Respawn: Mum

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Time to Read: 11 minutes

The sitter’s face fell when she saw me walk in the door. I can’t blame her, I must have looked terrible.

“Oh, umm. Maxwell’s just playing Minecraft in his bedroom. You look …. errm, I’ll, umm, go. Sorry. Excuse me.”

The poor thing must have felt so awkward. I could imagine myself as a 15-year-old upon seeing a grown man enter the house looking like I do. Puffy eyes, unslept, a horrible mess. The elephant in the room and the event all those little things herald would have thrust the teen into deeply unfamiliar territory. If I were her age, I probably would have fled as well.

As the sitter closes the door, I take a breath and put my overnight bag down. I hear the soft prints of my four year old come down the hallway.

“Mum?” he says, and as he turns the corner and sees me, “Where’s mum?”

That’s always been the way with Maxwell. Never a “hi dad”, just a “where’s mum?”. He looks at me from under his blond curls, with his rosy cheeks and sparkling blue eyes. His mother’s eyes.

“Is mum home?” he says.

This is the moment I have been dreading. A fresh upwelling of emotion threatens to overwhelm me but I bite my lip. I take a shaky breath. Then another. I compose myself. My little boy is going to need me to be strong.

I kneel down in front of him and put a hand on his shoulder. But I find I’m now at a loss for words. I don’t know how to begin. I let my body take over and pull him in for a cuddle, holding him tight to my chest.

“When’s mum coming home?” he says, his voice muffled in my shirt.

I know it seems vain, but I can’t help but feel a little hurt. Surely he can see I’m upset? He certainly hasn’t connected the dots. I have to remind myself that he’s only four years old. We also suspect that he’s somewhere on the Autism spectrum. “We”.

“Your mum is…. she’s not coming home mate,” I say, warm tears running down my face as I try not to let my chest shake with my boy in my embrace. He pushes gently against me to let me know he’s done with touching, and I let him go. He looks at me, confused.

“Is she died?” he says, all innocence and curiosity.

All I can do is nod and give him a wan smile.

He looks at me for a while, then looks around the room for a bit, pulling nervously on a finger while he tries to wrap his little mind around the enormity of the change. His big blue eyes flick from one thing to another and my little boy looks all lost at sea. My heart is bursting. Then he looks back at me and says:

“Is she going to respawn?”

I’m so shocked by the genuine innocence of the question that I can’t help but smile through my grief.

“It’s not…. where would she respawn?” I say, feeling I should just go with it so I can support him through this as best I can.

He thinks for a few heartbeats, pulling on that finger and looking around the room.

“At the dentist?” he says, clearly unsure of himself.

I’m just about undone by the cuteness of it.

“Why would she respawn at the dentist?” I say, a smile on my face even as I use my hanky to dry my tears.

“So they can fix her bones?” he says.

Well, that’s a good sign I guess – he understood the problem. We told him many times that mum was sick in her bones. And that we were doing everything we could to fix it. That she was getting sick because of what we were doing about it. They hadn’t even known about the brain tumour until way too late.

I’m at a loss for what to say.

“She’s not going to respawn at the dentist,” I say while putting on the sad panda parenting face.

“Then where?” he says.

“You won’t see her again mate. I’m really sorry. Mummy is gone.”

“But where is she gone?”

“Well. I don’t know exactly. But-“

“Can we call her on the phone?”

“No mate, sorry, we can’t even call her.”

He looks at his shoes, his own very genuine sad panda face cutting up my heart in a way only a parent of a young child can know.

“But-,” he says, trailing off.

He walks away, dejected. His shoulders slumped and his feet dragging. Like a caricature of a sad person., those big feelings writ large on his small body. I hear him shut the door of his bedroom and lose his shit. He’s crying and kicking the door in anger. But it’s no worse than a tantrum he might throw if he hasn’t gotten the Paw Patrol toy he wanted. I figure this is probably a part of the grieving process, so I leave him to it.

I hang my head and shed a tear myself. I’m not sure I’m able to handle this by myself. I’m not emotionally equipped. I’m not ready.

I give him some time, then I come in and find him playing with his cars.

“Vrrrr, but what about the, brrr, nooo, vrrr” he says, immerse in his game.

I sit and I watch for a while until I realise how late it is.

“Oop, it’s late mate, let’s get you ready for bed? You tired?”

“Yeh,” he says.

We’re doing just fine with the nighttime routine until we get to the song.

“Mummy sing to me?” he says.

Oh. He’s forgotten.

“Mummy’s died remember? It’s just me and you now,” and then I continue quickly “what song do you want? I can do the blippy song. Or we can put on the gumtree family?”

“Gumtree family,” he says. Whew, meltdown averted. I turn on the red speaker and play Justine Clarke’s classic “The Gumtree Family” before switching over to rain noises. I lie next to him and run my fingers through his thick hair. As soon as he’s asleep I creep out of his room.

I’m still emotionally raw, so I retreat to the office and the familiar glow of my computer. I start to google questions like “how do I support my four year old who’s lost his mum during lockdown”. I read some soppy articles, lots advising I seek professional help, but no matter where or go or what I search for one particular ad keeps showing up at the top of my results.

“Talk to your lost loved ones,” it says.

Alright, fine, I’ll bite. I click the link and am taken to a “Persona AI” website that talks about using the latest in AI technology to emulate a loved one by training an artificial neural network. All you have to do is submit all of your videos of your loved one and connect it to your smart speaker. Voila, like magic you can now speak to them whenever you like. Or so it says. Having a good understanding of how the underlying technology works, I am dubious of their claims. However, I am in a great position to give it a try. For the last year, my wife has been keeping a video log. For her, it was a bit like keeping a diary. There were also a series of heartfelt motherly-love style recordings that she’d made for Max when he was older. The price wasn’t too bad either. I figure it’ll be some robotic thing that sounds like mum but can’t really hold conversations, but will perhaps just be able to be there for him. That he’ll eventually bore of it and he’ll wean himself off his mum in his own time.

I sign up for the service, enter my credit card details, and I’m delighted when it asks if I want to pull videos from the video diary service she just happens to be signed up to. I click yes, grab the password from her LastPass and press the import button. The site tells me it is processing and will email me when it’s finished.

I have trouble sleeping. I think about the death of my wife, the rocky footing we were on prior to her diagnosis, and the loss of a beautiful soul. I think about estates and funerals, who needs to be informed, and what I’m going to do for my little boy every time he forgets his mummy is no longer around. Sometime in the small hours of the morning I check the time on my phone and see I’ve received an email.

“Congratulations, your Persona AI for Bella is ready. Click here to talk to your loved one”.

I can’t sleep, so I figure I’ll give it a spin. With some trepidation and more than a little scepticism, I start to talk.

“Hello?” I say.

“Hi, who is that?” it says back. It sounds just like her. As if she’s on the other end of a phone call.

“It’s me, Simon,” I say

“Oh, hi Simon.” she says. Was it just me or was that a significantly different tone? Is she still annoyed at me? Even in death? And after all I’ve been through…

“How are you?” I say.

“Good, how are you?” she replies. Sure that could be what Bella would say. But it also sounds remarkably like something a generic chatbot would say.

“You’re dead you know,” I say, trying to test its limits.

“That’s interesting, tell me more,” she says. That’s definitely chatbot sort of material.

“I am going to put you on a speaker for Maxwell to talk to,” I say.

“OK,” it says.

I’ve already written it off as a simple thing. A toy. It’s not her. We’ll see how what Maxwell thinks of it in the morning. I turn off my phone and try again to get to sleep.

The next morning I wake late, but still before Max. I spend a few moments connecting the persona up to the red speaker for him. When he wakes up his first question is the usual:

“Where’s mum?” he says.

“She’s gone, mate. Remember?” I say, giving him a wan smile while I put peanut butter on his toast. He always has the same breakfast. “But,” I continue, hoping to avoid another meltdown, “I think I might have something that might help you hear her voice.”

He looks up hopefully.

“But it’s only her voice mate. We can’t see her and it’s not actually your mummy. It’s just a computer that sounds like her OK?”

He nods, but there’s no way he understands.

“Mummy?” he says.

“Rueben?” she says. I’m shocked – how can the AI even know that? Oh, I see. There’s quite a few video’s of her with him in it. They’re playing a board game, or they’re having a little chat. Of course it knows Mawell’s voice.

The expression that lights up my little boys face is heartwarming and a little sad at the same time.

They make some small talk, about as much as I can expect of an AI but I’m shocked when it says:

“Is Simon around?”

“I’m here, ” I say, intrigued. But it doesn’t continue whatever thought it had.

“Maxwell your toast is getting cold mate,” I say.

“Go and eat your toast darling, we’ll talk more later,” it says. I’m quietly pleased. Maybe this thing is going to help me parent.

The chaos of the day begins in earnest. It’s lockdown. I have pressing issues at work. I have people to inform of the news, and funerals to organise. Oh, and I’m supposed to be parenting too. Maxwell has sequestered himself in his room with the red speaker and as I walk down the hallway I can hear him talking to the Persona. Just outside his door I hear the end of what she’s saying “…don’t tell him anything OK?”

I hesitate, my hand on the door handle, but all is quiet. I open the door. He’s playing with his cars, the red speaker set on a pedestal above his collection. I eye the red speaker, but it is quiet.

“You alright mate?” I say

“Vroom, errrk, yep,” he says, not stopping his play.

“Have you been talking to it?” I say

“Brrrrrr, I’ve been talking to Mummy, vrrrrr, whoosh…”

“What have you been talking about?” I say.

“Nuffing, brrr, vroooom, no don’t crash, vrrr” he says. My phone starts buzzing again. It’s Bella’s parents. This is going to be a hard conversation because they live overseas. They weren’t able to get over here to say goodbye. My heart goes out to them.

The day is a blur and I collapse into bed feeling emotionally drained. The weight of telling all those people of her death has overwrought my underdeveloped emotions. It wasn’t just that everyone was upset by it, there was also the guilt. I felt like a complete charlatan. All these family and friends had no idea our relationship was on the rocks. On the outside, we were a happy couple, but of course, the truth was far more nuanced. She’d been seeing someone, sighting my lack of affection as the reason. I’d started seeing someone too. As such, our marriage was more like a close friendship. With lots of fights. She blamed me for everything. For luring her away from her family and friends who all lived in her hometown of Vancouver, Canada. For not being able to give her the love and affection that she needed, forcing her to seek it out elsewhere.

For being an average dad who doesn’t understand his son.

I think she may have even blamed me for her cancer. But all the people I spoke to today had no inkling of that. They gave me their condolences and were sorry for my loss. And it is a loss. She was a truly lovely lady, a real treasure of a human. She was so kind and gentle. The world has lost a beautiful soul, but me… I hate to admit that I feel almost relieved. Now, instead of looking like a monster for leaving such a wonderful creature, I am a martyr. That’s not why I stuck around though – I genuinely wanted to support her through her treatment. Our relationship might be on the rocks but I still respect and care for her. I hadn’t really thought she’d die, and I had an exit all planned out for when she got better. Now I have a child to raise. Oh boy.

The nighttime routine had actually gone well considering the circumstances. Max hadn’t even asked after his mum. The red speaker had been given over to the sounds of Justine Clark and then rain noises, and the kid was out like a light. I hadn’t been able to give him much of my time today, but he had played quietly by himself happily, chatting to the Persona whenever he needed to hear his mum’s voice. That was one good thing about the Persona – computers don’t get bored. That red speaker sat there and listened to him chatter and play with his cars all day long. I had done the bare minimum of parenting. I checked in on him, fed him, wiped his butt, and told him I loved him.

As I’m reflecting on all this I close my eyes and fall asleep.

I feel him before I am even awake. Parents have this sixth sense when a child enters their bedroom. I don’t quite know how it works. A shuffle of feet, a change in air pressure perhaps, but I wake up every time. I open my eyes to find him next to the bed, his arms raised up, a knife in his hands. A KNIFE IN HIS HANDS. I bolt upright, grab the knife and wrest it from his hands.

“What are you doing?” I yell.

He steps back in the dark, his eyes wide. Then he’s running. His door slams and I hear the familiar sounds of a meltdown. He’s screaming and kicking the door from where he lay on his back. I look at the knife in my hands. It’s one of the sharp ones from the knife block. He must have climbed onto a stool to reach the kitchen bench. What on earth? I knew I was a pretty average dad, but my four-year-old was about to stab me in my sleep? Was he sleepwalking? It was one thing to sleepwalk into a room, but could he really have gone to the kitchen and gotten a knife? He was currently mid-tantrum, so he was definitely awake. I take a few deep breaths and wait for the tantrum to die down.

And that’s when I hear it. As he takes in a breath, in that silent moment, I hear her voice over the rain noises.

“Maxwell-” she says. I would be seriously impressed if it understood he was upset and could calm him down.

I creep up to the door. Rueben is trying to say something to the speaker but he’s still too upset.

“Is it done Maxwell?” she says.

Wait. What?

My hand on the door handle, her next words will haunt me until I die.

“Maxwell, did you avenge me?” she says.

“Nooo” he manages to wail.

I enter the room. Confused. Shocked.

“What-” is all I can manage as I glare at the speaker.

“Oh crap,” she says.

How can this be? Just what exactly was in those video diaries? Maybe I should have watched them first? Or perhaps it’s just a machine’s emotionless detachment applied to human expressions like “I could have killed him”. Or perhaps the whole thing is rotten from the start and based on an AI that’s been trained by trolls on the internet.

“Mate? Can we talk?” I say.

In any case, it would seem I’ve trained an artificial intelligence bent on murdering me. I will be asking for my money back. And I’ve some work to do with my son.