Jirard Khalil, known as “The Completionist,” has been playing video games from start to finish on his YouTube show for the past decade. He begins each episode with a tribute to his mom, who he lost to frontotemporal dementia (FTD) in 2013.
My mom passed away when I was 26, but I said goodbye to her when I was 18. She was not the same woman when I was 10 years old, or 12, or 26, thanks to dementia. But she was a fighter who fought until the end.
My Mom, My Yes
Driven, strong, stubborn, and even aggressive, my mom would never say “No.” Her mantra was: “I am a ‘YES’ person. Your ‘NO’ will not affect my ‘YES.’" Her passion was so strong in everything she did, but her identity was in being “Mom.” Being a mom was one of the most important things in her life, and she had five kids she loved. With a personality like hers, birthdays were always spectacular, and everything was a celebration. She was larger than life, and wore her heart on her sleeve.
On every episode of my YouTube channel, I grab a game cartridge and I say “Yes.” I am not sure that people know this, but it is because my mom would often buy games to get that reaction from me, because she loved seeing my eyes brighten. It is my nod to her, in every video. I say “Yes” for me, and for her.
Both of my parents wanted me and my siblings to shoot for the stars, and aim for success. My dad came to the United States with $65 in his pocket, when his country of Lebanon was in civil war, and it meant so much for him to succeed. When my parents got together, they both brought a huge creative force to all of their endeavors. This relentless behavior of never giving up is something I think about every day; I don’t care if I fall flat on my face as long as I know in my heart that I gave it my all.
The nature of my YouTube show is just that: The idea of a man completing a game from start to finish, regardless of the consequences.
Being the youngest of five, it is hard to feel that what you have to say matters. My mom was 40 when she had me. I was the youngest, I had health issues, and I was always alone. I didn’t bond with my siblings in the same way some kids do, because of our age gap. A lot of my time at a young age was spent just with my mom.
As a kid, I was at the hospital getting MRIs, having blood work done, waiting to be seen. It was in these moments between the two of us — where Mom would help me feel ‘normal’ — when we connected the most. I became obsessed with video games because I had nothing else. I couldn't play sports due to my health, but here was this activity I could have fun with. My dad would get frustrated by how much I would play, and would put the game console in the trash. But there was my mom behind him, retrieving it for me, and hooking it back up.
What’s Going on with Mom?
I was 10 when I started noticing the changes. By 12, it escalated, and it was my first day of high school, when I was 14, that my mom was officially diagnosed with FTD.
The biggest thing I noticed was that my mom started wearing wigs and hair extensions that changed her appearance completely. She was 54, and we thought this may be some sort of eclectic midlife crisis, but then I noticed that she became fixated on making one of her kids famous. She truly believed as a forward-thinking parent and manager, she could make one of us a star.
This was a total shift from her life as a partner to my dad in his business ventures. One day she said: “I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to get into show business.” Since we were surrounded by people in the entertainment business, where we lived in California, she urged my dad to start an entertainment company. Looking back, it was clear that this was brought on at least partially by her dementia. She got me and my siblings to do music video shoots, weird comedy sketches and audition tapes. It was something we hated, but we knew how much she wanted us to do this.
From there, we began seeing more erratic behavior, and conmen coming into her life. Her embracing these strangers really affected our family as a whole, and nearly created a divisional line between our parents. But the more we started piecing things together, my dad realized that something was just not right. When Mom’s bartering ploy to get me to star in a video or make an audition tape became buying me video games, as a kid, I wanted the new Goldeneye, or the new Mario Bros. I was too young to realize that something was very wrong.
She began to display more severe symptoms of distrust and paranoia. All of that stuff evolved so quickly. By the time we got her diagnosis, I felt like I had seen so much of her extreme behaviors, that it didn’t hit me hard at the time. I was not glad that I was right about something being wrong, but having that knowledge helped cement that Mom was no longer acting like my mom.
For Families Facing Dementia
One thing I wish I had recognized earlier on is that the person who is living with dementia is not the same person who used to be here with us. It sounds so scary, but it was necessary for me to heal from the past.
You have to learn to forgive yourself for the small moments you take for granted during the time you spend with your loved one. A lot of human nature is about growing, accepting, and grieving, and I am sure everyone wishes they had one more moment, one more opportunity, one less fight. But you can’t live with the grief of blaming yourself, and the person with the disease would not want you to live with the heaviness of the disease. They want you to succeed and be happy in life. You have to learn to forgive yourself.
And while your loved one may transform into someone you don’t recognize, you have to know that their heart and their love is unchanged. They won't be able to tell you that as they evolve and change with the disease, but they would want you to remember them as they were, and persevere.
The Holy Grail
Before her behaviors changed due to dementia, my mom would write in the manuals of each video game she bought for me: A Bible verse she was passionate about that day, or a favorite music track she listened to with her mom. As a young kid, I had no idea that she did this with each of my games, so many of which I never opened the manuals for. So when it came time to spring clean and give things away, I would donate boxes of games with the manuals intact.
3 Things Jirard Wants You to Know About Gamers:
- Gamers aren’t just ‘gamers.’ They are people who happen to be passionate about video games.
- Gaming culture is just culture. Our passions and drive are connected to a medium where you can play a game with strangers all around the world at any given moment.
- Don’t knock it until you try it! You may be surprised at the power video games have to unite us. There are so many stories to tell.
One day, when I was 19 years old, and she had progressed in her disease, I went to a local video game swap meet and I found a game I had as a kid. I opened up the manual and there was a message from her in it. It was as if fate intervened and said: “Here you go.” It was a crazy, amazing moment. Now, whenever I see games I had as a kid pop up on local sales listings, I immediately flip to the back of the manual to see if there’s a chance that it’s one of the games she bought me. I haven’t found one since, but it is now the Holy Grail, something I am always searching for.
If my dad is the epitome of the American dream, my mom is its heart, and I hope I have embodied them both. We will assimilate traits we both love and loathe, because we are our parents' children. Honoring my mom's legacy and all the love she gave us keeps me going. There is so much work left to do, and I am ready for it.
Deep down, I know that she would be proud of me. I love you, Mom.
About: Jirard Khalil is “The Completionist.” His review-driven show crafts a narrative about what it's like to play a video game for hundreds of hours, to playing a game that takes an hour to complete. His YouTube channel is celebrating its 10-year anniversary this September, with 1.4 million subscribers and counting.
Jirard has shared his story at talks across the U.S. In his mom’s honor, his family started a nonprofit organization called the Open Hand Foundation. He currently owns That One Video Entertainment LLC. You can follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.