I knew my parents were coming, and not to visit—which was often, though living on the opposite coast, not often enough—but coming to live. Forever.

To understand what a great adjustment this would mean, it helps to know that I haven't lived within 1,000 miles of my parents since I left for college at age 18. And since being married 25 years ago, I haven't lived with anyone besides my husband—not counting the occasional house guest, various dogs, horses, and a cat named Chaucer. Such a life has made me self-directed, increasingly set in my ways, and easily irritated by the slightest upset of my routine.

So although I love my parents immensely, and like them a great deal besides, I approached the impending convergence of our lives as I do most things: with a sense of duty and a smidgen of anxiety. I just didn't think about it more than necessary. Of course, my lifestyle and occupation (an English professor and department chair) don't permit much time for a lot of extra thinking. But when the long-expected call came, on day four of their five-day trek from Washington State to our home in Virginia—their new home—and my Dad said, "We're 400 miles away, we'll be there sometime tomorrow," I began to think.

"Tomorrow" had been a couple of years in the making. Many families find the conversation required to plan for aging and death difficult to broach, but my father has never been one to let anything be left to chance. So a few years ago, when he retired for the final time (having worked three consecutive careers), Dad sat Mom down to plan their future—more precisely, Mom's future in the statistically likely event that he would "go" first, as my mother puts it.

When Mom told me about their discussion, ...

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