I come from a family of catastrophizers.
My parents’ parents, from Russia and Poland, had Old-Country phobias: Fear of Doctors; Fear of Swimming; Fear of Being Thin; Fear of Eating Less Than Well-Done Meat. My parents, born with First Generation optimism, planned to raise their children differently, and if things had gone another way, they might have succeeded. But by the time I was in elementary school I had absorbed enough ambient negativity to have my own growing list of phobias: Fear of Clouds; Fear of Orange Vegetables; and Fear of Winter Sports. To name only a few.
By the time I was in high school, my list had grown: Fear of Gym, Fear of Girls with Blond Hair, and Fear of Never Amounting to Anything. The latter was really just an offshoot of a larger umbrella-like issue – The What Will Become of Me? Fear – which showed up sometime during my teenage years when I realized I was only ever going to be good at typing and waitressing and English. My parents, full-blown catastrophizers by then, never passed up an opportunity to remind me that while typing and waitressing were actual skills I could always fall back on to earn a living, liking to write wasn’t going to get me a job with benefits.
“Now that’s Zigman Luck for you,” my mother would say, referring to what she saw as the deeply ironic fact that in the burgeoning age of technology neither my older sister, Linda, who was Only Good at Art, nor I, was good enough at math or science to get lucrative and secure jobs as computer programmers or software-manual-writers. But what she really meant was that life was all about impending disaster and there was only one real way to get through it: a job with major medical coverage.
Catastrophizers aren’t born; they’re made, and even as a young child I knew where my parents’ propensity for catastrophizing and their notion of “Zigman Luck” – bad luck – came from. Unlike some families whose injuries are hidden and convoluted, ours was right there on the surface, in the open, in a picture frame on the wall going up the stairs to the bedrooms we all slept in, and shared by my father to friends and strangers – at weddings, in the chatty sidelines of my son’s birthday parties and at my book-signings, in supermarket lines, on airplanes: the death of their first child, Sheryl, at the age of seven, from osteopetrosis, a rare and incurable bone disease in which bones don’t produce marrow and don’t grow. It was a sad story that proved, elegantly, and beyond a shadow of a doubt, the existence and inevitability of Zigman Luck. How else could one possibly explain winning the genetic lottery with such ridiculously high – one in 200,000 – or, one in twenty American children born a year — odds? Whether Sheryl’s condition was caused by some genetic or chromosomal fluke of nature or because she inherited two copies of the mutated CLCN7 gene, one from each of my parents, didn’t really matter. Our fate was sealed: Zigman Luck ran in our family.
Whenever I’ve had to articulate my family history, my clumsy presentation of the facts would follow: I had another sister. A sister who died. It was an imperfect explanation, one that would inevitably elicit undeserved sympathy for me, which made me deeply uncomfortable, as if I were trying to take credit for something I hadn’t done. She died when I was three, so I never really knew her, I’d always add to clarify their confusion, and mine: It wasn’t my loss; it was my parents’ loss. And those were two very separate things, or so I thought.
Blow a big enough hole in anything and soon it is only the hole you see and not the thing itself. Take a child away from young and emotionally primitive parents and soon it is only the thick black smoke of tragedy and grief and the inexplicability of randomness they see, not the other two children left still standing. Absence can be as strongly felt as presence, and in our family such a counter-intuitive notion was profoundly true: my mother never talked about it, my father never stopped talking about it, but “it” — the memory of Sheryl and who she might have become, their abject fear of loss, their residual trauma — hung there, like a scrim, behind which I always felt unseen, invisible, unreal.
Now that was Zigman Luck for you, I used to think. Only I would lose to a dead person.
Whether it was Zigman Luck, or Fear of Sports-and-Outdoor-Related Injuries, or just plain grief separating us all from each other, day by day, year by year, scrim by scrim, my family didn’t do a lot of things together. We didn’t hike or bike or ski or sail; we didn’t kayak or canoe or camp or have pets. But at least once a year, if not twice, my father would take out the film projector and set up the tri-pod screen in the livingroom we never used. There, amid the Early American Jew-period decor of gold wall-to-wall carpeting and heavy drapes, we’d sit, as a family, and watch the old home movies he’d taken years earlier. Sometimes we’d start with the reel of my parents’ wedding; sometimes we’d start with the reel of Linda and me wearing matching purple tutus at ballet recitals and me vomiting on amusement park rides and running away from giant pieces of seaweed at the beach – but we’d always end up at the same place: with the happy film running out and slapping against the metal projector and my father putting on Sheryl’s reel. Every family has its rituals, and this was one of ours, and, like most family rituals seem to most kids, it seemed normal to me – Didn’t everyone watch the silent footage of an institutionalized 7-year-old with big Cortizone eyes being wheeled around a children’s ward by nurses?
It was my family’s version of “quality time” and it’s a ritual that repeated itself unexpectedly this past weekend when we gathered at my father’s, almost three months after my mother’s death, to watch the old movies he’d just had converted to DVDs. My husband and son were with me, and while I expected the usual — my parents’ wedding, visiting day at the Fernald School for Retarded Children where Sheryl lived until she died — I got something entirely unexpected: my parents’ honeymoon to Niagara Falls and New York City, and film I’d never seen before: my mother, pregnant for the first time, packing an overnight bag for her stay on the maternity ward; her arrival home and all the neighbors gathering in the street to see Sheryl; my parents’ shared ebullience over a beautiful dark eyed baby with impossibly long eyelashes. It would take four months before the bad news came and the surgeries and treatments started, but only twenty minutes of silent footage to document my parents’ terrible journey from not knowing to knowing.
Aware of what was coming, my husband and I braced ourselves for the awful moment when the naive joy would disappear from their eyes forever. When it came, finally, sadly, my husband left the room. I stayed, as I always had, until the very end, until the film ran out. This time, though, my son took my hand. And just like that, the scrim was gone.
Zigman Luck indeed.