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Quiet, Silent, Beautiful photo

Sometimes a baby just stops breathing,

It’s a genetic thing. It can’t be helped. There’s nobody to blame except a mutant fist of broken DNA, and a newborn’s lungs being so delicate. Lungs like mucus and pearl, shivering under the shallows of the chest. So fragile they might as well not be real.

Still, I thought, I must have blinked one too many times. I slept and forgot my silent prayer. Please keep breathing. Keep breathing. Her bassinet in that cool dark room, underneath waves of white noise, must’ve been in my periphery and not my direct line of vision. I thought God should not have entrusted me with such a precious thing, and that’s why he took her away.

Mathilda Hutchins was a name for a human being, but she was the baby. With her pink wrinkled skin and soft cheeks. Bow lips. Snub nose. Her father’s huge eyes. She was the sudden presence that filled the delivery room like a creation spirit pressing his thumb to make a wrinkle in space. She turned her little face into my breasts like she was turning into the sun after being in a long, cramped, windowless corridor for far too long.

It didn’t seem possible that the baby could have come from me. Nothing good ever seemed to come from me.

After they took her away my breasts ached, full of milk. My body was still sore from birthing her. The sheets in her bassinet were still rumpled where her body lay. I lay in her smell. That woodland smell. Like the crown of her head had sprung from the flowering earth. I fought sleep for as long as I could, because I knew when I woke again, I’d look over at the bassinet and in that cruel second of unknowing, remember again.

In that remembering, I would finally know that she was real.

A few days after she died, I caught myself in the reflection of a gas station window. I was buying a pack of cigarettes and a Red Bull. I froze. I disappeared into the pinhole of the image. I had the baby weight but no baby. My face was still bloated with water. My eyes. I couldn’t see my eyes. There was a hole, like a gap, not black, but non-existent, as if I somehow couldn’t register my own stare.

I had my arm out, elbow slightly bent, cradling a ghost.

The baby’s empty weight pressed on me like a phantom limb. I never knew the absence of something could be heavier than the thing itself. I never knew what to do with my hands. They had been remade to only hold her.

I bought a bag of ice and when I got back home, I wrapped it in a towel. I cradled it on the kitchen linoleum. I thought the center of hell would be full of fire, but it was a tower of frozen silence. I climbed its staircase as I sunk into the floor, each minute repeating itself forever, its spiral steps a recursive sin. Grief didn’t come in waves. It came in circles. I collapsed in its center, and the center pulled me in, numb in every direction, in undulating, eternal geometry.

Sometimes things just stop breathing.

Years later, after my divorce, I tried to go back on dates. I’d thinned out, gotten my figure back. You would never have guessed that all my hair had once fallen out from stress and postpartum hormones. Only the stretch marks, like pale silverfish, remained.

I taught myself how to smile again. I knew that I’d once smiled, but I had to retrain myself like a paraplegic or a person who’d suffered from a stroke. But still, everything reminded me of her, even the way light striated wine bottles.

I dreaded the moment a man would ask me, “So what do you do?” I tried to keep it simple. I was a secretary. I painted tiny birds on little vases. I liked to do complicated puzzles. But still, maybe they sensed my hesitation, the way the words had to force themselves out.

I was supposed to be Mommy, I wanted to say. I was supposed to be Mommy but Mommy is dead, yet I’m still alive, so what does that make me really?

The waiter brought over a bottle of Chianti. The man tasted it.

“This is perfect,” he said. “You’ll love it.”

I trapped my baby’s name in the triangle between my tongue and the roof of my mouth. I’d spent most of my adult life trying to destroy myself, in little ways, in the ways a coward does. A barking machine in the back of my head told me to wash down the pills with gin martinis, to press lit cigarettes into my thighs like secret poison kisses, to starve and then gorge myself, to fall in love with spiteful people. I had become masterful at making myself a damaged thing. I was sure that my baby would be damaged too.

But nature had willed perfection despite my wishes. Reality had broken through the surface of my fantasy and given me an unimpeachable argument against my own pain.

The conversation faltered and became uneasy. He could probably sense I was holding back. I reached for my wine glass and knocked over the bottle. It spilled across the cloth, leaving a streak like a stained red mouth, and broke with a clear sound that made me wince. A couple waiters rushed to clean it up.

“Don't worry,” he said. “We'll order another one.”

The broken bottle seemed to awaken him. He had a calm and easy smile, and big eyes like my ex-husband, like my father, like my child. They turned the cold reflection of the room into a lively warmth. My shoulders relaxed. For the first time in years the hard boundary of my body seemed to melt. I had found a reflection that did not turn me into a ghoul.

“I don’t know,” I said, an unfamiliar lightness in my voice. “Do you think something perfect can happen twice?”