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Kingdom Hearts brought my family together when we needed it most

When I was five, my mother brought the Gerber baby home from the hospital. At least that's what I thought — Raymond looked like the baby on the Gerber baby food jars when he was tiny.

He was born with achondroplasia, a form of Dwarfism that curved his back and made it difficult for him to walk. Doctors told my parents he wouldn't live past the age of 10. I didn't know this at the time. I did know that my mother cried a lot whenever she would play with or feed him.

My siblings and I really didn't know what to do with each other. Then, during the super-boring summer of 2002, our mother bought us a copy of Kingdom Hearts.

Full house

My parents would spend days at a time in Maryland with Ray, traveling back and forth from his team of specialist doctors for the next four years. When Ray was home, I'd set all his toys out on a blanket and sit with him while he played, listening to his unintelligible gurgling and kissing his cheeks until they were red whenever he smiled. Doctors put him in a back brace, which fixed his spine, and planned out several years worth of surgeries that would eventually save his life.

When I was 10 years old, my parents dumped me at my aunt's house for an extended stay because once again, it was time for my mom to go to the hospital. She had gotten fat a few months prior and when I noted this, she said she was having another baby. One evening during my stay, I got a call from my dad that I'd be going to visit the hospital the next morning. I had another brother.

While the adults all talked excitedly behind me, commenting on how refreshed my mother looked in her hospital bed, I stood on my tiptoes to peek in the cradle in one corner of the room to look at Jake. The last thing my house needed was another little boy pooping all over the place, I thought. There was a lot of pooping going on in my house.

I reached into the crib and poked the pink face of the sleeping baby. Jake opened his eyes. I put one finger on the palm of his doll-like hand and those impossibly tiny fingers closed around it.

At the age of 10, you don't really think about what to do with your baby siblings.

At the age of 10, you don't really think about what to do with your baby siblings. Raymond and Jake seemed like they would be small forever; Raymond grew slowly due to his condition and Jake's growth spurt wouldn't hit until he was 15. Years later, at 14, I still didn't know what to do. All I cared about was The Lord of the Rings, writing anime fanfiction and chai lattes. I was a bookworm, top of my class, and spent most of my free time either with my best friends or studying my ass off.

During his baby years, my parents took to dumping Jake in my room when they needed to get things done. "Who wants a baby?" my mom would say, taking pains to mask her exhaustion, and set him on a blanket on my floor. I would talk to him like he could understand me — and maybe he could. He would gurgle and fart and laugh. He'd watch me play video games.

Raymond and I didn't get along during that time. I would get frustrated, we would both cry and yell. My mom worried that my middle sibling and I would forever hate each other.

One day my mother brought home a copy of Kingdom Hearts. She bought it because it was a Disney game and the least-threatening thing she could find at GameStop. I had begged for a PlayStation 2 the year before and this was her attempt at getting me to stop complaining that we didn't have enough games.

There was nothing even remotely threatening-looking about a prepubescent boy hitting things with a giant key. Our family was about to be made whole.

kingdom hearts 2

The modern fireplace

I don't really know how it started. I booted the game up immediately on our downstairs TV and began playing. A few days later, Raymond started watching in media res and got confused, so we started the game over, together. A day later, four-year-old Jake — who was really fond of wandering the house in his underwear — came and sat with us.

And that was that.

Japanese role-playing games had already become "my thing" among my group of friends. My ability to spend days in front of the TV cranking through an RPG was second only to my endless love for prattling on about J.R.R. Tolkien's books. I was already a huge Final Fantasy nerd and had played Final Fantasy 10 all the way through at least twice with my best friend. I was already gaming, but my siblings? Not so much. Raymond preferred music and Jake preferred his Thomas the Tank Engine playsets.

But all of us had been born and raised on Disney content. From classics like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid to Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers and Darkwing Duck. We loved that shit. Every two years, my family would go on vacation for a week to Disney World in Florida and marinate in the stuff. My mom would buy books and video tapes (VIDEO TAPES!) and backpacks and whatever other Disney-flavored junk she could find. The Disney Channel was always on in our house. We were Disney kids.

There was nothing even remotely threatening-looking about a prepubescent boy hitting things with a giant key.

Kingdom Hearts was Final Fantasy meets Disney. Two of my favorite things in another thing that I could play. It was absolutely too good to be true. I was greatly looking forward to hanging with Donald and Goofy and smacking the shit out of Ursula and Maleficent. My brothers, for whom video games were still a mysterious, untouchable thing, were entranced.

It was summer, so no one was in school. I would whip up a plate of microwave nachos or pop tarts or whatever other garbage we ate as kids and set up the PS2 in the basement. I'd boot up Kingdom Hearts and, when Raymond and Jake were ready, we'd settle into the couch to play. We'd go for hours, breaking for the bathroom and little else. Raymond loved the simple act of running through the environments, talking to Disney characters. He wanted Sora's straight hair, as his was and still is curly. I was obsessed with bulking up my Keyblade. I spent an inordinate amount in Halloweentown because I loved the music. Jake watched, calling out things he saw and reminding me to use a potion or I would die and he didn't feel like watching that boss fight again.

I remember the first time Jake held a game controller. The first time he played a game. He asked if he could try something, and Raymond and I gave each other a "oh this kid's gonna eat dirt" look before I passed him the DualShock. Without skipping a beat, Jake — from hours spent secretly studying what buttons I pressed — immediately trounced a pack of Heartless. Raymond and I never kept the controller from him again.

My mom let us stay up late one Saturday night to beat the game. The credits rolled at 2 a.m. and as Utada Hikaru's "Simple and Clean" played, we all cried. The ending was poignant, and featured an unfortunate cliffhanger, but I was crying because this happy time was over. We had beaten a game together, spent all these hours just trying to rescue Riku and Kairi, and here we were — done.

Things were never the same between the three of us.

When Jake was six, he decided he wanted to play Final Fantasy 10 on his own. I remember creeping into the basement to spy on him. He was dodging lightning bolts on the Thunder Plains, quietly singing the "Hymn of the Fayth" to himself in his little high-pitched voice.

When Raymond was 11, he tried his hand at Grand Theft Auto, because all the cool kids were playing it. He didn't like it very much and joined Jake in Final Fantasy 10.

We became friends.

We got closer. Raymond grew up and is now a master of music and video editing. Jake spends countless hours playing Madden in his room. I've moved to two cities and back again since then, and when I'm home I'm usually writing. But beating Kingdom Hearts together did something. I can't exactly explain what, but it was the turning point in our relationship. By experiencing this one thing together, we had a better understanding of each other. We became friends.

We now get lunch together whenever we can. We watch stupid ghost-hunting shows and take trips to Trader Joe's and Barnes and Noble, sharing our hopes for the future and our current worries. Raymond tells me his fears about entering the job market. Jake tells me he absolutely has to go to college in Boston, where I went, but he doesn't know how to cook and is worried he'll get sick on ramen.

Today, I am 26. Raymond is about to turn 22. Jake is 17. Raymond doesn't really play video games other than the occasional Mario Kart, but for Jake, they are his hobby, his daily escape from the pressures of high school and college applications. I play video games for a living and Jake is constantly taking all my shit.

We played Kingdom Hearts 2 together when it came out during our Christmas break in 2005. We've made a pact that, wherever I am in the world whenever Kingdom Hearts 3 comes out, I will come home to play it with them. Even if we've outgrown Disney and the Kingdom Hearts series has gotten, as Jake puts it, "really goobery." But this is the thing that brought us together: a video game. One game got us to sit down in one space for more than five minutes and interact with each other on a deeper level.

Kingdom Hearts will always have that special place in my heart. It brought my family together.

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