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This Is to Mother You: On Caring for a Toxic Parent in Her Greatest Time of Need

Jane Rideau Demuth | Longreads | May 30, 2016 | 2,632 words

When her challenging, cancer-ridden mother suffers a psychotic break, Jane Demuth searches for the wherewithal to help the person who once demanded the most of her.

Posted inFeatured, Nonfiction, Story

This Is to Mother You: On Caring for a Toxic Parent in Her Greatest Time of Need

When her challenging, cancer-ridden mother suffers a psychotic break, Jane Demuth searches for the wherewithal to help the person who once demanded the most of her.
Illustration by: Kjell Reigstad

Jane Demuth | Longreads | May 2016 | 11 minutes (2,632 words)

I don’t panic on the afternoon in August 2012 that my sister calls and tells me that our mother has gone insane and her boyfriend has rushed her to the ER. For the full four-week duration of her hospital stay, I don’t feel much of anything for her. Instead, driving to the hospital that first afternoon, I tell myself to keep my ears open in case she slips and says something important and true.

Three months before, she was diagnosed; two months before, she began treatment. Breast cancer, ductal carcinoma in situ, stage two, one sentinel lymph node affected, ER/PR/HER2 negative, BRCA gene double negative. I advised her on what to tell her doctor about her family history so Medicare would pay for the genetic test. She’s prescribed a lumpectomy followed by six months of chemo followed by radiation.

She tells me these things. She shares these details with me, the same way she did twelve years ago when she had an abnormal Pap result, compelling me to consider a part of her body I’m even more reluctant to think about than her breasts. She sends me her path lab reports, as though I were the parent and she was sending me her report cards to hang on the refrigerator. I don’t know how to ask her to stop. I understand all of these details. I analyze cancer data for a living in collaboration with some of the foremost epidemiologists in the world. I’ve been at my job for 13 years. I’ve long since finished my work on endometrial and ovarian cancer, and I’m now branching out from the cervical cancer projects that were my sole focus for almost a decade; breast cancer has become my new specialty. My mother has had a knack for developing personal connections with the cancers that I study.

And for reasons that have never been clear to me, my company has always assigned me to the lady cancers. The irony in this has been coming in waves which are about to break on my shores—my birth certificate describes me as male, and up to this point I have grudgingly embodied that identity as well as I could. Less than a year after my mother’s hospitalization, though, in June of 2013, I’ll have begun my physical transition to female, something I’ve secretly wanted to do since early childhood, long before I could articulate it.

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