What If…?

A few weeks ago, I attended my 20-year high school reunion. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go initially. I had only gone to school with these people for those four years, having grown up in a different town. I didn’t think I’d have much to discuss with them. The crowd I’d hung out with in my early high school career weren’t going to attend—likely because most of them are surely dead or in prison. No, I did not hang out with the honor roll students. My crowd was morally ambiguous at best. My closest friends from my later high school career were unable to make it. Thus, I figured I’d be talking to only a couple others and wondering why I’d given up a Saturday night shift at work.

I went to my 10-year reunion when that had come about. There was a strange pressure to seem vocationally successful. Most of the conversation had revolved around that. What do you do? How much do you make? The prospect of going through that again was less than thrilling.

However, I spoke to a friend of mine shortly before the reunion. He’s slightly older and had opted out of going to his 20-year. He had been going through a divorce at the time of his reunion and felt like he didn’t have it “together.” Now, he wishes that he had gone. He helped make my decision. I would go, but would probably hate every minute of it.

With all of that said, I highly recommend everyone attend their 20-year. First off, we had more alumni show up than had at the 10-year. More importantly, the entire affair was different. We had all reached an age at which what you do was not nearly as important as who you are. I overheard discussions about careers. I even had a few myself. But there was a casual joviality present. My former classmates and I were not worried about who was successful. We were allowing ourselves to bask in the presence of one another. We were learning who each of us had become as opposed to what we had become. We smiled. We laughed. We told stories. We reminisced.

It was in that reminiscing that I began to wonder days later. How am I different from the boy that I was? What events changed me? What decisions did I make that altered my path? If I could go back and change anything, what would it be?

I lost my virginity at a young age. I had no idea what I was doing, let alone the importance and power of that act. Perhaps if I hadn’t lost it back then and waited until I could fully grasp the moment, I would view sex differently. Maybe I would have fallen in love with that woman. Maybe I would be happily married today.

When I went to college fresh out of high school, I majored in English with a focus in creative writing. I felt working long hours to pay for books and housing was too much of a burden on me on top of my classroom responsibilities. I was tired all the time. So, I dropped out. Having gone back later to earn my degree in Criminal Justice while working full-time and being a parent, that earlier workload seems miniscule. What if I had simply stuck with it? Maybe I would have gone on to live in a big city, writing for a prominent publication. Maybe I would be a successful fiction author.

At age 19, I was seriously considering going into the military. However, I began working at a restaurant that promoted me quickly through the ranks. I discarded thoughts of joining the military. I had a good job. I was respected and appreciated at work. I left the company years later and now find myself still serving and bartending. What if I had opted for the military instead? Maybe I would have risen through those ranks as well. Maybe I could have been a military man with benefits and a secure future. Maybe I could have gone on to work as a police officer or firefighter when I passed the testing, instead of losing points in the interview for having no military background.

At age 21, I met Sarah. She was the most beautiful and intelligent woman I’d ever known. She made me laugh. She encouraged my writing. She challenged me. I fell in love with her. After a few years of having been together, she was offered a career in New York. It was an opportunity she couldn’t allow to pass by her. She had to move halfway across the country. She asked me to come with her. Out of fear of the unknown and that level of commitment, I turned her down. Instead, we would remain friends and said if it was meant to be, it would. I still see her in my dreams sometimes. And it still makes my heart break. What if I had gone with her? Maybe she would have challenged me to be an artist with my writing in New York. Maybe I would have married the one woman who loved me for who I was and who also knew there was more inside me when I didn’t recognize it myself.

At age 24, I met Liz. Although Liz was also beautiful and intelligent, what drew me to her was her passion. She believed in living for the moment. She brought me adventure. I laughed with her harder than I have with any other woman. Together, we were a force with which to be reckoned. We drank. We joked. We made love. I loved her for the abandon she caused me to feel. All relationships that thrive from unbridled living, though, also struggle with brutal arguments. We had our fair share interlaced with the joy. When it ultimately didn’t work out, I found myself in a bad place. I drank too much. I slept with women for whom I felt nothing. I became slightly jaded. What if I had never met her? Maybe I wouldn’t be so cautious with women now. Maybe I wouldn’t prefer the company of movies at home over a couple cocktails in bars, enjoying the company of a lady.

I could have done any one of these things (and so many more) differently. Any one of those decisions going the other way could have changed me drastically from who I am today. I would be a different person.

Last night, as I do every night she is with me, I tucked my daughter into bed. She instantly shot her arms out from under the covers to put her hands on the sides of my face. She does this because I try to kiss her ears and make lip-smacking sounds. It’s a game we play. She tries to stop me. I try to sneak past her hands. She giggles, which is a rarity for an almost twelve-year-old girl. I then kiss her forehead and tell her goodnight.

It is because of that moment on those nights that I have my answer to the what would you change question. The answer is nothing.

As with the concept behind Chaos Theory and the flutter of a butterfly’s wings, changing the most seemingly inconsequential thing can change it all. What if I’d lost my virginity differently and was happily married? I wouldn’t have my daughter. What if I had gotten an English degree and become a successful fiction author? I wouldn’t have my daughter. What if I had moved overseas with the military and seen the world? Same. What if I’d moved to New York with Sarah? Same. What if I never met Liz? Most importantly, I would not have my daughter, because Liz is her mother.

Am I what most people consider to be successful? No. Do I sometimes struggle with bills? Yes. Do I sometimes get lonely when I have no one with whom to share my day? Yes. Do I sometimes think how nice it would be to live in a place where I could step into the ocean? Yes.

Would I change a single thing? No.

Because I have hands on my face. And a giggle in my ear.

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Jigsaw Puzzles

I snuck into a girl’s bedroom last night. By that, I mean I was taking on one of the many roles of a parent. I was the Tooth Fairy. Some criticize method acting, but I maintain that I pull off a tutu and tiara quite well. My daughter lost one of the few remaining baby teeth she has left. By her count, she has lost six within the last year. Another one is loose as well. I suppose by the end of next year, she will have rid herself of those remaining teeth. Life, time, and experience take little pieces of us all. Like jigsaw puzzles we find in our grandparents’ attic.

The evidence lies partly in my hairline (or lack thereof) and my metabolism (see previous aside). In my early high school years, I had thick, wavy hair. Girls would sometimes play with it. My parents, on the other hand, would often ask when I was going to cut the mop on top of my head. They need not have worried. Time did it for me. Although it is nice being able to walk past the hair product aisle in the store without a second thought, I admit I hold a certain disdain for those men with finely-quaffed hair. I’m not wishing lice upon them, but my heart wouldn’t break. And then the metabolism. Every time I watch my eleven-year-old daughter inhale her meager body weight in food, I am reminded of the man I was in my early twenties. I was convinced back then that “serving size” suggestions were designed for toddlers. Now I find myself actively looking at the calorie-count of food on a menu. That second cupcake at a cookout bypasses my stomach and makes its way directly to my love handles.

On a wall in a hallway of my home is a picture frame that simply says, “Laugh.” That frame holds three pictures of my daughter when she was very young. In every picture, her eyes and mouth are open wide in full cackles. “LOL” and emojis hold no candle to those images. I haven’t heard her laugh like that in a long time. She’s not a sad girl. My daughter, like you and I, merely lost that piece of herself as she grew older. Certainly, we can still laugh until we cry at times, but it’s rare. Another casualty of growing up.

Hiding my face behind a blanket and then reappearing to say those magic words “peek-a-boo” once elicited squeals of delight from the baby who was my daughter. For her, in that moment, the world was full of wonder. Dad had vanished. Dad was back. Magic. I tried it again once recently just for fun. The response was not the same. As opposed to delight, her face held a look of slight worry and more than a little embarrassment. There was no squeal. Instead, the response was, “Really? What are you doing?” This, of course, while looking around to assure herself that no one else had seen the horrific display. I’m pretty sure I heard her apologizing to the cats on my behalf later. Life and experience took the wonder over something so ridiculous years ago.

Hair, physique, youth, metabolism, unbridled laughter, wonder. Life, time, and experience can take them all and more away from us bit by bit. It’s easy to think back on those pieces of ourselves we lose. What we often fail to recognize are the gifts that replace those missing pieces.

Where those baby teeth once sat in my daughter’s mouth, new teeth have sprouted. Those are the same teeth with which she’ll smile at a boy someday. That boy, mesmerized by that smile, will eventually ask her to be his wife. In his company, she’ll laugh until she cries. That game with a magical blanket will be played again, but with her draping it in front of her own children. Those delighted squeals will come to her ears and lighten her heart all over again. That man she married will lose his hair and get softer around his midsection. Her own hair will thin and her skin will loosen and wrinkle around her bones. Because of this, they will be able to say they grew old together.

Life. Time. Experience.

Take away.