It is early 2006. The woman holding the camera — a small digital camera with a flash, the only camera she has — is taking what someday will be known as a “mirror selfie,” and people will take them with their smart phones, which, in 2006, almost no one owns.
The baby in the photo is being held securely in a ring-sling, a native-style baby carrier that holds her snug against the woman’s chest. She is asleep, making a raspy, wheezing, wet sound which precludes the woman from doing the following:
- talking on the phone
- hearing anything on the tv
- coping with anything but the most crucial, immediate needs
The woman’s hair has fallen out at the top of her forehead. The baby against her chest nurses voraciously almost every ninety minutes around the clock, and between nursing sessions, the woman in the mirror doesn’t have the energy to choose, make, and eat a sufficient amount of food, and inadequate nutrition takes a toll. Her hair is growing back in thin little tufts. This issue does not fall under the category of “crucial, immediate needs,” so she does nothing to mask the strange fringe above her eyebrows.
Not in the photo is a preschool-aged, curly-haired, gentle, potty-refusing girl. She is just across from the stairs pictured in the mirror. She is watching Mary Poppins, again, or perhaps standing on a chair at the kitchen sink, cheerfully washing her plastic fruits and vegetables, the one activity the woman in the mirror can manage to put together for her. It is winter. It will be months before the little girl can be walked to the park to play. Fortunately, she is happy with Mary Poppins and playing in the sink.
Also not pictured is a man who will return home later. Though he believes every word the woman in the photo says, without question, she has taken this photo to prove a point. Maybe the point is: “I can never put the baby down.” Possibly, it is “the baby only sleeps in the sling,” or “I can’t carry the laundry to the basement because I am always holding the baby.” The point might also be, “I am so deeply unhappy and lonely, and that ought to be in a family photo album, too.”
The woman in the photo has not worn her contact lenses for five months, give or take.
The baby in the photo is struggling to breathe.
The woman in the photo loves the baby in the photo but, secretly, questions whether she and the baby are compatible at all. During the marathon afternoon of nursing they share every day, the verses of “Feed the Birds” not loud enough to drown out the wheezing and slurping of the baby, the woman will trace the baby’s face with her fingers. This is what adoring mothers do, and this is what I will do, and the magical bonding will happen because I will work hard enough to make it happen. And then she’ll sleep better because she’ll trust me. And then I can put her down and look at her from a distance and see how dear she is, and we will be in love, and I won’t have to bite my fist in the cold shower at night to keep from screaming with exhaustion and I will want to touch my husband again and I will come back from here, wherever I am, stuck in the mirror reflection of misery with the baby in the sling…
Spoiler alert: the woman and the baby in the photo no longer exist.
If only we could reach out to them, standing there in the bathroom, recording their own misery, to tell them the story of what comes next. There will be struggle and there will be years of sleeplessness, but one day, the baby will stick her fingers into the sides of her cheeks, thrust her tongue out, and tilt her head to the side, exactly the silly expression her big sister taught her. And another day, she will ride in a backpack on the woman’s back and gently, lovingly, pat the woman’s head as they select giant peaches in a farmer’s market on vacation. One day, years later, she will wrap her arms around the woman’s legs and say, “Thank you, Mommy, for making me a birthday!”
And 2006 will coil up into an arc of misery underneath many mostly-perfect circles of joy.
When I think of that photo, I think of how hard it is not to know what’s coming next. I think about how stuck we can get in the moment, in the stubborn inability to imagine change, and about how retrospect is the best tool we have for imagining the possibilities of change in our own futures.
Obviously, it came to pass that the woman and baby were replaced. New photos were taken with smart phones in the bright of day, and they looked like this:
This has been a Finish the Sentence Friday post, hosted by Kristi of FindingNinee.com. Tonight’s sentence is “When I look at this photo, I feel…”