A few days after I had a miscarriage, I found myself inside a Christmas store at the mall, looking for angels. Almost as soon as I'd realized my pregnancy was doomed, I had known that I wanted a memento that had something to do with angels. For a lot of women, that would be totally normal — on the "TTC" (trying to conceive) message forums, the women use an "angel baby" icon in their "signature" fields as a code to let you know they've had a miscarriage. But for me this angel-seeking impulse was pretty weird, because I've been an atheist for 16 years, and still consider myself to be one.
A snobby confession, on the topic of vacillating or ambiguously defined beliefs: I respect people who sincerely believe in something religious or spiritual, but I have long looked down on agnostics as a bunch of wishy-washy, intellectually feeble folks who need to make up their minds already. The way I have long seen it, you either believe or you don't. Worst of all, I've always thought, are people who seem to base their indecision on a Pascal's Wager kind of deal, refraining from picking one side or the other "just in case" there's a God and he gets pissed off at those who don't choose to be on his team. (To me, this always seemed like more of an insult to God than anything else — like, duh, he's going to know you're only believing in him so you won't go to hell.)
Also, speaking of wishy-washy, for a long time I've rolled my eyes at the ol' "there are no atheists in foxholes" chestnut, the (apparently WWII-era) idea that a person who thinks he might die will suddenly start believing in God. I have prided myself on not praying during hard times "just in case" it will help. No fair-weather atheism for me, I always thought.
Except here's the strange and somewhat shameful (to me) truth: I wasn't much of an atheist when I was pregnant. In fact, ever since losing the pregnancy I've developed a few, let's say, spiritual quirks that I'm afraid are a tad too close to some Shirley MacLaine-batshit variety of New Age. With meaning-infused jewelry and everything.
And when I first saw blood — you better believe I prayed.
* * *
I walked into the Christmas store at Tysons Corner Mall a few days after I was officially no longer pregnant. The store is one of those seasonal deals, where the ornaments are arranged by hyper-specific category (soccer and Lacrosse and field-hockey ornaments, plus ones for whatever other hobbies your over-booked modern child might have going on; all of the college-sports logos; sets of arty mirrored balls to complement every feasible color scheme. I roamed around in disappointment at first, only seeing those big tree-topper angels that look like grown women, Barbie dolls with wings. I was looking for something to represent my never-born and gender-free baby, something abstract and neuter. (I have no problem referring to the life that I briefly had inside me as "it.")
At the point of giving up, I saw a holy-looking shaft of sunlight beaming in from a skylight out in the mall corridor. It landed on exactly the kind of angel I had been looking for: tastefully abstract, just a small ball for the head (no face, hair, or other gender-specific features) atop an upside-down cone indicating the sort of heaven-gown that Western angels are always depicted wearing, with glass wings and arms in a demure pose that could be interpreted as praying or, in a more secular light, as simply clasping one's hands together in a gesture of ardent hope.
I picked up the angel that the light had shone the brightest on. I mean, god, duh, how could I not buy that one?
I also bought an Elvis ornament. I have an Elvis thing — I bought myself an Elvis costume (from Graceland's official online store) for Halloween one recent year, and I have a weakness for nearly every dumb Elvis thing ever, from Mojo Nixon's song "Elvis Is Everywhere" to the terrible Bruce Campbell movie "Bubba Ho-Tep." This Elvis ornament featured a black-clad King with his gold-glittered cape spread open wide like (what else?) angel wings. Earlier that day I'd also bought an ornament for my husband (in the likeness of Finn, a character from the animated show "Adventure Time"), so I figured the three ornaments could sort of represent us on the tree this year. I hesitate to use the word "family," because in our context it's just so sad, but that's pretty much what I had in mind.
At the cash register, the middle-aged woman didn't lift a brow or utter a single comment about the glittertastic Elvis, but she cradled the angel delicately while wrapping it in white tissue paper, and she said: "It's very fragile." And of course I thought: "You have no idea."
A few minutes after I'd stepped back into the corridor, I realized what song was playing through the mall's speaker system: Elvis Presley's "Blue Christmas."
Baby Blue was the semi-secret nickname I'd given to my never-born child, whom I'd talked to on gorgeous end-of-fall days when the sky was cloudless and blue.
"I'll have a blue Christmas without you."
I chose to believe it was something more than a coincidence.
* * *
My totems are adding up.
There's the necklace I ordered just before going to bed on the day the doctor confirmed we were having a miscarriage — a Google search for "miscarriage jewelry" (surprise: it's a genre) led me to the Etsy page of a woman who hand-crafts angel-wing charms and adds a "birthstone" (I'm using quotation marks there because, of course, there is never an actual birth). I selected an opal-colored bead for October, the month that my husband and I conceived during our belated-by-one-year Himalayan Honeymoon in Nepal.
There's the angel ornament, which is right now hanging — next to the Elvis and Finn ornaments — from a piece of furniture in our living room that we've draped with multi-colored twinkle lights (left up year-round, because at 36 my home-decorating style is still "dorm-room chic"). The rainbow lights give life to the silver-and-glass angel, fuchsia and green light bouncing off the gown and wings and face.
And there's the locket my mom gave to me just the other night, perhaps the single most thoughtful gift anyone has even given to me. It has the face of an angel on the front. Inside, she placed petals from flowers in her yard (rose, petunia, geranium) in an inside panel, and a note: "Flowers from Nana's Garden, Nov. 2014." On the back is an engraving: "Love Never Dies." It is the most perfect object ever created by anyone. I keep the locket on a shelf in my office room — as it just so coincidentally happens, next to this awesomely tacky, Mardi-Gras-style necklace with a giant Elvis charm on it that I bought in Las Vegas. (I like to imagine that the baby also has a thing for Elvis. I even, during my most lapsed-atheist moments of all, have gone so far as to imagine Elvis and the baby hanging out in heaven; maybe the baby sitting on Elvis's lap as he sings to it.)
These objects give me comfort. Because for one thing, when you lose a baby at only five weeks, you have almost nothing to show for it except a positive pregnancy test. Not even one of those blurry, what-the-hell-am-I-looking-at ultrasound photos.
And for another thing, being an atheist means not believing in an afterlife. In my case, it means wishing you did believe in an afterlife, in souls that go on living someplace else, with whom you could ostensibly communicate through prayer or some kookier medium (Ouija board, psychic).
It means that when I talk to it, I don't actually believe I am able to talk to it. At best, I can talk to its memory. But do I believe, when I go walking again in those woods where I said good-bye to it as soon as I felt it leaving me, and I say things that I wish it could hear — do I believe it knows I'm talking to it? Do I believe it can, literally or otherwise, hear me?
No. But god I wish I did.
* * *
I lost the life inside me at five weeks. At five weeks, some women haven't even noticed that their periods are late. I wouldn't even have taken a pregnancy test if I hadn't had a gynecologist appointment (for a referral to a fertility clinic!) that day; I'd felt it would be lazy and recklessly irresponsible to go sign up for a bunch of drugs or treatments if, by some miracle, I were already pregnant. It's possible, if I hadn't had an appointment on the books, that I would have just assumed my cycles were being wacky again, that I would have chalked up the not-new-to-me sore boobs to the hormonal hijinks that accompany a period.
It's possible that I wouldn't have known, in another life.
But I did know. My husband knew, my family knew. A few close friends knew. And so when the doctor's office confirmed it was over, we felt a loss.
Five weeks is so early. I didn't look any different on those three or four days when I knew I was pregnant and had no reason to think everything wasn't fine. My boobs were a little fuller, maybe. It was nowhere near time to make any big announcements at work, to plan any showers, to do something as freaking optimistic as go register for a bunch of baby gifts. I don't feel completely honest referring to it as a "baby" — I feel like some crazy lady when I say that, as if I have an imaginary friend and people are just indulging me because it's all so sad.
On Facebook, people say, "Sorry for your loss," and I thank them, but part of me feels guilty, as if I've enacted some elaborate and manipulative ruse as a ploy for attention. Or as if it's not some "real" loss, but in a different category — loss lite. I didn't even have one of the late miscarriages, the gory ones in which you see the baby. (My deepest sympathy goes out to anyone who has experienced this — a saving grace of miscarrying early is that it is abstract, it doesn't seem at all like giving birth; for me, the physical experience wasn't even as bad as a normal period: no cramps, not nearly as much blood.)
So what I'm saying is that I have trouble putting the appropriate "life label" on this. It's a death, sort of. It would have been a baby, but it wasn't yet. It was alive, but it never got a chance to live.
Whatever label I'm supposed to put on it, I cry for it every day. But I can't reach it. It isn't around anymore.
Except when I imagine its spirit in that angel ornament — when I look at it in the rainbow-colored twinkle lights and tell it good night. Or when I look up at the sky on a cloudless blue day.
I have its memory. I have these trinkets. I have this love that never dies.