Playing the Numbers Game by
(13 Stories)

Prompted By Superstition

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When I was ten, I went to summer camp for the first time, and I loved it so much that I decided that my cabin number—2—would forever be my lucky number. From then on, I tried to do everything in groups or multiples of 2: I would eat a cookie in 2, 4, or 8 bites, for example. Because 3 was neither 2 nor 4, it somehow became a bad number, to be avoided at all costs. No 3-bite cookies for me.

Superstitions are heightened during stressful times, for example, when expecting a child.

When I was eleven, on April 7, 1962, to be exact, my friend Linda and I went to a Saturday matinee and saw Mr. Sardonicus, a low-budget horror film whose story terrified me into an anxiety disorder that lasted for several years. In brief, an old man buys a raffle ticket, #777, then dies with the ticket in his pocket. After he is buried, his daughter learns that it’s the winning ticket and she convinces her husband to dig up her father’s body. The husband complies, but the shock paralyzes his face, he becomes a hideous ghoul, and his wife commits suicide. You don’t need to know the rest, but suffice it to say that from then on, the number 7 became the symbol of evil in my irrational numerology.

The anxiety eventually resolved, but the fear of 7 persisted. It didn’t help that my beloved uncle died on January 7, 1963. After that, my spectrum of good and evil was complete: 2 was the safe, lucky, blessed number; whereas 1 (for January), 3, and 7 were the symbols of doom and death. Yeah, I know, really crazy stuff.

Fast-forward about thirty-five years. I had somehow survived the 1970s, even 7-7-77, and although I no longer ate my cookies in even numbers of bites as I went to college, got married, got a job, and had two children, I still had some kind of emotional connection to my number system. Superstitions are heightened during stressful times, for example, when expecting a child, so when I found myself pregnant with my third child, whose due date was in 1/31/99 (9 also being on the evil side of the spectrum, since it is 3 + 3 + 3, or 3 x 3), I fell into a kind of pre-partum dread. And the pregnancy was full of problems—by eight weeks along, I was on semi-bedrest, then I developed high blood pressure, then high blood sugar, things I did not suffer from during my first two pregnancies. I went from week to week with an increasing sense of doom. Of course, in our time and culture, we expect a happy ending to this type of story, so I just assumed my craziness was something I’d laugh about in a few years.

Getting through the holidays on bedrest with a six-year-old and a ten-year-old was a challenge, but after New Year’s, at last, I could relax. Or so I thought. On 1/3/99, during the Great Snowstorm of 1999, I hemorrhaged. The ambulance couldn’t take me to the big teaching hospital because of the blizzard so they took me to the little local one. My son was born healthy, if a month early, by emergency C-section, but in the back of my mind, the feeling of dread persisted. I ordered myself to snap out of it, for my son.

I camped out in the nursery, holding his hand and talking to him. I couldn’t nurse him yet, but he opened his eyes and he could already focus. On 1/5/99, he started spitting up green stuff. The nurse told me not to worry, that all babies spit up, but it was green, and he hadn’t consumed anything because he had breathing issues and was on an IV. I insisted that she call the on-duty doctor, but on 1/6/99, they discharged me and told me to leave everything in their hands.

On the morning of 1/7/99, the anniversary of my uncle’s death, I was a mess. I sped back to the hospital, even though I wasn’t supposed to drive. I wanted to see my son and reassure myself that he was all right on the evilest of days. But when I got there, an ambulance team was packing him up to be transferred to that big teaching hospital, because by this time, my baby was passing blood as well as spitting up green stuff. Just so you know, spitting up green is never normal in a newborn, the doctor on call should have known that, and by the end of that darkest of days, my baby was dead.  Was my irrational fear of 1, 3, and 7 really irrational, or had it been a premonition?

Don’t worry: This story does, in fact, have a happy ending, and not just a brave rationalization of what I learned by this sad, but ennobling experience. To quote my friend Phil: I would gladly have bestowed this ennobling experience on someone else. On the day I buried my son, I resolved that a set of bad numbers and a medical mistake would not write the last chapter of our family-building saga. The last chapter would be written by us. So we tried again. And tried. And tried. The year 1999 came and went, along with 2000, and half of 2001. Finally the miracle happened: I was expecting my fourth child with a due date of 2/28/2002. With four 2’s and an 8, it had to be a sign. And this time, there was no bed rest, blood pressure was normal, blood sugar was normal, all tests normal, all systems go. When February 2002 rolled around, it occurred to me that my baby could have one of a number of really cool birthdays: There was 2/2/2002, although that was a bit early. Then there was 2/12/2002, getting warmer, then 2/20/2002 warmer still. But those days came and went. Finally there was one cool date left: 2/22/2002. However, my body did not share my love for cool numbers; it seemed to want to stay pregnant forever. Fortunately on 2/21/2002, my doctor, who was concerned that the baby was getting too big, agreed to induce labor. “What about TOMORROW?” I asked hopefully, and he said, “Sure,” because he would be the doctor on call. So . . . on 2/22/2002, at exactly 5:22 p.m., my daughter Julia was born. Again, was my long-time love of 2 just a superstition, or was it a harbinger of a future miracle? I guess that will remain one of life’s inexplicable mysteries, along with the mystery and miracle of birth itself.

Profile photo of Joan Matthews Joan Matthews

Characterizations: funny, moving, well written


  1. Thanx Joan, love happy endings and your daughter is lovely! Stay safe!

  2. Suzy says:

    Wow, Joan, what a story! You took me through every imaginable emotion while reading it. First amusement, the cabin number, the bites of cookies. Then horror, from the movie (how were children even allowed to see a movie like that?), and your understandable anxiety about the number 7. Worry about your difficult pregnancy, the hemorrhage, the blizzard – I could feel my stomach in knots. Then sadness when the baby died. And finally exhileration from your strength in writing the last chapter and producing your miracle baby, even arranging for her to be born on 2/22. Thank you for the journey! One of the best stories I’ve ever read!

    • Thank you, Suzy! I love the fact that you give us a safe forum for revealing our darkest secrets to a supportive group of listeners. Throughout history, parents have lost countless children, but somehow we think we’re exempt until it happens. At that large teaching hospital, there was a room in the pediatric ICU that was set aside for parents to be with their child when the child was taken off life support or had just died. After three months, I was invited to a memorial service for parents who had lost children during that three-month period. The place was packed. It was a sobering event.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    Oh my, Joan, what a twisted tale. We all have our quirks when we’re kids. I sort of like your superstitious numerology and can understand how everything lined up for you as a child (and that gruesome movie! YIKES!)

    But the story of your lost child was just heartbreaking. I was filled with dread from the moment you couldn’t reach the good hospital due to the snowstorm and I grieve for that child and your experience.

    But you tried to change your “karma”, if I can interject a different concept into this tale, and all seems to have worked out well. As Suzy notes, your daughter is lovely. Stay safe through this pandemic and thanks for sharing this great story.

    • Wow, thanks for that interesting observation about karma. You’re absolutely right–we were determined to change our karma, although I didn’t think about it like that at the time. Now I will, and that will now be a permanent addition to the story! I read somewhere that there are three levels of wanting something: There’s the “wouldn’t it be nice if . . .” level of wanting something; there’s the “I’m going to work hard and see if I can do this” level of wanting; then there’s the “I absolutely have to have this, and I will do whatever it takes it get it, because not getting it isn’t an option” level of wanting. We fell into that last category. I’m sure most everyone has some absolutely-must-have at some time in their lives, but thank goodness they don’t come very often.

  4. What a gripping story, Joan, and so fitting for the prompt in such a powerful way.

    I, too, saw Mr. Sardonicus, although I saw it with my fiendish older brother who took great delight in how much it scared me, and though I didn’t understand its meaning, I remember that awful sardonic grimace to this day. Thinking back, ’m surprised they allowed children into the theater, but then motion picture ratings didn’t come into being until 1968.

    The circumstances surrounding the next part of your story are almost unimaginable, but I can imagine you determined to get back to the hospital despite your condition, because you were powered by an instinct stronger than self preservation, that of caring for your child. I’m so very sorry for your loss, but filled with admiration for your conscious decision to rewrite the next chapter of your “family-building saga” on your own terms, and share it with us here on Retrospect. Thank you so much!

    • Thank you, Barbara! Several years ago, I decided to watch Mr. Sardonicus again, just to see how scary it actually was. Julia watched it with me, and she laughed through the whole thing. “It’s so fake,” she said, and yes, compared to the extreme movies that her generation watches, it was pretty simplistic and phony. But it still brought back memories of sitting in the Main Theater, hiding my eyes and waiting, terrified, for it to be over. Sorry you had to go through something similar. I’m not sure why we were allowed to see those movies, although the matinee was 25 cents for two movies, and it got us out of the house.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    I love this story, Joan. So glad you got your happy ending but I am sorry for the tragic loss of your son as well. I think many share your superstitions about special numbers. My son was born at 10:10 on June 10. We bought our house at 1010 Sheridan Road because I was attracted to the listing because of the address. Turned out to be a happy home for 45 years.

    • Thanks for letting me know about your special number! How wonderful that your lucky number is connected to both your son and your home. As I was writing, I did wonder whether everyone has some kind of numerology that they adhere to, whether consciously or not.

  6. Marian says:

    This story gives superstition a much more realistic tone, Joan. I’m so relieved that your daughter was born under the “right” circumstances after everything you went through with losing your son. I don’t have issues with “unlucky” numbers although I do gravitate to some that seem less threatening to me than others. Go figure that!

  7. Marian says:

    For reasons I can’t understand, I’ve always gravitated toward the number 12. Not particularly lucky or unlucky, maybe it’s because the year has 12 months that I think in 12’s. Interesting that 12 is divisible by a lot of numbers–1, 2, 3, 4, and 6. Have no idea what it means!

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