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On Not Knowing

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Information about my mother can be divided into three categories: things I know, things I don’t know, and things I have been told. Here’s a clue about where this piece might be going: the “things I know” are few.

Here’s what I do know: My mother was born in Los Angeles. When she was 15, she had thyroid cancer. Her thyroid was removed. She took synthetic thyroid for the rest of her life. I remember seeing that pill bottle every day. She graduated high school in 1963. (I have her graduation picture.) I was born when she was 33. When she was 40, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. My parents divorced when I was 7.

My mother died when she was 53 and I was 19. Her death was long in coming. It had been a steady march to the end since my senior year of high school when her breast cancer, which she’d had in various spates since I was very small, metastasized.

I have few memories of my mother that are not somehow tinged with guilt, or fear, or resentment, the result of years of acting like her parent, performing emotional caretaking, and trying (and failing) to be just a normal kid. My grandmother, who lived with my mother and me, stepped back while I accompanied my mother to doctor’s appointments.

Around the time that my mother died, I started to notice a change in the way my peers were relating to their parents. They were excited when parents came up to camp on weekends. They were learning things about each other—romantic disasters, pre kid shenanigans. Parents were becoming people, fleshed-out humans with personalities.