Forever – is composed of Nows –
‘Tis not a different time –
Except for Infiniteness –
And Latitude of Home –
So, onward to the choices we make, the major ones, involving clear alternatives, metaphorical “forks in the road.” More precisely, however much I’ve been procrastinating, the choices that I’ve made. Anybody who’s lived as long as I have must have made a whole lot of crucial, life-changing choices, right?
Right, but…as I look back, trying to remember, it’s hard to find times when there really seemed to be a choice. In petty, everyday ways, noodling around on Facebook, etc. instead of doing anything constructive like writing, sure. I make bad choices like that many times a day. But at the the times in the past when a different choice might have made for a better outcome, it wasn’t clear, and often didn’t even seem possible. I came to dread choices when it came to dealing with the difficulties of my younger son (who has since, many years later, been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and a few extras) because I was being pressured on many sides but no options seemed right or even possible.
Those Nows are Thens, though, all components of Forever, but no longer requiring decisions in the same way. What’s done, or not done, is, well, done. Lately, when I’ve been spending time in places that have long been familiar—the home where I grew up, the college I went to, the place I love to retreat to in the mountains of NH, the house I’ve lived in now for almost forty years—I’ve been imagining that I see ghosts of myself at different ages, and remembering how life felt when the future seemed more extensive than the past. I envy those ghosts, just a bit, but I don’t second-guess their choices, and don’t think of times when I wish they’d done things differently, except on the few occasions when I might have been kinder or more helpful. There’s always the regret that I didn’t get started writing much sooner than I did, but that doesn’t feel as much like a wrong choice as just the way things worked out.
When it comes to forks in the road, I’d rather think about roads taken than those unexplored. I’ve just come back from a short trip to Cape Cod, where I’m always reminded that my parents got engaged on Nauset Beach, at the beginning of WWII. They knew that my father would soon be drafted into military service, and knew that it might be wiser to wait until after the war, but the British movie Mrs. Miniver tipped the scales and persuaded them (and many other couples, I’m sure) to go for all the joy they could, while they could. Without that choice, I would not exist. I’ve always been grateful to Mrs. Miniver and Nauset Beach.
I don’t like to speculate on what would have happened if my parents had made a different choice, but I do feel a certain fascination with choices made under the pressure of dramatic events like WWII. Which leads, wouldn’t you know, to excerpts from a story, or rather a couple of stories, that I’ve mentioned here before all too often. That’s the way it goes with fascination. In the first story an American army nurse stationed in England and an American pilot ferrying war planes for the RAF have a brief, intense fling, and then have to part, the nurse being transferred to the Pacific and the pilot returning to the US to fly with the women’s air corps there who have been promised official military status soon (a promise that isn’t kept.) The pilot can’t afford the scandal of a lesbian relationship, but she wavers in her intention.
I thought, when I could think anything again, that she had fallen asleep, she was so still. Gently, gently I touched my lips to the nearly-healed tattoo above her breast. Tiny wings matching mine. Something to remember her by.
Without opening her eyes she said, in a lost, small voice, "What are we going to do, Kay?"
I knew what she was going to do. "You're going to claim the sky, to make history. And anyway," I said, falling back on dark humor since I had no comfort to offer, "a cozy menage in Paris seems out of the question with the Nazis in control."
Then, because I knew if I touched her again we would both cry, and hate ourselves for it, I stood, put my clothes in as much order as I could, and walked away.
Thirty-five years later they meet again, in Alaska. Kay has married a soldier whose life she saved in the Pacific war, raised a family, become a physical therapist, and recently discovered how to contact Cleo, the pilot. Cleo has made a career in flying and has a partner, Yelena, who had flown bombers in Russia during the war, one of what the Germans called “Night Witches.” Later, after her husband and child had died as the result of a Siberian earthquake that Stalin refused to acknowledge with medical help, she defected to the US, crashed on an Alaskan ice shelf, and was rescued by Cleo. Yelena is wise, and big-hearted, and welcoming, and understands that she and Kay are, in a sense, living each other’s alternate lives. Near the end, she urges them to spend some time alone together.
At last we lay peacefully, cocooned in blankets, Cleo's head on my breast, my mind drifting. Surely we had been like this always, through the lingering violet twilight of summer, and the long, white nights of winter.
"Kay," she said suddenly, "I did try to find you. But it was too late."
"Yes," I said, stroking her vibrant silver hair. "And if it hadn't been too late..." What of Jack, I thought, and my children? But all I said was, "Yelena would have been alone on the ice."
"Yes," Cleo said. We clung together a little longer, in perfect understanding of how much, after all, we had.
Now, when I think in terms of “what-would-have-happened-if,” I think of it as a “Yelena on the ice” situation—which is also, incidentally, a story I intend to write one of these days. Or years.
Enough of speculation on forks in the road. Today, and often lately, I’ve been concentrating on the Nows of these lovely autumn days. I’ve stood in the yellow (and orange and scarlet and green) woods of Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken and not worried about which of two diverging paths to take, but just absorbed the beauty, the glory, the infinite gift of being there, in the moment, in the Now.