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She Kept Smiling
I kept the curtains closed. I wasn't in the mood to open them up and let the sunlight stream in, illuminating my flaws and showing the world what a failure I was. Everybody already knew, anyways.
He would be home soon, so I stayed up all night cleaning the dingy apartment. Now I sat on the cheap couch, pulling at the threads barely holding it together. In a lot of ways, I felt this couch represented me; full of holes and tearing at the seams. So close to breaking but still holding on.
"Liz?" I heard the door open and the jingle of keys. "Baby, I'm home."
I choked down a sob as I ran my fingers through my thin, blonde hair. It's not as thick as it was before the cancer.
"Hi, Andy," he pulled me close and kissed the top of my head. I could smell his musky cologne and the mint from his gum; a familiarity that used to be comforting. "How was the meeting?"
I knew there was no meeting, so I was curious to see what story he fabricated this week. "It went well, baby. I missed you, though."
I kissed him on the cheek, pulling back with a fake smile plastered on my face. "I missed you too, Andy. Why don't I go start dinner?" Eager to change the subject, I hurried out if the living room and into the tiny, shoebox kitchen.
I started making his favorite, chicken Parmesan, while humming a lullaby to soothe my shaken mind.
"Dinner is served," I said as I placed the plates on the table, "bon appetite."
Andy smiled. "Thanks so much, Lizzie. It smells delicious." I watched as he dug in, setting down his knife and fork to occasionally check the scores of the football game.
"Baby girl, you okay?" Andy looked up to see me playing with the rotini on my plate.
I nodded, sighing. "Yeah, I'm fine, just not feeling well. I think I'm going to take some Tylenol and go lay down." I stood, excusing myself from the table, and took my dishes out to the sink.
I went into the birdhouse of a bathroom, as Andy would call it, and stood before the cracked mirror, examining how pale I had become. Opening the medicine caninet adjacent to the tiny mirror, I pulled out a couple bottles; my chemo, pain pills and iron supplements. Shaking the dosages out into my hand, I popped them in my mouth with a labored sigh. I gulped down a paper cup of water before making my way over to the bedroom.
I laid in bed, silent tears streaming down my face. I couldn't help but wonder where everything went wrong. Was it before he proposed, or after? Was it because he found the razor stashed beneath my pillow, covered in dried blood, or the ultrasound images pronouncing our unborn daughter dead?
Not long after I began my very first round of radiation when I was first diagnosed a few years back, Andy started drinking. Not heavily, at first, but enough to come home riled up. He was never the friendly type of drunk, and I always made sure the doctors blamed the cancer for my bruises. After all, I loved this man. Isn't that what the diamond on my finger said?
"Lizzie?" Andy spoke quietly from the doorway. "Baby, are you okay?"
I wiped the tears from my eyes, nodding as he joined me beneath the duvet. "I just really don't feel good, Andy. I think...I think I'm going to call the doctor in the morning."
I could see the concern in his eyes as he took my hand in his. "Liz, I think you should call Dr. Horner now. Let me go get the phone."
I shook my head, slowly sitting up. "It's okay, Andy. I'll go get it." I stood, much quicker than I anticipated. My knees crumped, allowing my weak body to plummet to the floor.
"Lizzie!" Andy's voice was distant, swirled with white noise as blackness blissfully engulfed me in a world of peace. I breathed a sigh of relief.
"Baby girl?" his voice greeted my ears, softly, as my eyes opened against my will. "Oh, thank God, Lizzie, you're awake!" Andy planted a kiss on my icy cheek.
"Hey Andy," I croaked, taking his hand in mine. Maybe, just maybe, I had a slight soft spot for him in my heart. "I'm so sorry, Andy."
His dark brown eyes began to water, and a tear escaped, a freed prisoner making it's way down his cheek. "Lizzie, why didn't you tell me you relapsed?"
This was when the last thread ripped, tearing my seams wide open and everything poured out. "Because, Andy, I knew I wasn't going to make it. I didn't want you to feel as if we had to rush the wedding and try to find our dream house before time ran out. I didn't want you to waste money on a lost cause."
It was then that I saw the last sparkle in his eyes fade, dull and laquered with tears. "Lizzie, baby, you're not a lost cause. And I know that, if this is the last moment, I'm sorry for not saying that enough. Liz, I'm sorry for every bruise, every sleepless night, and ever conference I spent away from you."
"Andy, you don't have to lie. I figured out they weren't conferences when your boss called looking for you a couple months ago," I coughed, suppressing a smile.
Andy's head dropped. "I knew you'd figure one way or another. But baby, it's not what you think it is," he reached a hand into his back pocket and pulled out a piece of paper, a certificate. "Do you know what this says? Six months sober, Lizzie. Six months. All those conferences, well baby, they were alcoholic anonymous meetings. I was doing this for you."
In that moment, I felt something I had never felt before. I was truly proud of Andy. "Wow, Andy, I am so proud of you!" I wanted to praise him more, but I started a coughing fit that racked my entire body with waves of pain.
"Baby, you ok?" Andy moved to the bed with my, lying by my side.
In all honesty, I was feeling better than I ever had been. I could feel myself slipping away, floating as if I were drifting along a stream. I felt like I was no longer earthbound, as if I were being freed.
"Lizzie?" Andy sat up, alarmed as my breathing became more shallow.
I smiled, squeezing his hand.
Andy smiled back, wrapping his arms around me as he planted a kiss on my forehead. "You were always a fighter, Liz. Smiled through it constantly. Heck, you're even smiling right now for me."
"Yeah, I'm smiling," I took as deep of a breath as possible, "but you're not the reason anymore."
I looked Andy in the eyes, peering into those muddy pools with sincerity. "Andy, I'm smiling because I see her, our baby girl. Andy, she's beautiful."
"Lizzie, that's great, and I bet she can't wait to see her mommy soon, the best mommy in the world." Andy hiccuped as he tried to contain his tears. "But our baby girl can wait. I need you Lizzie. Baby, fight it for me."
Shakily, I raised his hand to my lips before placing it over my heart. I closed my eyes, and with one final breath, I sighed. "I can't wait to hold her."
Grey skies adorned the landscape, the muddy grass dotted with wildflowers and stray pine cones. A lone headstone sat under the willow, her willow, and he stood before it. He placed a fresh bouquet of irises–the kind he got her every year for her birthday–by the stone like he did every month. "I miss you, Lizzie," he whispered as raindrops ran down his face, mixing with his tears. "Tell our baby girl I love her."
He kissed a piece of paper and set it down by the stone. He ran his fingers through his greying hair before hesitantly leaving. The paper read "25 years sober."