James Gablin had turned one hundred at some point, probably last spring. He could remember April/May picnics that could have been birthday parties from parents who faded from his memory, lost in an accident, or maybe dead of old age. Regardless, he lost them long ago. They were close to him once, for a long time closer than he admitted, and then disappeared without a trace from the photos that surrounded the bedroom. One hundred years old and still a great many questions that had only been half-answered.
Death, he thought, Death will be here soon. He had shed tears when Martha was not in the room. He could not accept post-vital nothingness, but could understand no more than that as reward for a life well-lived. It was a trouble of faith; his heart had touched no music Heavenly, though he had found God a convenient discussion partner when Martha was making dinner or crying on her own.
Today. It’s today. My death. My answers. Finally, MY answers. James gripped the edge of the bed, noticed that his wife, ninety-six and still she made breakfast every morning, was gone. James wanted to call for her, tell her that he was ready to make the motion towards the things he could never understand. He made no sound, just gripped the bed tighter as she walked back into the room as if he had pulled the clap on some invisible bell. His seventy-year-old children followed behind her, each holding a hat that reminded James of trips with his father out in the fifties, when men wore such ornaments.
She’s known all along. Martha had felt it before he had, may have even known the tears that asked his thought of God for answers. They must have arrived this morning: this morning that would be his last. They came to his bed, and Martha took his hand, kissed it gently and sat in a chair that she must have brought in while he was sleeping. He noticed how much like the slow death scene in the movies it must have seemed: the chair and the children, the silent tears and the resolute stare of a dying man. He had no words for the audience, he hadn’t spoken for almost a month, the lungs no longer able to support both respiration and his thoughts. He squeezed back as best he could, though his arms were almost gone from the room, awaiting him somewhere else, perhaps. Martha held his hand still while Tyler walked around the deathbed, leaned onto the dresser that had been his pirate ship as a child.
“I know, James. I know. Just be comfortable. Let me and the boys be with you. You don’t have to fight anymore. We’re ready.”
James nodded, leaned his head back into the pillow, and moved his gaze between his two sons. He thought that he would like to see what they did with the years he had wasted. Maybe he would be there, a ghost the family would blame missing cookies on. He’d get to see the books they’d write, hear the stories they told to grandchildren. See his family’s run at nobility.
He closed his eyes as he began to feel the strongest pull of sleep deprivation. James could tell that there was something leading him, something stronger than himself, but less than the force that had created the universe. He could still hear the sounds of a family watching their patriarch go bravely into a Shakespearean rest, but it was accompanied by the rhythmic rise and fall of machinery. His eyes began burning as they reopened in the light of mid-afternoon sun off of high gloss paint as he awoke a lifetime away in another bed.
“Mr. Gablin. Mr. James Gablin. I need you to say something. I need to know that you are fully back in the present. My name is Curtis. You are in hospice care in Santa Clara. I need to hear you say something.”
James Gablin, forty-seven years old, dying of a disease he acquired and passed along to his wife in their tender moments of reconciliation. He could barely move, but his lungs were quite clear, his breath straightened and his mouth moist for the first time in his memory.
The man in the white coat walked to his chart, checked all the numbers and looked into James’ eyes as he pulled down the lower eyelid.
“You’re alive and in hospice care, Mr. Gablin. You’ve just finished the first LifeMemory program. You’ve been out for a little over an hour. Is your pain greater now than before?”
Something came into focus for James, his heart pounded heavy, as if he had been running for hours. He remembered his childhood, chasing Cassie Heartlet down Breen’s Hill to the water where they kissed, then walked back up with wet pant cuffs. He had breathed this hard on the trip up the hill, but the pain had been far more distant than this.
“I’ve been ill?”
Curtis noticed that he had not answered the pain question, and pushed the button to release a very slow flow of morphine into his system. He took James’ weathered wrist between his fingers and counted to himself. He turned to the machine at the side and turned a few of the dials slowly, slightly raising the tone of the machine. James had not noticed the tube that entered his chest below the arch of his meeting ribs. Curtis removed the silver band that lay across his forehead, dangled it like a worm, laying it precisely back in the case he had carried in his pocket.
“Yes. You’ve been here for the last three days. This was your first day on LifeMemory. You asked that we set it to one hundred years. I hope it was a good hundred years. Do you need anything?”
James did not move, finally feeling the weight of the clear tubes in his body. Though his mouth was moist for the first time that he could remember, he felt he needed to ask for water, for reality.
“Water. Can I have some water?”
Curtis went over to the small table where a pitcher sat. He poured a glass of water for James, then walked it to the bedside. He tilted it into James’ mouth. James did not swallow, but let the water slide down his throat.
“What is LifeMemory?”
Curtis poured James another mouthful, tipping the cup deliberately.
“We are a service provided to people who are soon to leave us. We can speed your mental time, make an hour into a hundred years, a thousand years in theory, though a hundred makes for a more traditional life experience. The machine here is equipped with all your life support as well as the GigaBooster to power the LifeMemory experience. We want the patient to feel that he has found all the answers before it’s too late.” Curtis paused and walked to a cart, grabbed another cup. “I hope you made full use of your time.”
James looked around the room, noting the lack of flowers. There were a few cards on the table next to the bed, all of them the type you would give to a co-worker you didn’t like who had been laid up. He could read the name Hilary on the half-open card. He remembered Hilary Mandela, young and tan in 1978, and in this reality aging in sunlight after the loss of a husband she was better off without.
“Who are you, Curtis? A doctor?”
“I’m a LifeMemory technician. They make us train as nurses, too. The feeling of confusion is typical. You are having a perfectly normal reaction for the first time user.” Curtis returned to the machine, checking registers. “I can recharge the machine, reset the values and re-release you into LifeMemory, maybe set for fifty years? It will only take a couple of hours.”
“Turn it off.”
Curtis began working with the lower portion of the machine.
“You don’t want to go back in for a while?”
James made to sit upright, though he had no strength to move at all. Everything ran from him like a fire in a forest. He managed to make the escape into a forceful declaration.
“No. I want you to turn it all off.”
Curtis paused. “I’ll get your wife. You should…”
James made no move, but he swallowed this time to speed the process, to make his resolution known.
“No. Just turn it off.”
Curtis had the authority to turn off the support. All the personal technicians had been given explicit permission to do so at request of the dying, or as a safety precaution in case of serious troubles in the mental world. Unexpected brain death necessitated bodily death for the most part, though the natural endings of the programs were simply a way to disconnect the user. Curtis had yet to use his right, had never even been asked if it was a possibility. He wanted to follow the procedures, make the patient consider his choices, take a path according to logic and the options available.
“The pain you are feeling will go away if you go back into LifeMemory. We could even do some scenarios where you can…”
“Just turn it off.”
Curtis went to the next step of training. James hadn’t seen Martha in a hundred years.
“I’ll get your family. You should…”
James sunk into the bed. He spoke over his sudden loss of rigidity.
“Turn it off. They were with me last time and it made no difference. Turn it off now.”
Curtis had to do it; the tape would reveal that the patient had been advised properly and had made a rational decision. The rule that held most firmly burned in his walk to the machine: In hospice, those who wish to die, may die. He squared himself to the machine, set the water on top. Curtis inserted his key, turned the dials back down to the low settings, then flicked three switches.
The sound stopped.
The room was still, except for the sound of breath coming slower and Curtis’ quick steps out the door into the waiting room. James heard Curtis calling for Martha, and little else. He stopped his breathing, willed himself to fall into that sense of dread he had felt in the last years of his LifeMemory. Martha made it to his side and took his hand just as he thought a final note to his life. He died with a smile, the brief pained smile of a man who had his answer.