Zigman Luck

Pregnant with Sheryl, in front of their first house. Avon, Mass. 1957

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.

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21 thoughts on “Zigman Luck

  1. Arliss says:

    Wow. Just wow. I’m kind of speechless and melting in tears. Thank you for sharing this intimate and heartbreaking look at your family history with such eloquence and meaning.

  2. Marilyn says:

    What a storyteller you are; I can hear the film slapping metal, and I won’t forget your parents’ painful eyes or the Cortizone in Sheryl’s. Hard and fine-edged and beautiful. xo

  3. Shelley Abrahams says:

    I am speechless and your mother never changed; your dad did get a little shorter though.
    xoxo, Shelley
    PS Hope to see you this weekend. I am expecting perfect pool days.

  4. Becky says:

    Wow. Your words never cease to amaze me and stop me in my tracks — always forcing me to take a deep breath and drink it all in. Your stories are simply the best.

  5. Denise says:

    Laura, your words transport me. I feel at once like I’m 5 again, the age I was when my parents lost their baby boy to a rare blood disorder. From then on, I thought it was some weird German gene I hadn’t received and couldn’t understand that would prompt my mother to haul out the photos of him and flail them around. I had forgotten that. I cannot imagine her pain (having seen it) nor the pain of your parents to have lived with their darling daughter for so many years. How haunting. Zigman LOVE is strong indeed. Your son is a compassionate person. He understands what neither of us could at his age, the pain is always there, it’s just hidden better on some days.

  6. Carmel says:

    Laura, somehow I remember being at your house one day, perhaps the only time I was ever there, and I will never forget the trip we took up that very staircase and you ‘introducing’ me to your sister. We were probably 12 or 13 and I of course I had no idea what had happened. You explained just like you say here, like it was just something that was done, that had to be revealed. I of course had no idea what to say…I probably stammered out an “I’m so sorry” but at that age had no personal grasp of the situation. I have never forgotten it.

    You speak of Zigman Luck, in my family we call it the Curran Curse! I think everyone has their share of trials, some more than most, it’s what you learn from them that makes you who you are and how you transcend that makes you great!

    • Laura Zigman says:

      WOW, Carmel. I was amazed when I read this. I remember that time you came over, and it’s so funny to read from your description of what I said that I haven’t imagined all these years what it used to be like to try to explain things. And I love that your family has it’s own term — Curran Curse! — for life’s “challenges.” Hope to see you one of these days!

  7. Caroline says:

    I don’t know what to say, but feel that I need you to know I read this, I felt this. Complicated, messy, fabulous, brave. These are the words that are circling in my head right now, I wish they would stop so that I could make sense of what they mean. Your blog is like a book, the Book of Laura. I relish each page, I learn something, I feel something, I want to read more. Thank you for sharing this with us. xo

  8. Jennifer says:

    When we first met you were completely stuck. Now you are completely free. You did it! Yes. YOU.
    I love you

  9. Janis Mara says:

    Thank you for this wonderful, beautifully written story. Because it is so utterly, grittily real, what was for me a surprise ending was all the more hopeful. I’ve never met you, but I had to thank you.

  10. Janet Dale says:

    LZ,

    I spoke of you tonight, or rather this morning with two new classmates as a Huddle House. Between our coffee and no-so-quiet session of “telling it like it is.”

    I’ve had a difficult time reading your current entries, because they are so stripped down…so personal…so emotional…so eloquently that I feel it all as I breathe in your words.

    xoxoxo
    ~~J

  11. Laura Scholz says:

    Laura, I’m just now catching up, but it’s brilliant. And moving. As always. I love how you make the everyday seem extraordinary. And are so honest and real.

    Interesting that your family relives these moments. My dad’s mom died in 1977. He’s never uttered a word about her to me. All I know comes from my mother. Ironically, she was the one most like me. Ambitious and overachieving and athletic, but depressed and tortured and fragile. She died at age 49, complications of drinking, prescription meds and eating disorders, from the scraps I can gather. We are our families. And yet not.

    I think my chemical engineer/MBA/old school consultant father will never quite understand or approve of my career path because he doesn’t understand it. And of course, it doesn’t come with health insurance.

    Thank you for sharing your soul and your stories.

  12. Laura,
    Here I am coming from such an old blast from the past from Turtle Bay media training days your clients and then as a fan of your books. So had to read your blog and found it brilliant, heartbreaking, funny and made me want to turn the page for more. Yes, to the book about the Zigmans- too extraordinary a writer to not give us more of your eloquent, gorgeous prose.

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