The Reverse Midas Touch

With death all around me, I became convinced I was cursed

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King Midas was popular for a Greek minute. According to the Roman poet Ovid, Midas was the one who got to choose any gift he wanted from Dionysus, the Greek God of wine. Midas asked that everything he touched be turned to gold. Which was fun for a little while. Turning twigs and rivers into shiny stuff seemed cool. But what about when he got home and tried to eat his stew? Or hug it out with his daughter? Midas wound up begging Dionysus to reverse his gift, which didn’t exactly work.

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Abby Sher, right, with her father
(Courtesy of Abby Sher)

Fast-forward a bunch of centuries, when The Muffler Installation Dealers’ Associated Service (MIDAS) decided to borrow just the glittery parts of the story and make their slogan “Trust the Midas Touch.” But the whole point of Midas’s story was that it wasn’t such a great touch after all. Not to mention the fact that “Double A (beep-beep) M-C-O” is catchier.

I spent the first 25 years of my life pretty convinced I had the Sadim Touch. Made-up word, really. Just Midas backwards, because it felt like everything or everyone I touched got snuffed out. My aunt had an aneurysm in her sleep and died when I was 10. Less than a year later, my dad’s lungs got clogged with cancer and gave out. That was followed swiftly by the death of another aunt, then a neighbor. Then my step-dad keeled over from a heart attack when he stepped off the morning train.

Though I wasn’t that close with my step-dad — Who are you? Waltzing in here and acting like you love my mom and me and pretending to be as awesome as my dead dad? — I think in some ways, his death sealed the deal for me. I was definitely cursed. Why else would everyone around me be dropping like flies?

I found out about my step-dad’s heart attack during an 11th grade math test. My mom was in the principal’s office looking like a crumpled tissue. When she told me the news I remember saying, “Does this mean I have to skip play practice?”

I was pretty thrilled to be cast in “The Crucible” as Abigail, the evil seductress who sends a bunch of people to their early graves because she claims they’re witches in Salem, Mass. My friend Nick played my tortured romantic partner, John Proctor. We’d been friends since first grade and I knew where his spare key was hidden in his backyard. Only, after my step-dad died and I had to miss play practice for a week, Nick stopped talking to me. When we were in rehearsal, he said his lines while his eyes raced around to anywhere but my face.

I was hurt. But even more than hurt, I was scared. Nick obviously sensed my lethal pheromones and was on high alert. I was killing off the village of not only Salem but also our suburb in Westchester County, N.Y., one by one. When I asked if he was okay with me, Nick’s icy shrugs gave a clear response. To be honest, I didn’t blame Nick for locking his doors and finding a new hiding place for his spare key. I quickly grew petrified of my powers too.

It took about 10 years and thousands of dollars in therapy to dissect and disprove my Sadim Touch theory. A handful more deaths too — including my mother’s, which ripped my world apart. Now I was the crumpled tissue. I knew there was no way I ever intended to harm my mom, or anyone for that matter. Blaming myself was a torturous way of trying to distract myself from grief. And just like Midas’s gift/curse, it never really worked.

Ironically, just a few weeks ago, it was Nick and I in the waiting room of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center together. One of our best friends from childhood was going through chemo. Nick and I were leafing through wilted magazines, while the doctor delivered his “next steps” proclamation inside.

“This is…” said Nick with a weary sigh.

“I know,” I agreed.

We both wanted and didn’t want to talk about how this could play out. So many pieces of this story were too familiar to me. The smell of hospital food. The slimy film of anti-bacterial gel left over on my palms after a visit. The fluorescent lights that turned day into night into everything-is-unknown. Our friend’s prognosis was not good at all.

And yet, here’s what was different for me this time. I knew I was not responsible for whatever happened next. I couldn’t be. I sat with Nick and waited. And when our sick friend came out with more bad news, I told her, “Look, the Grim Reaper and I know each other pretty well. But nothing is determined yet. We just don’t know.

And then, I touched her. I rubbed her feet and kneaded her palms and I squeezed. Hard. Because I knew I couldn’t kill her with my touch. Instead, I could comfort her while we were both here.

Abby Sher is a writer and performer living in Brooklyn. She is the author of “Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn’t Stop Praying (Among Other Things).” Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Elle magazine, among other publications.

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