If We Were All Made of Jelly
Ocean wind whips my hair around my face, like tangles of Medusa’s snakes, stinging my eyes. I blink away tears and call to my daughter. “Be careful, Meredith!” She runs ahead, brandishing a piece of driftwood against the wind, as if in challenge.
At four years old, she is the most fearless human I have ever met.
An overcast sky mutes the normally vibrant colors on this stretch of beach. It’s like viewing the world through a gray filter, and I think to myself how some people have a constant self-imposed gray filter, one they are unaware of or unwilling to remove.
“Some people” include my daughter’s father.
The surf crashes, and salty water froths at our feet.
“Mommy! Mommy!” Meredith yells. “What’s that?”
She pokes at a gelatinous blob, motionless on the sand, with her stick.
“A moon jellyfish,” I tell her. Aurelia aurita.
I am a professor of ocean science, which is why I bring my daughter here so often. My two loves in one place. Her father and I are no longer together. He’s always been jealous of my love of the ocean, and when our daughter was born, he decided there was no room left in my heart for him.
“Jellyfish,” she repeats and laughs. “Like the jelly you put on my toast?”
“No,” I say. “Not the same kind. That jelly is made out of fruit. Jellyfish live in the ocean.”
“I want to live in the ocean!” she exclaims. “I want to be made of jelly, and live in the ocean!”
With her stick held high in the air, Meredith runs full speed toward the water.
I reach her a moment before a wave claims her. She squeals, and my heart races. “You must be careful,” I tell her between gasps. “The waves will pull you away from me, and I might not be able to swim fast enough to save you.”
“But Mommy, I can swim!”
I nod in agreement.
“Yes darling, you’re a good swimmer.” This is true. We both spend as much time in the water, either in our pool or in the ocean, as we do on land. “But the ocean is very angry today.”
I cast a glance at the dark, churning water. Today was not a safe swimming day for me, let alone a four-year-old. I’d hoped we could walk the beach anyway and collect driftwood.
“If the waves pulled you away today, you might drown.”
Her eyes, the same shade as the storm-tossed ocean, narrow in confusion.
“Mommy, what’s drown mean?”
I consider this carefully before I reply. When she was born, I made a promise to myself never to lie to her or sugarcoat my words. The truth might be hard to swallow at times, but I felt this an important lesson to learn at a young age.
“You know how you breathe air into your lungs?”
She nods, eyebrows drawn together. Her nose is running and there are flecks of wet sand on her cheeks. The innocence in her expression melts my heart.
“When you drown, you breathe water into your lungs. It can be any kind of water, not just the ocean.” I point at the waves to reinforce my point. “If your body doesn’t get air for about a minute, you die. Do you remember how long a minute is?”
“Sixty seconds,” she replies.
“Very good,” I say.
She nods again, as if this all makes perfect sense.
“Okay.” She pokes the sand with her stick. “But what happens after you die?”
“I’m not sure, baby girl.” I scoop her up in my arms. “Your grandma used to tell me people go to Heaven when they die.”
I groan internally.
“My, you’re full of questions today! I’m not sure about that either. I suppose it’s the happiest place you can imagine.”
My daughter squirms out of my grasp and turns around, flinging her arms wide.
“But Mommy,” she exclaims, “then this is Heaven!”
I’m surrounded by flowers: lilies, gladioli, chrysanthemums, carnations, orchids, and roses. The scientist in me knows that the choking floral scent is actually volatile organic compounds released by the plant petals in an attempt to ward off herbivores.
Basically, the flowers are screaming.
The mother in me wonders if I can drown in their cloying, pungent aroma. Drown, like my four-year-old daughter in the ocean. I wasn’t with her when it happened. She was with her father and his new girlfriend. They went for a walk on the beach, at my daughter’s request, to collect driftwood. Her father and his new girlfriend were not paying close enough attention, and she got too close to the water.
While distracted with each other, a wave took Meredith away.
A man walking his dog jumped in the ocean and swam out to save her. I’d asked the police officer who came to my house for the man’s phone number and called to inquire about his dog.
An overweight pug with a graying muzzle, I came to find out.
“What’s his name?” I’d asked.
“Dumpling,” he’d replied.
I’d nodded, satisfied. It’s what my daughter would have asked, and knowing the answer somehow helps me navigate this stormy ocean of depthless grief.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get to her sooner,” he’d said.
She’d been under the water for over five minutes. Her brain starved for oxygen. Paramedics got her heart beating again, but the vital part of my daughter, the part that made her the most fearless human I’d ever met, was likely gone forever.
The hospital room is still in sharp focus, every detail jumping out at me, overpowering like the screaming flowers, but a pale filter settles over my vision. I see no colors, only Meredith’s tiny body under a snowy blanket, the large bleached machines now breathing for her, milky tubes hooked into her arms, one down her throat, and the chalk-white coats of the doctors.
I stand on one side of the hospital bed. My daughter’s father and his new girlfriend stand on the other. He has the numb manner of someone who has taken too many Xanax. She is young, pretty, and uncomfortable looking.
Eventually, I step out of the room and into the waiting area. Visitors take turns clasping my hands in theirs. They are close colleagues and neighbors, as well as family members I haven’t seen in years, not since I’d moved away to be closer to the ocean. They whisper, “I’m sorry,” and “I am praying for your daughter,” and “My thoughts are with you.” Tears fleck my cheeks like the wet sand on my daughter’s only a few months ago. The faces of the visitors blur together like jellyfish.
Once I’m back in Meredith’s room, I look down at her and say, “Do you know what you call a swarm of jellyfish?”
The machines beep. I imagine I see her eyelids flutter.
“What?” My daughter’s father screws up his face as if I’ve said something blasphemous. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“A bloom,” I say to my daughter, not to him. “Like flowers.” I gesture at the flowers filling the room. I imagine her imagining they’re jellyfish, and I smile a sad smile.
I wonder if under a microscope, my tears look like the ocean.
“Dr. Wilson? Jeanine?”
A man in a suit passes my daughter’s father without stopping to introduce himself. He shakes my hand
“Do I know you?” I ask. He looks vaguely familiar. Short, with closely cropped hair and eyes the color of ice.
“I’m Dr. Don Fitzpatrick. I teach at the University, so you may have seen me there,” he explains.
I stare at him blankly.
“What is this about?” my daughter’s father demands.
Dr. Fitzpatrick lowers his voice.
“Is there somewhere we can talk?”
We walk on the beach.
“You can bring her back?” I say.
“No,” Dr. Fitzpatrick says. “But I can preserve the most important part of her. The part that makes your daughter, your daughter.”
My mind reels. What he is suggesting fills me with hope and fear in equal measure. I long to speak to my daughter again, but if what he is proposing is true, would she still be my Meredith?
The wind blows inside his suit jacket, making it flap like bird wings. Meredith would have thought this was funny, but I only manage another sad smile. I’m not sure if what I feel is ocean spray on my face or tears.
“Actually,” he says, nudging a nearby beached jellyfish with his dress shoe. “The technology came from the ocean.”
He turns those icy eyes on me and forces me to hold his gaze.
“Bioluminescence,” he says. “We found a way to use luciferase to bind to and light up parts of the brain responsible for conscious thought. From there, we can make a copy of the individual’s consciousness and transfer it into…something else.”
“Well, yes.” He scratches the back of his head. “In early studies, we transferred the subject’s consciousness into computers, but the copies weren’t able to live there. It took a lot of work, a lot of out-of-the-box thinking, but we had a breakthrough a few months ago.”
He toes the jellyfish again.
“The brain vibrates at different frequencies. Once we transferred the copy into a medium and applied a beta frequency, we were able to ‘wake up’ the consciousness, so to speak.”
“What kind of medium?” I ask. My hope now slightly outweighs my fear.
“It’s silicon based,” he says. “Kind of like jelly.”
I sign all the paperwork. My daughter’s father tries to stop me, but eventually understands this is a fight he will not win. Dr. Fitzpatrick and his team copy Meredith’s consciousness and transfer it into an avatar.
The avatar is a metal skeleton covered in robojelly skin. The metal skeleton works like a tuning fork, vibrating at different wavelengths to mimic brain frequencies: gamma, beta, alpha, theta, and delta. My daughter’s consciousness glows inside the layer of artificial skin, like the cold light of a moon jellyfish bloom.
They keep her shape small, childlike.
I take her to the beach to wake her up. I want us to be alone, and Dr. Fitzpatrick has agreed, under the condition I follow a specific set of instructions. He’s given me a remote. I take it out of my coat pocket and unfold a square of paper covered in small, neat handwriting.
I press a sequence of buttons on the remote and wait.
A hum emits from the tiny human form in front of me. It seems to sync with the crashing of the waves. The sun warms the top of my head and shines on the ocean spray, breaking the droplets into a rainbow prism.
Color suddenly fills the world.
Threads of bioluminescence begin to dance under Meredith’s new skin. She flings her arms wide and inclines her smooth, featureless face up toward me.
“Mommy?” she says. It sounds like a question. The voice is not my daughter’s, yet it is.
Her arms drop.
“Did I drown?”
“Yes,” I reply. Tears fall, but they are distilled from an emotion I have no name for.
We join hands and walk down the beach, collecting driftwood. I tell her about Dumpling, the overweight pug with a graying muzzle. After some time, she pauses and turns her face toward the ocean.
“Mommy,” she says, hugging me close. “I knew this is what Heaven would look like.”
© 2020, Heather Santo