It wasn’t until his hands were cracked and bleeding from all the washing that I began to ask the universe some questions. Overnight, my generally happy 6-year-old son had begun worrying about germs. Not just germs, but pee, poop, fevers, coughs—the mechanisms through which germs allegedly spread. Not just worrying, but obsessing, making multiple trips to the faucet every hour.
“Sudden onset OCD,” the professionals labeled it as my husband and I scrambled to find out what was happening to our somewhat unusual but never-even-somewhat-OCD son. One week later, he tested positive for strep and people started emailing me information about a controversial syndrome called PANDAS, which links strep with a rapid onset of OCD. “Don’t Google it,” my best friend Rebecca said when I told her. “You don’t want to know.”
The day I finally persuaded my boy to apply a drop of salve to his cracked hands, my husband called from work to tell me that he, along with five other senior staffers, had been laid off with no warning from their small firm that had prided itself on treating its employees like a family.
My husband shared his news on a day when I felt cautiously excited about the new house we’d been hoping to close on in a month. Our loan had just come through. Now our loan was in jeopardy, vulnerable as an open wound. We’d long been apartment dwellers, and finding an affordable house in our town had felt like a dream. Now, it likely was just that. I called Rebecca from my car, released a hurried sob, then drove to the South Loop where my husband, his boxes, a co-worker, and his co-worker’s boxes sat awaiting pickup at a bar. The three of us drove north on Lake Shore Drive, the blurry lake speeding past on our right, dumbfounded and in shock.
All I could think was, really, universe? All of this? Right now? I felt my world contract.
A few days later, my father-in-law was hospitalized for a mild stroke. A few days after that, my birthday came and went without gifts or cards from my husband or children. My husband was distracted, updating his resume and portfolio. My children were oblivious.
The rapid-fire relentlessness of these back-to-back misfortunes tried my soul. Bad things happen to good people for no reason save chance, but I found myself asking a different question: What does it mean when this shit happens all at once?
Different traditions interpret serial blows differently. In the bible, Job’s friends were certain he had done something to offend a moody God. Surely the fault lay within. I have a few friends myself whose recent lives seem to prove Murphy’s Law and who grapple with root cause. One of these, whose origins are Irish and who embraces a range of spiritual practices says, “I refuse to believe we are cursed.”
One day in the midst of this hellish month, I parked my car at the lake and called my father to share my latest maneuverings.
“I’m trying not to go the why-me route,” I said. “I’m trying really hard.”
“I know,” he said. “And you’re doing a super job. But let me add: Why not you, Deb?”
How Jewish, I thought.
I sought refuge where I could find it. The mindfulness podcast I listened to invoked Rumi: “Try something different. Surrender.” I meditated, palms up. Life is impermanence. Life is change. Roll with it. Love. Forgive. Don’t blame.
But I blamed. Grandma Pearl, my Orthodox Jewish grandmother, might have blamed the Evil Eye, but I blamed bad luck. Also, an insensitive and incompetent CEO, over whose head I now I wanted to break glass.
To counter these violent fantasies, I listened to music that soothed: The Beatles’ “Let It Be.” Rufus Wainwright’s cover of “Hallelujah.” The words kept me company. I cried in my car and looped these songs on repeat.
Then, during a late February blizzard, just as suddenly as this fog of ill fortune rolled in, the storm started to quell. My annual diagnostic mammogram and ultrasounds (four hours long, for high-risk) came back all clear. I walked a few blocks from the hospital to the John Hancock building and rode the elevator 95 floors up to the Signature Lounge to utter a silent Hallelujah.
I ordered an overpriced Mediterranean plate as my healthcare insurance broker called to say our new plan had come through in time for my son’s hospital appointment next week. Hallelujah. I sat, 1,128 feet above the city, enjoying olives and feta cheese as our mortgage broker called with the news that our reapplication had cleared. Hallelujah. My husband and I got word that his father was going to be OK. Amen v’amen.
Before leaving the building, I ducked into the restroom. As I flushed, I noticed the flash of a metal chain uncoiling in the bowl. It was the necklace that held Grandma Pearl’s mezuzah. I wore it on extreme occasions, like on the day of my annual mammogram. I don’t fully believe in divine intervention, but I had no qualms about borrowing her faith for a day.
And now, that faith was literally in the toilet. By the time I realized what I was looking at, it was gone.
Faith, it appears, can be like that. You don’t know what you’re reaching for until it slithers from your hands or spirals down the drain. I watched helpless as the vortex claimed my charm. With bemused disbelief, I struggled to find meaning in this accident—omen?—that felt like a fitting punctuation mark to an ill-fated four weeks. Maybe Grandma Pearl was telling me that, as with Dorothy, the strength I sought was inside me. I didn’t need her charm.
That night, I told my Jewish Puerto Rican husband what had happened. “In some cultures, poop-related mishaps are good luck,” he said. Later, after I removed my fingers from my ears, he offered, “Or maybe the ancestors were reaching up, reclaiming what was theirs.”
I shared the story with my friend Ilana, who shared with me her mother’s wisdom in turn. “Mezuzah scrolls have a shelf life, you know.” Clearly, the amulet had malfunctioned. No one had checked the scroll.
It’s a few months later now, and my son is on the mend. We reapplied for the mortgage and closed on the house, upon which we will post a mezuzah. My husband is steadily freelancing. And my open-palmed posture has become symbolic of my steady awareness that this too shall pass, an emerging faith in my own ability to withstand some hard luck—knowledge more powerful than a talisman.
And still the superstitious Jew in me wants to know: When your mezuzah gets flushed down the toilet, is there a blessing for that? Any prayer or offering, from any tradition? Message me if you know.
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