09/14/2012 01:26 pm ET

Numbers About My Mother

It’s August and it’s San Francisco so it’s cold. While I’m walking home from work there’s a call from a Portland number I don’t recognize. I answer. It’s a friend of my mother’s, phoning to let me know that my mother has tried to kill herself, that she’s at a hospital in an induced coma. I slump onto a cement car stop in a parking lot and listen to the details, dig in my purse for a pen, turn the phone away from the wind, write down the hospital’s name and the room number, watch people walk down Polk Street on their way home or to happy hour, thinking how normal they all look, how careless they act while my mother is in a coma. Her friend says she’s not sure how bad it is. I try to figure out how to phrase my question correctly, politely: “You mean she might die?” but I can’t think of how it’s supposed to be said, how a person asks this of a near-stranger regarding her own mother, so I don’t ask it.

My mother is 57 and I am 32. This isn’t the first time she has tried to kill herself. The other time was when she was 32 and I was seven. Back then, she was a single mother of four kids — my three brothers and me. She’d been married twice, divorced twice. We lived in a little house that my brothers and I came into and went out of with impunity while she slept days, worked at a bar nights. The house had two bedrooms and one attic. One of my brothers was still a baby, not yet two years old. That’s a lot of numbers for one paragraph. Here are some more:

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