Liza stayed behind to be with Estelle. It’s funny, the images the mind constructs about people, she thought, as she watched her mother-in-law’s chest rise and fall. When they loom the largest in your life, the archetype gets hard-wired. No matter what happens after that moment, this is the version you always remember. Liza saw her father as a robust, dark-haired man running on the beach or showing her how to bait a hook and swing the line far out in to the northern California surf. Yet she was surprised each time this stooped, gray-haired man came to meet her flight. No matter how her husband aged, she was certain she’d see the clear, green eyes and amused, crooked grin of the Adam who watched her mince down the aisle in her wedding dress and heels, actual high heels, when all she’d ever worn was sneakers or sandals, depending on the season.
Estelle would always be a force. She would always be a loud, opinionated, pigeon-breasted tank of a woman. She would forever stand on the porch of the house Adam and Charlie had grown up in, her hands on her hips, her dyed red hair glowing like fire underneath the lamp. A cigarette would dangle from her mouth, and she’d lean forward into the night as if to scold it. She’d watch a nervous Adam pull into the driveway, bringing only his second serious girlfriend home to meet his mother. He’d been nervous because Liza hadn’t dressed the way he suggested. Because she didn’t bring the gift he suggested. And the first words out of Estelle’s mouth were, “Schmuck, when are you going to get that muffler fixed already, you probably woke the whole neighborhood.”
Not, “Nice to meet you.”
Not even, “It’s about time you got here.”
No. Forever Liza would remember this woman belittling the man who would become her husband.
But not this version of her mother-in-law, this sallow bag of flesh hooked to machines, this woman whose already short legs had gotten so thin she looked merely like a torso and a head, a magic trick.
The head’s eyes flickered.
“Liza.” Estelle’s voice was small and raspy.
She leaned closer and tentatively pressed a hand to her mother-in-law’s shoulder. “Yes. It’s me.”
Estelle worked her lips together. They look chapped and uncomfortable. Why hadn’t the nurses seen to that? “Can I, uh, get you something?” Liza asked. “Lip balm? Water?”
Estelle’s bloodshot eyes lolled in Liza’s direction. “I want a cigarette.”
Liza didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. And knowing Estelle, there was probably a pack and a lighter in her purse right now. Maybe she’d even had one while waiting for the EMTs. “I think you’ve had your last cigarette.”
“Then kill me.”
“I know it’s hard. But you won’t be able to smoke anymore.”
“I meant it. Kill me. Pull the plug.”
“You’ll do it. Adam won’t have the heart.”
She was too tired to feel insulted. “I will not...”
“When it gets bad.”
“You’ll put a pillow over my head.”
“Stop talking like that. They have better treatment now...” Liza looked into Estelle’s eyes. The possibility hadn’t occurred to her until now. What if Estelle herself didn’t know? If the doctors had considered her too incoherent to make rational decisions about her treatment options, maybe she wasn’t rational enough to comprehend the scope of her condition.
“You could go on the patch.”
“Patch.” Estelle laughed weakly. “If they got a patch for this, I’m the Queen of Sheba.”
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