Today is my daughter’s eighteenth birthday.
We are at our favourite Thai restaurant. The familiar smell of the place, the now not so fresh wall paint, the one waiter who hasn’t changed in years, all of them are bringing back old memories. My mind wanders off to the first time we came here, with my three-year-old Emily. She had given me a piece of paper with a poem scribbled on it. My heart leaped with joy at the sight of it. I remember my little Emily asked, “Baba, are you crying?” I had taken her in my arms. This was the first sign of Emily’s inevitable love for poetry.
We don’t cut cakes or blow out candles. We talk about random things over ordinary meals. I give her a new notebook and she gives me a piece of paper, torn from last year’s notebook. It will have a small poem written by her. It’s a tradition we love. My daughter and I. As I saw her grow up inch by inch each year, this tradition has lived on with us.
Our food arrives. Emily pours water into my glass.
“How’s the retirement party shaping up, baba? Are you excited for it?”
“I am not. I’ll miss the work. And I hear Ms Lubna will be singing at the party. One more thing to not look forward to.” Emily smiles the faintest of smiles. I go on, “They’ve offered me to take guest lectures on deep learning for one more year, and also to stay as an advisor to the Natural Language Processing lab. I think I’ll accept the offer. What do you think?”
“I think it’ll be great. Your students love you there, don’t they?” Emily says without looking up from her plate. “This place used to be quieter,” she says as she picks up her spoon.
I look around and see she is right. The restaurant is almost at its full capacity. Mostly filled with teenagers and fancy looking university students. There’s a birthday celebration going on as well. I wonder if some of them were my students. I’m glad she has brought it up.
“You should be more outgoing Emily. Seeing people. You’re eighteen now.” I avoid her gaze as I say those words. But I know she’s looking at me.
“I don’t like crowds, baba. You know that.”
“I’m not talking about crowds. I want you to come out of the house sometimes. Meet people. Make friends.”
“Okay. I’ll try.”
She doesn’t want to have this conversation. I look at Emily. Her face down, eyes fixed on her meal. Any stranger could tell that she would rather not be here. I’m her father. A father knows more than he can bear to. Children, it seems, grow apart faster than they grow up. Some of my colleagues say they no longer know their kids. They live and grow in a space their parents don’t even know exists. But I know my kid. I know her too well. More than I should.
“I just want you to be happy, Emily. It breaks my heart to see you alone, inside your room all the time.”
“I’m happy, baba. And I’m not alone. I have you and my poems.”
“Poems you don’t want anyone to read?”
“I write them for myself. Why do people need to know what I think?”
“Baba. We’ve gone over this many times. It’s my birthday. Don’t push it.”
I have barely touched my food. I feel a contraction in my chest. Eighteen years have taken their toll. I wonder what our lives would be like if I had made different choices. What my Emily would be like.
I remember that day vividly. It was a few years before Emily was born. I was surrounded by my PhD students in a small conference room at my university. My research of almost a decade had finally made a breakthrough. The air inside the room was thick with suppressed excitement. We could do the unthinkable now. How often could you say that?
“Zaman, how well is our model performing?” I asked one of my PhD students.
“It’s now at 97% sir. Don’t think we need more than that.”
“Hmm.” I had tried to contain my enthusiasm.
“Do you want to see it?” Zaman asked.
“Whenever you are ready.”
Zaman flipped open his laptop. The projector screen illuminated. An input box appeared on the screen before us. He typed something. “There’s a twenty-seven second processing delay sir. We are working on reducing that.”
Twenty-seven seconds later some texts appeared on the screen. It was a poem. I read it. It was beautiful. It was perfect.
“Emily Dickinson would be proud, sir. You’ve done a great job.” Zaman said with a proud smile on his face. I took this kid under my wing after reading his paper on style transfer. Good, hardworking boy. When I first told him what I had planned for my next project, and that I’d love to be his PhD supervisor, his eyes had lit up.
“If we can pull this off, it’d be like nothing anyone has ever seen. It’ll be hard work and I’ll be asking you to do things that’ll require countless sleepless nights, patience for failure, and frustration beyond tolerance. But you have to be a scientist at the end of the day. Whatever the cost. Are you in?”
“It’ll be an honour, sir.”
And we did it. It was right before our eyes. We brought Emily Dickinson back to life. On the projector screen in front of us was a poem as Dickinson would have written in the nineteenth century.
I had finally gathered myself to say, “You all deserve credit, too. Now our models can learn from and replicate any poet in history. That wasn’t a one-man job. You guys deserve credit as much as I do.”
“Imagine a world, where great minds never die,” said Zaman.
“Or a world where great minds are born over and over,” I said, with tears of joy in my eyes.
“It’s a shame that in her life, Emily Dickinson was a recluse. She died alone in her bed. The world knew about her work only after her death. I wish she could see what we have achieved today. This would surely make her proud.”
Zaman noticed my smiling face. “Professor, do you mind if I ask you something?”
“Not at all. Go on.”
“When do you plan to initiate a human trial? I mean, isn’t that the ultimate goal here?”
I leaned back in my chair. “Not yet.” I said. My students looked slightly disappointed to hear that. I wish that day I were the person I am today. I wish I knew better.
Now, sitting in front of “my” Emily, on her eighteenth birthday, tears threaten my eyes again. I look at my daughter. I gather up the courage to speak. “Emily, I don’t want you to die alone.”
She stops eating. I can’t look at her beautiful, baffled eyes.
“Baba, what’s this? What are you talking about?”
I want to tell her what I know, what I have done to her. I want to tell her she is Emily Dickinson. Or, at least her mind is.
Maybe someday, I will. Maybe never. In my hand, I’m holding a poem. Tears blur the words as I look at them. But I know they are beautiful.
Nayeem Ehtesham loves to read and believes his degree in computer science has helped him write funny stories using his computer.