I decided in early June that I was not going to try to make it out to Seattle for the Locus Award weekend: I’d gone to the Nebula Awards weekend and WisCon almost back-to-back and needed a break. I arranged for my friend Chrysoula Tzavelas, who lives in Seattle, to attend on my behalf, promised her a speech before the weekend, and went off on vacation with my family.
While we were away, I got an urgent call from my father: my mother was in the hospital. She’d had a catastrophic complication from a normally-minor, normally-low-risk surgical procedure she’d had the previous week. She’d gone into cardiac arrest. They’d done emergency open heart surgery; by the time my father reached me, she was stable. That was Tuesday, June 14th. I got back to the Twin Cities on Wednesday, June 15th, and by the time I arrived, my mother was conscious, her breathing tube was out, she was sleepy from the painkillers but 100% there and 100% herself, to all of our relief. On Thursday morning we all talked to her cardiac surgeon about the recovery time. Open heart surgery is no joke. We talked about organizing volunteer weeders for my mother’s beloved and beautiful garden, about how to adjust travel plans my parents had made; the doctor was reassuring about the travel, especially in the late summer, when my brother and his wife are expecting their first child.
Then Thursday afternoon, my mother collapsed again. The hole in her heart, repaired Tuesday, had re-opened. This time, they weren’t able to save her.
On June 25th, a little over a week later, I won the Locus Award for Best Short Story. Here’s the speech I sent to Chrysoula to read.
“Cat Pictures Please” is at its heart a story about boundaries and why they’re a good idea. As a well-meaning teenager, I went through a period where I desperately wanted to help my many troubled friends, but had no sense of reasonable limits to set, or what results I could expect to see from my efforts. The AI, with its naive good intentions toward the world, is in some ways based on me as a teen, though obviously (and fortunately) I lacked both the AI’s infinite storehouse of knowledge and its opportunities to manipulate people.
Re-reading the story now, I think that in some respects, the AI is me as a teenager but without the influence of my mother — it has no parent to rebel against, but also lacks a person to serve as an example, a support, a sounding board, and a mentor. The AI has no one to recognize how young it truly is, how inexperienced in the world. It has no one to praise its loving intentions while pulling it back from the brink of potential catastrophe it doesn’t even realize is there.
I decided in early June that I was not going to make it out for the Locus Awards. This turned out to be fortunate, because my mother died, suddenly and unexpectedly, on June 16th, and since then I’ve been consumed with all the many things you’d expect: funeral planning, legal documents, incoherent rage at the injustice of losing her, etc.
My mother was a helper. Unlike the AI, she was a helper with good boundaries: she extended all sorts of help, from advice to sympathy to advocacy to shelter, but she didn’t try to control people. She recognized that the core of genuine support always had to be respect for the other person’s autonomy and their right to make their own decisions. But she was also incredibly giving, and generous with her time and energy, especially to her children and her grandchildren. She was the kind of person that I eventually realized I wanted to be, too. Maybe eventually the AI will make it there as well.
Thank you all for this award, and many thanks to Chrysoula for accepting it on my behalf. Thank you to Neil Clarke for publishing the story and to Kate Baker for her lovely reading of it. Thank you to my husband Ed Burke and my children Molly and Kiera for their loving support and also their bottomless enthusiasm for my work. Thank you to the many friends who have rallied around me in the last week: in response to my Facebook posts, friends provided me with food, referrals, recommendations, information, and errand running, as well as many words of comfort, and for those who knew my mother, their own lovely memories of her and what she meant to them.
I would also like to thank Bruce Sterling for the inspiration provided by “Maneki Neko,” which I read when it first appeared in F&SF (and which has obviously really stuck with me), and of course, I owe a debt of gratitude to whomever it was that first made the observation that the Internet loves cat pictures.
Finally, I would like to dedicate this award to the memory of my mother, Amy Kritzer, who never failed in her support, encouragement, and love.
There’s a lot I could tell you about my mom: her intellect, her politics, her garden (which was a work of art), her willingness to mentor people and share her knowledge and skills, the joy and pride she took in her children and grandchildren. But here’s the thing I most want people to know: I was so lucky to have her as a mother. I was so lucky.