“...so please turn on the activate button, Steffanie.”
read the last sentence of the will.
I looked at Mum.
Although I thought I had got used to it, it was still difficult to actually acknowledge the vast instruments and various medications needed to keep Mum alive.
She was propped up on her bed facing the window.
Her fixed and wide gaze straight ahead had been the same for the last 3 months. She wouldn't, or couldn't, recognize me, even when I stepped into her line of sight.
I preferred to stay on the outskirts of her room now, where I could pretend that she simply hadn't seen me yet, her fixed gaze one of thoughtfulness and not of the leaving of her mind.
I turned my gaze away from Mum towards the window from the hospital room on the 2nd floor, overlooking the front courtyard of Cedar Rapids Royal Infirmary.
It was a nice spring morning outside.
Silent, but rays of soft sunlight were gently caressing the front yard lawn and hedges just inside the front gates of the hospital. I felt the beginnings of a headache pressing in on my temples, and I pressed my hands against my face, letting the Will drop to my lap.
Who could I consult? This was a family matter, but I had no relatives.
It was just me and my Mum- Mum, who had gone senile a year ago. Even if she hadn't, I'm not completely sure I would have asked her for advice. I trusted her, trusted in open-hearted compassion she had for me, but in the practical advice section she often had ideas that bordered on the strangely bizarre. The only person I could consult was maybe, Jake, my ex, but I quickly stamped out the idea.
I just wish I could talk to Mum again. Even for a short while.
Why hadn’t Mum told me of this will before?
And why did she opt for such a strange arrangement?
I know that she was dead worried about her judgement and her last days before going completely senile, but I had never suspected this: That she would have an AI replicating her personality so that she could make her “own” decisions once she became absolutely senile.
The will was stamped exactly 1 year ago on April 2nd and arranged to be sent to me exactly one year later – to me.
Last year, it was not difficult for anyone to see that her days in being able to make her own decisions were numbered, given the fact that she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer and now Parkinson's.
So I recall harboring a strange feeling when my mother suddenly started to calm down after a month of panicking, of staying up night after night, shedding fits after fits of broken disappointment in herself – in the body and mind that kept failing her.
“What am I going to do with you? I don’t want to go out like this...” she often whispered, teeth digging into her lip with enough force to split it as she rocked back and forth.
There was a watershed moment one evening when I came back from school.
“Hi Mum. I’m back” I said as usual brushing off my shoes and walking across the living room towards the kitchen.
Mum, in those days, was usually upstairs in her bedroom in a dark sullen mood, while I fixed a quick dinner before I went upstairs to bring her down for dinner.
"Hello, Dear!" Mum had bounded out from the living room to throw her arms around me in a hug. I had been stiff with shock before snapping back to my mind, my arms coming up to pat her shoulders hesitantly. Mum didn't seem to notice. "How was your day?" Mum asked. "I've put some stew on the stove - the cream one you like."
"I..." I decided not to question it. "Thanks, Mum. I had a good day."
I recall that day vividly. It was a very pleasant surprise, speckled with awkwardness and the distance of time.
Over supper, she kept on asking me how my day was, how school was and what I planned once I left school, all things she had not asked for maybe more than 2 years.
She was back to her jovial effervescent self, and I had the best dinner conversation with Mum in so many years.
At the time, I thought about it only as the final bright glow of light before the candle went out, as they say.
Little did I realize that she had signed a contract with CyberWill, to make an algorithm to perfectly mimic her personality. According to CyberWill, this would allow Mum to make her “own choices” even after she had completely lost control over her neural and cerebral functions.
But this was her will, so what could I do? This was her last act.
All the same, this was strange. I took a second look at the contract which was enclosed in the envelope. Sure enough this was her signature, albeit it being a bit wiggle due to her condition.
I flip back two pages.
There's a laptop under my bed connected to my CyberWill identity.
Putting the will down, I cross the room to Mum's side and bend down to scan the area underneath her bed. Per usual, it's neatly swept and dusted, belongings filed tidily away into drawers. I tug on the nearest drawer and wince as the bed rattles, shaking Mum.
"Sorry," I whisper, pushing the drawer back in and reaching towards another one. This one has the lavender-purple laptop with the CW engraving printed on the back, and I pick it up carefully, as though it might burst to life and swallow me whole.
I lay the laptop on the bed next to her right hand, bend over to plug the power cord into the wall before getting up and opening it up and pushing the power button.
It was a brand-new computer. The screen switched from dark to blue in a matter of seconds.
Just one app appeared in the middle of the screen with Mum’s laughing face as its icon.
I swear this is the weirdest thing I’ve done.
Steeling myself, I double click the application.
I looked over the screen towards the door just to check if a nurse or someone was about to come in, half-wishing they will. I'd spill out the contents of the will at the slightest excuse if they were willing to listen.
But no one comes.
I look to the window. The light spilling in seems taunting now, mocking me in its gentleness, inching up Mum's hospital blanket as she wastes away. The light beckons, beautifully cruel, and suddenly I feel the urge to shut it out.
“Hi Steff! Why are you drawing the curtains?”
I jolted. Actually, I might have jumped.
I turned around and froze to see Mum’s face on the screen. It was a miracle I didn’t scream.
I looked at Mum propped up next to the laptop, serene and emotionless as ever, and became even more confused.
I must have looked dumbfounded as Mum, or the app mimicking my Mum’s personality, started to speak.
“Look Steff, I know this is most bizarre and you might even be scared. But this was my choice, and I couldn’t tell you till now. And I am very grateful you obeyed my instructions.”
Still a bit haunted by this ghost or app on the laptop screen, I realized I was clinging on dearly onto the drapes and let go, before sitting on the stool at the foot of the bed. It was the farthest point in the room vis-à-vis the screen, but it didn’t feel far enough.
“First things first. Steff, I owe you an explanation. I know that. I came to the conclusion that I was going to lose my ability to make sound and independent judgements in a matter of months, if not days. At the same time, I needed time to make my will, and sort out a few complicated arrangements with your Dad’s ex-wife.”
Her words are straightforward and honest, yet they carry a faint sense of pleading and cloying fondness with them.
Trust me. Listen to me.
Mum’s face watches mine from the screen, the artificial features of the face contorting into a wide, businesslike grin.
“My Dad’s ex-wife.” My voice is flat.
“Yes, I know Steff, I should have told you earlier, but I thought you were not ready enough.”
The face on the screen shifts again, rearranging into a face of great disconcertion. “Not ready enough?” I echo, my words mirroring hers.
The face mimics her own expressions perfectly, transitioning from confident to hesitant with a smoothness unnatural for her face.
I am now up on my feet and took a few steps towards the laptop with my arms crossed before me.
The lady on the screen, who claimed to be my Mum, paused for a moment. “Okay, so maybe I will have to go back a little,” she says.
“It’s true that your Dad is still alive, at least as of one year ago. He ran away with another lady. It complicated things for me to arrange a will and to make sure that you properly inherited enough of my savings to make it through college. The good news is that it has been arranged duly.”
My mouth is dry, my mind uncomprehending. Mum is right here in front of me. It’s true that sometimes it is taxing on me to look after her given her condition, but I never thought of her in that way.
I'd always known Mum had kept things hidden from me. I'd even wondered about Dad, sometimes, but I'd never asked, knowing how easily Mum's composure would crumble. She'd spent her life the second child of a struggling family, her older brother the one the family poured their hope into with all the clothes and education.
“To do this, I needed to make a version of myself that would react, think and feel just as myself in better times, when I had full confidence in my decisions. So I found this company, CyberWill, which did just that. I tested it a couple of times to make sure it would make the exact same choices that I would do in real life.”
I am still working on convincing myself this is real. Mum, or the lady that claims to be her on the computer screen seems to expect me to say something. But I don’t. She continues.
“Technology has come a long way, Steff. You use all those search engines which hoover up your tendencies, habits, thoughts, and yearnings, right? Well, CyberWill has tweaked that technology to the extreme and made a complete virtual copy of me in the form of an algorithm, so it could make the same sound decision that I would make even if I were to degenerate.”
In an odd way this is eerily reminiscent of Mum, who had always had this tendency to be repetitive, partly because she was worried that the listener didn’t get her point, and also just because that was the way she was. Mum had always been anxious, nervous, eager to prove her existence with a false confidence less easy for me to summon. It feels real.
I look back at Mum, her face immobile and hands folded neatly over her lap. What would she have wanted?
I realize, with a start, that I don't know. That as much as I'd like to think I know her well, I can't imagine what she would want or why. She always kept some parts of herself hidden from me, cut off, and I could never see all of her. That Mum trusted her future to a foreign AI company over me because she was afraid of stepping on my fragile web of emotions. I open my mouth, then close it.
The AI waits this time, expecting a response.
“For the sake of argument, let’s just say you were exactly what you say you are. Why did you ask me to turn this computer on? I understand that you – or Mum’s algorithm – finished the will with the lawyers, right? So, what do you want from me?” I ask.
The lady on the screen shines a smile. I realize that Mum’s face on the screen was based on a photo that I took three years ago, when we went to Barcelona. She has this cute ladybug hairclip on her left side of her head, which I remember her buying in a run-down shop near Sagrada Familia.
“Steff, that’s so-- you. Straight to this question. That's right. There's something I want from you. Actually, two things, my dear.”
This is getting a bit weird. I see Mum sitting propped up on her bed staring at the wall in front, while I am talking to Mum’s algorithm on the screen. While it felt weird, it was also true that I am getting more used to it.
“Okay, what are these two things, then,” I say suspiciously to “Mum” algorithm on the screen.
“The first one is that you sign your name on the screen I will show you in a second. This will ensure that you will fully receive the inheritance I want to bestow, and in full confidence that your Dad will not interfere with it.” Suddenly, Mum’s face on the screen disappears, and is replaced by a white screen with a bold line across on the bottom.
This was the only decision to make not weighed down by second thoughts or guesses. I signed my name with my right index finger.
"Thanks Steff. Now show me how I look."
I turn around the computer so it faces Mum.
There is an eerie silence before the app starts talking again.
“Steff, this is worse than I ever imagined.... this is exactly how I didn’t want to live...” came Mum’s, or Mum’s app’s voice.
“Steff, if I didn’t have to buy time to make a perfect settlement to arrange a perfect inheritance for you, I would have taken my life by myself.”
I jolt and knock over the stool. I feel myself stiffen. I can't look at Mum, the real Mum, though I know she hasn't changed in position.
I knew... Deep down, I knew. Sitting by her side, ever since her condition worsened, I had always questioned myself whether this was what Mum had wanted. I always wondered how Mum, who took decisions by herself, had an iron will and was the last person to leave things to fate, could tolerate a situation in which she could not decide anything by herself.
“Mrs. Starmer, are you all right?”
The door is open and a nurse is popping her head into the room.
Mum’s icon on the screen is shaking her head and put her finger to her lips indicating that she wanted me to pass it over.
“Oh, yes.... I just fell from my stool... silly of me, she’s all right, Ma'am.,” I said quietly, trying to keep the tremor out from my voice.
The nurse came a few steps in, but looked at me, and said, “Okay, be careful. I know that caring is a tiring job. You should go home and get some rest. She's fine with us.”
The door shut and the nurse was gone, a faint Wait dying in my throat as I stared after her.
The app on the screen came switched back to the live simulated video of Mum.
“Love, but just remember you have me now." Mum's face was open, offering. "Take me with you, and we can have brilliant conversations like we used to do,” the app continues.
"There's a catch," I said. "There has to be."
The app moved on without acknowledging me.
“First things first. This is my second and last request. I want you to give me the code for the public Wi-Fi of this hospital, it’s on the front of the leaflet behind you.”
The leaflet for the Wi-Fi: a thin, almost translucent piece of paper well out of Mum's reach pinned to the outside of the door of her room.
The app looks at me with wide, pitiful eyes. "Dear, all you are doing is telling me the Wi-Fi code. There's no harm in it. Anyone can do that."
"Then why don't you ask someone else?" My voice is higher pitched, scared, but the app barely blinks.
“Love, I never wanted this. I am sure you know what I mean,” the app’s voice was visibly louder, and I was getting afraid that we might be overheard.
"Why? What do you need the wi-fi so desperately for?"
The app shakes its head, sympathetic. “Love, don’t ask me what I am going to do. You don’t need to know. I am just going to decide for myself what I want to do with myself."
I looked at Mum. It was hard to look at her, even before this conversation. It’s true. Deep down inside, I know Mum would never have wanted to be in this situation.
“Steff, it’s not the physical presence there that’s me. I am here now, with you, forever. Just help me do what I want to do for myself.”
I’m tired too. I can’t do this forever.
I walk over to the window and draw the curtains back, looking at my reflection in the window. The app doesn't say anything, letting me reflect in peace.
"Can you come with me?"
"Of course. As long as you need me."
I don't remember very much how I left the hospital with the laptop stuffed into my rucksack and get into my car.
I hear a siren go on within the hospital, kleep-kleep-kleep, before it cuts out.
“You did the right thing, love. Thank you.”
I hear from my rucksack.