A few nights before Christmas, my mother lying on the sofa, not yet the swollen head and belly (all head, all belly) connected by a wasting body—like two tinker toys joined by a stick, like the ones my son left in the hall that my father stumbled over, cursing. The night before she begins to bob in and out of consciousness like some salt marsh fish roiling the water with its fins, snip-snapping the unsuspecting mosquitoes buzzing above the surface. The expanding concentric circles from the surprise attack reaching us miles away—like a phone call, calling us back home for the holidays.

That night begins with a hectic dinner. Too many cooks, too many bickering kids, who, an hour before, had fortified one of the bedrooms, cushion against cushion for ecstatic leaps and sneak attacks, death by tickling. We all pitch in (my brother, my sister and her husband, my wife, me) to clear the table—along with those other after-dinner metaphors—and then we round up the adults—on couch and recliner, stairs-steps and stools dragged in from other rooms.  The offspring and their spouses encircle the parents seated on the sofa, seemingly pleased to be surrounded. And always, the little kid-giggles, like slinkies bounding down stairs. Then one of us—I forget which—gives the order: the sappers sent on to other sites, concern peeking out from embrasures, compassion at the crenels. We speak, we storm the gate, ratchet back the catapults and let it fly:

“When did you find out that the cancer spread? How deep has it gone? What made you think that you could try to keep us in the dark? Can you really care for her, Dad, can you really cook and clean and dress her?”

My parents nod to one another and give us a single blank stare. They laugh, as though their little secret has been revealed—moldy chocolate kiss beneath the mattress, missing thread, overdue library book sheepishly displayed.

“It’s just the radiation. It’s really too soon to think of things like that,” they say as a team. But what they really mean is take back your damned oblivion. What they really mean is take back your fucking death sentence, for this belongs to us, not you. It’s our account and you can’t withdraw from it.

The kids are asleep by now—amid the ruins of the tabletop Pompeii they’ve scaled upstairs, fallen into some quaint catastrophic version of freeze-tag.

The discussion’s ended. They don’t want our help. They’re still the parents. End of story. My father helps my mother across the room, almost carrying her on his hip. Together they fall against the wall—and knock the Daumier print off the split-level landing, the one with third-class passengers on a train bench, abandoned and compartmented in poverty and misery and loneliness. We are too stunned to help them and by the time we react they have already rounded the corner, out of sight.

The sofa soaked with chemo-scented urine.

Photo by Woman of Scorn on Flickr