Some Time Ago

        “WE SPECIALIZE IN GRIEF,” Doctor Henning said, “or should I say removing grief. Until now, only time could overcome human grief, and even then it did not fully eliminate it. Time would, and will, dull grief. It will wear away the edges, but the blade is always there. Our Nanobots, however, will remove grief the way a scalpel removes a tumor.”
	Michael Brock looked at this wife and then back at the doctor. 
	“What are the risks to my wife and me?” Michael asked. 
	The doctor sat with his hands folded, his forearms resting on a heavy oaken desk. He was in his late twenties, surprisingly young, Michael would later say, to run such a large company.
	“The risks are negligible,” the doctor said. “Our grief nanobots have been used now for about two years, and not one patient has reported anything more than a few mild headaches or very mild memory loss. We don’t expect anything different in the long term.”
	Kathryn Brock reached over and took her husband’s hand. Both she and Michael wore the defeated and hopeless expressions of extended grief. 
	“We’ll have to take a second mortgage on the house,” she said. “We should have enough equity.”
	“Can’t measure our loss against money,” Michael said, squeezing her hand. “I’d give any amount of money to have her back, and I know you would too.”
	“I wish we could give her back to you” the doctor said, “but relieving the horrible grief is perhaps the next best thing.” He paused and continued, “Let me tell you a little more about the procedure. We inject each of you with nanobots programmed to isolate parts of the amygdala, the section of the brain that deals with sadness and emotional memory. The nanobots look for increased activity present during the grieving process. They then interfere with this neural activity by disabling specific dendrites. Initially, you will notice a period of reduced grief, but eventually, as more and more dendrites are disabled, your grief is completely gone.”
	“What happens to the nanobots when they finish the procedure?” Michael asked.
	“They become dormant, remaining in your amygdala for the rest of your lives.”
	“We need to think about it,” Michael said, and Kathryn nodded. On the ride home, they stopped at the cemetery to visit their daughters’ grave.

	Two weeks earlier, Michael and Kathryn were having breakfast when he saw a newspaper headline entitled, A Permanent End to Grief. “I wonder if this is really possible?” he asked his wife, handing her the paper. 
	“Is what possible?”
	He pointed to the article. ‘A tech company that says it can end grief.” 
	Kathryn shook her head as she read. “Sounds like science fiction.”
	“I don’t know,” Michael said. “They are doing remarkable things these days. Nanobots have been around for ten years. They’re talking about using them to repair ruptured discs and other spinal injuries, even inoperable brain tumors. It doesn’t sound all that farfetched to me.”
	“Yes, but those are actual body parts. Grief is supposed to be a process.”
	Michael rubbed his beard, which had become almost entirely gray since their daughter died. He had lost thirty-five pounds, and his face, once full, now appeared gaunt.
	“But that’s still a part of the brain, isn’t it?” He paused and said, “Imagine not feeling this way anymore. Imagine waking up in the morning and not feeling like someone just kicked you in the gut.”
	“Everyone says it will get better,” Kathryn said. “Just takes time.  What if we get the procedure and something goes wrong?”
	“It says minimal side effects, Kate.”
	“Wonder what they mean by minimal.” She pushed the hair from her eyes and sipped her coffee. She went on, “My father had heart surgery, and he never woke up.”
	“Yes,” Michael said, “but that was major surgery. This is just an injection.”
	“An injection of robots into our brain. Doesn’t that worry you?”
	“I don’t know.  It wouldn’t hurt to set up a consultation to get more information. Maybe talk to a few people who have had the procedure. Nothing wrong with that, is there?”
	“I suppose,” Kathryn said. 
	For a minute no one spoke. They fiddled with the newspaper and sipped their coffee and ate their toast. Michael got up and looked out the kitchen window.
	“The lilacs are blooming,” he said, his voice breaking.  “Amelia and I planted that bush about three years ago. We should bring a few blossoms inside.” 
	“I know.  Sometimes I smell her clothes and spend the rest of the day sobbing. I haven’t changed anything in her room.”
	“I’m calling for an appointment,” Michael said.  

	Two days after their appointment with Dr. Henning, Michael and Kathryn saw a story on the evening news about Dr. Henning and grief removal. Dr. Henning’s boyish but confident face looked across the table at Sarah Lamont, a journalist for CNN. 
	“So, Dr. Henning,” she asked with a slight smile. “Is this the end of grief?” 
	“Essentially.” Dr. Henning said. He paused and added, “I say essentially because not everyone will choose to undergo the procedure. As with any new technology or medical procedure, it takes time to gain acceptance. For most of human history, people laughed at the idea of flying machines.”
	“That’s true,” Sarah said, “but we can see and touch airplanes. Nanobots are invisible.”
	Henning smiled. “Well, they are not totally invisible, but I understand your point. We might also consider DNA.  It’s invisible without a powerful microscope, but it’s widely accepted by the public.”
	“Can you tell me how many people have had it so far?” 
	“Well, it’s relatively new, so only sixty-three people have undergone the procedure. Of those sixty-three, all but four have shown excellent progress.”
	“Did it eliminate their grief?”
	“It did,” Henning said, confidently but not smugly. “We have monitored them closely, and none of them regret the procedure.”
	“What about the other four?” 
	“Yes, all four have reported much less grief than before, but a small amount remains.”
	“I see. Now, you said that nanobots are injected into the bloodstream, is that right? Henning nodded. “Should a patient expect any side-effects?”
	“Well, with any medical procedure, there is always a possibility of side-effects, but as I always tell my patients, the side-effects have been negligible.”
	“Such as?”
	“The most common is mild headaches. They tend to last less than thirty minutes in most cases. The longest reported was three hours. The other most common side-effect is mild and temporary memory loss.”
	“What about long-term side effects?”
	“Well, we can’t say for sure, of course, since it has only been about two years since our first patient. However, we certainly don’t expect any problems.”
	“One last question, Dr. Henning. Can you talk about potential uses for nanobots in the future? What is on the medical horizon?”
	Henning sat up in his chair, his face brightening at the question.
	“Oh, yes. As we improve the technology, the potential is limitless. We will eradicate disease and many other causes of human suffering. Spinal injuries, for example. The nanobots will go in and make repairs to degenerating bones and discs. Torn muscles and tendons. Disfigurements due to birth and trauma. Vision problems. As I said, there’s no limit.”
	“What about cognitive issues like grief?”
	“Yes, that raises important ethical concerns. For example, should we use nanobot technology to improve intelligence or select gender orientation, or perhaps people would like to possess a particular talent like sports or playing a musical instrument? This leads to another question: Is humanity better or less served by having a population of Einsteins and Shakepeares?”
	“Yes, but doesn’t grief fall into that ethical category?”
	“We don’t see grief as intelligence or talent issue, nor does it have anything to do with sexual orientation.  Grief is a universal part of human suffering, and reducing or removing suffering is our main goal.”  

	Nine days later, Michael and Kathryn sat in small examining room. Dr. Henning himself came in with two syringes. To Michael they looked like any other syringes he had seen over the years. Nothing out of the ordinary. The fluid reminded him of milk. 
	“I didn’t expect you, “Kathryn said. “I thought an assistant would give us the injections.”
	“I usually do these myself,” Henning said. Patients tend to feel more relaxed.”
	“I’m not nervous about the needle,” Michael said. “Just the process itself.”	
“I understand. I’d be surprised if you weren’t’ nervous. It’s always like that when folks go though anything the first time — especially medical procedures.”
“What should we expect during the first few days?” Kathryn asked.
	“Not too much the first few days. It’s a gradual process. Unless you contact us with a specific problem or question, we will check with you once a week.”
	Michael and Kathryn both nodded.
	“I’d like you to stay for about twenty minutes,” Henning added. “Nothing to worry about. We just want to make sure you don’t have an immediate reaction to the serum itself. You can stay here or go out to the waiting room if you like.”
	Thirty minutes later, they drove out of the parking lot. It was 2pm, and the sky stretched brilliant blue in every direction. Traffic wasn’t heavy in the early afternoon. Rush hour had not yet begun, so the drive home was pleasant. Along the way, the couple eyed each other suspiciously, each looking for some reaction from the injection. 
	“How do you feel?” Michael asked. 
	“I’m OK,” Kathryn said. “About the same as I’ve been feeling for the past year. She paused and said, “Let’s get some fresh flowers, and we can stop at the cemetery on the way home.”
	“We put some flowers there about ten days ago.”
	“I know. But cut flowers don’t last very long. Besides, I always feel a little bit better after the visit.”
	“OK, but next time we should bring her some lilacs from our back yard.”
	Kathryn smiled. “That’s a good idea.”
	They stopped at Bullock’s Flowers and bought an arrangement of lilies and daffodils. By the time they turned into the cemetery, it was 4pm, and a few scattered clouds dotted the sky. Amelia’s grave was toward the back, only twenty yards from a pond that often attracted geese in the warmer weather. 
	“The geese are back,” Michael said, as he parked the car on the side of the dirt road, leaving enough space for other cars to get by. 
	“She liked geese, but I think her favorite were penguins. She always laughed when they waddled.”
	“Don’t know if they would allow penguins here,” Michael smiled. 
	Amelia’s headstone stood only twenty feet from the road. Kathryn placed the flowers just off to the side. She knelt over the grave and began to cry. Michael stood on the other side.
	“We’re back,” Kathryn said, her voice breaking. “We brought you some more flowers. Oh, and the geese are back too.”
	Michael stood silently, wiping a tear from his eye. He seldom talked whey they visited Amelia’s grave. He let his wife talk for both of them. What a beautiful place, he thought. He looked around at the trees, many in full bloom, and the flowers decorating the gravesites. He placed his hand on his daughter’s headstone and thought of a line from an Emily Dickinson poem: “Safe in their alabaster chambers.” In his high school days, he hadn’t thought much about the poem. His teacher had told his class that the dead are safe from life. Now, as he stood over her grave, he took a bit of comfort in thinking that Amelia was indeed safe. She would never have to stand over her own child’s grave.

	The days to come would bring some significant changes as Michael began to have memory problems. Nothing severe, he would tell Kathryn. Little things. He would lose his train of thought more often in conversations, including important conversations at work. “I forgot a lunch appointment I had with a colleague,” he told Kathryn. “I was supposed to meet him at the restaurant, but it went completely out of my head.”
	“I haven’t forgot anything,” she said, “but I’ve had a few headaches. Usually when I wake up in the morning.”
	“I guess the nanobots are working. We have the two most common side-effects, at least according to Dr. Henning. 
	“I hope we didn’t make a mistake,” she said. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life worrying about machines in my brain.”
	He walked over and hugged his wife.
	“Don’t worry. The headaches won’t last, and I don’t mind a little forgetfulness.”
	Michael was more worried than he let on. He had also wondered if the nanobots were a good choice. Perhaps, he thought, we should have let the grieving process play out. 
	“Have you felt any improvement with the grief?” she asked. 
	“I’m not sure. Maybe a little. Yesterday when I looked in her bedroom, I didn’t feel that sickness in my stomach that I normally feel. I mean, I still felt a twinge of sadness, but it wasn’t as bad as usual.”
	Kathryn nodded. “Yes, the pain is still there, but it seems a little duller than it has been.  Most days are still a struggle, but maybe it will keep getting better.”
	Two weeks later, Michael noticed a brightness in his wife’s eyes that he hadn’t seen since Amelia died. Her smiles, too, seemed more genuine, more spontaneous. She even shared a joke she had heard at the hair salon.
	“You look like your feeling better,” he told her one day at dinner.
	She looked up from her plate and smiled. “I am. The ladies at the salon said the same thing. What about you?”
	“A bit better every day.”
	“Dr. Henning called today. He asked how we are doing.”
	“What did you tell him?”
	“I told him were doing OK. He asked about side-effects, and I told him about the headaches and your forgetfulness. We talked about five minutes, and he reminded us to call him if they get worse.”
	“Are your headaches any worse?”
	“About the same. Have you had any?”
	Michael shook his head. “No headaches, but I do think the forgetfulness is getting a little worse.
        “At work this morning I went to the wrong floor.”
	Kathryn shrugged. “Maybe you hit the wrong button in the elevator. I’ve done that many times.”
“Maybe, but this afternoon when I left my office to head home, I couldn’t remember 
how to get to the parking garage. I literally had to follow the signs.”
	“Maybe I should let Henning know.”
	“He told us this might happen. He also told us it was temporary. I don’t think we need to bother him.”
	“Bother?  Michael, he said to let him know.”
	“I promise I will let him know if it gets much worse.”
	She stared across the table. “All right, as long as you promise. By the way, do you remember that I’m visiting my mother next week for a few days. I leave Tuesday, and I’ll be back Saturday.”
	Michael drove his wife to the airport early Tuesday morning before he went to work. Hartsfield airport was busy day and night, so the traffic was heavy. They checked the luggage, and he walked her to the loading gate where she disappeared at the end of the corridor. On the way back to the car, he stopped for coffee at a cafeteria. A strange sensation settled over him as he stirred cream into the paper cup, one of disorientation and confusion, the same feeling he had at work when he became lost looking for the parking garage at work.  He stirred mechanically while his mind wandered. Around him people bustled with activity, some seated at tables eating and drinking, others standing at counters, while in the main corridor travelers dragging their wheeled bags behind them. 
            He knew he was in an airport, but he wasn’t quite sure why. He wasn’t even sure if he was traveling himself. Then he thought of his wife boarding the plane, and he remembered why he had come.  How long before she returned, he asked himself. Did she say one week or two?  He pulled the parking pass out of his pocket, and it read, Lot D2. The main corridor swarmed with people, and he found himself pulled along like a leaf in a river, slowing and speeding as the current changed. He followed the signs that directed him to Parking Garage D2. When he reached the entryway, it took him another fifteen minutes to find his car. At first, he didn’t start the engine.  
             His mind played over the past few weeks, the injection of nanobots and the increasing trouble with his memory.  In the last two days, his grief had faded away until little, if any, remained. In the process, however, he became more and more forgetful, forgetful of regular routines, forgetful of special events. He became lost trying to follow conversations with his coworkers. They noticed, often looking at him strangely. Yesterday, he momentarily forgot his daughter’s name, calling her Amy in his mind before realizing her name was Amelia. He was grateful his grief was gone, but he wondered if he was losing his mind. The problem had become much worse in the past twenty-four hours, and now, with Kathryn gone, he felt more and more unanchored. 
	He pulled out of the parking garage at 9am. During the ride to work, he had to stop twice to ask for directions. Roads and buildings once familiar now seemed foreign, as if he were visiting a city for the first time. His memory came back in bits and pieces, but soon the strangeness would return.  He saw a sign for the Georgia Aquarium, which was only a few blocks from his employer. He now knew exactly where he was and arrived at work without any more problems.
	No one passed him on the way to his office, neither in the elevator or the hallways. He found his cubicle without any problem, and he sat down at his desk.  Good God, he thought, what is happening to me?  He stood up and looked around. Some of the faces were familiar, but he struggled with their names. Others were complete strangers.  
	For several minutes, he stared at his computer screen, his mind wandering from one thought to the next, a kaleidoscope of disconnected images.  Something new then, a familiar scent drifting over the cubicles. I know that scent, he thought.  Those are lilacs. He followed the scent and, at a nearby booth, a coworker had lilacs standing  in a small vase of water sitting on her desk. She looked up at Michael and smiled. “I love lilacs,” he said. “They remind me of something—someone.”  
	“I’ll bring some for you tomorrow,” she said.
	“They remind me of someone.”
	Her smile disappeared and she eyed him curiously.
	He walked back to his cubicle wondering who he was supposed to remember.


Dale Bombard currently writes literature at Georgia Highlands College in Marietta, Georgia.