“I’m not a superstitious person,” I promised Luz as she drove me home. “But I believe in the curse of the odd-numbered year with every fiber of my being. Don’t get me wrong – you wouldn’t be the first friend to eschew this theory, but the pattern has been unshakeably consistent.”
It was the night before my 24th birthday and I had been counting down the days, and then the hours. Five and a half more to go.
“Listen,” I said, still trying to prove my point as we followed the twisting road between the dark silhouettes of lonely trees. “Sixteen, eighteen, twenty and twenty-two – marvelous years. I traveled, I taught, I grew, I learned, I lived. Seventeen, nineteen, twenty-one and twenty-three… Heartbreak, change, ruined plans, lost friends.”
Luz didn’t look at me, but her thoughtful gaze was penetrated by a small grin. She didn’t fully believe me either.
Half-way through 21 I noticed the pattern of the cursed year. I began telling myself, “Just get to 22 and it will all be okay.” Sure enough, literally overnight, things turned around and – though not without a few hitches – I lived one of the most gloriously golden years I could ever hope to have. If I get even one more year like 22, I will consider myself extraordinarily blessed.
I almost thought the curse might have been broken because the months leading up to 23 were so incredibly decent.
“It’s been the hardest year of my life,” I told my friend and chauffeur as she found the entrance to my neighborhood. “Which is surprising because that’s what I said about 21 and I honestly thought it couldn’t be topped.” (I’m not often wrong, but when I am, it really stinks).
Luz just nodded.
“You’ve seen me!” I laughed, though no part of me felt like laughing. “I feel like I’m about to explode all the time!”
“Do you really think it’ll get better tomorrow, though?” she asked me. Luz is pretty no-nonsense and as we puttered up to the sidewalk in her car, I wondered the same thing.
“Alberto keeps telling me I might need two bad years in a row to break the curse,” I chuckled bitterly. “But I’m not actually sure I can survive another year like this one. I need a good year, Luz.”
“I know,” was all she said. I got out and she promised to swing by again in a couple hours. I was going to spend the night at her place so we could carpool to school together the next morning. Our newspaper staff was headed to a journalism conference in Fullerton and, to avoid traffic, we were getting an early start.
She pulled away and I walked up the concrete stairs to the little house with the climbing rose bush and a myriad of cacti out front.
The truth is, I can’t explain why a lot of this year has been so difficult. Obviously, leaving Prague was heartbreaking. Starting over at community college has been awkward, and not having a clear direction for the future has been stressful. But a lot of this year has been wrapped up in peaks and valleys of emotion that I don’t have any control over. It’s been a struggle to reconcile the damaged parts of my mind, that suffer from a very real curse, with the grace and sovereignty of a God I trust with all my heart.
And just like I raced for 22, I have been hoping beyond hope that 24 will magically turn the tides and this weight that has been turning my insides into ribbons will dissipate.
The house lights were off but, after fumbling with the spare key in the dark (spiderwebs were involved, and some subsequent yelping), I pulled myself through our back door just in time to see the upstairs lights flicker on.
The kids were home.
My little siblings (not so little anymore) are 14 and 12. They are typical teens – moody, messy and always a little underfoot. I share similar qualities like unto the typical adolescent human being, so we’ve been getting along pretty well. In this moment, however, dragging my heart as well as my school bag up the stairs, I felt a thousand years older than either of them.
They chattered about their day excitedly as I dropped things off in my room. My sister was going on about something when I spotted a blue envelope on my pillow. Mom left me something.
I sat down on my bed and opened the note. The words seemed blurry at first and I let my eyes adjust to the pale-yellow light of our bedroom lamp. Sitting down made me realize how heavy my shoulders felt and how empty my chest was, as though someone had taken a great spoon and scooped out my insides weeks ago. Nothing left down there but a chilly wind and a wisp of a soul, shivering and rasping for breath.
The letter in my hands lay open like a book.
Everything I ever needed to hear from my mom was scrawled in her familiar hand. In four short sentences, she gave me the whole world. And in two seconds I was weeping on my bed.
I know I talk a lot about crying in my blog posts. It is something I tend to do often. But there’s a difference between having a good cry and really, really crying. You have a good cry for whatever reason – the car won’t start and you’re late, you have to choose between paying bills and eating food, life, most likely. But when you finally find the bottom, it’s a different sort of experience. I’ve been falling for weeks, months even, just waiting for the floor.
Between the gaps in my fingers, I could see the silent shadows of my siblings watching me from the door. Without a word, the oldest walked over, put his arm around my shoulder and wrapped me into a hug. Every ounce of misery I had stored up came spilling out like a bitter fountain bursting from the earth, grasping for release from the confines of its rock.
Five hours. Five hours and the year would be over.
Amazing what a decent hug and a piece of cold pizza will do. I don’t eat much these days, but I will never be able to say ‘no’ to pizza. When Luz picked me up I already felt much better.
By the time we got settled at her place and had begun to make a lemon-cookie pie (“For your birthday,” she told me, knowing the guilt-trip would coerce me into trying a piece when it was done), the minutes seemed to be ticking away faster. It was 11:58 before I knew it.
“Almost there,” Luz said, now thoroughly amused at how the curse was unfolding.
Twelve months of life meandered by in the next 120 seconds. There were as memory good memories as there were painful ones, as many silver linings as there were dark clouds. And I, drenched from the downpour of living them, marveled at how anyone survives any year. What a life.
Friday quietly replaced Thursday and I felt no immediate changes. I was still tired. I was still having trouble eating. I was still worried about the future. Except that the empty feeling had been disappearing for the last several hours, I wondered briefly if maybe Alberto was right and I would need to have to back-to-back cursed years to undo this mess.
“Go to bed,” Luz told me. “I’ll clean up.”
I obeyed. Everyone obeys Luz.
The next morning, 30 young journalists crammed into cars and started up north. Word spread quickly that I had a birthday and staffers from other vehicles texted me all the way to Camp Pendleton where we stopped for a quick lunch.
A few of us had gotten our hands on temporary tattoos and the gang was shaping into a rather thug-looking crew when we returned to the caravan. Our advisor gave each car a surfing sticker.
“St. Christopher is the patron saint of surfers and travelers,” he said. “Everyone needs one.”
I slept the last hour of our drive to Fullerton and then crashed on a hotel bed.
We don’t tend to realize how tired our bodies are until we stop a minute to catch our breath. Mine was so far gone.
Around 4:30, Luz shook me awake.
The light had almost completely disappeared from the windows and the girls in our room were quietly tapping on their phones. It was eerily silent.
“We need to pray for France,” said Luz, a tremor of anxiety in her tender voice. “They’ve had a terrorist attack. More than a hundred are dead and they’re continuing to shoot people.”
The words seemed blurred to me. It didn’t make sense at first and the only thing I could think to do in my half-conscious state was slip off the bed and kneel beside it.
“Dear Lord,” my mind spoke. . . And I realized with a poignant sorrow how seldom I say those words anymore. “I pray for a world that doesn’t know you or your love. I pray for safety and peace for those in Paris, but God – God, please – I pray that you will make yourself known to them.”
Make yourself known to me, my heart echoed.
A splash of water and the sobering news woke me up quickly and we agreed to turn on the room TV to follow the news together, though the phones stayed out to continue checking updates.
Fear. Panic. Death.
As journalists, we were as much drawn in by the coverage as by the story.
“Can you imagine being the guy who did the story on skiing that they keep teasing in between Paris coverage?” someone asked. “I bet he hates his job right now.”
It seemed odd to flip from a hero dog and a 99 year-old woman’s birthday surprise to Paris. But that’s life – so much good mixed in with so much bad.
Around six o’clock, someone knocked on the door. No one made a move to answer it so I did.
In the hallway, with tired smiles and a bouquet of flowers, stood half the staff. Before I could shut the door on them, they started singing ‘Happy Birthday’ and someone placed the flowers in my arms. I noticed that they had even taken the time to write the little birthday note in Czech, with varied success.
“If you’re not doing anything,” they said, “We’re going to take you to Downtown Disney!”
I could still hear Paris playing on the TV but everyone looked worn out and I realized we all needed a reason to go out.
So we did.
We spent the evening wandering around the gorgeous plaza, melting beneath the glow of Christmas lights and taking in the fragrant smells wafting over our heads from restaurants. We broke our college budgets to split side dishes and desserts and then we ransacked the mug aisle of the Disney store until the Park’s firework display brought us back outside into the chilly evening.
What an explosion of color. If nights are good for anything, it’s good for stars and fireworks.
A dozen of us sang songs (or loudly said, “Stop singing, we’re in public!”) all the way back to the parking lot. Paris was wiped completely from our minds until we got back to our hotel rooms.
I left my flowers on the table beside the TV stand as the newsreel played.
“There’s nothing new here,” I told the girls around midnight. “Let’s just get some sleep.”
We curled up beneath the heavy white blankets of our soft, safe beds as thousands of Parisians woke up to a bitterly cold reality.
What a way to start this year, I thought as my mind drifted off. Twenty four hours in and the world crumbles.
The hotel served a pretty spankin’ complimentary breakfast – not that I really had much of an appetite.
“Mary,” said one of my roommates, dragging her overnight bag into the lobby behind her. “You left your flowers in the room.”
Intentional, to be honest, though I made a fuss over her for not letting me ‘forget’ them.
“Thank you so much!” I said, taking the huge bouquet into my arms and cradling it until we picked up our things and headed over to the conference at the local college.
I left the flowers in the back of the car and someone made a point of putting them on top of the other luggage so they wouldn’t get smashed.
All day we spent in lectures and competitions. Between the workshops and the roundtables, we had time to grab sandwiches and spread out on the benches surrounding a campus lawn. Rumors of how the competitions were going seeped back to us quickly and we churned the mill with diligence. Awards are always a big part of this affair, but they’re not everything.
I gave half my sandwich to my assistant photo editor and the rest of my chips I parceled off to the cartoonists.
This year I learned that food can only fill the stomach.
Light vanished from the sky, revealing several choice stars to look watch us as we stamped and shivered in the cold outside the awards hall. Five of us bunched together in the 19th hour of my second day, sipping coffee, joking about the weekend. The weight on my shoulders was gone and I could feel my heart pumping real blood through my very real veins.
From that moment, when I heard my heartbeat ringing in my ears, like a bell peeling on Christmas morning, the rest of the night faded into a velvet blur of peacefulness.
Not that it was peaceful. Our team spent most of the next hour cheering and screaming excitedly over our journalistic triumphs during the awards ceremony. We hustled together for a group photo that was messy and chaotic and crazy – like us. Like life.
And then it was back to the vans to go home, because no good day will last forever.
I was switching cars to ride home with Luz, Alberto and a friend. My bag was already packed away in the trunk when someone came running up with my wilting flowers.
“They were in the care! You almost left them behind!” he said, returning them once again to my arms.
This time I just held them. These stupid flowers that wouldn’t let me go. These people who call me ‘friend’ who refuse to let me remain empty and unseen. And still how small and incomparable a picture they are to the Creator who made them.
Engines were starting, but I grabbed the rose from the center of the bouquet, tugged Luz’s hand, and we ran across the parking structure in our heels till we reached the edge. Looking down four stories, and out across a twinkling town, I held out a rose petal.
“Okay, 24, I’m ready for you,” I said. “Here’s to joy.”
The rose petal fluttered on the wind like a whispered prayer, gliding into the shadows and then bursting into the stream of street lights below us before finding a home on the sidewalk.
I grabbed another petal.
“Here’s to peace. And to purpose.”
Down they went, into the great big world sleeping beneath that great big sky.
“May I have one?” asked Luz. She fingered the velvety petals for a moment before tossing them out. “Here’s to learning, to love, and to donuts.”
Our laughter echoed across the parking lot and headlights turned into tail lights behind us as we flung the rest over in bunches to the promise of friendship, family, faith, fun, food and a future.
We live in a world full of atrocities, capable of inflicting horrendous pain. But to turn away from the beauty of life because of the pain that comes with living is not the answer. The amazing mystery of humanity is our ability to feel both great joy and great sorrow, to walk through valleys as though they were peaks, and to look for stars in a night full of smoke and gunpowder.
“Luz,” I said, head leaning over the railing to look at our collection of rose petals below. “I’m hungry.”
Our heels clipped across the pavement and we slammed the car doors shut behind us as our driver impatiently revved the engine. Time to go.
Time to move on.