Do you imagine what might have been? What could have been? What maybe should have been?
What will be?
The question is rhetorical, of course. Everyone plays this game at some point in his or her life; sometimes with regret and sometimes with curiosity.
That's why, when a friend asked me this question on the phone last week, I knew he wasn't looking for a "yes" or "no" answer. He wanted me to give examples and he wanted to offer a few of his own.
"What if I hadn't gone to that party?" he asked. "What if I hadn't thought twice and come back to take you to Denney's?"
I knew exactly what he was talking about, because the same questions have crossed my mind dozens of times over the past three years. The young man was my college boyfriend, and we met at a party one night at the beginning of my sophomore year in school. Though we had several mutual friends and later realized we had probably crossed paths many times in the previous year, we hadn't met until he decided much against his usual nature to attend the party. In the instant we said "hi," we both knew something would happen between us. He left, though, and only came back after talking himself into taking a chance at a new relationship.
If it sounds like a love story, think again.
Though he and I remain friends and talk regularly, the relationship did not end especially positively and more often than not the "what ifs" are prompted by less-than-happy mo-ments.
Still, every time I ask myself what would have happened had we not met, I thank God that we did.
The truth is, I don't play the "What if ..." game very often, because I just can't answer the questions.
As the 12th anniversary of my father's death passed last week, I had little choice but to once again wonder what my life would be like if he were still alive.
I really have no way of knowing, but I have a few guesses.
For one thing, my family likely wouldn't have changed churches, moving from his Catholic faith to the Lutheran congregation in which my mother grew up. My mother wouldn't have remarried, and I never would have had the stepfather or stepbrothers who have become such big parts of my life.
I wouldn't have attended a Lutheran university and wouldn't have met the man who challenged me to this game and who, incidentally, first introduced me to the Kenai Peninsula (a place I fell in love with and decided to move to long after the inevitable break-up).
That means I probably wouldn't be here writing this column.
Just where and who I would be is beyond the scope of my imagination.
Let me be clear: I am not glad my dad is gone. I miss him more than any of the things or people who have slipped through my fingers. And I'm sure my life would have been full of many other good things if all those "what ifs" had come true.
But as I look at my life, I can't regret anything either. If I had the opportunity to change the church I grew up in, the school I attended, even the unsuccessful relationships I have had, I don't think I would do a single thing differently.
Just what does that mean? Does it mean I've made a lot of good decisions? That my life has been serendipitous? That I've been guided by a hand beyond my vision?
Does it mean that, like my question-filled friend suggested, life is like a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book, where eight out of 10 possible paths end on a positive note and the two bad endings come from obviously poor choices?
Does it mean things are destined to continue going right and that any decision I make will ultimately turn out for the best?
I'm not sure. And that question sometimes haunts me, because for the first time in my life, I have no idea where I'm going.
For as long as I can remember, I have been headed toward a very clear goal. I got good grades in elementary school so I could get into advanced classes in junior high so I could get on the college-prep track in high school and earn scholarships to go to any college of my choosing. I worked my way up through the ranks of my high school paper, then my college paper to have solid experience for a quality internship that would lead to any job of my choosing. Most recently, I found a way to get that job of my choosing in Alaska.
I did it all, and now I don't know what I want next. I don't know how to play the "What if ..." game of the future, because I can't picture where I'm going from here. I don't know how long I'm supposed to stay here or where I'm supposed to go if I leave.
But it's also incredibly freeing. For the first time in my life, I can do anything I want to do without worrying about getting off the track. I can be open to a wider range of possibilities and jump at any chance I want.
I can live for today alone and stop worrying about the past or the future.
I can stop playing the "What if ..." game for a while and start enjoying "What is" instead.
Jenni Dillon is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.
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