Later, I gazed happily at the smorgasbord of religious practice: I meditated with a cute, incense-flavored boy from my college Buddhism class, swayed joyfully at the teeny local gospel church, damned the patriarchy at the Womyn's Vegetarian Passover Seder, and, less spiritually, played roller hockey in what happened to be a Methodist parking lot. No one was overly surprised when I married another agnostic Jewish-Catholic hybrid.

We started our family with a belief in intelligence, justice, and gratitude that we practice with fervor if without precise religious underpinnings. We expose our children to different philosophies and holidays, and we try to answer their questions respectfully, as when my son, Ben, recently asked, "How did people start?" I was cleaning banana smoothie out of the blender lid and should probably have turned off the faucet, checked a book out of the library, and sat down with him. Instead I lurched into an on-the-fly explanation of evolution: There was a kind of plant in the water, and the sun hit it just right, and it became alive. (One problem with the practice of reason, I was thinking as I flipped through the files in my brain, is that you really need to stay on top of the facts.) Then it turned into a kind of fish and sprouted legs, the way tadpoles do, and it crawled onto the land and, over a very long period of time, grew into other animals. "There," I thought, but Ben was silent for only a moment before saying, "I don't really understand how something wasn't alive and then it was." And when his father, Michael, answered, "It was kind of a magic thing," I shot him a look—"Magic! After all my rational prattle!"—and he shrugged. "Some things just seem kind of magical," he said.

In the church now, I am thinking about faith. The last time I was in Florence, I was a 20-year-old student of art history, memorizing facts about these very paintings in between bouts of shoe ogling. I remember dates and styles, periods and pigments, but I do not actually remember feeling anything particularly deep: When life stretches out before you, it can be hard to connect with faith or death as rendered on canvas or in stone. But now we'd returned, and one minute we were happy, prosciutto-buying tourists; the next we were in a taxi, speaking terrible, urgent Italian to the obstetric intake nurses and distracting our kids and Sam's toddler so that Sam—who had an amniotic sac bulging out of her body—could focus on the important work of not giving birth 15 weeks early.

Our days filled with the children's sticky, gelato-covered faces, with our worry, with the old women who crowded around me to admire our dark-haired 8-month-old baby. "Bella," they oohed and aahed. "Bellissima!" With their black shawls and their wizened, whiskered faces, they looked like extras from a Mafia movie, and when they said, "God bless her"—Dio la benedica—I felt blessed. During the daily visiting hour at the hospital, we arrived with flowers and biscotti, with magazines and clean socks. We sat on Sam's bed and marveled at her roommates, who lay around in their thong underwear, smoking cigarettes out the window and chatting into their cell phones, five minutes after giving birth; they teased us for rinsing out Sam's enormous maternity briefs in the sink. We swatted zanzare—freakishly robust mosquitoes—and our brave, bright-hearted Sam shooed us away so we wouldn't make her laugh so much she'd accidentally push the baby out. We gazed into the nursery window at the rows of bassinets filled with babies and I had a thought that was more like a pain under my collarbone, and that was probably something a little bit like prayer: "Let there be an absence of grief."

"The twinning of loss and love seems suddenly to explain everything"


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