My son was here for a short visit a few weeks ago on route to a celebration to honor his Grandma in San Diego. In the morning, as he got ready to leave, I walked by the open bathroom door and saw that he was wearing the medical alert necklace that belonged to his brother. He saw my surprise and told me that he wears it all of the time now. It took a minute to remember that he had taken it last winter when we went through Zalman’s things. I love that he has it and wears a warning about his brother’s damaged heart next to his own. Zalman never wore it. He did not want anyone to know that there was anything wrong with him. I bought him medical alert jewelry constantly: ID bracelets, dog tags, key chains. He never wore any of it. To placate me, he finally agreed to keep his cardiologist’s card in his wallet. After he died I found the card under a thick stack of pictures of girlfriends, paper scraps with lines for poems he was working on and scribbled phone number, and every ID card he had been issued since middle school.

I believed that if he wore or had a medical alert tag on his body somewhere it would save his life. I believed that I had some control, and that my actions would somehow influence his fate. In the end it would have taken a miracle to save his life: the school defibrillator was locked in the office because it was a Saturday; the gate to the football field was chained shut and the paramedics had to find bolt cutters before they could get to him; not one of his friends knew he had a heart condition and no one understood why he had collapsed while running laps on the track during marching band practice. If he had been wearing a bracelet identifying the nature of his heart condition, no one with him on the field for the first ten minutes, would have known what it meant. There is a belief that knowledge is power. When my daughter died from the same heart condition we knew nothing. We did not even know that she had a heart condition. We felt powerless.  In contrast, we knew about my son’s condition a few weeks after he was born. I was certain that we knew everything about it and were prepared for anything that could happen. I believed that our knowledge could control his fate. I believed it would give us power over life and death.

I have a friend who tells the story of his own life, as it was one seamless chain of fortunate events. His story sounds a bit like a fairy tale. One day, not too long after he finished college, he decided to set out on his own and from that moment on a stranger appeared at every bend and fork in the road to offer guidance and support on the next leg of the journey. The first time I heard him talk about his life I was dumb struck. I had never heard anyone recount his or her story without self-recrimination or regret. Until that moment my own history was flavored by the “woe is me” attitude of my Jewish ancestors. I experienced my life as a triumph of survival. It felt like I had lived the punch line from the joke about the essence of all Jewish holidays – “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.” After I heard my friend’s story, I tried to understand my life differently and I began to hear other people’s life stories differently as well. I listened to the story of a man who had a similar kind of good fortune as my friend, but was so suck in despair and self-criticism that he could not yet see or feel the magical threads in his life. I began to realize that sometime we are too deeply in our own lives to see them. We have judgments about the things that happen to us, and for most of us the judgments get in our way. I can remember the wisdom story that is know as ”Good News/ Bad News” or “Fortunately/ Unfortunately”, and chuckle because I do believe that some events are obviously good and others bad. Some feel tragic and some fortuitous. My mixed heritage is battling this out inside of me. The gentile part of me believes that success and happiness are signs of God’s favor. The Jewish part is stiff necked about the belief that tragedy is a part of life.

What if, as the ancient Chinese Tale about good and bad fortune suggests, the story of my life, which has been filed with death and appears to be tragic, is a different version of the hero’s journey that my friend experienced. Is it possible that each obstacle in the road prepared me miraculously for the next challenge ahead? I am not sure that knowledge is power. It may only calm our thoughts and give us a false sense of security like the medical information I wanted my son to wear. I am not sure that information or knowledge has any affect on fate. I could not save my daughter. Her death was sudden and unexpected. I could not save my brother. His fate was to die of AIDS just before the drugs appeared that might have saved him. I could not save my son. Sixteen years of fretting and meticulous medical care meant nothing in the moment when his heart began to beat erratically. And I could not bring him back whole and conscious after that, into the space that our family and community held open for him with all of the love and support humanly possible. I could not save my aunts or uncles or grandparents.  I had no control over any of it. The only part I have control over is how I act and react in the face of what feels like senseless tragedy

When I first heard his story, I believed that my friend and I were on different paths. Perhaps I only perceive them as different. I have been thinking about this and feeling my way through it for a few weeks now. I have been questioning good luck and bad luck, good fortune and sorrow. I have been questioning everything I thought I had control over and dusting off and re examining everything in my life that I blame myself for or feel responsible for. I am reaching back through the events in my life to the little girl I was, taking hold of her hand and reassuring her that none of the events in her life were her fault. A lot of it was scary and a lot of it didn’t feel good but she was not responsible nor could I at any age have prevented anything that happened in my life. At this point I do not have any idea what it all means, how to sort it out, or how it all adds up. “The wise of China say that hovering over every disaster is a blessing, and lurking under every blessing is a disaster. And no one can tell which is really which.” I do know that I feel blessed

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