Do you believe in curses?

Curses had always been one of those things I heard about in childhood  — like when I was eight and broke a mirror at summer camp, and my fellow campers shouted with excitement that I would now have seven years of bad luck.  Okay, so I fell for that one. even though I don’t remember relating it to any particular “bad luck” that came my way.  Mostly I believed curses were the stuff of fairy tales and, since I wasn’t able to fly to Neverland or have a blue fairy grant me wishes, I dismissed them as anything to take seriously.

That all changed one lazy sunny afternoon in San Antonio, Texas.  It was the early 90s and my former husband and I were meeting up with some people to look at the van they listed for sale in the paper.  We pulled into the Exxon gas station and immediately spotted the van parked along the curb, close to the ever busy I-410 freeway.  We unloaded our toddler Therese and our infant son Becket from their car seats, and headed with anticipation toward what might be our new family vehicle.

Upon first glance, the minivan looked acceptable and, since I would be doing the majority of driving, John and I decided I would give it a spin around the block.  After some conversation with the owners about the van, and life in general, (we seemed to have a knack to share more personal information than was necessary), John returned to the car with the kids and the sliding door to the van was shut behind me.

As soon as John got the kids situated in the car, and I do not exaggerate as to the sudden and unexpected nature of this, a powerful storm descended upon us.  I watched outside the van’s window with nothing short of terror as the skies emptied like a monsoon, thunder clapped with a deafening sound, lightning struck like giant arrows of fire, and the wind whipped around us with a fury I could only liken to the wrath of God.  I watched in horror as signs were ripped from their posts, trees swayed and bent in unnatural poses, debris flew about in devilish whirlwinds, and cars that rapidly pulled over shook as if the earth were trembling and preparing to swallow them whole.  My eyes widened as the van in which I was trapped rumbled in place and I grabbed hold of my seat with whitened knuckles.  I looked frantically at our car to reassure myself that John and the kids were okay and saw that they were parked in what was so far a safe place.  As I turned my attention back to the van, it dawned on me that the storm’s sudden descent wasn’t nearly as bizarre as the smiles and calm that resided on the faces of those strangers surrounding me.

They began to talk about God and being saved, to which I defensively responded that I had a strong faith and God did indeed have a prominent place in my life.  I told them that before my infant son Becket was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis, he was so sick that the doctors at first predicted he wouldn’t survive beyond another three weeks.  He received the necessary medication just in time to stabilize him, gained weight and grew stronger by the day.  Of course I believed and prayed- the evidence was alive and breathing in my baby carrier across the parking lot!  My husband had been on the front lines of war and my son in the grips of death; both survived and we were safely together.  My beautiful, healthy toddler Therese had remained strong and happy throughout all of our ordeals and accepted and loved her brother.  All in all, I felt blessed.  So, yes, I believed, I prayed, and I patiently put up with nosy people.   As the van rocked and shook and I had no means of escape, I had no choice but to listen to the preachings of these seemingly Christian people.  They were cheerful and friendly and I did not detect any dishonesty or hint of malicious intent.  They were just trying to help, right?  They were, after all, talking about God, His love, their devotion, their service and — and I couldn’t have predicted what came out of their mouths next.

“You know why your son is sick, don’t you?”

I looked at them dumbfounded.  Apparently my silence only encouraged them.

“You have been cursed.  Somewhere in the history of your family, someone committed a grievous sin against God, and He cursed them.  You’ll find curses mentioned all throughout the Old Testament.  They’re very real and passed down through generations of families.  People think it’s bad luck but it’s really a curse.”

What was I to say?  I was confused, and frightened, by this revelation.  Sadly naive and impressionable, I began to listen intently, unaware at that time that my deep feelings of guilt about having a sick child were making me the perfect audience for their “divinely inspired” insights. So they continued on, explaining to me the origin of curses, their necessity in our journey as Christians, and how so many people were ignorant to this aspect of their lives — the inexplicable bad luck — or so they thought, since no one had taught them about curses.

And then it got weirder.  As I was trying to absorb all of this new information, I glanced outside the large back passenger window of the van.  I was totally unprepared for the sight that greeted me.  The sun was again shining.  The storm vanished as quickly as it appeared, almost as if a magician had waved his wand and pulled a bunny out of his hat.  Beyond the scattered remnants of the storm, and a few lingering wisps of clouds, a giant rainbow had emerged, the multicolored arc resplendent in the rays of the newly born sun. “It must be a sign, a sign from God, that what they had told me was the truth,” I thought.  In tune with the energy of the others, (and I would later learn to be cautious of this), I felt this sense of peace and contentment.  Surely God had put these people in my path!  And what I had learned was for a reason, to serve a purpose, in my seeking of God’s will.

How vulnerable I was in the midst of heart-wrenching pain, guilt and self-doubt; I didn’t realize, especially at that time, how much I blamed and faulted myself for bringing a child into this world that was terminally ill and faced a life of pain and suffering.  Or so I thought.

Immersed in my self-abasement, I was temporarily blinded to the joy and love my son brought to my heart and would bring to so many others.  I did not envision the positive impact his upbeat, engaging personality and entertaining wit would ultimately have on countless others.  Fortunately in God’s real plan, I would dismiss those feelings of guilt and self-blame.  I would be encouraged by all the new treatments and medications available for CF and the ever-increasing positive prognosis for a longer life expectancy.  I would appreciate that I’d been given the opportunity to truly value the preciousness of life, whatever struggles it faces.

I listened to the strangers for quite some time, and realized at one point that it was too much time; I knew my husband would be getting antsy, especially with an infant that basically had to be nursed every thirty minutes.  I looked over to the car and, sure enough, the “What the hell is taking you so long?” look was on his face.  He was in “keep the baby happy” mode and wasn’t about to get out of the car and go through the tortuous routine of undoing the car seat with its myriad of inconveniently placed belts, buckles, and snaps.  And so, I started to make my way towards the van’s sliding door, nodding my approval, verbally giving thanks for the wise teachings they had bestowed upon me, and promising to stay in touch.  They still tried to keep me engaged in conversation.  Fortunately my hungry, sick baby gave me an instant out and I departed the van with lighter steps than I had entered it. What possessed me to think this was a positive experience, so much so that I would share it excitedly with my husband, I don’t know.  Maybe it was my desperate search for an answer and feeling that God had given me one – the sudden storm, the rainbow, the openness of strangers talking about their faith- it had to be a sign, right?

My husband listened obligingly, never saying what I’m sure he was thinking, “What the hell is the matter with you?  How could you buy into that crap?”  I think he chose the easy way out, which was nod in response as if in agreement and occasionally offer a few words of acknowledgement like “Yeah, right, okay,” or “Really!”  I knew at some level he was just appeasing me, anxious to get home, take care of our baby’s tiger shark appetite, and relax to some mind-numbing T.V.  I didn’t care; I felt a powerful release, like a city block of concrete had been lifted off of me.  I had an answer and, somehow, that answer had freed me from my self-imposed burden.

I look back upon this and want to hurdle the barriers to time travel so I can go back and slap myself silly.  I felt freed?  Relief?  An answer and direction?  And all this because a bunch of nutcase strangers, taking advantage of the fact that I was trapped in their van by a typical random Texas storm, had told me that my son’s illness was my fault?  They had confirmed my greatest fear – that I was responsible for his suffering and hardship.  They supported my belief that I had failed as a mother by not producing a healthy boy to carry on the family name.

With this realization, it didn’t take long to come down from my superficial high.  I think it was after I shared my experience with our family priest and best friend, (who, interestingly, is now the Archbishop of Los Angeles).  He listened patiently and without judgement to my crazy story about “Strangers in a Van,” (now it sounds like a horror flick), and, at the end of it all, gave me his gentle, calming laugh, and an “Oh, Deb,” with an empathetic tone, genuine compassion reflected in his eyes.  He used his knowledge of scripture and study of history to dispel my idea that I was the victim of a family curse, born from generations ago.  And then, because to this day he is the most Christ-like person I know, he counseled me with love and helped me to find a constructive way to cope with all the guilt, shame, and fear.  It wasn’t as if it disappeared overnight but I don’t recall it being an issue much longer.  In fact, though I would go on to have five more children and four of those would have Cystic Fibrosis, I never again experienced that guilt or feeling of failure.  I struggled with plenty of other issues, most centered around my failing marriage, but I approached it with a completely different attitude and set of beliefs.  I would come to learn, in spite of all the hardships and deep-seated pain, that I had truly been blessed with these unique and beautiful souls that God gave to me.  Amazing how a different viewpoint can change the way you wake up every day!  Many more severe struggles were to come and, had I known of them then, I wouldn’t have believed I had the strength in me to cope.

Yes, God has mysterious ways- sometimes we get to know the reason and more often than not, we don’t.  Faith in His Love, not His punishment, is the key.  “All things come together for good to those who love God.”  I have to remind myself of that on a regular basis.

Whatever your beliefs, I hope that none of them involves curses.  Everyone is entitled to his own opinion and chosen path in life, whether it involves organized religion or not.  I respect that freedom of will.  I only hope that if you run into a group of insistent, overbearing strangers, (aliens or humans), that you have the presence of mind to discern or at least take a step back and evaluate the situation when you are not in a heightened emotional state.  There are a lot of predators out there who of course aren’t going to wear a name tag warning you.  Protect yourself and put an appropriate metaphysical barrier between you and the perpetrator.  They may have good intentions, but they are usually self-serving and not geared to do or say what is in your best interest.  If by some bizarre confluence of events, you end up trapped with strangers in some overpriced van for sale and a sudden storm thrashing about the world outside, just start singing Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah in your head and imagine little whistling bluebirds on your shoulder and kicking your heels up in the air.  While these images mentally dance about in your head and silly Disney songs pervade your hearing, just take a cue from my ex-husband and nod your head, throwing in an occasional, “Yeah, okay, sure,… etc.”  Even if they don’t take the hint and shut up, which they probably won’t, the storm will end and escape will be yours.  And as you briskly walk or run like hell away, keep this in mind: curses belong in fairy tales or to modern day evil-doers, or even in the OLD testament.  They do not belong in the heart or psyche of one who seeks to find and share joy and goodness.  Leave the curses to that old hag in Snow White and don’t forget how that turned out.

Do I believe in curses?  No.  I believe in consequences either from our actions or others.  Sometimes the consequences we suffer due to others’ actions aren’t fair, but it is always an opportunity to grow and gain strength, even wisdom.  If that doesn’t ease your mind, just remember, even Job of the Old Testament got a break.  You will, too.  (If you think you’ve got it bad, wait until you read Job’s story.)  As for me, I still choose to believe in happily-ever-afters — curses or no.

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