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My father died two weeks ago. He didn't suffer till the last few hours, when we were out there in Cambria together. I left the hospital late with my wife Peg. Dad had left a mess of his estate and my brother was due from the city the next morning to start to help figuring it out.

"I just don't know," I said to Peg. "I don't know if I feel as unmoored as I expected. Or if I'm relieved. Or hurt. Or if it just feels like I have the responsibility now."

We stood outside the hospital and looked up at the sky, more full of stars out here in the country than in the suburb where we lived together with our kids.

Dad had gone into the simulator every day for 35 years. It took a toll on his mind. The last few tims we saw him, he wasn't in pain, but he was phasing in and out. Unable to separate the real from the imagined to a degree that I had only read about in accounts of the long-term effects of the kind of work that he had done.

We had read about people getting insane amounts of money from the big firms -- the ones who had adopted the technology early and who dedicated a larger proportion of their workforce to the virtual space. These guys were mush in their final years. They sat in rocking chairs like Faulkner characters and stared inward. Their minds reconstructed the worlds that they had been plugged into. Spend enough time in that other place, I guess, and your mind just gets tricked into wanting to be there all of the time.

I knew that my father had hated getting into the machine every morning. Once in a while, I would watch my mother jack him into the apparatus and then stroke his hair. His eyes would close slowly and he would settle into the work, but every once in a while his leg would kick.

In the evening, when I got back from school, sometimes I arrived early enough to see him drag himself back into the drabness of our house. Back into the real. I didn't know what it was like in there, taking care of all those important people in their beautiful cities. But it looked like he was just sad at the end of the day.

The company issued these complex protein concoctions that he was supposed to drink every evening to keep his brain activity up to where it needed to be. He hated them. But my mother insisted that he drink it before even getting up off of the chair and showering. I'm convinced that it was her diligence and vigilance that kept him from deteriorating the way that others had.

But it still came for him at the very end, haunted his brain, clouded it, and then ultimately grew its colony into a state, a region, and then the whole country of his mind.

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