After years of cancer, Mike Mariana was sick, tired, and nauseous. But that didn't stop a group of friends (and strangers) from helping him to a personal finish line.
When Mike Mariana played Destiny, he would often put the controller down, wait for the nausea to pass, and curse his chemotherapy treatments. But soon enough, he'd be zipping around again, hoping this would be The Run, when he made it to Destiny's fabled Lighthouse, a glittering location on Mercury, cast in a golden light. It's a place very few Destiny players see because it's incredibly hard to get there.
But Mike was determined.
In the game, The Lighthouse is described as "a beautiful place, and forbidding," a private, exotic locale "ornamented extensively with fabrics and ritual objects of unknown provenance." It was meant for a special group of visitors, a rare treat.
You get to The Lighthouse by passing the Trial of Osiris, where you must win nine multiplayer matches in a row. Despite their best efforts, Mike and his buddies couldn't pull it off. It was was a race against time, too; Mike had cancer. In desperation, as Mike began to emotionally struggle with his condition, his friends reached out to Destiny streamer who specializes in guiding folks there. He agreed to help.
"I wanted to see if I could make a man who had been battling something attacking him from the inside turn into a kid again," said streamer Ben "Dr Lupo" Lupo.
This all happened earlier this year, but a little over three years ago, in late 2013, Mike was just having trouble with constipation. A diet change seemed to help things—until it didn't. His girlfriend kept pestering him to see a doctor, but Mike was stubborn. He agreed to see a doctor after his 40th birthday, a short ways away, and would later tell his girlfriend there was a reason for being stubborn: he had already guessed it would be bad news, and wanted to put off the inevitable.
He was right, unfortunately: it was cancer.
It wasn't just any cancer, either; Mike had been diagnosed with colon cancer, and worse still, the cancer was moving fast, as it was already in his lymph nodes. Soon after, he started six weeks of intensive chemotherapy and radiation. His buddies also bought him a PlayStation 4.
"They figured he would need something to pass the time," said his girlfriend, Christy. "They were right. But what they didn't know was that it would help him through so much more."
One of the games he quickly fell in love with was Destiny. When Christy would come home from work, he'd tell her about his adventures "with his friends that he had never met." He'd get up in the wee hours of the morning to be at his computer for breaking news about the game. But more importantly, Mike met people and made friendships in a world away from cancer.
Tim Baron was one of those online friends. Tim, Mike, and a group of others would float from game to game, but Mike stuck with Destiny. When Tim checked in, he learned about the cancer diagnosis. Tim decided to download Destiny again, so he could keep playing with him.
"All other games made him sick due to some chemo side effects," he said.
Things got complicated after Mike started chemotherapy. Following surgery to remove the cancer, Mike suffered an infection and became very ill. When he got well enough to start another round of chemotherapy, doctors found a nodule (basically, a lump) on his liver but weren't worried—at first. For most of 2015, the nodule was fine, but eventually, it started growing, requiring more surgery. After that, more chemotherapy. Then, they scanned him.
"It was the first time a scan was normal," said Christy. "We were so excited!"
Christy met Mike online, and described a relationship that managed plenty of love, humor, and adventure, even as Mike was hurtling towards the unknown. He was a big laugher, loved improv comedy, and would watch any mafia movie you put in front of him. And besides pizza, games, and collecting sneakers, Mike had a fondness for the Marvel Comics character Deadpool.
"Probably because they had something in common," she said. "Deadpool battled cancer, too."
He was also the father of two kids, 19-year-old Tony and 17-year-old Abby, and later became close with Christy's 22-year-old son, Tyler. His online friends said Mike would often be caught bragging about his kids while they played.
"Mike would move heaven and earth for his kids," she said. "He always made sure they had what they needed. He went to sporting events even when he wasn't feeling well."
After the scan, for the better part of a year, everything went back to normal. When Mike started having vision problems, the hope was that prescription glasses would fix everything. A week later, though, Mike was experiencing terrible headaches, had trouble seeing out of one eye, and couldn't keep steady while standing. Fearing the worst, they went to the hospital.
The news was bad: there was a cancerous tumor pressing on Mike's spinal cord, explaining the issues. It had to be removed immediately. Four hours later, there was some confidence things were looking up—it appeared that more than 90% of the tumor had been removed. Despite that, Mike had suffered a cerebral spinal fluid leak. That meant more surgery. Surgery alone is stressful and dangerous, but for Mike, it meant additional distance from another round of chemotherapy. Though his latest surgery was successful, it came saddled with problems.
"He never thought once about giving in to the cancer. He looked at as just another hurdle to jump and he would be back working in a normal job just like the rest of us."
Mike's treatments began to impact gaming, one of his favorite ways to briefly escape pressures of real-life and heavy questions weighing over him. (How should he talk to his children about what's probably going to happen? What about the dog?) To his frustration, he would occasionally get motion sickness.
"He never thought once about giving in to the cancer," said Baron. "He looked at as just another hurdle to jump and he would be back working in a normal job just like the rest of us."
It's around this time that Mike's Destiny buddies started thinking of ways to help him out.
"I could tell his attitude had slightly changed," he said. "Just seemed kinda depressed. I was driving to work one morning about a week before New Years and thought to myself 'We have to get Mike to The Lighthouse."
Their own efforts to carry Mike to the finish line proved fruitless, so one of the guys he played online with, Elliot, researched streamers who specialized in the Trials of Osiris. He picked Lupo because of his "big heart towards giving back to the community," and gave him the big pitch.
(Elliot asked his last name be kept private.)
"I'm writing because of fellow clan member and guardian is in a bad spot. His name is Mike aka gambino1973 (PS). He has been a guardian ever since the beta. [...] I, nor any of our other clan members are good enough to do a carry for him. We are hoping that you would be willing to get Mike there for us. It would mean so much to him to not only get there, but to have a chance to play with a person such as yourself."
Lupo was skeptical at first; he's been duped before by folks playing the sick card. Though he asked Elliot for proof about Mike's condition, he agreed before it materialized. (Even though Elliot eventually did connect Lupo with people who could confirm Mike was, in fact, very ill.)
"I'm cautious because people will sometimes do anything to get anything," said Lupo. "I've seen instances in the past. People will claim it's their birthday, that they're feeling down, and far worse, just to get a chance to go to the Lighthouse. Being able to complete a Trials card can mean quite a bit to someone, especially if they've put their heart and soul into completing the task with less than desirable results."
In the Trials of Osiris, players are tasked with winning nine multiplayer matches in a row in teams of three. Between Lupo and a buddy he regularly plays with, that only left room for Mike. But that didn't stop Mike's friends from hopping online and wishing him luck.
"You've been having a hard time here lately," said Baron, as the group idled in an online party, "and Elliot and I wanted to try and boost your spirits, so we got a hold of this fella to see if he couldn't help out with that today."
"Thank you guys," said Mike.
In the moments before the push to The Lighthouse began, Lupo told Mike (and the stream) it was okay if they needed to take breaks in-between matches. (Remember, Mike's chemotherapy can induce motion sickness, heightened by frenzied multiplayer matches.)
"Hopefully, I can do some damage [laughs]," said Mike.
Over the course of nine rounds, Mike didn't, in fact, do much damage, with most of the kills spread between Lupo and his friend, but he managed to down a few players along the way.
The stream was Lupo's attempt to raise $10,000 for the Make-a-Wish foundation in 24 hours, which would go on to donate nearly $40,000 to the non-profit. During the stream, Mike would talk about his fight with cancer in the lighthearted tone his friends and family often mentioned.
"The biggest thing I can say is that if you have an issue," he said, chuckling, "get it checked out because it can blow up in your face real quick."
With nine wins under their belt, it was now possible to visit The Lighthouse. Prior to this moment, Mike had only made it five rounds into the Trials of Osiris. And though Lupo was party leader, he gave that up, so Mike could be the one who took them to The Lighthouse.
Finally, Mike had reached his goal. He was at The Lighthouse.
The moment ended with Lupo extending an offer to play with him in the future.
"The next day, Mike was on cloud nine," said his girlfriend.
"That run meant so much to him, as well as me," said Baron. "When I tried to talk to him during the stream I almost started crying, because I knew he had been pretty depressed, and I got to hear my friend laugh and seem upbeat again."
But it wasn't long before the next round of chemotherapy, which Mike refused to call bad news. Instead, he labeled these moments "hurdles" and "hiccups" on the road to recovery.
In February, Mike took a bad spill at home and ended up in the hospital. The cancerous tumors were pressing on his spinal cord, eventually robbing him of the ability to walk. It's at this point that Mike did the only thing that made sense: he asked his girlfriend for her hand in marriage.
"I wanted to see if I could make a man who had been battling something attacking him from the inside turn into a kid again."
"We agreed we wouldn't make a big deal out of it until he got better," he said. "I wanted to focus on his care and didn't want to celebrate too soon."
As his condition got worse, Mike was forced to spend his time in a hospital bed.
The last conversation Mike had with Baron included words of encouragement, but Mike had begun to make his peace, as they figured out a way to tell their kids about the inevitable. In a parting message, Baron told Mike that he "loved him, and if he needed anything, I'd be there."
The message showed a read receipt, indicating Mike had seen it. On February 21, after spending the better part of four years doing his damndest to fight back, Mike finally passed.
"I lost my best friend on my birthday," said Christy. "I couldn't believe it. My brother told me that it was Mike's present to me—that he wasn't suffering anymore."
"Cancer is a bitch and I wouldn't wish this on anyone," said Mike's daughter, Abby, on social media. "You were my hero, Dad, and I will always love you. The fight is over. No more pain."
A funeral was held for Mike on February 24, with friends, family, and even fellow chemotherapy patients who'd been alongside Mike, as he battled. Mike's sister took one of the plants home after the service, and found a frog digging around inside. It felt like a sign.
"The last time he was in the hospital," said Christy, "I would look over and Mike would be holding his hands up like he was using a controller. When I asked him what he was doing, he said he was playing his game. Even when he was sleeping, he dreamed about Destiny."
Header art courtesy of Paul O'Reill