We spent Christmas Eve at my parents’ house.  Both my sisters, their spouses, and all children.  100% attendance by the DePlume family.

It’s the first holiday in memory my mother has commanded our presence rather than request it.  “This will probably be the last Christmas,” she added, trailing off.  Last Christmas before what? I did not ask.  At least not to her face.

But my Internal Narrator asked me, over and over.  Fucking annoying. During a dark, half-asleep trip to the potty; while cutting carrots for dinner; every step of my afternoon walk.   Before WHAT?

I was pretty tense on the drive up there.  My mom never calls me anymore.  When I call her, she has high pressured speech – talking hard and fast about whatever it is that’s on her mind, usually something that’s made her sad or angry.   Eventually, she’ll say, “How are you doing?” or worse, “You keep me so distant  – you never tell me what’s going on in your life anymore.”

My heart never fails to lurch at those words.  I’ll start to talk, but within a sentence and a half, she’ll interrupt: “I hate to do this, but I’ve been talking too long and nature calls,” she said the first time before hanging up.  “Oops, here comes your Dad, I have to help him,” she said the second.  And I’m not even joking, the third time, she fell asleep and started snoring.

I know she can’t take on one single thing more.  She can’t take care of me, not even at the level of hearing about my day.  I know the energy needs to flow to her – our relationship is not a give and take anymore.

Knowing didn’t prepare me for seeing her.  She is haggard, dead-eyed, with few facial expressions.  She makes minimal eye contact.  Her skin is terrible.

All this time I have been worrying about losing my father, but I understand now I will lose them both.  She is dying as quickly as he is.

What was only a theoretical choice a few months ago is visceral now.  My dad was always going to die.  That was in the cards.   She could’ve stayed with us, but she chose to go with him.  All this time, I’ve been hoping she could pull this choice off, be some WonderWoman who cared for my dad until the end, then came back to us.

Now I understand the last true words my mother spoke to me were, “You are already an orphan.”  Looking back, she must’ve known we had to cut the tie between us, maybe so it wouldn’t drag me into the darkness with her.

She has taken to sleeping alone in her guest bedroom now.  My dad hardly sleeps at night, and she needs the downtime.

When we arrived at her house, she asked me to put fresh sheets on the bed so my husband and I could use it.  The request unsettled me only because my mother is from the South.  Being unprepared for guests is against their religion – I’d never made my own guest bed in her house my whole life.

I hauled a bundle of sheets to the back bedroom and got busy.  When I found her uncovered pillows, I was surprised to see they were nasty, yellowed, stained things, the feathered ones half-empty and clotted.  Ugh, Mom is really slipping, I thought.  It crossed my mind to wonder why all of them were so god-awful, but mostly I was irritated — my husband is finicky and I didn’t know if he would tolerate this level of grossness.  Even I was hesitant about sleeping on them, and I’m none too finicky.

Despite my repulsion, when it came to putting pillow cases on, I fell back into old habits and bit the end of the pillow between my teeth to help shake it into its case.  Ew, I know.  But 1) I don’t know how to put a pillow case on any other way, and 2) she’s my mom, what worse cooties could she have than the ones I got living inside her, right?

The pillows were salty.  Yeah, I probably got what I had coming to me for putting one in my mouth, but I seriously stood there wondering WTFuckingF was SALTY?  After a moment of barfy confusion, I put the rest of the bed together and left.

After I’d been at her house two days, I knew.  Those pillows are lumpy, destroyed messes because they have been soaked in tears.