A week before my daughter was born, my husband lost his job. It was unexpected. I came home from work just a little early one day because I thought I had felt a contraction — I didn’t know what they would feel like, having never given birth, and so I thought every pain could be a sign of labor.
When I came inside, I saw my husband’s shoes by the door. It wasn’t time for him to be in yet. I looked up and there he was, sitting in the rocking chair we had bought for me to nurse our baby in. And he was slouched with his head in his hands, so then I knew.
I don’t remember much else about what happened then, other than that at some point I pulled so hard on the medal I was wearing — a miraculous medal, imprinted with an image of the Virgin Mary — that the clasp broke.
When I gave birth a few days later, the pain was unmistakable.
My husband and I came home from the hospital and looked for jobs for him. I nursed our baby in the rocking chair we had bought. It was hot and still, and sometimes when a job seemed especially promising I would go to church and light a candle and pray, though I still hadn’t fixed the clasp on my medal, and didn’t wear it. It laid on the surface of my dresser and was buried in short order under towels and rags and baby clothes.
I had felt, maybe due to all my prayers, that things would soon look up. And I thought so, too, aside from feeling. It made sense that things would get better quickly.
In late June, while my husband was out shopping for a suit to interview in, he received a phone call from his father in Texas. My husband’s sister, he said, had been murdered. She was 29 years old.
When my husband came home, I was in bed with the baby. Both she and I were glazed with sweat. Our bed is near a window; outside there are only the staggered roofs of other buildings, plain and tan, some of them sometimes crested by birds. I had fallen asleep watching crows rising up in the shimmering heat.
When he woke me up all I could hear through my daze was that she passed away.I looked in horror at the baby — her? And then, no: I realized.
It was only later that he used the word murdered. A man had attacked Heather in the trailer she shared with two other women, a mother and her adult daughter who had previously lived out of their car. She was engaged and looking forward to her impending marriage. She had sporadically studied accounting after high school but spent most of her time waitressing at Cracker Barrel and Red Lobster. She had always been poor; she had never known anything other than being poor.
Red Lobster helped pay for her funeral service. Dimly I thought of God’s love for the poor. Where could it have gone? Where was He now? I thought these things dimly.
My husband flew to Texas, and I slept with our daughter, only a few weeks old. She woke up often then, hungry, and I would nurse her. In between I drifted in and out of a fitful twilight sleep, still aching from birth and worry. I wanted to see my husband but I had run out of encouraging things to say. We were both exhausted. I would try to pray only for my mind to wander into broken thoughts. I had a strange dream.
In my dream, I wandered down the aisle of some kind of noisy, crowded theater. At the front, where a stage should have been, were confessionals. I went inside one to repent and there was no priest there, only a screen with the face of a priest. I said to him: “Father, I’ve lost my faith.”
I should tell you the story of my medal.
In 2014, my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent surgery, and my mother visited her in the hospital often. It was a long recovery.
One evening my mother came home from the hospital and showed me something.
“I spotted this in the parking lot,” she said. There was a dull nickel-colored oval in her hand. On one side I could make out the image of the Blessed Virgin, but the other side was coated with chewed gum and dirt.
I am a convert. My mother, a Methodist, wasn’t sure what this pendant could be. Neither was I.
I cleaned it up with dish soap and tweezers. It had been scraped on the asphalt, but I could read the words: O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.
The next time I was out, I took the medal with me in a plastic bag. I brought it to a jewelry shop and had it put on a simple black cord with a lobster clasp, and from then on I wore it very often, thinking as much of whoever had lost it in the hospital parking lot as of my mother who picked it up out of the filth for me as of the Blessed Virgin herself.
At length the police were able to tell us that they had caught Heather’s killer driving her car, which he had stolen. She had been stabbed in the neck. There was very little more they were willing to say.
A couple of job opportunities seemed very likely. I would pray and ask all my friends to pray. I trust that they did.
But nothing came through.
For a while during the long, hot summer I entertained the superstitious idea that things would not look up for my family until I had the clasp of my medal repaired. I did not think I was being punished for breaking it, but I thought I had damaged some trust by doing that, and that I couldn’t fix it until I did some penance by way of cost and trouble.
But things got in the way. There is so much to carry when you go out with a baby. I would always think of taking it with me when I thought we might pass by a jewelry shop, but some other thing — a bottle, a rattle, a just-in-case bundle of socks — would always occupy my hands instead.
Summer stretched on. Our baby grew; she did not wake up so much in the night anymore, and she could smile and laugh. I prayed for the soul of my sister-in-law, and for my husband’s family and my husband, who occupied himself with our baby so as not to dwell to much on everything that was lost. I didn’t rush to light candles for possible jobs anymore. It didn’t seem to be any use, and I thought I had made my hope on that front clear enough. God would listen or He wouldn’t.
I had days of greater and lesser certainty. Mostly I thought God was listening. That was the fact that made me feel so restless: Why are You listening so quietly? I know You’re there. A whisper of doubt sometimes passed through my thoughts: You’re only thinking like this because it’s likely another job will come along. If it were something less likely, you wouldn’t feel so sure.
In August I visited my gynecologist’s office for a postpartum checkup. Everything looked to be in order. She asked me if I had felt sad since the baby had been born, or hopeless or lost. She asked if I had spent many hours crying.
I lied to her. But on the way home, in the still midday street with sun flooding upward from the pavement, I impulsively stopped my taxi short of my apartment building.
Instead I departed from the road into the cavernous darkness of a church.
It wasn’t time for confession but there was a priest in the sacristy who I asked, when he emerged, if he would hear my confession. He led me by the shoulder to the confessional where I knelt down and rested my forehead on my folded knuckles.
I don’t have any more faith, I told him.
But you’re here, he said. He was patient. It took a long time for me to say anything. Slowly I recounted everything that had happened over the last few months, though I didn’t tell him about my medal — somehow even then I was still too cowardly to tell him about my medal.
He listened. He said, at last, that while faith can be a comfort, it can also torture you. It can tear at you in times like these, he said, with his hand fixed like a claw. Because you know everything could be made better. But it isn’t.
The line between religion and magic, I learned in school, isn’t clear. But many scholars of religion agree that one important division is that while magic is private and crisis-oriented, religion is public and its rituals have no specific, short-term, earthly goals.
Christianity has no magic, and that may be just as well.
Eventually a job came along. The way that it happened was very prosaic, the way most jobs are. Nothing about it felt miraculous. I couldn’t discern any sign in it, but I know there must be one. It isn’t always important, I now think, to feel moved. Sometimes faith is an act of will. Maybe it mostly is.
What can I say: That my faith wasn’t injured? It was wounded.
But wounded things heal.
By the fall our baby had grown so much she could no longer fit into her first baby clothes. I decided to put all of them away for the next baby, and so went through our apartment gathering up every sock and onesie marked for a baby up to three months. In doing so I uncovered my medal, still looped on its broken cord.
I was never going to have it fixed, I realized. It wasn’t realistic. Having the clasp of a cord repaired was no longer possible in the scheme of the life I had now.
Nor did I have to. I slipped it from the cord and onto an unbroken silver chain I’d bought someplace a long time ago. It looked different, but wore just the same.