I Don’t Know by Lindsey Schaffer
Look both ways before crossing the street, always chew before you swallow, don’t talk to strangers. These are the first basic lessons I learned from my parents.
As I grew older I asked them questions: Why does it get so hot in the summer, why are some people so mean at school, what happens when we die?
My parents battled through my lengthy questionnaires. I never argued with what they said, I simply accepted it as truth.
Eventually, however, there came a time when I realized my parents didn’t have all the answers. When I had to come to terms with the fact that my parents are people just like me, struggling to find truth of their own.
The first time I started to question my parents all-knowing power was when I was ten years old. My parents were driving us to a house tour while my sister and I sat in the back seat watching Tangled, the Disney movie, on loop. We were particularly obsessed with the song “Mother Knows Best.” This was at a time before air pods or fancy headsets, so the movie was broadcasted to the entire car. As my sister and I sang awfully my mom chipped in, saying: “Listen, mother does not always know best. I am not always right.” I remember the furrowed brow and bemused look I gave her. Although illogical, a small part of me had believed that mom was indeed always right.
My dad laughed as she corrected: “But I am almost always right.”
As I progressed in school, my parents continued giving me explanations for things but they could never help me with my homework. It was supremely frustrating. I had thought that two adults with Masters Degrees would be able to solve any problem. However, they had apparently never covered trigonometry in their studies.
I was learning things my parents had not and It awoke a foreign sense of pride in me. One day, I came home from school and quizzed my parents on Greek Gods.
“Who is the Greek Goddess of War?” I asked pridefully, knowing they would not know the answer. “Aphrodite?” My dad suggested hopefully. I laughed in his face and corrected him. It was Athena of course.
“Why would you tease someone for not knowing something they never learned?” That comment really stuck with me. I realized the obvious truth that people do not know things until they are taught them. This led me to conclude that there were not simply stupid and smart students—just students that had learned more than others.
It took a harsh wake up call for me to fully realize my parents didn’t have all the answers, the summer of my senior year of high school. I’d just received a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease—a condition that results in stomach pain, nasty symptoms, and a lot of unwanted hospital visits. The doctors had just told me I needed to start taking a harsh round of steroids, either by pill or injection, and likely remain on them for the rest of my life.
My mother, who is very against any long-term hormone altering medicine, was just as afraid as I was, though I didn’t know it at the time. Parents have this powerful ability of covering up their fear to stay strong for you. It’s as if their desire to keep you calm is stronger than their desire to grieve for your misfortune. I’d asked her question after question: What do I do? Do I start the treatment? What other options do we have? I felt unprepared and underqualified to make such an important decision on my own. But every time I went to my mom she said I had the final decision, I had to decide. Her face tightened when she said it, as if trying to contain some unknown emotion.
After a long time of prodding one day she snapped: “I don’t know.” She said a little too aggressively, “I am scared and I don’t know what to do.” I was taken aback. My mom had never admitted how she felt about my condition, she had only cared about how I felt. Hearing her say she was afraid cemented in me that she was human too, she didn’t have the answers. No one had the answers, I had to discover them for myself.
It can be useful to ask for help, but is foolish to assume others, even parents, hold all of the answers. I work on learning to trust myself daily. My hope is that one day, when my kids come to me asking questions about why it gets so hot in the summer or what happens when we die, I will be able to sit down with them, make a pot of tea and say: “I don’t know, let’s talk about it.”
Lindsey Schaffer is a writer and contributor to Variant Literature Issue #1, Ethel (forthcoming), and Rue Scribe. She is a recipient of the Manitou Fellowship for the Summer of 2020 through the College of Saint Benedict. You can find her on Twitter @LindseyAnn3.