Have you ever had a loved one lose their mind? I hope that you never do. Growing up, I was lucky. I didn’t have any family suffer that way. My father’s parents passed when I was too young to remember, and my mom’s folks when I was just out of college. I remember Kevin coming along to my grandfather’s funeral, right after we had officially started dating. Even though we both felt so strange in the run-down church, he helped me stay grounded, my anchor even then.
Gramps had been whip-smart right up to the end, always giving me advice about college and career and life. Kev consoled me, sitting on the end of a pew, telling me that it was okay to cry. Honestly, I felt lucky that time took Gramps as it did. Memories lost only with the ending, not slowly seeping away from his grasp.
Losing someone as they became unmoored from themselves was supposed to happen less and less, these days. My ma used to tell horror stories about her great-grandfather. How he had gradually drifted away in a swamp of angry forgetfulness. Died not knowing his name.
But now they have all those treatments for dementia and Alzheimer’s, all that promise. It couldn’t get that bad again, my mom’s memories were just… horror stories.
So. Where to begin?
I don’t even know who I’m writing this for. Perhaps just so I remember. Or so that you might understand how I feel. I’m not a monster for leaving. Maybe I’m writing it for Kev, in case he finds a way out of the maze. Or to help him remember the real story, in case he doesn’t.
See, Parkinson’s ran in Kev’s family. He was pretty intimately familiar with what the late stages did. The comparison between my grandfather and his, before he died, was stark.
That was years ago, before the treatments were viable. Before the spike became the attempted cure-all for degenerative brain problems. Kev and I were younger. Freshly in love.
It was painful, back then, when we would visit. It seemed like Kev’s grandfather was actually shaking himself to pieces, shards of his memory flying off with each painful attempt to take a step.
Just watching him lift a glass to his mouth without splashing himself was anxiety-inducing. He was too proud to accept help, until he could barely move on his own. He went to hospice care, and I stopped going. But Kev would visit sometimes, and tell me that his grandfather had ranted non-stop, again and again. Until he forgot how language worked.
At the memorial, I tried to be a rock for Kev, as he’d been for me. But I didn’t quite know how. “He’s in a better place,” I said. It kind of escaped me before I could think better of it, and I immediately felt foolish.
“You don’t really believe that, and neither do I,” he replied. I remember his stare, off into the sky.
“Well, at least…” and at that I buried my face in Kev’s chest. I remember it feeling like forever, just clutching at each other for dear life.
I have to tell you a little side story. I can’t write the rest yet. When I was young, my grandpa would vigorously protest when we tried to get him to replace his old TV with a wallscreen. It was on a stand, thicker than a fist! It didn’t even stick to the wall, and you couldn’t even buy anything that would hook up to its old analog inputs.
But stick by it he did, wagging his finger at us and warning us about ‘smart TVs’ and all. I don’t think he understood how firmware or networking or the internet works, but he just had some kind of intuition.
See, all those new smart devices we got, supposedly better than the old, are called ‘smart’ because they can connect up to their master servers and get new firmware. I didn’t know what that was, when I was young. But I learned. If you don’t know, just think of it as… the base layer, the underlying brain, the software core of the wallscreen or fridge or whatever else.
So we all laughed at Gramps when he’d go on his paranoid rants, right up until the day we found out that advertisers had piggybacked on a firmware update on our nice giant wallscreen. They’d paid off the manufacturer, and the screen was literally just watching us all the time, trying to figure out by watching logos passing by it what sort of ads it should then display.
And because it was firmware, there wasn’t much we could do. Turned out the EULA for the wallscreen said they could use it like that. So we just let our screens spy on us, sighing, while Gramps got the last laugh on that one.
When they came out with the idea for the spike, it was based on the various implants they had tried before. The implants used to be crude electronic things that zapped your brain on schedule. Turned out to be pretty helpful for Parkinson’s sufferers, somehow helping their brain jump out of its feedback loop. But the spike was better, they said.
It was a genetic, fully biological solution. Instead of like a cochlear implant, where the electronics are wired carefully to nerves, the spike was a new adjunct brain system. No trouble with your body trying to reject it, because it was part of your body. I don’t pretend to understand the details. But after some gene therapy, the spike grew right in your brain, and then doctors could use it to stop degeneration in its tracks. And possibly fix other problems.
That’s what they thought, anyway.
It turned out the spike was wildly successful, once it passed all of the screens and tests. Spiking quickly became such a proven therapy that even younger folks with a family history were encouraged to get treated, so as to cut off the Parkinson’s and others at the pass, as it were. And gradually, the medical establishment found more and more ways to improve brain health using the spike.
So, as you might have guessed, Kev got a spike implanted. Or really, seeded, I guess, might be a better way to say it. Planting it in his head. He tried to convince me to get it done, too, saying it couldn’t hurt. But some intuition from my grandfather followed me, and I couldn’t quite take the plunge.
It made Kev more confident. Less anxious for the future. I loved him even more like that. And so it ended up making us both happier, for a time.
I can remember the day quite clearly. It was sunny, and I was driving us to meet up with a few friends for brunch. Kev looked up from his phone and yelled, “Hello four direct message! Your login for account is requested…” and then suddenly trailed off. Glancing over, I could see him running a hand through his hair, looking confused.
“You okay?” I asked, still focused on the road, thinking he was playing some goofy joke.
“Take… take advantage of…” and he stammered like a record skipping for a moment. Then he blurted out quickly, “Take advantage of ten percent off no-show socks!”
“Kev. You alright there, honey?” I asked, as he started to shake with his head in his hands.
“Diamonds, the forever, the forever, the forever…” He trailed off, and grabbed my arm.
That’s when I pulled over and saw just how shaken he was.
By now, you can maybe guess why I told the old TV story. The geniuses who made the spike made it able to update, based on carefully targeted radio waves. I don’t really understand how it works, but it was a biological antenna of sorts. And its instructions? I guess you could call the spike the ‘firmware’, of the new ‘improved’ human brain.
That was fine, when only the doctors knew how to update it. But then somebody figured out how to use an old bog-standard wireless router to blast out firmware updates.
It was a descent into dementia, but somehow more vile. Peppered with spam subject lines and brand slogans and the worst of what humanity can broadcast, all vying with each other to be the new poison that Kev had to spit out his mouth.
“I’m lovin’ it,” he’d say to me, the look in his eyes filled with fear, as we sat in the waiting room. Uncomfortably trying to read, or tell him about my day at work, as if everything was normal.
“I know what you mean, honey. I love you too. And I’m so, so sorry.” I cried more than he did.
Kev was stoic at first, but… gradually he got angrier. He would yell at the doctors. “Just do it!”, he would shout, as they tried to calm him down. By then, of course, those idiots had their hands full with tons of cases like Kev. And no clear answers.
It turns out the cure can indeed be much worse than the disease. We struggled for a while, because he was still in there. But he couldn’t even write anything besides slogans and spam gibberish. I tried to stick it out. But I could only take so much, once communication was only one way.
I left Kev in the care of what essentially amounts to a nursing home for those whose spikes have become saturated with spam. I left you, Kev. And I’m sorry. I hope you understand. But I couldn’t handle one more fucking slogan coming from your beautiful mouth.