03MargI recently read Nashville writer Ann Patchett’s latest novel, “Commonwealth,” an elegantly rendered tale of two Greatest Generation couples whose marriages explode in midcentury suburban California. 

The story chronicles the fallout that rains down upon the six baby boomer children shared by the four parents. It was a confusing read at the beginning with so many characters to sort out, but by the final page I knew them well and fondly, and I hated to see them go.

At the very end of “Commonwealth,” one of the daughters, by then in her 50s, speculates about their lives. What if the parents had not divorced? What if the newly recoupled pair had not moved to Virginia? What if one of the Baby Boomers had not died as a teenager in front of the other five Boomers? 

What if she had figured out what to do with her life instead of hiding out in Europe? What if…? What if..? What if…?

I suspect we all have our own “what ifs.” 

What if we had not married the person we did? 

Maybe we would have had children, but they would not have been the same children. The ones we had in reality would not have existed. 

What if we never married?

So many in our community have come from other places. But what if we never left our home community and lived out our days in the same place we were born? 

What if we never saw much of our own nation, much less any others? Conversely, what if we traveled the world but never really found a spot to
call home?

What if we had gone to a different college, a small one instead of a large university or vice versa? What if we attended one in a different part of the country or abroad? How would those early experiences have changed the way we lived our adult lives or would they have changed that at all?

What if we had not gone to college? Would our lives have been appreciably better or worse or about the same?

We all have successes and failures, joys and sadness — even traumas, in our lives. How did they affect us? Did we welcome the good times with humility and grace, and did we weather the bad times or did they flatten us? What made us the way we are today, for better or for worse?

We have all allowed family and friends to fall from our lives for one reason or another, sometimes simply time and distance. What if we renewed those ties that once meant something to us? Is that desirable or even possible after we have gone our separate ways for so long?

Each of us has our own “what ifs,” and ours may not be the same at all. We all control parts of our lives with our decisions, and parts of our lives are determined by events that happen around and to us. 

I had always planned to work in a big city, either New York or Washington D.C., early in my career, but the illness and subsequent death of my mother brought me back to Fayetteville when I was 25. It was the right thing for me to do, but that particular “what if” has always haunted me.

Truth be told, every decision we make to embrace one part of life and let go of another is both the opening and closing of different doors. Some of those can be reversed, but some cannot. 

Our lives are rarely the result of one single decision — or in some cases no decision at all — but almost always the accumulation of thousands of small choices and some large ones coupled with forces and events beyond our control.

I have told the Precious Jewels that no decision is a decision. If you do not take action one way or another, the decision becomes just to coast along. I have told them that decision-making does close some doors, but it opens others, and it is the only way to move forward in life.

And, I have quoted Eleanor Roosevelt and told them that fear cannot stop you from living. “You must do the thing you think you cannot do,” she counseled, and she was right.

I doubt I will ever live, much less work, in New York or Washington D.C. But, thankfully, I can and do visit both. And, like Ann Patchett’s collection of fictional baby boomer adults, I still wonder — “What if?”

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