, who both once were and still are people who fight alongside me. I am the Night King.
But, I am also Arya. A girl has been training for this her entire life. My grandmother, and my aunt, and my mother have been my teachers. They have shown me how to die, and how to survive; how to both sit with and rage against the idea that we are important and temporary, often in the context of ordinary daily routines, like on Mondays. They’ve taught me to look for supporters, like Gendry, The Hound, Brienne of Tarth and Sansa. They’ve taught me to be tireless in my pursuit of learning, to strive for excellence in what matters most to me, and at times, the importance of a well-wrought list. Here’s the deal: Arya kills the Night King because she has trained for that moment her entire life, and she knows his one weakness. Death’s weakness is that it can never erase the fact that I am here now. I have trained my whole life to not only know that, but live it in the decisions I make. And so, I win. What do we say to the god of death? Not to-fucking day.
I have to say that seeing myself so clearly in a television show like this makes me especially anxious for the next episode. My fear is that the story line will say “Phew! We beat death. Thank god that is completely over. Now, back to who gets to rule this kingdom!” If they do this, the world will hear from me. Because that narrative is false. That is not what happens after you beat death. As someone who has now survived a few near death experiences, let me tell you what happens afterwards: paradoxically, you have a harder time living. Once you become aware of how close death is for all of us, daily decisions become harder. In this context, what does the iron throne even matter? Don’t even get me started on writing a dissertation!
Living after you’ve nearly died is the ultimate “Now, what?”. I sense that Game of Thrones has just reached this crucial question as well, and I am begging for them to answer it honestly. I’d like to know a story about what humans, obsessed by power, do after they have faced down death. How does it change what they value, and what they are willing to sacrifice for what they want? Death does not die. It snuffs the arrogant armies we assemble to protect ourselves, bridges over the moats of fire we ignite around our hearts. It climbs through the walls of the places we’ve gone to hide, because it was buried there all along. It is an ordinary part of the infrastructure of our plans, of our decisions, of our relationships. But, the dagger to death’s heart is swung by a girl who is no one, and who knows she is no one. It does not get to command its armies to overtake everything and everyone, especially not our knowledge of the present, past, and future, because it is not more powerful than those things. It does not get to swallow everything we love or all of who we are. It just isn’t as powerful as that. Death is no match for devotion, or good training, or for a girl who has seen death and realized that facing it unites her with every other living thing.
I am no one.