Early in December, my dad called to tell me my mom had suffered a hemorrhagic stroke, and that my brother and I should fly down to Atlanta to be with her. Right now, my mom is stable and recovering well. But that day, we flew in thinking it might be the last time we’d see her.
The human brain, I learned, is laughably fragile. A single broken blood vessel can lead to loss of language skills, massive changes in personality, loss of feeling in the body, or death, depending on how long certain parts of the brain are deprived of oxygen.
The night I arrived at the ICU, my mom was struggling. Though her personality was intact, she had no feeling in her right side, and her speech was limited such that she could only respond yes or no. When language skills have been affected, stroke sufferers can essentially be locked in their own brains, often needing something but unable to adequately express what. It’s heartbreaking to watch a loved one look you in the eyes and struggle to find words that won’t come.
My mom’s room in the ICU allowed two visitors at a time, meaning I could visit her with my fiancee, my dad, or my brother — but we couldn’t all be there together. This meant I spent most of my time in the waiting room stewing in my own anxiety and fear as other folks visited her. I searched for a distraction. I tried crossword puzzles, watched youtube videos, played video games and read books, but it was impossible to focus through the constant, electric pangs of worry and guilt.
I don’t remember how I found GrandPOObear’s Twitch page. GrandPOOBear is a member of the “kaizo” community, a tightknit group of folks who, in short, are incredibly skilled at games in the Super Mario Bros. franchise. The word “kaizo” literally means “reorganize” in Japanese, and refers to the practice of creating mind-bogglingly difficult Mario games (like the masterful Grand Poo World 2 by BarbarousKing) using ROM hacking tools, or simply creating ultra-hard Mario levels through official means like Super Mario Maker 2. Remember that viral Mario level packed full of deadly fire bars? That’s a prime example of a kaizo level.
GrandPOObear and the rest of the kaizo community master these games and stages. Many Mario Maker 2 kaizo stages can take over 25 hours for a top-level player to beat. Even at its most impressive, solving a kaizo level is an incredibly repetitive act: Each one of them will take hundreds (if not thousands) of attempts to clear, meaning that any viewer will essentially be watching the same level for hours on end. For some reason, watching GrandPOObear, or other kaizo speed runners try and fail, over and over again was the only thing I could focus on, the only thing that kept the fear out of my mind.
Though these runs are repetitive, they’re also oddly soothing. GrandPOObear often refers to his channel as “visual ASMR" (for autonomous sensory meridian response), and the label isn’t unearned. There’s an odd calmness in the diabolical machinery of these levels, and a satisfaction in seeing it navigated. And yet, the actual experience of watching these streams is an active one, from trying to decipher puzzles along with the streamer to laughing at them after a particularly egregious death, to simply rooting them on as they complete a level.
A couple of days after the stroke, my mom showed some signs of improvement. Though she was still struggling with speech, my dad caught her singing along to a Jason Isbell song. For the entire afternoon, we all took turns in the hospital room singing some of her favorite songs with her. Through choked tears of joy and grief, I sang R.E.M’s “Nightswimming” and The New Pornographers’ “Bleeding Heart Show” with my mom.
The next day, it was clear all that activity had taken a lot out of her. She slept most of the day, and wasn’t really responsive. It felt like a setback.
The nurses told me that all this was normal, that stroke recovery is, even in the best cases, nonlinear, and that the brain needs this rest time to heal.
While she slept, I put my headphones in and watched GrandPOObear try for hours to nail a particularly difficult level. More times than I can count, he missed a jump right before a checkpoint or, more disappointingly, before the end of the entire level, forcing him to start over again. I joined the chat, cheering him on as he tried again and again and again. It was comforting to find myself alongside a bunch of other folks also rooting for his success.
A few days later, it was clear that despite some bumps in the road, my mom was recovering steadily, if slowly. She could occasionally string words together into phrases, and her facial expressions were more expressive and bright. I felt comfortable enough to return home. Progress. When I got there, I continued watching kaizo streams, and I subscribed to GrandPOObear’s channel. As I watched it became clear that, as trivial as it may seem, seeing him happily take on these challenges gave me a road map for my own mental health, as well as my mom’s recovery.
Recovering from a stroke and beating a particularly hard Mario level are wildly different things. But as somebody who struggles with anxiety, the hardest thing for me in this whole process has been the fact that I’m not a patient person. Stroke recovery is an arduous, months-long process that is frustrating even at the best of times.
But watching these streams helped remind me that slow, frustrating, nonlinear progress is still progress. Watching GrandPOObear beat a level that seemed impossible at first was cathartic.
My anxiety spikes when I feel like I don’t have enough control of the situation around me. Over the past month, I’ve had to face the fact that sometimes, terrible things happen to rip that control away. The only thing to do sometimes is simply to wait and hope.
The key to beating any kaizo level is seizing the sliver of control the level gives you and holding on for dear life as you leap gigantic gaps, ricochet off walls and squeeze through impossibly tight spike traps. These levels want you to tackle them in very specific ways, and it’s up to the player to bash their head against the wall until they can both figure out the proper approach and execute it perfectly.
Coming home after the first week my mom spent in the ICU, I realized I actually had a good time over the visit. Despite the circumstances, I was filled with warmth and love as my entire family came together in support of my mom doing this really, really hard thing. Seeing their optimism, forced or otherwise, helped me realize that there were people around me I could count on when I got scared. As reductive and silly as it sounds, I thought of GrandPOObear’s Twitch chat, and the way they cheered him on.
I went back to Atlanta for the holidays. By then, my mom had been moved from the ICU to an inpatient recovery facility where she was getting daily speech and physical therapy. Being back with her after a few weeks absent, I was stunned by her progress. She could put together phrases even more consistently, and was vastly more active and alert than just a few weeks ago. It was inspiring.
The other day I took a shot at a level GrandPOObear made with Mario Maker 2 that functions as a sort of tutorial, a guide to a high-level technique called shell jumping that’s used in a variety of kaizo levels. After a few hours, I made it to the final part of the level that requires the player to do two shell jumps in a row. After hours of attempts, I gave up. I couldn’t do it. But instead of being frustrated that I couldn’t beat the level, I was proud of myself that I had gotten there, because I’d still learned something new.
GrandPOObear often says that your first shell jump is the hardest. It takes a really long time to get the timing right. Your first success might take an hour or two. Your next, maybe 45 minutes. And as you practice, timing that was once confusing and precise becomes second-nature.
I haven’t gotten to that point yet, but that’s okay.
Sam Greszes is a freelance writer currently based in Chicago. His previous work has appeared on Polygon, Fanbyte, and GameSkinny. Follow him on Twitter @SamGreszes.