On Luck

After you have a miscarriage, you hear the word “luck” a lot. You’d think this would come from friends, maybe a priest. Surprisingly, it’s what the doctors tell you. “Just bad luck.” they say. Hearing a word one associates with rabbit’s foot keychains coming from disciples of capital-S Science… Well, at the very least it’s unexpected. More honestly, it makes you want to stab someone.

Standing on my fertility soapbox, I declare that luck should never be the advice given, in lieu of tests, by any professional you go to for cold hard facts. And yet, I can’t deny that this irritating concept has threaded itself deeply through the last year or so of my life. Bad luck – I still see that rabbit’s foot keychain in my mind. But what else do you call periods of time where nothing, nothing, nothing seems to be going your way? Luck – it’s a cheap word, a two cent word. Maybe a better expression is misfortune. Fortune and misfortune: Those are the words they used in the past for when a family would hit it rich, or lose their shirt. Exceptional fortune is rare – few can probably say they’ve ever really enjoyed it. For most of us good times are just garden variety normal life. Misfortune, though – that’s what really marks the years.

Misfortune feels like the right word for this recent part of our lives. I suppose most of it started last year, in the pandemic. Initially fortune seemed to be on our side in ways both big and small. We dodged getting infected in the early period, before the lockdown, despite major outbreaks in both our home and work neighborhoods. Luck. We had caught up on dental work the month before. Good timing. We had a huge stock of paper towels and canned goods. Fortunate. Mr. Max’s survivalist hobbies meant our entire family owned masks and emergency food – whimsical Christmas presents he had given in years past. What are the odds? And most importantly, we owned a fixer upper farmhouse in rural New York, 2 hours from where we lived in a small Massachusetts city. An ideal oasis, originally bought as a “stepping stone” for moving out to the country. We both already worked remote jobs we liked, so unlike the rest of America, there was no big Zoom transition to navigate. We brought family with us – a risk for everyone, since no one knew how the virus worked yet – but everyone was and stayed healthy. We launched into homesteading – chickens and crops – and enjoyed success. Looking out into our back field, children playing happily in our secret garden world, we felt like the luckiest people on earth.

And then, our year of misfortune.

Late Spring

A schism with family, leaving us alone. A wound, then a scar. Things that would never be the same.
Our previously stable jobs fall apart. I say it feels like someone else’s life.
The chickens we so lovingly raised – that our niece and nephew named – start dropping dead. It ends up being Marek’s, the worst of all chicken diseases. Our very first flock and they all have it. What are the odds? When I ask the extension office how this could be, with them being vaccinated, the vet sighs, and says “Bad luck, you should cull them all.”

Summer

We manage to sell our Massachusetts house, and move the rest of our things. A realization – we decide to have a family ourselves before it’s too late. A big, bright, brief sunny moment. Pregnancy. Plants grow and crops yield. We keep the chickens, deciding to give them a chance at life.

Fall

A betrayal from an old friend. Chaos begins to swirl around us. Problems with our house. We want to move to somewhere with more land, further from neighbors. We start looking at real estate, but it is the worst timing – barely anything on the market, and prices skyrocketing.

Winter

A miscarriage. A black depression, stretching on.

I remember these things in flashes now but at the time it was an endless sequence, on and on into the next bad thing. The day we try to reclaim a favorite hobby – winter hiking – only to have Mr. Max fall down a ledge, crashing through a tree branch. He is okay, but he hits his head, hard, blood covering his face. It terrifies me. Countless days of crying and lying in bed, unable to get past the trauma of a lost pregnancy, a fog I can’t wake up from. I wander around the kitchen in a grief-driven crying spell, accidentally turning on the stove. Later I start a fire in our woodstove as propane leaks through the downstairs. The smell of gas, racing around the house, terrified it would explode, evacuating us and the animals. Waiting in the car for the gas company, in the cold, Gracie barking. Angry tears, at myself.

Some time after that, the furnace dies, revealing a one-in-a-million underlying problem that will take months to resolve before a new furnace is installed. It’s the dead of winter, the coldest days and nights. Casual real estate searches turn into desperation. We have to leave, now, we have no heating system. Trying to figure out what to do and where to go. Nothing available to rent, not with a dog and chickens, not in a pandemic. Heating the house with space heaters as we explore unworkable option after unworkable option. Space heaters not working, the local store is sold out. Wood stove spewing out creosote, we can’t use it. No chimney sweeps available. Every night I dream we burn to death in an electrical fire from overloading the circuits. So many nights of sleeping an hour, waking up to check temperatures. Moving space heaters to different outlets over and over again, trying not to blow a fuse. Dripping faucets. Ice cold water from the tap. The dishwasher freezing. We have to leave, now, before we cause a fire. Packing and storage units again to go where? We don’t know. No one offers to take us in, we’re on our own.

Experts at pivoting, we come up with new idea after new idea, but no matter what we do everything fails. Finally, we decide to go to my family cabin, somewhat permanently. A house that’s never been used in the winter. Limited internet access. How will we work? Where will the chickens go? No clue. And yet. It’s our only option.

Our barn cat disappears for two days as we pack up to move. What are the odds? I face her imagined death – mangled by a coyote, or tortured by some neighborhood kids – knowing we have no choice but to leave her behind. She’s never, ever gone missing before. Why now? Because of course it goes that way. You come to anticipate the bad luck at every turn, like Pavlov’s dog.

We have to haul everything out that can’t stay in the house unheated, which is mostly everything. Snow falls every single day that we have to load the truck – fresh snow on our furniture and boxes, slipping in the driveway and on the flatbed. It can’t possibly snow every day, we say, and yet it does. No matter what we do, every outcome is the hardest possible version. The estimates for the work on the house become staggeringly expensive, none of it covered by insurance. The insurance adjuster says we have terrible luck, this never happens. I hang up in fury.

Some people try to help, commiserate, I guess. “Moving! It’s the worst.” They say. But it’s not moving. It’s leaving a home against your will – like a flood, or a house fire. Trauma. Loss. And work. All three.

Spring

We make it to the cabin, by the skin of our teeth. Hours and hours spent staring down a huge list of moving tasks that never seem to get any shorter. And yet we do it. I envision this change heralding a dramatic reversal of fortune, our bad luck shifting to good in this new place. Instead everything continues to go wrong. Despite our careful tests we have a complete breakdown of internet access, threatening our jobs. Our feral barn cat, who showed up mysteriously the very last day of moving, refuses to go into the sheltered shed we set up for her. There’s a terrible cold snap and we spend night after night chasing her around the yard for hours, visions of coyote attacks turning to those of her frozen body lying in the driveway. Each night is the same, sometimes managing to tackle her and keep her in the bathroom for the night. Sometimes wondering if she’d make it to morning. The chickens are fighting. One of the cats has cancer.

Chaos begets chaos, says Mr. Max. And he’s right – this is what happens when you turn your world upside down. Instability brings its own tangle of problems: Problems with animals, losing things we hastily packed, the debt of putting off all the things that were already delayed from before all this. It all comes crashing in at once.

Stability is elusive. There’s a new cycle of hope and despair every few weeks. We sail on the high of finding land or a house to buy, only to crash when it falls through at the last moment. In April I have a second miscarriage, a deeper kind of misfortune. Once again that terrifying crying, the kind people only do when something dies. As I schedule the fertility testing I imagine every worst case scenario possible, that I will have all of them. Because of course I will, of course the least probable thing, the least fair thing, will be the outcome. Uterine scarring. No more eggs. I’ll never get pregnant, or stay pregnant.

Summer, Today

I suppose one of the hallmarks of bad luck is how improbable it all starts to feel. You flip a coin, you don’t expect Tails, Tails, Tails, Tails. And yet bad luck spells become just that, the coin that won’t flip the other way no matter how many times you throw it in the air. Your friends say things they mean with kindness: It will get better soon, this can’t go on forever. This too shall pass. But it enrages you because it’s a misunderstanding of probability. Despite what gamblers think, you can get a million Tails in a row and it doesn’t change your chance of getting a Heads. No one knows when your luck will change.

I think back to a habit I had when things were bad, of researching famous people who had experienced tragedy. It’s a specific situation – the extremely fortunate being derailed by misfortune. I read about Roman Polanski, and how he threw away everything – his clothes, his furniture, all of his possessions – after Sharon Tate was killed. It’s an impulse I understand, purging your life of things that remind you of something you lost. I have a friend who has suffered immeasurably to try and have a child. She knows that it might not be possible, she might never be able to do this thing that gives meaning to so many people’s lives. Few really understand how strong someone has to be to face that reality. One day when we are talking she apologizes for complaining, she feels privileged in life – to have a job, and enough money. I tell her I disagree – there are things in life beyond money and station, that can change your world forever. Things that wrench what is most dear from you, kill or threaten your dreams. We all lose things. Eventually, we all lose everything. It bonds us together, this awful part of life.

I wait anxiously on the fertility test results, expecting the worst as usual. But it doesn’t happen. The news is good, encouraging. I almost don’t believe it.

A few days later, we have a nice day – nothing special, just a relaxing, sunny day. Then a string of unremarkable nice days. Plans start mostly working instead of mostly failing. We go on a long walk that reminds me of the all day hikes we used to do. A nice bakery opens nearby, and we start a routine of getting treats there on the weekend. We find a storage unit for our remaining house stuff, and start moving things. Selling our old house starts to feel possible. Then, bigger good news. We find land to buy. We bounce back faster from normal challenges. Our defenses rebuild. Tentatively, a vision for our lives begins to take shape.

Resilience shows up in unexpected places. For months, visiting the old house to pack would bring with it flashbacks of miscarrying in our old bedroom. I’d stay in the car, crying, and go home in a black mood, angry at the mess made of our lives. But one day I decide on my own to go inside, to say goodbye to our old life. It brings a kind of peace. Driving back we get caught up in some silly joke and laugh and laugh the whole way home. It shocks me. It is the first time I have laughed in a year.


Life has continued this way — unexpectedly normal — thus far. Perhaps we have finally made it through this, whatever “this” is. I don’t ask why anymore. Why bad things happen to good people is an unsolvable riddle – a mind game of philosophers and heretics. I have no greater understanding of our stroke of bad luck than I ever did. Like a man set free from prison, I’ll never really forget all the days I lost. But I won’t linger on them, either.

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