A few days ago, my mother asked my sister who that person was in the kitchen. “Is it my mother?” Mom asked.
“It’s your husband.”
“I’m married?” Yes. “How long have I been married?” Fifty-eight years. “What’s his name?” “Is he living here?” “Are you sure that isn’t my mother?” And, “Does he sometimes wear dresses?”, which would have been hilarious in another context. But we’re dealing with this context, the one in which the face my mother should probably know even better than her own was now that of a stranger.
Imagining her own mother come back to life might have at least a little sweetness if not for the fact that my mother has never had anything particularly sweet to say about her. She’s never outright dissed Grandma, but my fleeting glimpses into her past haven’t suggested much to be sentimental about. The most positive takeaway I’ve gotten was that, for an early-20th-century Chinese woman, she was at 5’6 considered tall, as well as athletic, the star of the girls’ basketball and volleyball teams in her school. I’ve joked with my mother that maybe that’s where I got my own (admittedly modest and much-later-in-life) athleticism. But then I’m only 5’4, can’t sink a free throw to save my life, and when volleyballs come at me my instinct is to duck.
Nor is there much sentimentality to my parents’ nearly six-decade marriage. At their 50th anniversary party, my mother told all the guests that she and Dad met at a party where she’d had champagne for the first time in her life, gotten tipsy, and went home with him. It wasn’t a story I’d heard before; who knows if that’s what actually happened, but as stories go it at least has some crude charm, certainly compared to the time she told an almost complete stranger that she only married my father to get her Green Card. Entirely charmless has been much of her behavior to him as the tide of dementia pulls her under. We’ve held regular family Zoom calls that have been mostly pleasant and free of rancor, but even reduced to a small rectangle on a small screen, my mother’s look of loathing and rage whenever my father speaks is impossible to miss.
This probably hasn’t been fun to read so far. It most assuredly was not fun to write. No wonder I do so much running these days. No one can escape for long the reality of the mind’s limitations and the body’s frailty, and sometimes running only emphasizes these things all the more. But it’s a reality I chose, and continue to choose, because as vulnerable as I feel when my body is trashed and my brain is wailing I can’t I can’t I can’t, I also feel more alive, and more myself, than at any other time and place, in that moment.
People seem awfully enamored with the possibilities of artificial intelligence right now. I could adopt cranky teacher persona and grouse that maybe they should focus on real intelligence once in a while, but I won’t. AI does interest me, though it doesn’t astound me all that much, even in terms of its capabilities with language. It strikes me as pretty straightforward: if you could access everything that has ever been written, along with when and by whom and for what purpose, why wouldn’t you be able to write a solid five-paragraph essay for a high school English class, if not something even more sophisticated? Granted, so far as I am aware, AI poetry is pretty awful, but then so is a lot of human-crafted poetry. Regardless, the output of AI is not really of concern to me, not even as a high school English teacher who could potentially see a lot of ChatGPT coming her way. I rather doubt this will happen, in fact, because the point of a lot of my assignments is for each student to craft something only one person in the world could write. Nobody else is you. Write you.
But is this true? Is each person’s writing truly unique to them? I have no doubt that AI could craft a “personal” essay about, say, dealing with a parent with dementia, and that it might even be moving to many readers. On some level, AI merely does what people do when they write. Nobody is born knowing any language; we have to learn all of it, and we learn the written part of it by synthesizing what’s already been written. Sound familiar?
But even if it could write a blog post much like this one, one thing is impossible for AI: it cannot reflect a personal experience. It doesn’t have any. Personal experiences are messy, confusing, frustrating, and sometimes terrifying – and for the same reason that makes them wonderful. They are unique to the person going through them. We can’t ever know what it’s like to be someone else.
There’s a passage in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar where Esther is in a hospital and sees a woman who has been given the drug scopolamine before giving birth. The drug doesn’t suppress pain at the moment pain occurs but rather suppresses the memory of the pain; it had actually been used during WWII in the torture of spies for information. Esther is justly appalled: the woman still has to suffer but has no defense against such suffering happening again – which, perhaps, was the whole point. I think about this scene, oddly, when I think about what my mother is going through. Probably the most brutal thing, one of many, about dementia is that its sufferers realize something’s wrong without being able to understand what it is.
My sister and I have gotten used to her asking us what our names are, and even the thing about my father being her mother (paging Dr. Freud?) was just a more detailed facet of memory loss. Still, it came as a shock when she began asking what her own name was. This was the moment when she herself started to sense that things weren’t right. The sensation of not recognizing someone else is commonplace – most people in the world are unfamiliar to us, after all, so not knowing your own children or husband by itself wouldn’t necessarily be jarring. Not knowing your own self, who and where and when you are – well, alienating wouldn’t even begin to describe it. The things that make her who she is – her memories, her very identity – have gone a fogged grey, a Polaroid in reverse.
This is hard to write. Sometimes I envy AI.
When she talks to me, my mother always brings up one thing: Goldman Sachs. That’s right, the investment bank, where I used to work many years and a few lifetimes ago. She brings this up because how I got the job at Goldman Sachs was I decided I wanted to live in New York and be a writer, because I was ambitious and creative, but I also wanted a job, because I was practical and needed health insurance, so I called up my mother and asked if she wanted to visit the Big Apple with me while I went on interviews.
“Goldman Sachs! Do you remember?”
“Yeah, Mom. I worked there. We took a trip together to Manhattan.”
“You remember that restaurant we went to?”
“The Oyster Bar! In Grand Central Station.”
“Yes! That was a good place.”
“Yes it was. We liked it so much we went there twice. That was a good trip.”
It’s a happy memory for her, clearly, and even though she’ll often bring it up two or three times in a single short phone call, I’m always willing to go through the same dialogue again and again. Her voice rings with joy when she talks about it, and given the number of far less joyous things she could remember between us, I’m more than happy to have this be the one she comes back to, so that she can be herself in that moment again.