People Like That Are the Only People Here

by Marie Lorena Moore
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Last Updated on July 13, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 944

"Wilms'?" repeats the Mother. The room is quickly on fire again with light, then wiped dark again. Among the three of them here, there is a long silence, as if it were suddenly the middle of the night. "Is that apostrophe s or s apostrophe?"

In this quote, the Mother is trying to process the incomprehensible. Her young child has been diagnosed with a childhood cancer, and she grasps in her brain for any way to make sense of what is happening to her and her son. Her brain therefore reverts to grammar, since she is a writer. Somehow, the placement of the apostrophe is significant, and she holds on to it. This struggle is symbolic of the impossibility of creating sense from something so inconceivable.

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In her other life, her life before this day, she had been a believer in alternative medicine. Chemotherapy? Unthinkable. Now, suddenly, alternative medicine seems the wacko maiden aunt to the Nice Big Daddy of Conventional Treatment. How quickly the old girl faints and gives way, leaves one just standing there. Chemo? Of course: chemo!

Parents, and perhaps especially Mothers, often try to plan the best possible things for their children. They may become consumed in studies and data about how to provide the most advantageous outcomes for their children. This Mother has done the same. However, her old plans, which were not based in experience, fall to the wayside when she is overtaken by a new sense of determination to do anything it takes to save her son. Because this surgeon believes in the possibilities offered through traditional medicine, she will believe in it, too. She is not willing to leave anything to chance and no longer trusts her own former beliefs prior to this diagnosis. She needs something that feels certain and solid.

"You'll get through it," the Surgeon says.

"How?" asks the Mother. "How does one get through it?"

"You just put your head down and go," says the Surgeon.

The obstacle seems insurmountable, and the Mother has no idea what to do next or how she will face the days ahead. Without flowery sentiments, the surgeon informs her that she will make it. She will make one decision after the next and keep plodding through it, doing what needs to be done. And this type of quiet strength is exactly what keeps propelling the Mother forward.

Pulling through is what people do around here. There is a kind of bravery in their lives that isn't bravery at all. It is automatic, unflinching, a mix of man and machine, consuming and unquestionable obligation meeting illness move for move in a giant even-steven game of chess—an unending round of something that looks like shadowboxing, though between love and death, which is the shadow? "Everyone admires us for our courage," says one man. "They have no idea what they're talking about."

The surgeon's sentiments are echoed by the other parents in pediatric oncology. They have their heads down, doing the work that needs to be done each day. They are somewhat suspended in time, hanging in this balance between life and death, as they await the fate of their children. One man comments that they are not courageous, as some people believe. The outside world mistakenly sees this head-down, resolute attitude and believes that they are brave. Instead, these parents are simply doing what needs to be done for their children, one decision at a time. It is not a life without fear but a life of determination in spite of it.

"Life's a big problem," agrees the Mother. Part of her welcomes and invites all their tales. In the few long days since this nightmare began, part of her has become addicted to disaster and war stories. She wants only to hear about the sadness and emergencies of others. They are the only situations that can join hands with her own; everything else bounces off her shiny shield of resentment and unsympathy. Nothing else can even stay in her brain.

In her grief, the Mother struggles to cope with her new reality by listening to others who have endured similar circumstances. There is no room for a superficial life as her son fights for his own. She needs to know that she is part of a larger community, that others feel this ripping pain that she is living through. She draws a kind of strength from the other parents' stories of endurance. She can keep fighting. Her son can keep fighting. They are not alone.

"Don't you feel consoled, knowing we're all in the same boat, that we're all in this together?"

But who on earth would want to be in this boat? the Mother thinks. This boat is a nightmare boat. Look where it goes: to a silver-and-white room, where, just before your eye-sight and hearing and your ability to touch or be touched disappear entirely, you must watch your child die.

Rope! Bring on the rope.

"Let's make our own way," says the Mother, "and not in this boat."

When they are allowed to leave the hospital, the parents have quite different reactions to leaving the other children and parents behind. While the father appreciates a feeling of camaraderie with this group, the Mother is ready to leave them behind. Once again, she is head-down and moving forward. She takes no consolation from considering herself a part of this "nightmare boat" and never wants to see any of the people again—for to return is to return her own child to a world of cancer. She justifiably clings to a desire to protect her own child over supporting this larger group in their suffering.

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