The holidays are here, but my mother is not

two crystal baubles slightly out of focus

By Brianne DeRosa

It is December, nothing is wrong, and I am constantly on the verge of tears.

Given the state of the world, perhaps everything is wrong. But I know that’s not it. In my world, in my house, inside these walls that I rarely leave anymore, very little is wrong. We are not suffering. We are not sad. And yet I walk around with tears perpetually stinging the back of my nose and they will not fall.

It’s almost three years since my last conversation with my mother, since her sudden hospitalization, her death, and the tears still will not fall.


I don’t know when her holiday breakdowns started. But over the course of maybe five years, my Christmas-loving mother—who still shook packages to guess their contents, who had two Christmas trees so she could see one at all times during her waking hours—became overwhelmed. She would call me in tears over her difficulties buying presents online. She started leaving Post-It notes around the house with reminders about basic cooking times and techniques for the Christmas dinner, despite being a gifted cook who’d never needed help to remember these things before.

The first year that she went upstairs to rest alone on Christmas Day, I thought she’d caught a bug. The second year, it seemed an odd coincidence. And by the third or fourth, it became startlingly clear: I had bought almost all of the gifts she intended to give, I’d done the wrapping, and I spent most of my first few days in town baking and cooking and getting things ready—not with her, but for her.

Christmas, my mother’s Christmas, had become my responsibility. And she was spending most of every Christmas Day in bed, too weak and sick to enjoy what had been her favorite day of the year.

Mysterious things were happening to her body. Her hands shook and no one knew why. Sometimes she fell. She couldn’t eat without pain. She was constantly exhausted. She had heart palpitations, skin flushing, bloating. This doctor said she’d had a series of tiny strokes. The other said her thyroid was acting up again. 

“If you don’t stop drinking, you’ll be dead in 18 months.” That’s what another doctor finally told her, bluntly, unable to deny that alcohol was doing its part in ravaging her system. 

“I’m fine,” Mom said after that appointment, scorn in her voice. “Everything is fine. Leave me alone.”

She bought new Christmas ornaments that year, and spent much of the day in bed.


For the past six months, I’ve been dizzy, or almost-dizzy, or about-to-be-dizzy-perhaps. I have a new habit of waking up and mentally checking in with all my body systems to test whether it’s safe to lift my head. Bouts of pain and spinning and weakness come and go for days, weeks, months at a time. This doctor says it’s benign, another says it seems to be a muscular problem, another suggests atypical migraines.

There is nothing really wrong. Maybe everything is wrong. 

On days when I’m unwell, I take to my bed. On days when I am well, I still feel the urge to take to my bed. I sense a rawness in myself, a scraped-down, vibrating mass of nerves, a crumbling of defenses. The tears prick the back of my nose and they will not fall, and I hold my breath, wondering. Wondering when I will next be dizzy, when I will next cry. It’s been a while for both. Maybe I just need to lie down until it happens. Either thing. Or both.

My husband makes love to me, sweetly, and it releases a flood of tears that stay inside. I pass him in the kitchen and bury my face in his chest and I know he doesn’t understand what’s wrong with me. He doesn’t know that I want to cry but I can’t. He doesn’t know that he’s peeling back more layers, exposing more nerves. He touches my skin and I sense things bubbling to the surface that should stay buried. I think we should stay in bed all the time now, until I get things put back where they belong. 

I order turkey from the grocery store, plan to bake pies. The tears make my head pound but they will not fall. I hold my breath and wonder if the pounding will become dizziness. I look at my husband and I wonder why, when my mother died, he didn’t hold me the way he holds me now.


The year she died, I had finally convinced her to come to my house for Christmas. We were going to be too busy to travel, and some small part of me thought maybe if she could just rest and relax at my place, she wouldn’t get sick again. Maybe she could have a normal Christmas, without the self-imposed stresses of elaborate appetizers and designer china. 

She didn’t make it. The whole last few weeks of November, when she was in the ICU—missing her birthday and Thanksgiving—I planned ceaselessly to give her the happiest, most comfortable Christmas she’d ever had. I could make the appetizers. I could set the fancy table. I found a light-up porcelain sculpture of The Grinch on Mount Crumpet that I thought would look nice with her elaborate miniature Christmas village at home, and shipped it to her, so Dad could plug it in next to her hospital bed.

“My Grinch is shining a light on me,” she said weakly on Thanksgiving morning, when we last spoke. “Everything is fine.”

That Christmas Day, three weeks after her death, I was sick. I made Mom’s appetizers and rib roast dinner as planned, then curled up on the couch with a blanket and a hot toddy, leveled by a sinus infection. Her Christmas was my Christmas now, and our Christmases were to be perennially marred by a desire to stay in bed.


The porcelain Grinch now lives at my house and shines its light on me. I don’t know any longer what part of the holiday celebrations belongs to me, and what still belongs to her, but I’ve made it three Christmases now without taking to my bed. Maybe I’m doing okay.

I make arrangements to cook food that can be delivered to family who can’t risk coming to our home for the holidays. I think about gifts. I turn my head to the left and catch my breath as I wonder if what I’ve just felt is the start of the next wave of dizziness. When it’s not, not yet, I shake it off and do happy-making things. I hang pretty new wallpaper, dance and sing in the kitchen, bake cookies with sprinkles. 

I do all of this deliberately, with my skin flayed wide open. The tears that will not fall feel like they’re quivering along every running tributary in my body, every branching nerve, every vessel. They won’t come out, so they sink in, thumping deep against bone, where they harden and calcify.

It is December and nothing is wrong. But ask me tomorrow. Tomorrow, I might be dizzy. I might cry. I might take to my bed.

But for today everything is fine.

Brianne K. DeRosa promises she actually does love the holidays, and that she really will be okay. When she’s not internally crying during the holiday season, she enjoys singing carols, baking cookies and snuggling with her wonderful husband and children. Everything is, in fact, probably fine.

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