A woman sits with my grandparents at their kitchen table, her blue eyes glossed over with tears. Her eyebrows are plucked thin, her nose sharp, her skin a few shades past pale. Boxed dye keeps her short hair dark, but it can’t cover her gray roots.

She’s only in her 40s, but her face is cracked and worn, and her teeth are beginning to rot. I hardly recognize her as my mother. She has traded an inmate’s dull uniform for jeans and a T-shirt. She is a new woman, she says. A changed woman. A woman who no longer uses methamphetamine.

My grandparents ask me to join them, but I can’t do it yet. The dimly lit room is a standard kitchen in the condominium complex of a Salt Lake City suburb where my grandparents moved three years ago. For most of my life, they lived in a historic house on a tree-lined street in an idyllic neighborhood downtown. I lived there, too, after Mom’s life started falling apart. Their lives changed as they grew older and took on burdens that weren’t theirs to bear, but that place felt like home and this one does not, even if their love remains unconditional.

Mom came home today from another stint in jail, and my grandparents have welcomed her with open arms, but I stand back, silently logging the differences that set me apart. I’m an inch taller. My nose is round, my hair is brown and curly, my skin much darker. I did inherit her blue eyes, but I pray I will never follow her into addiction. I’ve never told my family lies of great consequence. I’ve never stolen their belongings, never been arrested, never left them to raise a daughter. She hasn’t apologized yet, but already my grandparents have pledged forgiveness, a blanket pardon.

Now I feel the weight of their eyes, as they wait for me to do the same. Perhaps I’m alone thinking it’s suspicious that Mom is already asking to borrow the car, to go for a drive and taste what she calls freedom, but I can’t help remembering where that road leads. It’s January 24, 2020. I’m 19 years old and I’m scared. The air is stiff, suffocating and absurd. As if we all have plastic bags over our heads and we’re just pretending we don’t know why. 

Until I tear the bag open, not even meaning to, with a stifled scream. I list off my mom’s failures and a torrent of objections to this whole prodigal experiment. My voice rises and cracks, as my cheeks flush red with anger. How can I let her back in? How can we open ourselves up to the pain that’s sure to follow? How did we get here? My grandparents advocate for her and I can feel that they’re disappointed in me. A cat wanders through, a mundane contrast with our melodramatic and horrible reality.

My mother is not alone, and neither am I. In the United States, 20 million people have a substance abuse disorder; for 1.5 million of them, that substance is methamphetamine. Many of them get caught up in the penal system. Beyond the 137,000 people behind bars for drug possession, more than half of those sentenced to confinement in jails or state prisons meet the DSM-IV, or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, criteria for substance abuse disorder, including seven in 10 women. Most Americans see the impact of addiction in their communities if not their own families. The rest can see it reflected in news headlines, on movie screens, in songs and novels, but it’s easy to forget how many of these addicts are parents. 

In America today, 8.7 million children live in a household impacted by substance abuse. About 2.1 million live with a parent who has been diagnosed with illicit drug use disorder. Numbers this big are inherently dehumanizing and difficult to contextualize, so imagine a classroom of 35 students. Four of those kids live in a household impacted by substance abuse; one has a mom or dad who is an addict. They grow up to become people we brush past at the grocery store, sit beside in the cinema, get stuck in traffic with. Some may seem to thrive, but they carry on a private struggle with a past they never chose. Like I do.

Imagine a typical classroom of 35 students. Four of those kids live in a household impacted by substance abuse; one has a mom or dad who is an addict. 

This story is about my experience, as I remember it. But it’s also just one example among millions.

In the decade since my mother first checked into a rehab facility, her addictions have shaped my life. Dealing with the fallout of her decisions, I grew up fast, trying to fill the gap she left behind. Hoping to make sense of it all, I’ve studied mental health and addiction. I’ve volunteered for an organization that helps addicts. I’ve gone to therapy. In the process, I’ve learned to mourn the loss of my mother.

“She’s disappeared,” I wrote in my journal, five years ago, “slipped through the cracks and become a ghost.”

There aren’t memorials for living addicts. Their hearts still beat but to a different rhythm. The woman who screamed that she hates me, who always seemed to be running a scam, who still haunts my nightmares is not my mom. She couldn’t possibly be the same person who used to drive me to dentist appointments and dance class. Before the drugs, she would cloak what looked like depression behind a crafted smile. Now I’ve learned to protect myself from her by calling lock companies, changing banks and filing police reports. Meth has consumed her.

I’m still fighting to keep its impact from consuming me.

Mom beamed as she brushed my hair back out of my face. I was eight years old and she was getting me ready for a dance recital. She loved me through the details: the mascara lengthening my eyelashes, the lotion softening my skin, the affirmations that she believed in me. Later, when I was onstage, I couldn’t see past the blinding lights, but I knew she was out there in the audience. I was certain she clapped and cheered, holding a bouquet of flowers. She always brought me flowers. After the recital, I carried them home to the brick-faced split level that was the closest I had to a childhood home.  

Mom made me feel safe. She was strict and always kept track of me. She was never late to anything. She gave me cards on my birthday, decorated the kitchen for Valentine’s Day and made Christmases magical. We’d all wear matching pajamas and get Toblerone chocolate bars in our Pottery Barn stockings. It wasn’t just holidays that were special with her. Some nights I would rest my head on her chest, snuggled in the crook of her arm, and listen to her heartbeat. 

My father — we called him Papi — had immigrated from the Dominican Republic, where he left four children from a previous relationship; eventually, they would all follow him here, in their teens. I was the first of two daughters my parents had together, but for most of the first four years of my life he was absent. After they married, we lived in a few different apartments before settling in a working-class neighborhood west of the railroad tracks. 

Both of my parents worked in a call center. It was steady, but it wasn’t always enough. My bedroom was upstairs, across the hall from their room, so I might have been the first to hear the screaming that foreshadowed the end of their marriage. I was nine when Mom sat me on their bed and explained their decision to get a divorce. “It’s OK,” I told her, and I meant it. Papi played a wholesome role sometimes, driving me across town to dance class, showing up for recitals, taking us kids to Lagoon and Salt Lake Bees baseball games. But he was also chaotic, with an affection for alcohol. I already felt detached from him, especially after the night he got angry and threw his clothes in a car before driving off. When he returned the next morning, I had my first panic attack, although I didn’t have a label for it at the time. I just felt like a freak, unable to control my shaking body.

My parents’ separation was not easy. Over and over, my mom, sister and I would move out of the house and stay with my grandparents or family friends before moving back in. Yet, through it all, Mom made sure I could keep doing what I loved, even as her own life spiraled in the shadows.

I started eavesdropping on the other end of the home phone, trying to put together the pieces my family thought I was too young to know.

The details are fuzzy. I know Mom had kidney stones and took the prescribed painkillers. She took more and more, building up to 50 or more pills a day, before she crumbled in tears on the tile floor of her bathroom. That’s where she called my grandma, who was driving me home from theater camp, and I answered the phone. Mom cried on the other end. “It’s OK,” I said, before passing the phone along. Nobody explained it to me. I was 11, a child. So I was left to guess: Did she overdose? Try to kill herself? All I knew then was that she went to rehab. 

I started eavesdropping on the other end of the home phone, trying to put together the pieces my family thought I was too young to know. The problems were becoming too visible to ignore. My older half-siblings had left to forge their own paths. My sister and I were left to deal with our parent’s financial instability. When my parents had to leave the brick split-level, the four of us moved in with my grandparents. But the hardwood floors and well-heeled neighbors didn’t solve our troubles. By the end of that year, Papi had left for good. 

Mom was starting to leave, too. She was visibly depressed. Apparently, somebody prescribed her Adderall, and soon she was staying up all night, cleaning her room and rearranging the furniture. She would go to weekly therapy appointments, but it took her longer and longer to get home. My friends and I would randomly see her downtown or at certain gas stations, where I now know people would go to buy drugs. She started showing up late to my dance performances, walking in while I was onstage, looking altered, her hands bereft of flowers. If she showed up at all.

I was 16, sweating in a dance studio. Dancers were staggered across the space, tracing the choreographer’s movements, bodies reflected in walls of mirrors. Evenings like this had become a ritual for me. After class, I sat watching cars pass outside the windows. With my grandparents out of town, my mom was supposed to pick me up. Other students lingered then trickled out as I waited and worried. I knew something was wrong. I just didn’t know what it was yet. Hours passed and the studio closed. My eyes welled with tears and my hands shook as I texted her, over and over, “Where are you?”

Mom finally arrived after 10 p.m., with a stranger in the passenger seat. His features were sharp and fierce. Something about him frightened me. “A co-worker,” my mom called him. I was angry, confused and didn’t want to talk. “Don’t be mean,” she told me. Back at the house, I stepped outside to call my grandparents and recount the strange sequence of events. Out of nowhere, my mother snatched the phone from my hand and squeezed my wrist with an iron grip. I started to cry as she lashed out at me. Then she left. 

“She was supposed to be the good one,” I wrote in my journal. 

I felt abandoned that night, but it didn’t stop there. She’d call one day saying she was “housesitting in West Valley” then call again the next day from Nevada asking my grandparents for money to get home. I’d cry when she showed up after a month and a half, acting like everything was peachy. It was devastating to hear her favorite songs on the radio at a store — like “Since U Been Gone,” by Kelly Clarkson — or find cards she’d written tucked in behind a book.

I didn’t know then that social isolation is a common symptom for children whose parents are addicts — one of many. It’s difficult to parse all the ways the experience can affect a child, in part because substance abuse can express itself in so many ways. Generally, these children are more vulnerable to stress, trauma, anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses.

In my case, it looked like this: fatigue, a constant need to please others, fear of harm coming to the family, concern about getting home on time, difficulty making decisions, putting myself down, trying to take care of everyone and believing the problems in the family were my fault. I was developing a litany of symptoms I couldn’t name: hypervigilance, nightmares, dissociation, nausea, irritability and panic attacks. The only common denominator I could find in my childhood was myself, so I internalized the chaos as a consequence of me. 

“I’ve been told so many times it isn’t my fault and I understand but then — who is at fault?” I journaled. “I’m trying to be strong but I wish someone was there to wrap their arms around me and tell me everything is going to be OK. I have to be that person for myself now.” Still, I felt inadequate, with an overwhelming sense of impending doom, and I assumed each misstep was one I somehow choreographed. That same illusion drove me to protect myself by overachieving. Being “the best” became essential to my survival.  

She’d say she was “housesitting in West Valley” then call the next day from Nevada asking for money to get home. I’d cry when she showed up after a month and a half, acting like everything was peachy.

Dancing was my obsession, the studio a safe place to hide. The steps there were predictable, the counts always the same. One, two, three, four. I preferred this faster heartbeat, the rush of leaping through the air, leotards stained with sweat. I was in control there. Elsewhere, I spent my days flickering in and out of disassociation. My body moved but I felt lost in it. I struggled to sleep, tossing and turning as dark bags formed under my eyes. I fell asleep at school, falling behind. I felt disoriented, spinning, and unsafe. I was always looking out for threats. 

Five, six, seven, eight. Later, my heart raced but I wasn’t dancing. I was standing still, feet planted. I could feel my hair being pulled, stretched to the high ceiling. It took me a moment to realize I was pulling my own hair, clutching the curls at the scalp. Later, my therapist gives me a word for this: trichotillomania. It was part of another panic attack, now a regular occurrence. My chest heaved, my lips quivered, my jaw chattered. A cry escaped and I found myself curled up in a ball, unable to control myself, wailing, wanting my mom. 

On a hot day in early August 2018, I ventured to the store to pick out ribbons, balloons, bags and presents for my little sister. I was 18. My pride swelled as I tucked them underneath my bed and draped the comforter just so, to keep them hidden away. On the night before her birthday, I reached for the bags but they were gone. Confused, I checked the closet, my drawers, other rooms of the house and under my bed again. Nothing. I didn’t want to believe it, but in my bones I knew what had happened. 

This was not the first vanishing act. Wedding rings, name-brand clothing, cameras, sewing machines, vacuums, cellphones and iPads had all gone missing from our house and the homes of other family members. Sometimes we were able to find the objects at a nearby pawn shop, but Mom would disappear. It became clear to me that she had been stealing, probably to fund her habit. This time, I had made the mistake of leaving the receipts with the gifts. She must have simply returned the items to the store in exchange for cash. 

It had been a rough year or so. She’d been fired. I’d answered my first call from jail. I sat my grandparents down and demanded an explanation. “I know something is going on,” I told them. “Please tell me what it is.” That’s when I found out my mother was addicted to methamphetamine. While she ran off to Las Vegas with her “co-worker,” my resentment boiled. That city became a frequent destination for them, their stays longer and longer. But I started to appreciate those absences, since life was more peaceful without her. “I’m scared,” I wrote, “terrified actually. I hear echoes of her voice, I’m afraid she’ll be just around the corner. I’m scared of the person she has become.” Days passed and I dared myself to detach from her, as she had already replaced me. 

I moved my obsession from dancing to academics. After graduating from East High School, I went to the University of Utah. Predictably, like a poorly written sitcom joke, I majored in psychology. In lectures, I listened to my own experience described back to me, in sterile lists of symptoms and statistics. I busied myself with 18-credit semesters and strived to be my professor’s favorite student in every class. I didn’t just want an “A,” I wanted perfection. 

With my resume in mind, I filled what free time I had with extracurriculars and personal projects. I volunteered for Utah Naloxone, a local program dedicated to preventing opioid overdoses. I learned how to provide emergency care and administer the medication that could halt an OD and save the user’s life. It made me feel as if I had some kind of control. Twice a month I visited the organization’s office downtown and packaged kits with naloxone, a needle and instructions. The assembly-line rhythm was hypnotic, interrupting another shrill memory of my mom’s voice.

“Cold hearted,” she screamed at me in December 2018, snarling a spectrum of profanities. I stood in the doorway, blocking her from coming inside my grandparents’ house. My chest was tight, my lips a flat line. She would show up like this sporadically, wielding chaos and hurtful insults like weapons, grabbing whatever valuables she could before vanishing again for months at a time. My grandmother cried and my sister got mad at me, but this time, I held my ground.  

Jail was an ugly place. Thirty minutes passed, a forced meditation. Then, down an endless hallway of cinder blocks and fluorescent lights, I faced my mother through reinforced glass. 

Jail was an ugly place. Even the waiting room was drab and desolate but for a television propped up in the corner. The design felt like a punishment. Thirty minutes passed, a forced meditation. Talking was allowed but most visitors stuck to their thoughts, until the guard called us up. Then each of us trailed down an endless hallway, a tunnel of cinder blocks and fluorescent lights. On October 26, 2019, I faced my mother through reinforced glass for the first time. My feet didn’t quite feel properly under me. I didn’t feel in my body. She began to cry. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I love you.” She was sober now, but I felt nauseous, nervous and neurotic. I forced myself to say: “I love you too, Mom.” 

I was 19, a sophomore in college, a month removed from the long apology I sent her via Facebook Messenger, forgiving her too if only for my own sake. “Pain demands to be felt,” I wrote, quoting John Green’s tragic novel, “The Fault in Our Stars.” “And I’ve felt it, Mom. I have.” She saw it, but never replied. The next I heard, she was in custody at the Salt Lake County Metro Jail. I was proud of myself for making the trek to see her.

This wasn’t her first time behind bars, and it wouldn’t be the last. She’d racked up a raft of felony and misdemeanor charges that I didn’t find out about until I became a journalist: theft, possession of a controlled substance and drug paraphernalia, unlawful possession and use of a financial transaction card, forgery, possession of another’s identity documents, exploitation of a vulnerable adult, all between October 2017 and November 2019. She’d been picked up at a gas station, at a credit union and somewhere in or around St. George. A couple of her charges were dropped, but she’d missed more court dates than I could have imagined and often got arrested for that, too. It’s still impossible for me to picture my mom handcuffed in the back of a squad car, but she must have gotten used to it.

She never told me those stories. By the end of November, she’d been accepted into drug court — essentially a built-in rehabilitation program that offered both leniency and increased supervision overseen by a judge — along with all her pending cases in the state of Utah. With time on her hands, shielded from temptation, she finally seemed to be making progress. She did the work she was asked to do, and even got her divorce back on track (it would be finalized in August 2020).

So over the next few months, I visited her as often as I could muster, trying not to think of the irony that she was the one who warned me about taking drugs, who tried to protect me from heartache. In my journal, I kept reminding myself to find a therapist.

Back in that hideous waiting room, I’d trace out a timeline of events: depression, debt, divorce, painkillers, Adderall, crystal meth. Between each step: loss. I felt like an absolute loser, left to find meaning in this mess. I wondered if other kids visiting their parents felt the same. If they took on their parents’ faults as their own. If they carried the shame of substance abuse like a sworn oath. If they, too, hated this disappointing room. Were they also twisted with guilt, knowing they had turned away their mothers? 

When Mom was released on January 24, 2020, my grandparents treated her like the prodigal son come home at last. We gathered in that kitchen, each changed in our own way. They sat with her, their wrinkled hands open to give, their lips pursed in smiles I couldn’t understand. I could read the permanent fatigue behind their eyes as I exhausted my rant with an unwavering frown and hot tears sliding down my face. Eventually, my monologue ran dry and they convinced me to take a seat. Mom walked us through the work she had done in jail, embodied by a stack of worksheets on the table. Between the lines they read: Please let me be good enough.

That part felt familiar.

At first, I pushed her away. But as tears burst from my eyes, I fell into her embrace. I actually felt safe. I didn’t know it would be the last time.

To the best of my ability, I forgave my mom that night. She suggested we go to therapy as a family. She said she couldn’t imagine how it felt to be abandoned as she’d abandoned me. She promised never to see her “co-worker” again. Her tears and apologies washed away my lingering doubts. We even hugged. At first, I pushed her away. But as tears burst from my eyes, I fell into her embrace. I actually felt safe.

I didn’t know it would be the last time.

The next day, she started missing my calls and leaving my texts unanswered. Back on campus, I carried a sense of foreboding as students moved around me like sand falling in an hourglass, carrying backpacks filled with textbooks, laptops and Adderall. Bikes snaked through the crowd. I ignored them as I typed another message to my mom. When I was a child, I assumed that if I wrote her enough kind notes and affirmed enough love, I could cure her depression. Now, if I just did enough, I felt I could keep her addiction at bay. “I love you,” I wrote. “I hope you’re having a good day!” Her silence blared like an alarm. Something terrible had happened. And I was late for class. 

Four days later, I got the news. My mother had gotten in a car accident on Interstate 15 in Juab County. The car was totaled, the front-end crushed against a guardrail. She was with her “co-worker.” I’m told they were on their way back from Las Vegas. I don’t know why, but she got charged in Nephi at that time with attempted obstruction of justice and eventually pleaded guilty. Soon she was back at the Salt Lake County Metro Jail for violating her probation. Physically, she wasn’t badly hurt, but something else died. 

That was it. That was all I could take. It felt to me like her heart had stopped beating.

“I called my mom today because I felt obligated and ‘needed’ to be brave,” I wrote that May, “but then I realized I could be brave by not calling so I let it ring twice and hung up.”

My grandparents are strong in their Latter-day Saint faith and have forgiven, forgiven, forgiven their youngest daughter after each brutal wrongdoing. And each time, she’s repaid them with pain and injury. If she’s like the prodigal son, then I must be the unforgiving brother, the cold-hearted one who turns her away. My family doesn’t understand. They keep pushing me, asking why I can’t reintegrate my mom into my life. But each time I try, I feel hurt again. Abandoned, again. 

She’s not coming back. Not the person she used to be. 

Because that person doesn’t exist anymore.

Not long after the accident, I marched into the counseling center on campus for my intake appointment. A professional sat across from me. I was on the couch, and she was on a chair. A timeline poured out: depression, debt, divorce, Adderall, painkillers, crystal meth, Las Vegas and a car accident. I began crying, climbing through the cluster of words. “I’m fine,” I said. “It’s OK, it’s whatever.” But it wasn’t. Grief glued the sentences together but it wasn’t strong enough to hold. I was collapsing. 

Assigned to a therapist, I walked her through the life I shared with an addict. Each item stolen, each insult, each nightmare. The therapist referred me to a psychiatrist for help with my symptoms. On August 19, 2020, the psychiatrist gave me my formal diagnosis: general anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. That confused me, because I thought PTSD was just for soldiers. My therapist rhetorically asked me, “What if the war happens in your home?”

For as long as I was a student and eligible for treatment, we met almost every week to continue dissecting my life. One day, she asked me to imagine my nervous system. I’d been struggling with panic attacks, more than ever. Sometimes it was 10 minutes of hysteria and hyperventilating, other times it would last all night as my body shook and nausea overwhelmed me. Others, my lips would tingle with an unnerving numbness and black spots would cover my line of vision. “I see a burned girl,” I blurted out, surprising myself. A young girl with cuts and burns devouring her small body. Her flesh gargles and oozes. The image was too much. I turned away and we moved on to strategies for fending off the panic when I felt one coming on.

Cold water, a godsend, found me in the middle of the night. I ran my hand under the sink. Anxiety and an over-alert nervous system warp time and reality in a terrible way. Like how a child sees monsters in the shadow or insists that danger lurks under the bed, I was certain I wasn’t going to see the light of day. I felt that way often. Parents comfort their frightened children. Lacking that reassurance, I let cold water slip through my fingers, soothing the burning girl inside me.

There were nostalgic sessions, too, retracing the life I shared with my mom, prior to her addiction. She was a fantastic woman. Her favorite color was green and we’d sing Kelly Clarkson songs together. She had so many freckles, what she called angel kisses, I wish I would have counted how many angels had touched her skin. All of the cards she wrote me are stored in boxes. I treasure them, and I grieve the woman I loved. 

The diagnosis confused me, because I thought PTSD was just for soldiers. My therapist rhetorically asked me, “What if the war happens in your home?”

I dreamt that my mom had died. After the autopsy, the coroner told me something terrible had happened, an accident. He asked if I wanted to see her. I didn’t, so I held the hand of a relative as they witnessed whatever had killed her. I heard a piercing wail, agony punching through grief. I started making a list of all the relatives I would have to inform, people whose hands I would hold like this, whose pain I would witness. But no, I repeated, I could not bear to see what my mom had become.

Two months later, I sit cross-legged on my bedroom rug on an autumn evening in Los Angeles, where I’m modeling, working as a nanny and doing a remote internship with this magazine. Facing me are two laptops: one screen lists the questions I need to ask my mother; the other shows an audio recorder with a red line that spikes as it registers her voice over my cellphone speaker. I’m 22 years old now; she’s 45. And she’s right there, as close as the other end of the line, but she has never felt further away. This isn’t a social call but an interview, an assignment from my editor. I tell her I’m recording the call. I listen with the detachment of a journalist but speak with the disappointment of a daughter, my voice flat.

I don’t know much about her life since the accident. She graduated from drug court in July 2021, so she must have complied with whatever they needed her to do, and passed her drug tests. All of those charges were dismissed. And in February 2022, she completed probation for the obstruction of justice charge in Juab County. But for this conversation, we start all the way back at the beginning.

One day, she says, she was bored at work and popped half a Lortab. That set off a two-year opiate addiction, fed by the handful. After rehab, she switched to suboxone and, later, Adderall. Once she lost her job and health insurance, she couldn’t get Adderall anymore. “I was lying in bed for three days wanting to die. And then that’s when here comes my best friend: crystal,” she says. She confirms that she stole from the family to fund her meth habit, but she’s horrified to learn that the Target bag she snatched from under my bed held my sister’s birthday presents. She cries and suddenly I’m comforting her, saying it wasn’t you, you were sick. “You’re supposed to make your children feel secure in the world, and safe,” she says. I’m trying to stay in my professional role, to remember that this isn’t just my story. It’s a glimpse into the lives of all the children of addiction, torn between natural love for our parents and the need to protect ourselves from them and their life choices. But I’m human, after all. We all are. And I need to know how she feels about me writing this story. “It’s all good,” she says. “I have a whole version of that time in my life, what I experienced, and you have yours.” By the end of the call, we’re both crying.

“I didn’t mean to make you cry,” I say.

After 35 exhausting minutes, I hang up, unable to stop myself from saying, “I love you.” I start to write, trying to distract myself from the weight of this reality as I usually do: by disassociating and looking on from a safe distance. But my lips tremble and my eyes blur with tears. This is my mom I am writing about. The woman who lit my birthday candles became a verbal arsonist but she is as much a victim as I am. She isn’t alone, and neither am I. Parent and child, we grieve together. I know with perfect clarity that she never meant to hurt me. A single thought, as close to hope as I will ever get, keeps recycling through my mind: she is alive. 

Now, as the weather turns cold, I steel myself against the holidays and remember how it used to be. 

I’m a child. 

Snow has fallen, kissing the ground. Puffy eyes blink to the early morning. A plastic tree stands in the corner, twinkling lights snake around it, and ornaments hang still. My mom and I wear matching pajamas, like the rest of our family. In each memory, everyone else softens and she stands out with sharp specificity. Her neat handwriting tags each gift. We raid our stockings for chocolate. Everything is exceptional, each detail accounted for. Tearing through the paper she so carefully wrapped, I opened each gift.

Looking back, I see the evidence of credit card debt strewn across our living room floor.

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I can smell butter melting on the waffles towering on a plate. Bacon sizzles. Eggnog pours into cups. Whipped cream, strawberries and syrup flow. The sweetness still sticks on my tongue. Stomachs full, still in our pajamas, we squeeze together on the sofa. The movie starts. 

And she looks at me. She smiles and it’s the sweetest thing.

And I know she loves me.  

This story appears in the December issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.

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