My mother always used to say that bad things happen in three’s.
A few weeks ago Victor broke a pint glass while taking it out of the dishwasher. I got mad because I love our pint glasses. I drink everything out of them: water, tea, even my milky coffee. A day later I dropped a glass while rinsing it and it shattered inside the sink—thank goodness. For the remainder of the day I was on guard, waiting for the third shoe—um, glass—to drop. That night, when I took a sip from my gin on the rocks, I felt a tug at my lower lip. Sure enough, the crystal tumbler was mysteriously chipped.
Our basement flooded the following week. It’d rained so much the ground around our house couldn’t contain the water and it seeped in through the walls. We shop-vacuumed up the deluge and I spent hours replacing soaked-through towel after soaked-through towel until the water, at last, ceased flowing. The very next day the dehumidifier leaked. It was maybe a puddle’s worth of captured humidity: not enough for me to think of it as #2 or to fear there might be a #3. Lo and behold: the following day, while Victor was cleaning out the washing machine, the drip thing (I believe that’s the technical term for that particular part) that needed to be emptied got clogged and when he pulled on it, enough water gushed out that the stack of clean towels were employed yet again.
In the grand scheme of life, three lost glasses and three watery annoyances didn’t warrant any dramatic concern. Nor did it over-stimulate my superstitious leanings.
I did my best not dwell on the fact that TWO sets of THREE unfortunate events had just occurred. I refused to believe that a third set would soon follow.
But, as we all know, mothers are always correct.
As I do most mornings, I read the local obituaries. My therapist finds this routine curious, if not a little ghastly. I am of the age where mortality is not so far-fetched a concept as it was when I was a carefree twenty-something or 30-something or even a 40-something woman who still saw more ahead than behind. No matter how much flax seed I sprinkle on my wild blueberries or how many negative mammograms I receive, I know I’m past my life’s half-way mark. I read the obits partly because I feel lucky to be alive when others don’t get to be. I like to see people living long lives. I silently cheer when I read about folks who’ve lived to their 90s. I fret when I see someone my own age dead.
What most rattles me, though, is when I come upon a familiar face.
As I scrolled the list of recently-deceased on Monday, November 4th, I saw someone I knew. His name was Sead Korajkic and he’d died the night before. He was 66.
I didn’t really know Sead, but I knew him enough to feel okay about sharing a memory in the guestbook:
During the many years I’ve been shopping at Market 32 (nee Price Chopper) I always begin in the produce section where the first thing I do is look around for Sead. Before picking out a bunch of green bananas or squeezing the avocados, I peer over toward the onions in hopes that I might find him. And then I see him and he sees me. His smile grows. His eyes light up and he waves, yelling, “Hello! Hello!” as if I were his best friend in the world, and not simply some random customer who shops for radishes once a week. I walk over. Sometimes we hug. I ask him how he is. He says, “Is good. All is good, and you?” I say, “I am fine, thank you,” and move on toward the ginger, feeling lighter, happier, a bit more connected to the ground on which I walk. I will miss these moments of grace. Hvala vam puno, Sead.
I would have liked to have attended his funeral on Tuesday at the Islamic Society of VT Mosque, but I already had plans to fly down to Florida at 5:30 that morning to visit my mother.
After I got off the plane and rented a car I drove straight to her memory care facility. She greeted me with a “I-sort-of-know-who-you-are” smile and a half-kiss before she went back to using her fingers to dig pieces of canned pineapple out of a plastic cup. I threw down my bag and went off to make my usual rounds of saying hi to Sandra the nurse who phones me whenever Mom falls or walks into a wheelchair and slashes her shin; the too few caretakers who take good care of my mother; and the wives and husbands and children of the other residents with whom I keep in touch through texts and emails.
In particular, I looked around for Gail, whose husband Larry lived a few doors down from my mother. Gail and Larry were from NYC. Larry was a high school guidance counselor and Gail was a teacher. They got married in 1970 and were, as far as I could tell, fiercely devoted to one another. When Larry developed dementia, Gail took care of him at home for as long as humanly possible before moving him into a facility, but she was there Every. Single. Day. She sometimes sent me photographs of my mother. She was my woman on the ground, so to speak, keeping me informed about the goings-on around the locked neighborhood.
I wandered over to Larry’s room, and saw that, oddly enough, the door was closed. I looked around for the couple, but couldn’t find them. Then I ran into Nidia, the Venezuelan woman who was a personal aide for another resident.
“Hi, Nidia. Where’s Larry?” I asked.
“You don’t know?”
“He died last night.”
“What? How? Why?”
“He fell. They gave him morphine and then, I don’t know; he died.” She shrugged like a person used to being around humans with a hand on the exit door.
I immediately IM’d Gail to tell her how very sorry I was about Larry’s passing, and the moment after I hit SEND, an eerie sensation shot through my spine.
That was two older men in a row.
And when I heard that paranoid voice in my head—the one that stops me from snatching pennies off the ground if they’re tails-up—whisper, “Another man will die very soon,” I pushed against it.
But…I guess I didn’t push hard enough because that night Victor called me to tell me his father, Charlie, had fallen and was in the hospital. His big beautiful brain was bleeding.
Like many Jewish kids born to immigrant parents in late 20s New York City, my father-in-law grew up dirt poor. His father, an illiterate Polish immigrant who fled as a child to America, was a bread baker. Charlie had no intention of baking in his father’s footsteps. He was determined to go to college. He wanted to have money.
But, unlike many previously-impoverished kids who turned stingy, selfish and self-centered after growing up and making it big, Charlie never forgot what it was like to go without. He was generous to a fault. He was a constant and loving presence in the lives of his four children.
He and my mother-in-law, Jane, had a long and enviably happy marriage. It didn’t matter if they were camping alongside a mountain lake or flying off to France to see their friends, Jane and Charlie adventured together with indefatigable passion.
Charlie possessed an extraordinary sense of humor, honed in the Borscht belt where he waited tables; and was also an exceedingly captivating raconteur, especially after downing a few glasses of a fine Burgundy. Even Loy, who often had to sit through hours-long meals with her grandparents, laughed along as Charlie rattled off his huge repertoire of jokes, perhaps because she knew a fantastic dessert would soon be served? Although Charlie disavowed bread baking, he couldn’t suppress his floury fate: after retiring, he spent years apprenticing at French restaurants, eventually becoming a master pastry chef. The man knew how to spin flour, sugar, and butter into a thing of beauty and deliciousness.
Victor flew down on Thursday morning while Charlie was being transferred from his bed in the hospital to his bed on the Upper West Side. He texted me later that day:
At 5:00 the next morning I awoke, reached for my phone, and saw:
Before she got dementia my brothers and I often joked that our mother was part witch because even after we no longer lived with her, she always knew when one of us was sick or in trouble.
I actually believe my mother’s sixth sense stems from the gypsies scattered around her Hungarian bloodline. Whenever she dropped a spoon on the floor she’d say, “The next person who walks through the door will be a woman.” (A fork meant a man was soon to visit; a knife foretold a couple.) If she caught one of us scratching our palms she’d declare, “Oh, you’re about to get some money!” She was spot-on about 89% of the time.
I wish I could tell my mother that her old wive’s tale is, in fact, true: bad things do happen in three’s. She used to love listening to my stories and I know she would have enjoyed hearing about my recent run-ins with chipped glasses and sodden towels.
She wouldn’t have liked hearing about the deaths, though. She adored Charlie and, had her brain still worked, she would have immediately called Jane to offer her condolences. And, after hanging up the phone she probably would have looked over at me with a satisfied smirk and said, “See? I told you so.”