I sobbed the last time I walked out the door of 1629 Whitener Street, the house where I’d grown up; I was closing a door on this huge part of my life. My life is not that house or any other house, but where we live makes such an impact on every other part of our lives, it’s hard to know where to draw that proverbial line. I sometimes dream about moving out of 2811 Spyglass Lane, and I’m never happy about it, but is this house me? Is my life in this house? Some parts of it — some very happy parts of it — have happened here. Would they have, could they have happened in a different house?
What’s funny is how much one decision can affect the entire rest of a person’s life, how much the place in which we choose to live our lives affects so many other things about our lives.
Thirty-three years ago I made the decision to accept a job teaching at Dulles High School in Sugar Land, Texas instead of accepting a teaching assistantship at University of Missouri. I wanted to try life far away from Cape Girardeau, Missouri in a place I’d never known. At Dulles High School I met Betty Baitland. Betty fixed me up on a blind date with Dennis Griggs. We married. Dennis was friends with people who lived in Quail Valley and Dulles High School was Quail Valley’s zoned school, so we bought our home here. Our neighbors have been a second family to us. They are among the dearest people in our lives. David Daniels officiated at our daughter and son-in-law’s wedding.
Our children grew up together. Kim Daniels cried with me at Sarah’s senior dance recital when she danced with her dad. Bebe and Barney McDougal stood in as surrogate grandparents at Sarah’s wedding. We’ve been included at countless McDougal family holiday meals. We’re close to Bebe’s sister and brother-in-law and have been invited to their beautiful Hill Country home on a number of occasions. Now we hope to retire to The Hill Country someday. How different our lives would be had we bought in another neighborhood. The people who are our neighbors have, unquestionably, had a profound impact on our lives.
In 11/22/63 Stephen King wrote “The past is obdurate.” The main character goes back in time to try to stop the Kennedy assassination. I wonder, is the future obdurate as well? Were we destined to know the Daniels and McDougal families? Was I destined to meet Dennis? Is destiny even real? We use the phrase, “It was destiny” flippantly, but is there even such a thing? Or, as I’m more likely to conclude, is life a haphazard set of circumstances, a puzzle made up of accidental pieces? Was anything ever “meant” to happen, or do things just happen?
My sister, Melinda, when diagnosed with a brain tumor about ten years ago, first asked, “Why me?” Later she confessed, she had asked — or rather realized, “Why not me?” Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. There’s a great randomness in life. I didn’t choose to be born into a white, middle class, educated family anymore than those starving children in the Unicef ads chose to be born in their circumstances. Is it divine will?
Is there a divine will? We like to think there is. It is a safety net, a last recourse when there’s nothing left within our power to remedy a bad situation. In my egocentricity, I tend to think that divine will is really the power we have within ourselves to manage adversity. I have seen kids born into horrific situations who have thrived — a student named Brittney whose mother, a drug addict, abandoned her and her younger brother and sister, leaving her to raise them and her own infant son. Brittney is now married to a good man with a good job and together they have a daughter. She has earned her associates degree in business and a cosmetology license. She posts beautiful family pictures on Facebook. She is being the mother she never had, providing the stable home life for her children that she never knew. It was her determination that saved her. But why did Brittney have that determination, while other kids didn’t? I have seen kids in seemingly optimal situations flounder. What quality is it, what magic ingredient, that makes some people thrive in circumstances which appear insurmountable?
So, my conclusion is, at least in part, that life is like a line of dominoes. We make a decision — to accept a job, go on a blind date, buy a house — and that decision affects all other aspects of our lives down the road. But how we react when those dominoes fall, well, I think that’s up to us. My deepest hope is that my own two precious children, now all grown up, will have whatever magic ingredient it takes to overcome the adversities that befall them. Because the only sure thing in life, is that there will be adversities. What kind? How many? No one knows, but the atoms will bounce against each other, and the results, well, that we do have some control over.