They asked me if I wanted the mirror or not. Not everybody does, they told me, but it’s meant as a joyful surface, loaded in real time with the miracle of life, an echo that powers expectant mothers through every push. It looked hungry in that antiseptic space, reflecting back machines and stainless steel and things that could be blasted clean. But it was already on the wall, and I didn’t want to seem demanding. I am already high-maintenance. I am an exhausted laundry list of risks tick-tick-ticked beneath the heading “geriatric pregnancy.” I am a wrinkled womb perched on rickety chicken feet inside this plump raisin of a body, my bloodshot eyes and banshee-tangled hair reflecting back from the portal on the wall, but it’s too late to ask them to cover it. It’s too late to shut her out, the dead woman staring back at me, her ragged O mouth ringed with sloughing skin I feel scrape against my own dry tongue. She is less and more than I remember, less blonde and more brunette, less young and more careworn, less my aunt and more every woman who dies after bringing life into the world. A quarter century had passed since I watched her stagger, white-faced and gasping, after handing me her newborn daughter. She told me not to call for help because she was fine, because having a baby just takes it out of you, and I believed her. I believe her even now, as I withstand the same number of years she withstood until her life ended. I believe her as my daughter wiggles in her acrylic bassinet, shaking her sharp-nailed fists, all her angles pointed and acute where they tore through me. But every pain in my heart is a Schrodinger’s cat trapped by my ribcage: it’s probably fine and it’s probably fatal. You’ll see her grow up and she’ll only know your face from photos. The duality splits me open as the attending doctor stitches me up, while I squirm and try not to scream, while I apologize—always apologize—for contracting my muscles away from his steel needle, for jerking my inconvenient limbs, for being so much trouble. The woman in the wall mouths I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’ll try to do better, and I reach toward her and mouth you’re doing the best you can.
Audrey Burges writes in Richmond, Virginia, and her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Into the Void, Gingerbread House, Women Writers, Women’s Books, and other outlets. You can find more of her writing at audreyburges.com and on Twitter, @audrey_burges.
Lead image: “Delivery Room” (via Flickr user Rob O’Brien)