My mother is a superstitious woman. She warns me not to drink on full moons, and every time someone dies she reminds us that death comes in threes. I am always writing down my dreams and waiting for the third shoe to drop. I was 17 when she lost her family in threes.
When my great aunt and uncle Kirila died, we wondered who would be next. Our bets were on my grandmother. Within the month, my mother’s sister fell dead in front of a Pennsylvania casino. We were shocked but finally able to breathe. Better her than us. Two days after my aunt’s funeral, my grandmother died in her sleep. I said she died to keep our aunt company; my mother said it was to iron my aunt’s wings. That made four. I could have believed my mother was wrong about threes if she hadn’t been right about everything she ever said. We knew two more had to go. Our nuclear family consisted of my sister, mother, and me. My father had died when I was four. It was a train accident. He was on the Amtrak from Chicago to Cleveland when the conductor fell asleep. Only three people died in the crash. Our next-door neighbor and our dog-sitter happened to be the other two.
It wasn’t until I was 16 that my mother let me get on the el. She made me go alone, forcing my sister on a bus even though we were heading to the same location.
There was a 14-year gap where no one we knew died. In that time, my sister’s high school English teacher survived pancreatic cancer, my mother’s coworker received a heart transplant, and I saw the neighbor’s cat get hit by a car and stroll away. During those years we felt safe; my mother’s odd tendencies seemed to quiet themselves. She still hung what she claimed was a saint’s bone over the door but no longer forced us out of the bathtub when she saw a blackbird. After my grandmother died, these traits all came back even worse. Since fate needed two more, we were certain it would be my sister and me. My mother never said this aloud, but we knew she was thinking it when she kept us away from each other. She thought this would increase our odds of survival.
For a month our world was made of worry. Then, one Monday during dinner, my mother got a call.
“Oh God, I’m so sorry to hear that. Please let me know if we can do anything. Yeah. Goodbye.” She hung up the only house phone left in Chicago and said, “Your cousins Timmy and Tommy died in a car accident.” We were respectfully silent for a moment; then my mother said, “I always thought they were creeps.” The three of us erupted in cheers. My mother searched the cupboard for a box cake while my sister popped a dusty bottle of sparkling apple cider. v