“A New Bridge Across The Lethe”
by Howard V. Hendrix
Post-Op Day 6
Journal Day 1
To Doctor Kenya Cremen:
At your suggestion, I’m writing this journal to let you know how I’m feeling since the operation and the return of my memory. It’s been difficult getting used to this “laptop” but it’s enough like a typewriter that I’m slowly getting the hang of it. Beats taking the Mini Mental-State Examination again and again. The five days of that which I actually remember were more than enough. Thank you for this alternative.
Hard to believe I took that mini-mental exam thousands of times before this week, yet have no recollection of any of that. How many times did I name three objects? Or try to repeat “No ifs, ands, or buts”? Or read and obey CLOSE YOUR EYES? How many times did I fail to spell “world” backward?
How many times was I shown the time on a clock yet always got it wrong when told, a moment later, to draw that same time from memory — on a clock face with numbers but no hands? Worse, how many thousands of times did I get the actual day, month, and even the year wrong, whenever I was asked?
I remember being young, but never middle aged. Now, I look down at my body or into the mirror and I see a person who is extremely elderly. Yet if everything you’ve told me is true, I must believe that person is me.
I remember being the child whose parents told him he was born in 1926. I remember banging my head–hard–in a traffic accident when I was ten. I remember the years of seizures and blackouts that followed. I remember those episodes growing worse and worse, until I had no choice but to see Doctor Moore — in 1952, when I was twenty-six.
I remember too that I was scheduled to undergo an operation in early October of that year, which was supposed to cure me of my blackouts and seizures; enough that I might at last really be able to move forward in my chosen career of civil engineer, in which I was one of the few colored men so employed, at the time.
And then I remember nothing else at all, prior to waking up in the hospital last week. It was not the same hospital where the operation was slated to take place, you were not the same doctor, and the operation I woke up from was different from the one for which I’d been scheduled.
Not only is it no longer October, it’s not the same year or even the same century anymore.
It’s very confusing. This is not the future I remember. I have not seen anywhere the robots who roughly resemble people, or the flying cars I so often read about, although you say there are a few of both. Yet from the wireless telephones and computers, the wide, flat television screens, and the fact that the President of the United States is black like me, I must conclude you are telling the truth and that this is indeed what the twenty-first century looks like.
Either that, or I have gone completely insane. I choose to believe the former. As disorienting as I find the idea that all this is true and real, it is still far less frightening than the latter option.
I am tired now. I will send this as an attachment, via email, as you showed me. I will write more tomorrow, if I can.
Post-Op Day 8
Journal Day 2
Sorry about making no entry yesterday, but you and the other doctors kept me so busy that by the time you were finished, I was too tired to write. Today has been better.
I still have questions, though.
The doctors who first diagnosed me–so many years ago!–felt that my condition resulted from the head trauma caused by the traffic accident when I was ten. From what you said yesterday, I gather Doctor Moore was able to pinpoint my epileptic episodes to my left and right medial temporal lobes. By surgically removing nearly all of my hippocampus on both the left and the right sides of my brain, he was (as everyone tells me now) largely successful in ending my seizures and blackouts by “short-circuiting” them.
I suppose I should consider that a blessing. Since I have no memory of either his success or failure, however, I cannot say for sure. More than anything else, I still feel like I’ve come out of a blackout that’s lasted for almost six decades.
You tell me that’s not true, that I woke up as planned after my operation in October of 1952. You tell me that, through all these intervening years I don’t remember, I could still remember pretty much everything that happened to me up to a few days (“minor retrograde amnesia”) before the operation that October. Yet across all the missing years–from that day I don’t remember waking up in 1952, until the day I do remember waking up last week–I have only been able to make short-term memories, none of them lasting more than twenty seconds. “Severe anterograde amnesia,” I think your report called it.
My mind must have been like a record endlessly stuck in the same twenty-second groove, or like that clock dial in the mini-mental, the one with numbers but no hands. I’m thankful to you for allowing me to get unstuck and come back into time, even if so many years have been lost in the interim.
One more thing. You asked me to describe anything strange I might be feeling or experiencing as my brain structure regrowth continues. The only thing I’ve noticed have been my dreams. Somehow they feel like they both are and are not my own. Maybe they’re nothing, just stories I read once and forgot I read them, in one of the pulp magazines I used to enjoy so much. But, just in case these dreams turn out to mean something, I’ll keep you informed about them when I can.
Post-op day 9
Journal day 3
From your reports I am gradually beginning to see that it required both a stroke of genius and a stroke of luck for me to come back into my life at this late date. The stroke of luck was that a tiny piece of my hippocampal dentate gyrus was still viable. The subgranular zone of that, as I’ve learned from your work, is one of only two areas in the brain in which new neurons are continually born from neural stem/progenitor cells throughout adulthood.
The stroke of genius, I gather, was that your exploitation of that fortunate situation has brought about “the ongoing regrowth and reconstruction of long-excised hippocampal tissue and of all previously lost connections to the entorhinal cortex.”
I don’t know how exactly you made all that happen, Doctor, but all I can say is, Bravo; and I apologize for the fact that the first time I saw you, an attractive and very young black woman beside my hospital bed, I thought you were surely no more than a nurse!
I presume the staff has told you that I left the rehab unit with some of them today. We drove through the city and down to Central Park. A crisp, bright day, with the smell of spring in the air, flowering trees and spring bulbs already in bloom: all unseasonably early by the calendar, but related to some climate change trend that’s been happening, I gather.
As they wheeled me around (although I told them again and again that I’m perfectly capable of walking), I calculated the number of trees in the Park, to entertain myself. In the process I saw the Park hadn’t changed all that much.
The city around it has, though. The Chrysler Building and the Empire State are still there, but there have been changes enough in the skyline for me to see that this is not the New York City I knew. It’s not the place of flanged and finned mile-high supertowers and streamlined spaceports I’d have expected to see by this time, but I’m told there have been ever-higher towers built throughout the world during my absence, and rockets to the Moon and Mars.
I’m also told that, one day not so many years ago, huge passenger jets like the ones I’ve seen from the windows of my hospital room were hijacked by terrorists and kamikazed into what were once the city’s tallest skyscrapers, bringing both those buildings down. That’s crazier than my head is capable of imagining on its own, even as the most perverse thought-experiment in uncivil engineering – and more proof this future must indeed be real, not merely the product of any dream or madness simply my own.
Even in the Park, the music the young people listen to – how much it has changed! In my day I knew all the older stuff, from big band jazz to spirituals, sure, but I considered myself something of a hipster too. I knew bop and blues and R & B, everything in the jazz clubs. What’s come up since is so different it makes me feel like Paul Robeson unable to sing the blues for Count Basie and King Joe. Ah, yes: the best time in the history of music is always whenever you were young and really listening. As any old man will tell you.
When we left the Park, I asked if we could go through Harlem, where I used to live. From the young staff people, I learned more about what Rosa Parks, Doctor King, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Malcolm X went on to do while I was out, and what happened to them in the meantime. I learned that a former President, a white Southerner, has his Foundation headquartered in Harlem, and a black astrophysicist heads up the big planetarium nearby. When we stopped in there, an astronaut nearly as old as I am was signing copies of his book – the one with a picture of the full moon and the words “Been There, Done That, Got the Spacesuit” on the front cover.
It’s a strange, changed world, yet Harlem is still Harlem, for good and ill. Even now, the young folks tell me the worst of good-time people are never too far away there, still offering too-easy ways to swap a hard life for an easier one.
Of all the changes I’ve learned about–of moonshots and Mars missions, of civil and equal rights–the one change I most wish for would be, not so much that I might call back the lost days themselves, but that I might call back all those yesterdays’ dreams, of all the tomorrows I never saw dawn.
I don’t mean to sound selfish. I wouldn’t know how much had been gained or lost in all those years if it hadn’t been for you and your work, Doctor. And I know full well how fortuitous it is that someone like yourself–working on the degeneration and loss of hippocampal neurons and memory in Alzheimer’s disease–should have become fascinated enough with my case to try a radical new therapy. That’s the deepest luck of all.
Post-Op Day 11
Journal Day 4
Sorry about making no entry yesterday, but the day before was very busy and left me tired. I spent most of yesterday napping. When I was awake, I fiddled with the internet and the web, as I told you this morning. Fascinating. It’s like having the Library of Alexandria under one’s fingertips. And the search engines: like the oracle at Delphi, to answer every question! The only problem now is not the old ambiguity of a sparse or cryptic answer, but the ambiguity of superabundant answers.
I know you have no objections to my “feeding my head” this way, as you put it. Perhaps you even want to encourage it, since cognitive challenges enhance the survival of new neurons, right? And, according to the fMRI data in your reports, I’m showing “surprising enhancement of neural function throughout the brain.” Yet even I don’t want to move too fast. With all this stuff at my fingertips, I can see myself becoming an information junkie almost before I know what’s hit me.
Probably a good thing I took those naps yesterday. And they too were at least productive of some more of those my own/not my own kind of dreams I told you about in one of my earlier entries.
How different those dreams are from my life, in so many ways. I never married or fathered children, as I’m sure you know. I was about your age when Doctor Moore operated on me. I hadn’t had time to settle into a married life and, to tell you the truth, I was none too keen on enduring the petty domestic oppressions the married people I knew inflicted upon each other with such stunning regularity. Maybe I was wrong about that, but it’s too late for regret now anyway.
I think I see a pattern in those dreams. Then again, maybe that’s just my “enhanced neural function” talking, which at least sounds a lot less crazy than seeing patterns that might not really be there, at all.
Post-op Day 13
Journal Day 5
Didn’t write yesterday because I got sucked into researching on the web, as I predicted I would. I’m no longer much concerned that there’s any real threat in my having so much access to so much information, so fast. I’ve become convinced it’s a good thing, a very good thing. How else would I have learned how to wi-fi this entry to you once I’ve finished writing it?
And frankly, Doctor, I don’t share your worries of this morning that the spread of “unprecedented neurobiological augmentation” throughout my brain poses a risk to my health. When you tell me my percentage of overall brain activity is more than triple my pre-op average–and far above the “normal” range for the general populace–I have a lot of difficulty with the idea that that’s somehow “bad”.
Your analogies that my brain is functioning like an ungoverned engine running full throttle, or a reactor going supercritical, or a star using up the last of its fuel and going supernova before collapsing to a singularity inside a black hole – I don’t buy any of them. That just isn’t my experience. I see no grounds at all for believing my enhanced neurological function will be followed by accelerated neurodegeneration. The way I figure it, I’m just making up for decades of lost time. I’m living more intensely than I have in my entire life, and how many people my age can say that?
Then again, what is my age, really? Although physically I’m in my eighties, experientially and emotionally I’m still a man in my twenties. Maybe I really have become “unstuck” in time somehow, like a character in one of the stories I used to read: a Rip Van Winkle by the waters of Babylon-on-Hudson, or something like that.
I’ve searched the infosphere trying to look up people I knew from the days before Doctor Moore operated on me. I suppose I should be happy just to still be here, given that most everybody I knew is dead now. Yet from my searching I’ve come to think of this obsession with connection as the Future Perfect Imperative, the potent command that drives us not only to meet again people we’ve known before, or learn more and more about what we’ve never known before, but also to believe we can better ourselves over time because we endlessly believe we have already been better.
I know such bettering is not without its costs or risks. You told me that beyond the strokes of luck and genius, I risk a third: the stroke of apoplexy, of vascular dementia, amnesia, brain damage, abrupt neural degeneration. Even if that risk is real, I think it’s still worth taking the chance. I know it is, because I have figured out the pattern behind those mine/not mine dreams.
Nostalgia for the past that never truly was gives us hope of a future that might someday be. I know, because when I’m unconscious I seem to inhabit the memories of the old, the dreams of the young, the experiences of human beings for as long as we’ve been conscious – reaching back at least hundreds of thousands of years.
I know the farmer and herder in their world of seeds and herds, of tallying and writing, when they dwell nostalgically upon a lost Eden of hunters and gatherers and tales told ‘round a fire. I know them even as I know that their own children dream of a world of gears and printing presses and other machines, the same world dwelt nostalgically upon by programmers and engineers in their world of bits and screens and connections . . . even as I know their own children dream of a world of nature and culture thoroughly suffusing and interpenetrating each other, a world built on synthetic biology, on nanotechnology, on all the scientific magic of re-engineered fairy dust.
Lithiculture, pyriculture, agriculture, techniculture, digiculture, symbiculture. You won’t find this stuff in your web, your infosphere, because it’s coming out of my head! Haha! You see? I never used to be able to think like this. And even I don’t know exactly how I know this. The repair work you started in my head has become something far more, forcing the thoughts inside my brain the way a greenhouse, even in the middle of winter, forces Spring inside its bulbs.
Maybe the dreams are a side-effect of the regeneration of my hippocampus and the massive reinvigoration of neurogenesis in my brain. Perhaps they are nothing more than a wildly amplified version of what your rat-research colleagues call “anticipatory learning,” the ability to predict the future based on what has happened in the past.
That may be at the base of it, but I suspect more than just physiological changes are also involved. Like the dreams, these thoughts are both mine and not mine. I wouldn’t be too shocked if even my memories of all those lost years might be somehow returning, along their own circuitous ways.
Such a welter of possibilities: DNA as a non-local carrier of information, or as a read/write quantum holographic memory- and filter-bank, or even the electrochemical interface for personal and collective memories stored ambiently and holographically in the quantum foam of a universal sea of information!
I will find the answer. It may involve something as tiny as the quantum of time, or a span vast enough to cross eternity. I am driven to know such things because I am, like all of us, characterized by that future perfect imperative: because the universe is itself characterized by it, and we are all parts which reflect that whole.
You fear I am on the brink of diving into the river of forgetfulness again, Doctor, but I see myself on the brink of achieving something wonderful: the Big Download from macrocosm to microcosm! That’s why I can’t allow you to push the pharmaceutical control-rods into my brain to damp me down and dumb me down.
You were the one who put the new graft in my head and in my repair forced the Spring, but I can’t let you treat the resultant neurogenesis as if it were some strange sort of tumor. I won’t let you chemobrain me with drugs intended to inhibit my new nerve-cell divisions. I won’t let you prune me back before this forcing is done flowering.
That’s why I have had no choice but to leave my escorts holding an empty wheelchair while I disappear into the city for a while. As I write this, I am on the Promenade in Brooklyn. I’m looking at the Brooklyn Bridge and realizing that, in planning to damp me back down, you are only thinking of what you understand to be my best interests. You’re afraid that if the third stroke comes to pass, I won’t come back from the long dip in Lethe, this time. But it’s only the philosopher who asks whether one can step into the same river twice; the engineer prefers to build a magnificent bridge, and the poet to sing its glory.
Through all those lost years you brought me back from, I may not have been able to remember where I was, or when I was, but I still never forgot who I was. Because I cannot forget that, I will never have to sit and weep by the waters of Oblivion. I will not hang my harp on the branches of poplars. I will suspend on choiring strings a bridge across the sky!
Post-op Day 28
Journal Day 6
It’s been a mean while. You can trace it in the weather, or in the police reports (which, you’ll forgive me, I’d prefer not to think–much less write–about). All of which, after weeks of silence, have brought me back under your care, Kenya.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the parks. I’ve seen the blooms of the fooled spring bulbs get buried under a blanket of white, and moonlight on the snow limning the branches of trees already in spring blossom. I’ve seen the moon yield to the sun, the snow unweave to water, the blossoms whorl away from the trees, the trees fall in the wind. In the end even the wind goes, and so will I. I know how close that end might be, now.
Your experiment made my mind a bridge across the Lethe. Being such a bridge has taken me to hell and back, yet I’m grateful even for that.
I can still joke and say “I’m not losing my memory – just having trouble finding it,” but things are turning out as you feared. The winter is returning to my head. The bridge you made possible between the two hemispheres of my brain is proving to be too little like the Brooklyn or the Golden Gate, and too much like Galloping Gertie, that short-lived span over the Tacoma Narrows in 1940, twisting in the constrained gyral dance of its own aeroelastic flutter, writhing in sad attempt to free itself from itself.
Over the last week and more I have begun to sense the structures of my mind subtly beginning to fail. My revived memory will, I’m afraid, prove to be only a slender elegant bridge briefly suspended above the river of forgetfulness. The steady winds of time’s passing will grow to a fury of dynamic feedback, forcing “suspension” to unfuse from “bridge”. In a howl of shredding concrete and steel, the harp at last will break free from its altar, the song from its instrument, the wings from earth.
As an engineer, it’s been hard for me to learn this last week that maybe there isn’t a technological solution for every human problem; that the problem-set and the solution-set are not necessarily congruent. Maybe it’s not even as lofty as problems and solutions. Maybe it all just boils down to jokes and punch lines: Death is a punch line which will always already have forgotten its joke. Immortality is a joke which will always already have forgotten its punch line.
And the biggest joke, and the biggest punch line, is that I ran away into the world not so much to discover whether the quantum of time is really the Planck length divided by the speed of light, nor to cross eternity out of nostalgia for a future that never was, nor even to become the Vessel of the Big Download. No, although I may have hoped for all of that, the truth is I ran away not so much to save my sage’s mind as to spare my fool’s heart: to get away from myself and my love for you, Kenya.
Yes, there is no fool like an old fool who will do any and all things to avoid feeling old and looking foolish. I know that now.
Post-op Day 31
Journal Day 7
My collapse is approaching faster. I can feel it. You say I should continue to be at least fairly “high functional” up to the point of no return. I hope you’re right, for I can’t say exactly how long the roadbed of this bridge will twist and contort before the moment of shattering catastrophic failure arrives.
Already it’s painful to feel my memory failing more and more. Sometimes I grow morose with thoughts of how life is unfair, and death just plain cheats. When I think of how I’m not getting at all what I really wanted out of life, I get to the point where all I really want is out of life.
What turns me around is the thought that–if I were, like a forced flower, to die out of impatience with being alive–I would no longer see you. True, there may be a beautiful universe next door, where I never banged my head in that traffic accident, never had seizures and blackouts, never was operated on by Dr. Moore, never spent my life as an amnesiac. But then I would never have met you, either.
I still have work to do, here and now. My journey to the heights of “enhanced neural functioning” and my fall from that summit may not have been a waste of time after all. Maybe I learned enough from what happened in the past to not only anticipate what will be needed in the future, but also to bring into the present the plans for some needful thing.
To that end, I’ve attached my best engineering description of a carbon sequestration and energy generation system which I think might be of some interest to specialists in those fields; people at Brookhaven, perhaps. We’ve had a long love-affair with fire because it’s been a fairly easy (if very inefficient) way to reverse-engineer photosynthesis. I think the attached might be a more efficient approach. Might be worth a try. We’ve never learned from never learning.
I hope the attached will be helpful after I’m gone, but in the long run it might be wise to remember you can’t eat your world and save it, too. Mastery of everything outside the self means nothing without self-mastery: something I’ve had to learn the hard way.
Post-Op Day 34
Journal Day 8
Kenya, the collapse is here. This will be my last entry. I leave up to you the changing of the world. Too soon I’ll have enough trouble just trying to spell “world” backward. Or remembering how the first half of “love” and “loss” are spelled the same: only the second half of each is different.
If I were to name three objects I would never want to forget, two of them would be your eyes. No ifs, ands, or buts, as we will try to say. You will change the time on the clock face and hold my future in your hands, until I no longer know the day, month, or year. When at last I cannot read and obey CLOSE YOUR EYES, please close my eyes.
This is a beautiful universe. I’m sure going to miss it. Remember for me, and then remember me. Good-bye.
Howard V. Hendrix is the author of half a dozen novels, several short fiction collections, and nonfiction books, as well as numerous poems and essays. He tries to live quietly with his wife and their animal companions in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
With all due respect to Daniel Keyes, this cribs heavily from Flowers for Algernon. Not to say that such roads are meant to be traversed once, and forever left untouched – but there is nothing new here. Unoriginal, and too derivative to explore any new ground.
With all all due respect to Edmund Glouster, while of course this story causes one to think of “Flowers for Algernon,” we disagree that it does not traverse new ground. The topic is long vs. short term memory–not intelligence–and recent research and discoveries in that field are intelligently brought to life here. Your mileage may vary as to how much you enjoy it, of course, but in our opinion new ground was still covered.
Howard Hendrix tells me that “Lethe” is one of three stories he wrote as conscious up-datings of sf stories he very much admired (the other two appeared in Analog — “Palimpsest” updates Clarke’s “Nine Billion Names of God” and “Monuments of Unageing Intellect” updates Damon Knight’s “Dio”). In all cases he invites readers not only to read his version but also to go back to the originals, which are too often unappreciated. – W.S. Delmater