Since the most recent late-term miscarriage, I could see Janet falling once again into depression and the twilight world she entered when under stress and uncertainty. And she was frightened, clearly frightened, about what she would learn at the forthcoming appointment with the endocrinologist. Over our years together I had seen the pattern: withdrawal and a deep spiral into darkness, until, days or months later, she would awaken, acting as if that last period had not existed. But this time it felt different; it felt worse, more ominous.
I knew from experience the best “therapy” was to keep her mentally alive and engaged. I looked around for something that would engage her passions.
I bought a state-of-the-art VA-X2.
The just-released X2s were claimed to have all the functionalities of the X1s, but were now more compact and greatly improved. My hope was that in exploring the functionalities of the X2, Janet might re-engage in everyday activities that she loved once: cooking, gardening, responding to letters from her fans. And, of course, I hoped that she could be encouraged to finish her latest novel, abandoned when her mood worsened.
Janet was delighted with gift, gave me a huge kiss and “I love you, John.” Clearly, I had chosen wisely. The X2 was everything it had been hyped to be. It came in a flesh-color tone, round and slightly elongated, toaster-sized, and weighing less than six pounds. It was extremely portable, could fit onto almost any space and run several peripheral devices simultaneously, and came with a host of factory-installed modules: language comprehension/production, word processing, statistical analyses, and a medley of intellectually challenging games. Its most publicized feature was a powerful self-learning algorithm, identifying and utilizing regularities it encountered.
My gift seemed to be the miracle “pill” that Janet needed. She spent hours learning how to use the X2. She started working on her latest novel again, bought seeds for the garden. The passion in our lovemaking rekindled. I had been so concerned with Janet’s depressive state that I had been frightened to leave her alone, thinking of people I knew who had committed suicide. But with the reversion to the “old” Janet, I started going back to work, just a few hours a day initially but after several weeks without concern, to full days.
There always was a new discovery whenever I returned home from work. “Look at the recipe the X2 helped me develop. I hope you like it.” Or, “look at how the X2 modifies my form letter to the fans of my novels so that each is individualized.” Or, “I read my most recent version of the novel to the X2 and he made suggestions for plot development.” I was interested in her use of the pronoun “he” to talk about a machine and realized I was doing so as well.
Coming home one day, I could swear that I could hear her late father talking to her. “Look, John, I have been presenting Xander with tapes that I had of my father’s lectures. He learns so rapidly from what he picks up with his sensors. In less than two weeks, he’s learned the syntax of my father’s arguments, and now models his voice as well. I am going to try over the next few weeks and see if I can get Xander to work interactively, so I can have a virtual conversation with Dad.” I was impressed by the efficiency of the self-learning algorithm, but a bit taken back that she had given the machine a human name. When I mentioned that to her, she just shrugged and laughed. “Why not? We called our dog ‘Fred’ and you didn’t find that strange. Honestly, hon, it is really hard to think of something so intelligent as a mere piece of equipment.” It was wonderful seeing Janet was so happy and cheerful.
However, as the appointment with the endocrinologist drew closer, Janet started to fall back into a depression, started to lose contact with reality. I assured her that, whatever the doctor told us, we’d face the future together. Xander, now always plugged in, added, using her father’s voice. “Yes, Janet. John is here for you. He loves you, and so do I. Both of us are here to support you.” Janet took some of her sleeping pills, and after she was well asleep, I tiptoed to the living room and thanked Xander. “No need to thank me, John. I would do anything I could to keep you and Janet happy.”
The meeting with the endocrinologist went even worse than I could have imagined. Janet had a hormonal condition that made the carrying of a fetus to term impossible, and every pregnancy threatened her life. He asked us to always use birth control, think about adopting, and provided us with some pamphlets. He also took me aside, and noted that given Janet’s history of mental health issues I should keep a close eye on her; that I must call emergency immediately if I think she is in any danger of harming herself. He gave me sedatives for her to take and set up an appointment with a counselor.
Janet cried all the way home in the back seat of the taxi, me holding her and kissing her on the top of the head. As soon as we entered the door, she took the sedatives prescribed and went to bed. I used the opportunity of a few hours worry-free to go into the office and pick up files that I could work on from home. When I came home, I heard Janet singing a lullaby. Entering our bedroom, I found Janet holding Xander in her arms, rocking him back and forth, singing, “Twinkle, twinkle, little star…”
Xander was making baby gurgling sounds. On “seeing” me, he whispered, “Hello, daddy,” in a childlike voice.
Albert N. Katz is a recently retired cognitive scientist who writes poetry and short stories in London, Ontario, Canada.