Moving Walls

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When I was a young boy, my mother took me to visit papa. We used to sing to him, clasp his cold hands, stare into the globes of his eyeballs. All the while, I wondered where he truly was. His eyes were not simply staring; rather, it was as if they were dreaming. Perhaps he dreamt of his past, perhaps of an alternative present. Perhaps, it was even hope he saw as he stared past us into the wall. Papa’s mind was adrift, as it seems mine is now. Yet, I wouldn’t count myself as lost.

To be lost is to be, well, lost! A wanderer of sorts, just going here and there but not really knowing where. I am not lost because I know where I am going, even if this isn’t my real home.

I’m headed towards death I know, and this is the last place I will explore; this place that is home, yet not. The doors open to patios and gardens that I recognise, but they never lead to familiarity. I go where I go, never hindered, never stopped and yet, I can’t get out. But, I am not lost.

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“Arnold!” I exclaim. The old man turns from examining the picture frames and smiles. He lifts up his hand and gives me a wave, although the tremor in his fingers makes it look more like a shiver. I swipe the room controller and watch the room transform into a small garden. Time to change the mood; he was looking too pensive.

“Arnold, look at this garden! Isn’t it beautiful?”

“Oh yes, indeed. I used to be a gardener myself you know?”

“Really? What did you grow?”

“All kinds of things!” Arnold continues on as if the garden had been there all along. He shuffles along the path and waves his hand through the hologram of tomato stems.

“I used to grow these, see these?” He waves his hand through the holographic colours again. “These were my favourite. People nowadays don’t appreciate hard work. It’s good to do things yourself, put in the effort you know?”

I listen to Arnold speak about his plants. He is a keen gardener and the knowledge of how to care for a garden has never left him. This simulation comes with a watering can, and Arnold enthusiastically waters his holographic tomatoes. I watch him run his fingers through the light display over and over again, undeterred by his futile efforts to pluck a real tomato from the hologram. He takes nothing away, but perhaps his heart remembers. Memory can be a powerful thing.

“Here’s one.” I’ve played this simulation before with Arnold, and the touch of a real tomato, its smell and its texture is hard to replicate exactly, even with our technology.

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Someone visited me today. I don’t remember their name, but their face was kind. They wanted to show me something and it seemed they really believed it was great. I wanted to believe it too. They looked so kind. The kind of kind that makes you want to listen to them, you know? I hope I see them again.

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CANVAS is state of the art, the first of its kind, an institute for freedom, and I believed it when I first came. In the last 6 months of working here, however, I’m not so sure.

Is freedom defined by choice,
by privacy, by spacial boundaries,
by the mind?

It seems I am in charge of Arnold’s freedom. It is a job, and it earns me my pay, but I also have to give something for it. To be preserve freedom in another person’s life seems a great responsibility, even if there is only a little time left in it. Quality to see quantity; that’s always been the motto here.

We operate a network of aged care facilities with highly advanced assistive technologies aimed at extending quality of life for the in-house elderly. Carers like myself operate on a one-to-one ratio with an assigned resident. Our job is to ensure their environment is both stimulating, and safe. Effectively, we trick them into thinking they are living independently.

Everyone seems on board, and the government has even subsidised the cost of living here for three hundred elderly enrolled in the pilot program. Residents are blissfully unaware of their medical deterioration, manual labour is reduced, and research shows family members are generally impressed with the standard of care here. It’s hard to know what the residents themselves think. Part of me feels there are people who would rather know the truth about their limitations. Perhaps some of them do know, but choose to live in ignorance. Others have been enrolled by family members who feel it is in their best interests not to know.  Everyone’s different; that’s why CANVAS was created.

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I’m moving, but not. I remember what it was like to walk freely, run even. I used to be a runner in my youth. Mother would often send me on errands to earn us a little more cash. I delivered newspapers, posted the letters, collected the groceries from the corner shop. I loved running. This, it feels more like floating.

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Arnold looks at me curiously as I download a set of his latest vitals. All residents are fitted with an implantable well-being sensor on admission. Located in their left upper arm, it tells us temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen saturation and blood glucose level. The sensor also doubles as a GPS tracker which makes finding our resident much easier, especially with the moving walls.

Freedom here, is an illusion. No one really has privacy anymore. We have to know their vitals, their likes and dislikes, their whereabouts at all times. We control their environment, and ensure the continued safety and well-being of all in the community. No more lost residents, no more angry residents. Less stress, less conflict. The whole point of CANVAS is to eliminate the undesirable aspects of end-of-life care without euthanasia.

There should be no trauma, no stimulus for aggression, no frantic searching for lost residents.

Instead, the effort goes into ensuring each resident is nestled in the comfort of their best memories of life. It might be a lie, a form of living in the past even, but it seems nicer this way.

CANVAS utilises the “home maze”, a concept that individualises an aged care pod to the memories and personality of its resident. Each pod is composed of two rooms. The first contains the necessities: a bed, table, chair and private bathroom. A removable screen above the bed can be voice activated to check medications, resuscitation status, dietary requirements and family phone numbers. We are paperless, and all data is stored both in the resident’s above-bed screen, and on a central database for back-up.

The second room is one to experience. It is an audiovisual theatre built upon the memories of the resident and their family. Remember those 4D, even 7D experiences at theme parks. This room is a 24/7 projection of life’s positive aspects, stimulating all the senses. On admission, families complete the pod space presets for this second room. They scroll through the various experiences, customise them, and even pre-record their own hologram messages. Residents are then able to explore the world left to them by their family. There are still face-to-face visits, but these seem less frequent now that the hologram system is in place. Family say they feel more reassured that their loved one will not feel lonely when they are at work, or sorting out their own lives.

Community for Advanced Neurovascular Assistance and Services; that’s what CANVAS stands for. We are a community to combat loneliness, and to provide multiple sensory services assisting those with neurovascular degenerative conditions. It seems to work, in an artificial kind of way.

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I seem invincible here, but it is strange not having pain or consequence. I fall, and there are always cushions beneath me. I put my hand in the fire and it feels warm, but it does not burn me.

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Residents with advanced neuromuscular disease are incapable of managing their own surroundings, so we do it for them. Everything here is built to be an invisible safety feature, maintaining the illusion of independent living. There are no open fires, only the flickering flames of an animated fireplace. Resident clothing inflates within milliseconds to cushion any fall, and has already prevented thousands of broken hips and brain haemorrhages. Even the walls and floors are fitted with sensors to detect motion deficits and predict falls risk. Many residents would have died much earlier without these in-built landing pads. Sometimes, I think we’ve turned these homes into perpetual bouncy castles. It is quite amusing to see the safety mechanisms at work. Is there such a thing as being too safe?

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There’s a man next door who must be my neighbour, although I don’t remember him. He walks with a limp, and often repeats this musical whistling sound. I quite like listening to him. It reminds me of the times my mother would take me to the market. The butcher we visited would whistle as he was prepared the meats. I used to try copying him but could never quite get the hang of it. I might try copying this man.

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Many of my colleagues observe, but fail to understand the subtle hints dropped by men and women whose minds are desperate to play hide and seek. A soft grunt, an opening of the eyes, a lingered look; all pointing towards un-uttered desires. Arnold, my resident, is more than a gardener. It is a shame to see society stamp us with occupation and career. Humanity is more complex than that. I’ve been trying to unlock Arnold, to see into his person.

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There she is, my friend in the dining room. She sits in a big chair that does everything for her, a queen it would seem.

It lifts her up and down, side to side, flat and upright; all this without her even lifting a finger. I’ve asked her about it before but she doesn’t seem to understand me. She just looks and smiles. I figure that means she counts me as a friend so, I often sit there with her. It feels good to be friends with a queen.

One day, my friend disappeared. Someone whisked her away from beside me and I seemed helpless to move or even raise my voice after her. I did see her again, my friend. It was about a week later, but she looked different. A clear tube passed over the fine tip of her nose and she had lost her smile. I sat next to her anyway, but her smile did not return. After that, I’m not sure how much time passed, but suddenly I realised I had been sitting in the same chair out of habit. My friend was no longer there. She must have travelled elsewhere to expand her reign. I wish she would have said goodbye to me first, but anyway a queen must be busy. Perhaps she will send me a letter. Yes, a letter would be nice.

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Arnold whistles. I have not heard him do that before. He doesn’t change the pitch, but keeps whistling this low tone. Maybe he just remembered how to do this. It is a strange time to begin whistling.

“See, and here we are!” Arnold is chuffed by his navigation. He had decided to walk over to the dining room, and the CANVAS navigation system guided him with both physical and voice-mediated prompts. Once he voiced his intention, and I approved it, the CANVAS home maze facilitated his success. I don’t want to dampen his spirits now.

He sits in that chair, always the same one. It is a replica of his mother’s sewing chair, something he remembers. Arnold and his mother were close, but she must have died young, his father too. In his stories of her, Arnold is always a boy, and the man he calls “papa” is always sick. There is no mention of his parents when he speaks of his wife, his two daughters, or their move to Australia as a young family.

Arnold’s wife used to live here, another CANVAS resident. She had much greater care needs and a few months ago, contracted a pneumonia she could not recover from. Arnold was by her side then. He thought she was a queen.

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I don’t think people understand faith nowadays. They seem to trust themselves and the machines they have built. That is not faith.

Faith is beyond us, a trust in something bigger,
in something unseen, yet visible to our hearts.

Only when we are disabled, or near death, do people remember faith. My mother used to take me to church. The people there seemed always joyful, and never afraid. Some of them were older, but they sang with an unbelievable energy. Where did they get that from? I can’t remember all the words, or all the verses I used to memorise, but I remember some things. Faith, hope and love, and the greatest is love. Love always remains. What was that song again?

I’m thankful for that, for love. My daughters love me, I know. They are not here all the time, but they don’t have to be because I already know they love me; I’ve spent the last forty years with them. My God loves me. I’ve only known that for ten years, but it has made the last ten years my best years. I’ve lived more in those years. Love makes a life longer, even into eternity I believe.

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The human heart is so simple, and yet so complex. Research confirms that people need community, that this fosters good health and even prolongs life. Does it matter if this community is artificially generated? Can the brain differentiate between what is true, and what is artificial? The line between them is getting harder to distinguish. People have lost the sense of truth in life; everything is relative now. Can truth be found in research? Can it be case controlled? If everything is relative, how can there be truth?

Arnold is asleep. I wonder if he dreams.

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I’m tired, but I can’t sleep. I keep my eyes closed though, so they can relay the message of my fatigue.

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Does a body matter? The human body seems fragile, easily broken. Perhaps it would be better for the mind to be encased in something stronger. Transferring a mind seems complex though. It seems it would be irreplaceable, impossible. Hearts, lungs and kidneys are only one part, something to keep the body going a little longer. The mind however, it is master of the body. Can someone really survive without its instruction? I guess that’s why they say those without sanity are no longer living. If CANVAS can fix this, the dead would be resurrected.

Arnold is having a brief moment of clarity. I’ll need to run a check.

“Can you tell me your name?” I ask. He replies correctly, so I continue. “Can you tell me where we are right now?”

For this, Arnold needs a moment to think. Finally, he answers.

“I think we are somewhere like someone’s house. Is it your house?”

“No,” I shook my head. “This is your house.”

“My house? I live here?”

“Yes. Aren’t these your paintings, your bed?”

Arnold examines the bed cover carefully, then sighs. “I guess they are!” He laughs. “Must have moved them myself and forgotten. My memory’s been going you know? But, I remember you. You are here to keep me safe, my personal bodyguard!” He laughs again, then coughs.

“A bodyguard, no. But I am your carer and yes, I am here to keep you safe.”

“Well, has my home become a hospital?”

“We are not in a hospital. This is your home. You are part of the CANVAS program to preserve your safety and well-being, and currently, you are having an episode of reprieve from your medical condition. We would like to ask you some questions about your experience of CANVAS to ensure we can give you the best care possible.”

Arnold nodded his approval. In a place where care and safety often ride the coattails of deceit, it is nice to tell the truth.

We have to be careful with it though. Damaged minds sometimes find truth difficult to process.

“One question; will I recover from this medical condition?” Arnold’s eyes are curious as ever.

“Unfortunately, we are still working on a definitive cure, but there has been progress. In the meantime, we will maintain your safety and well-being.”

The old man looks off in the distance, as if resigned to the fact. He mutters softly, “Sometimes I wonder if it is better to grieve, to fear, to experience pain and let our minds process all that emotion.”

“You would rather suffer in knowing, than be safely unaware?” It seems a strange concept to me, and I want to know more about what he means.

“I’m not sure. I just feel like…” Arnold stops speaking, but he continues to stare. I put away my tablet; the opportunity to ask questions has passed but this short conversation has given us some good data to analyse. It has given me something to think about at least.

What really matters? Is safety worth more than honesty? Is an ugly reality more beautiful than a projected present? Humanity is an interesting subject to study. As Arnold holds my artificial hand, I realise that this warm prosthesis can never fully replicate the experience of human touch. What makes a truth, a truth? I suppose there can only be one.

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This piece was written for the Leapsmag short story competition (https://leapsmag.com/), and placed first runner up. The prompt was to “explore a big moral question or a new opportunity raised by an emerging technology today” .


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