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Rephrasing Bad Luck

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12/12/2013

Rephrasing Bad Luck photo

You might say my family has been really unlucky lately. You know the notion that “bad things happen in threes,” or its less superstitious cousin, “when it rains, it pours”? For those of us who don’t believe in meaningful coincidences, these phrases help us to make sense of life when its randomness and unpredictability occasionally yield a strange, inexplicable pattern of events that suggest some kind of connection, significance – or luck.

Given everything that’s happened lately, I’ve had to revisit these phrases, and I’ve found this conventional wisdom offers little solace. Because when life throws you a string of strange coincidences, it’s hard to trust that things are going to be normal again. Sometimes, it seems, life tests just how brave you are to live it.

About four weeks ago, my aunt went for a run in the neighborhood as part of her training for the North Shore Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving Day. She ran by a dog that was out on a leash. Sensing a threat, it jumped up and bit her arm. She was taken to the hospital for stitches. She even got coverage in the local Patch (she’s the “person jogging” and later “victim”). Not long after, her husband – my uncle – also training for the race, discovered the start of a stress fracture in his heel and would not be able to run.

Not too bad so far? We’re not even halfway through.

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I was on the train commuting to work when I began to feel lightheaded. I got off at my stop and went to the railing on the far side of the platform to catch my breath when I passed out and hit my head on the rail. After I collected myself and got back to my feet with some help from concerned bystanders, I lost consciousness again and hit my head a second time. I wasn’t in much pain, but I had to be boarded and collared anyway and spent the whole day in the hospital getting tested for conditions I didn’t have. The doctors eventually determined it was vasovagal syncope, a common condition, likely due to a combination of dehydration and standing for a long time on a jam-packed and heated El train in a heavy winter jacket.

That was the first of three incidents in the same day.

When my parents picked me up from the hospital they told me that my grandmother’s close friend, whom I consider my fifth grandparent, suffered a stroke while visiting her children in California. She is recovering but it has been and will continue to be a long process. Then, what couldn’t have been hours later on the car ride back from the hospital, my aunt (“person jogging”) texted us that my cousin, a senior in high school, was rear-ended at a stoplight at what the police guess was 35 miles per hour. She suffered whiplash and has since started physical therapy, but was otherwise unscathed.

Well, almost needless to say, on Thanksgiving we had a lot to be thankful for. Despite these scares, every one of us was well or recovering. Were there moments of panic, concern, uncertainty and disbelief? Yes, but not tragedy. This would blow over, we knew. Just not yet.

That Sunday, the end of a relaxing holiday weekend, I was getting ready to see everyone at a family Chanukah dinner when my parents called. It was my brother, who’s in college out east. He had picked up a prescription at the pharmacy near his apartment off campus when three men stalked him on his way home, assaulted him and stole his wallet.

It was hard to believe at this point. I knew this happened – I got all the police emails when I was in school – but this was my younger brother, attacked somewhere he thought to be safe, far away from where any of us could help him. But, as traumatic as this was, even he was fine despite the bruises, and even if it might take him awhile to regain a sense of safety in his neighborhood.

My instinct through all of this was to see it as bad luck – a bunch of unfortunate incidents grouped closely together – but everyone in my family is alive or getting back to normal. There are a lot of incidents people must deal with every day in which they can’t say that so easily if at all. Dog attacks, fainting episodes, strokes, car accidents, muggings – these are awful things, but they happen. They don’t happen to you or someone you love all the time, and you don’t expect them to, but they occur with regularity in this world. Grounding myself with the knowledge that accidents have a certain inevitability to them, and knowing that the phrase “it could’ve been worse” applies to my family’s situation, I think that means we are quite lucky.

The challenge in all of this is moving on. It is living without fear and trusting that an incident is truly random and isolated, while controlling what you can. My aunt will have to run by dogs again if she wants to continue running; my cousin will need to drive; my brother will be faced with walking outside alone near his apartment. Already, I’m apprehensive about getting a seat on the train and staying hydrated. It’s crossed my mind on every commute in the last two weeks.

And there are even more plausible reasons to be afraid. My diagnosis does not rule out arrhythmia or other heart issues; whiplash can lead to future neck problems; a stroke often makes life more challenging; getting assaulted can lead to post-traumatic stress issues. All of these, however, as scary as they are, are treatable or become manageable with time.

Time, as another phrase tells us, heals all wounds, though some wounds leave bigger scars than others. What matters, I think, is how we respond when we remember that we have them. We can be brave or afraid, strong or vulnerable, sure-minded or uncertain. And even though we can’t control our misfortune, we can still choose to believe whether or not we feel lucky.

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