The Displaced Nation

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WONDERLANDED: The Girl in the Mirror–from “Beautiful Affliction,” by expat writer Lene Fogelberg

Lene thru the looking glass

Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Lene Fogelberg author photo (supplied); “Alice through the Looking Glass”, Guildford, by Colin Smith via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0); icu 2, by Jo Naylo via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

A couple of days ago we were Wonderlanded with the award-winning Swedish poet Lene Fogelberg, who is now an expat and a writer. This post, which I’ve titled “The Girl in the Mirror,” is an excerpt from Chapter 44 of Lene’s newly published memoir, Beautiful Affliction. It describes the moment when Lene was staring into a mirror in a hospital room having removed all her clothes in preparation for emergency open-heart surgery. (As those who read her interview will know, she was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect shortly after her arrival with her family on the East Coast of the United States, and given only a week to live unless she had medical intervention.)

Unlike Alice, however, Lene has little desire to step through the looking-glass without knowing whether she will end up queen of her own heart…

* * *

IT IS A SMALL ROOM. A toilet. A sink. A soap and disinfectant dispenser on the wall. A single lamp over the mirror. A pale face. Is this me? These eyes, small blood vessels, black pupils dilated. I have nowhere to run. The door is locked and there is no window where I could crawl out, and even if there had been one, I would force myself to stay.

Everything. She said everything.

My shoes. Into the bag. Sweatpants. On top of my shoes. Sweater next. Fold. Into the bag. I’m getting dizzy bending over and getting up, but I have to do this. Slowly. T-shirt. Bra. Underpants. Socks.

Who will open this bag, take out these clothes, unfold them? The floor is cold under my feet.
No jewelry. No rings, no necklace. Nothing to keep my hair from my face. Just skin.

The girl in the mirror is shaking and fighting back tears and her eyes tell me: Do not look away do not dare look away you have to see this. Her chest swelling and shrinking, narrow shoulders, purple nipples, bluish skin stretched over her ribs.

It was all just pretend, she says, the roles you played, the costumes you wore. This is the real you.

Here is my body. Which I have fought and pleaded with and commanded and cared for and decorated and dressed and undressed and loved and hated. Here it is. Pale and thin. And yet it has been heavy, so heavy to carry. In a way it would be a relief to finally step out of it, fold it, and put it in a coffin.

But in these eyes I can see Ingrid and Stina dancing, and in these hands I can feel Anders’s touch, and on this forehead I can feel him stroking me gently, and in this scalp I can feel the pull of my mother braiding my hair, and on these shoulders I can feel the weight of my dad’s arm telling me he loves me without using words. They are all there; my body remembers them, all the memories written on my skin and in every movement.

My body remembers them

Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Getting ready to go out, by Lars Ploughmann via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); release via pixabay; children’s dance via pixabay; Hans via pixabay.

There. My skin is soft under my fingers, will be soft under the scalpel. But my ribs are hard, resisting the line I’m drawing, the curve, showing the way to my heart.

Is this how it will end?

Can she be the queen of hearts

Photo credits; Heart via Pixabay; Red Queen of Hearts, by Suzanne Schroeter via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

I have done everything they told me. Followed the instructions. But this is the point where that’s not enough. It has to be my own decision. It has to be me reaching for the robe. Me putting it on. Me reaching for the bag. Me looking into the mirror one last time.

The girl in the mirror is staring at me, pleading, please don’t make me.

Is this really happening? Or am I down in the corner, my head in my hands, refusing to make this decision? Crying that it is not fair, it is not fair.

Please, please, don’t make me.

There, there.

Please, don’t.

There is no other way. You know it.

And the girl in the mirror is silent. And she looks away.

The doorknob is cold in my hand.



I open the door.

Cold doorknob

Open the door, by Hernán Piñera via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Excerpt from Beautiful Affliction: A Memoir, by Lene Fogelberg

* * *

Thank you so much, Lene! I find it extraordinary that you can write so poetically about your adventure of stepping through such a macabre looking-glass and confronting the “real you”. Your powers of self-observation make me think of Alice’s declaration:

I could tell you my adventures—beginning from this morning; but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.

Except Alice was a timid young woman, whereas you write from your heart about your heart. As you put it in a recent tweet:

There is no shortcut when you write from your heart. You drill through every layer protecting your innermost secrets.


Readers, what do you think? Has this excerpt from Lene’s book moved you, and made you want to read more? Beautiful Affliction, published by She Writes Press, is now available from Amazon or Good Reads. You can also visit Lene’s author site, whee she keeps a blog, and/or stay social by following her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And of course you can also express appreciation for Lene in the comments below. ~ML

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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