As I perused the pages of Jeanne's album with gratitude yet another time, I suddenly remembered a familiar face who was missing from those attending the wedding: my lifelong friend Pat Hill.
Pat had come over to visit a few days before the wedding, flustered and upset, explaining to me that she wouldn't be able to attend because there was this guy. On a boat trip to Catalina Island the week before, she had met a guy and had impulsively made a date to meet him back at the dock the next Saturday, momentarily forgetting that it was my wedding day. Now she was faced with a dilemma: to attend my wedding and lose the chance to get to know this guy (for whom she had no phone number) or to meet him at the dock as planned. I was disappointed, but I understood.
So they met at the dock and got to know each other. In time, she married him and raised his three children from his first marriage for the next fifteen years. She stayed with him through countless challenges until his abuse became too much and she fled for her life.
During the pain of that time of transition, restraining orders and secret addresses, I remember saying to Pat "If only you had chosen to come to my wedding instead."
"I should have," she said ruefully.
What happened was meant to happen. Despite the sad and terrifying way the relationship ended, Pat had experienced a lot of love and good times, personal growth and the discovery of a life mission -- to help emotionally and physically challenged children as a special ed teacher -- during the years of her marriage. And his children became her own. To this day, being a mother is a vital part of the person Pat has grown to be and she keeps in warm touch with her now-grown daughters.
There are so many what if's in our lives.
What if I had turned left instead of right? What if I had chosen to do this and not that? What if I had reacted in a different way? What if I had spoken up? Or remained silent?
What a difference seemingly small decisions can make in our lives.
All of our lives have such twists and turns: an email sent or answered or not, a chance encounter that led to years of love and friendship, a moment of kindness that meant more than one could ever have imagined, a decision that seemed minor at the time but huge over the course of a life. These encounters and decisions leave us years later with a myriad of emotions: perhaps marveling at the coincidence of meeting another....or wondering, wistfully or with anguish, what might have been.
In my own life, I think back to a moment in a class registration line in the fall of my sophomore year of college. I glanced over the list of available sections for a writing class and finally chose a section because it had a female instructor --unusual for that time. And that snap decision brought three incredible blessings to my life: the instructor Elizabeth Swayne, who would become a mentor and, later on, a dear friend; Elizabeth's tough but absolutely correct instruction that transformed my writing and made my subsequent career possible; and a fellow student whom I got to know in that class, Tim Schellhardt, one of my dearest friends for all the years to come.
And then there was that choice -- late in the fall of 1975 -- to attend or not attend a conference.
Actually, the choice to attend the conference "The Challenge of Being Single" seemed a simple one to me: I didn't want to go.
"Write a check now for the conference and give it to me," my therapist Pam insisted. I glared at her, but wrote the forty dollar check to cover the conference fee.
"This is stupid," I said. "I don't want to go. I don't want to meet anybody. I've had it. No more pain."
In therapy for the first time in my life, I was struggling to recover from my shock and sadness over my former lover's coming out of the closet a few months before.
"This isn't to meet someone," Pam said gently. "It's to get out and re-discover all the positive things about being single."
I sat there fuming.
And when the weekend of the conference dawned, I woke up in a total funk. I cursed Pam and the fact that I had forked over $40 -- a major sum in 1975, given my salary -- for an event I didn't want to attend. I got up, promising myself I would only go for that morning.
My resolve to attend even the morning session wavered, however, as I approached the hotel conference site. I drove around the block four times debating whether I would go in at all. I finally pulled into the parking lot, muttering angrily to myself.
I entered the hotel ballroom in a dark mood, spotting many circles of chairs, eight chairs in each circle, filling the room. Some circles were nearly filled. Some had a few people sitting in them. Some were totally empty.
I rolled my eyes and thought "I ought to leave right now! This is going to be horrible! I'm not in the mood to deal with people."
I finally plopped down in an empty circle and sat, arms crossed, sulking and silently daring anyone to sit in my circle. Finally people did. And the last one to sit down, filling the circle, was Bob.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Looking back, the famous Robert Frost poem about roads taken and not taken resonates so clearly. Like that lonely road in the woods.... so many of our little decisions make all the difference.