by Jeff Oaks
“When I leaned over the bed to wipe up the vomit, she put the end of the cane on my head and began rubbing my hair. She was smiling a crazy smile, her tongue hanging from her mouth like an animal’s. The gesture struck me as something an ape might do if you were sitting across from it trying to make it play nicely with blocks, a helpless molestation, a reaching out from behind the bars of a cage.”
Meghan Daum, from Matricide, in The Unspeakable
I couldn’t just write down one of those sentences for today. The first one sets up the facts of the situation–she’s caring for her mother who is unable to move now, who has soiled herself, and who must be cared for in a very intimate way. We expect, from our years of reading illness narratives, that the mother will do something dramatic, confess to something, reveal some truth, declare love maybe, and that that moment will ameliorate if not illuminate the sick of the scene. Instead, we get the cane placed on the caregiver’s head (instead of the hand), and then the rubbing of that cane. It’s a funny and anxious moment. Will the wooden cane strike suddenly? We don’t know, and the next sentence doesn’t relieve the problem but intensifies it by moving to the mother’s smile–which is crazy and then like an animal’s. The cane might indeed strike, with all the crazy strength of an animal.
And Daum is indeed struck, by metaphor, a deepening of the metaphor the second sentence started: it was something an ape might do, and then follows the dread pronoun it, which transforms the suffering mother into a something infantile that needs to be taught how to play nicely, like a child. Then comes the phrase that really struck me as a reader, a helpless molestation, a term which, because I realized I didn’t think could exist anymore, what with all the stories of sexual molestations in the news. The mother is unsexed, rendered helpless. The sentence could have ended there, but that would have put a lot of pressure on that complication word, molestation. Instead, Daum goes back to the animal metaphor with a zoo metaphor–the mother as an animal, as a child, as a trapped and helpless creature at the mercy of others. (I wonder how many younger readers might not recognize the zoo as a place of cages, as most of us over 40 undoubtedly will?)
What started as weird and funny and slightly dangerous ends in both empathy and sadness.