(by anaught@tcd.ie)

People Like That are the Only People Here

This short story is from a collection called Birds of America by Lorrie Moore, published in 1988. Most of the stories feature characters in some sort of dire situation, which is certainly true of this story. Moore has stated that this story is ‘loosely based’ on her own experience when her son was diagnosed with a similar condition.

Title: I was instantly intrigued by the ambiguous nature of the title of the story. The ‘people like that’ referred to are in fact the other people in the hospital, those maintaining the ‘airy, scripted optimism’ described by the narrator’s friend. The title is almost a direct quote from the lines spoken by the friend: ‘Everyone’s so friendly here. Is there someone in this place who isn’t doing all this airy, scripted optimism – or are people like that the only people here?’ Canonical babblings is the medical term for the stage in child speech development at around six or seven months when babies move from meaningless sounds to attempts at proper words and speech rhythms. Therefore the title could be referring to the fact that the baby is spending this stage of his development, his ‘canonical babbling’ stage, going through the ordeal of cancer treatment. However, I think that it could also reflect the mother’s transition from one who is naïve and ignorant about the world of ‘Peed Onk’ to one who becomes fluent in the language of ‘N-G tubes’ and ‘Hickman catheters’. The ‘Peed Onk’ of the title is the phonetic spelling of the name given to the Paediatric Oncology department where the baby is being treated.

Literary Techniques: Moore makes use of a number of interesting literary devices throughout the story. The first thing I notice was the use of capital letters when referring to certain characters in the story –  the Baby, the Mother, the Husband, the Radiologist, the Surgeon. It was interesting to note that all the characters were described based on their relationship with the mother – for example, the father of the child is referred to as the Husband, and not the Father. I think that this use of capitalisation is an attempt by the mother to show how they have all been thrust into certain roles as a result of the baby’s illness. It is almost as if they are acting out parts in a play. This technique is one way in which the author conveys the mother’s struggle with her sense of identity throughout the course of her child’s treatment.

Moore also uses capitalisation throughout the story in certain phrases- ‘Sixteen Is a Full Life! Let’s Make a Deal! Sympathic Expressions’ my understanding was that these phrases and actions were so clichéd in the world of ‘Peed Onk’, that it was almost as if they were scripted lines the characters had to say/do at some point.

 

 

 

Themes:

·     Parental struggles with identity during illness of a child

·     Conflict in home caused by illness

·     Conflict between patients and doctors

 

 

Parental struggles with identity

The mother, who is also the narrator of the text, undergoes a major internal conflict as a result of her child’s illness. She knows that society expects her to act a certain way. She is a writer, and her husband advises her to ‘Take Notes’ of the experience in case they need money to pay for the baby’s treatment. She finds this idea abhorrent, saying to him: ‘I’m not that good. I can’t do this….. Our baby with cancer? I’m sorry. My stop was two stations back’. Upon their arrival in the ‘Peed Onk’ ward, the mother feels that she will never be able to identify with the other mothers there: ‘The Mother does not know how to be one of those other mothers, with their blond hair and sweatpants and sneakers and determined pleasantness’. On the other hand, the husband throws himself wholeheartedly into the new community of parents. His ‘membership’ of the group is indicated when we are told that ‘he too is wearing sweatpants’, which the mother considers to be the ‘uniform’ of the Peed Onk parents. We also see that some of the parents have come to identify them completely in terms of their child’s illness. For example, Joey’s father gave his job up to devote himself to looking after his son, which he has done for almost 5 years. His marriage broke down, and I couldn’t help but wonder what he would do once Joey eventually succumbed to his disease.

 

Conflict in home caused by illness

We see that there are times of tension and conflict between the mother and the husband as a result of their child’s illness. One of these is when the husband cannot understand why the mother isn’t taking notes to write about the experience, as they will probably need the money. The mother refuses to, yet the story concludes on the cutting lines ‘There are the notes. Now where is the money?. They also disagree on the course the baby’s treatment should take at the end of the story, with the father finally agreeing to go ahead with the ‘watch and wait’ decision. The mother’s frustration at the husband’s attitude can be seen in the lines ‘Why does he do this, form clubs all the time; why does even this society of suffering soothe him?’ We see that illness has caused strain amongst all the families in the Peed Onk ward – Joey’s father’s marriage broke down, the mother leaving him for a new husband who will never be as ‘maniacally and debilitatingly obsessed’ with Joey’s illness as Frank is. All the other parents discuss the different hospitals they’ve been in ‘as if they were resorts’. The disruption that a child’s illness causes to a whole family can be seen most clearly.

 

Conflict between patients and doctors

The mother is clearly frustrated with a large majority of her child’s caregivers, probably because they are the only people she can legitimately vent her anger to. From her first encounters with the doctors, they appear to sidestep her concerns and treat her in an apathetic, distant manner. The radiologist sidesteps her questions about her baby’s scan. The surgeon is more interested in the detail of the treatment than comforting the mother after breaking the news to her – ‘the tricky emotional stuff is not to his liking’. The oncologist ‘rattles off some numbers, time frames, risk statistics’. The social worker has no idea how to properly comfort the mother when she is distressed after witnessing the baby go under the anaesthetic. The mother is infuriated when she discovers a problem with her baby’s NG tube and the doctor that is sent to them is a medical student who ‘looks fifteen’. She loses her temper with him, insisting that he fixes the problem. The most startling example of doctor apathy in the story, in my opinion, is when the surgeon calls the mother outside to talk to her. She is terrified that she is going to be given more bad news, feeling that she cannot take any more. The doctor, oblivious to the panic he has caused, asks her to sign a copy of one of her books for him. She has to ask him if her baby will be ok, as he has forgotten to tell her.

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