A Farewell to Eloy
My younger brother Kenny died of sudden heart failure at age 27.
Note: I’ve launched a Kickstarter for a children’s book starring Eloy and touching on many of the themes discussed here in a child-friendly way. Visit https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/bencreighton/eloy-the-existential-donkey to support the project!
Eloy, the character I created to make sense of Kenny’s death, isn’t a reincarnation of my brother. He is an alternative identity for me.
Now, Eloy is gone too… but he isn’t dead.
The characters we create, in turn, recreate us.
My name is Eloy, and I’m an asinine centaur. That’s a fancy word that means donkey-man. I grew up in a big ol’ herd of donkey-men that lives on Old Lady Big Rock Mountain.
Daddy wanted me to learn the druid-ways from Herdmaster Jeb, and I tried real hard. I liked the parts where he’d teach me how to splint up a busted leg and whatnot, on account of how I hate to see folks hurtin’. I didn’t so much like the parts where he’d try to teach me how to pray to Old Lady Big Rock Mountain so’s she wouldn’t kill us with rockslides all the time. She never did seem to listen to me no matter how much I prayed. I guess I’m just no good at the druid-ways.
One day one of them two-leggers came up the mountain and started walking with the herd. He never did tell us his name, so mostly we called ‘im Halfie, on account of he looked like a centaur what had had his back end chopped off so he was only half a centaur. He didn’t seem to mind none.
Halfie had somethin’ called a flute, and he used it to make the nicest noises I ever did hear. By and by Halfie taught me all the melodies he knew, and I started in on making up new ones to play on that flute. I made one up that sounded so sweet that everyone who heard it got to feelin’ real friendly and agreeable-like. They’d do just about any old thing I’d ask them to after hearin’ my new song.
About six months after my brother’s death, I moved from my hometown of Tucson, AZ to Dallas, TX and took over the leadership of Team Four Star, a group of Internet humorists I’d been involved in as a hobby since the group’s founding.
In Dallas, I began dating a woman who, she revealed to me after several months, was very religious. She told me she waited so long to tell me about her faith because she knew I didn’t share it. She decided to bring it up now because she was beginning to fear that she was suppressing an important part of herself in order to accommodate me.
I was taken aback. At the time I considered myself agnostic, but I was raised Catholic, and that aspect of my childhood was an important part of my life which I remember fondly to this day.
I told her I remembered what faith felt like and that I would never try to take that away from her intentionally. However, I could see that that’s exactly what had happened, simply by virtue of being important in her life. Between that reveal and several other factors too complex to get into here, I told her that I thought it was best that we break up.
Now she was taken aback. She challenged my lack of faith. She called into question everything I had shared with her about my life, including the experiences that lead to my decision to move to Dallas and lead Team Four Star. Couldn’t I see all of that as evidence of God’s hand guiding me, preparing me? A divine architect who had designed the course of my life for me?
When she said “experiences”, she was thinking about things like learning from my mentor how to lead a team. Things like discovering how to break down the walls between my Internet self and my real-life self.
Then her faced changed. She realized that there was one big thing, The Big Thing, that had happened right before I made the decision to move. I could see in her face the moment it occurred to her.
My brother’s death.
“You know,” she said, “…except for the bad stuff.”
Except for the bad stuff.
That offended me. And I am not easily offended. I got up and left the room. I didn't want to be angry at this woman who I knew cared about me and only wanted to share the faith that was such a comfort for her.
It wasn’t a comfort for me. My brother didn’t die at the age of 27 because God wanted to teach me some lesson or prepare me to lead a bunch of Internet funnymen. That idea held no solace for me. It reduced my brother, who had been a person, a whole person, into some kind of prop.
It was offensive. Blasphemous.
We are still friends, but we are no longer together.
Better to believe that my brother’s death had no purpose, that it was random and cruel and fundamentally absurd, and that if there was meaning to be found in it, that it was up to me to find it, to create it if it wasn’t there to be found. To make it mean something by sheer force of will. That idea was a cold comfort, but it was the only comfort I could access.
I remember that day as the day I became an atheist.
Well, Herdmaster Jeb caught wind of this and he got together with the herd elders and they had a big ol’ jaw and decided that I was workin’ black magic on folks’ minds. I told ’em I never meant to work no black magic, I just wanted to play my music and make people real happy, but they said if I wanted to stay with the herd I had to give up blowin’ on that flute for good, and Halfie couldn’t stay with us no how.
I talked it over with my daddy and with Halfie, and the next morning Halfie climbed on my back and we started off for the nearest two-legger village so’s I could make my fortune in the wide world.
But wouldn’t you know it, before half a day was over Old Lady Big Rock Mountain sent down a rockslide that crushed Halfie’s head right in. I wrapped a bandage around it and played the flute for him all that night, but it didn’t do no good. Halfie was gone.
Some months later, when it came time to create my character for Team Four Star’s Dungeons and Dragons campaign, I created a character who had spent his whole life praying to a god that probably didn’t exist, but if she did exist, killed his friends for no reason.
Do you think maybe I was trying to work some shit out?
Here’s the thing: Eloy is not a dark and tormented character. He’s not haunted by his losses. He is open and friendly and approaches both his past and his future with a queer blend of fatalism and optimism.
“Some days Old Lady Big Rock Mountain sends rockslides,” he says. “And some days she doesn’t.”
Eloy is fearless. Some people would deal with the trauma he grew up with by cowering at the dangers of the world around them. Eloy embraces them. When Eloy is informed that he’s living with a capricious creature that could end him and everyone he cares about on a whim, Eloy shrugs. “Ain’t that what we all been doing all along?” And he goes back to living his best life. It’s effortless for him in a way that it’s not for me.
At one point Eloy met a gargoyle, a creature newly animated by magic who could speak and reason, but was otherwise essentially an infant, fundamentally naive about the world. Eloy was called on to explain the concept of death to this creature, to explain why the now-deceased wizard who created him was no longer there.
When my brother died, my 5-year-old nephew asked me, “Uncle Ben, why is everyone so sad? Uncle Kenny’s in heaven, right? So that’s a good thing, right?” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I no longer believed in heaven, that as far as I, or anyone else, could tell, Uncle Kenny was gone. Not to a different place, but that he no longer existed.
But, I didn’t contradict him.
I told him, “We’re not sad for Uncle Kenny. We’re sad for ourselves because we don’t get to see Uncle Kenny anymore.”
I decided that Eloy’s people don’t believe in an afterlife.
He would not tell the gargoyle that the wizard that had animated him had gone to a better place, or a worse place, or any place at all. Instead, Eloy said, “Today you’re alive. You’re here talking to me. You can think and feel and do things and exist in the world. What were you before you were alive?”
The gargoyle thought about it. “I was just stone, I guess. All the stone that’s me now was already there, but it wasn’t me yet.”
Eloy told him, “That’s what happened to your daddy. All the things that make up his body — his arms and his legs and his head and his heart — are still there, but they aren’t him no more. He went back to what he was before he was born. He went back to not existing.”
The gargoyle thought some more. “It’s like he went back in time?”
“Sort of,” Eloy said. “Except for one thing. He lived, and he did things in the world. He made you. Those things didn’t stop existing just because he did. Your memories of him still exist. The things you can do now that you’re alive, the life he gave you, still exists. You’re the proof that he existed. That’s what’s left of him in the world. Not the body that ain’t him no more. You.”
Someone messaged me later telling me that they liked that little speech. I reflected that I liked it, too. It wasn’t until then that I realized: that speech was about my brother. Of course, it was. And not only that speech. It was all about my brother. It had always been about my brother.
I never realized how powerful this goofy donkey man I’d created could be.
Eloy handles his grief with an effortless grace that I envy. I created him as an aspirational version of myself, and I’ve been privileged to be able to embody him for a couple of hours every Tuesday. I’ve been fortunate to be able to share him with my friends at Team Four Star and with everyone who watched us play.
It’s time to give up that privilege now. It’s time to stop pretending to be Eloy every Tuesday.
I’ve decided to let the aspirational character go. Instead, I am going to start pretending to be him every day, with the intent that at some point in the future, when I’m not even paying attention, if I’m lucky and I work hard at it — it’ll cease to be pretense and begin being me.