The third phase of life is part new discovery without the demands of full-time parenting and full-time work but also part review. If can be a major word in sentences about the past. If I had been braver... If I had been smarter... But the ifs can also be filled with a sense of wonder at the happenstance and luck of life. Here's an example: I almost died once – well, once that I know of, for sure. I’m talking about one moment when an accidental decision spared me and the if still leaves me with a shiver of relief.
We were in India. On the sacred Ganges River. In the city of Varanasi. A city so ancient feeling that, despite the fact it has been rebuilt again and again, Mark Twain once called it, “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend.” We had wandered through the narrow alleys of the old city, trying to find our way to the river for hours even though countless people gesticulated in its direction and said it was just down there. Finally, we stood with the river below us and the ghats, the steps for the holy and the hopeful, spreading out in each direction. Before we could even take in our success at reaching the river or appreciate the legend before us we were surrounded by touts who buzzed around us wanting to guide us, wanting to sell us something, wanting money. We knew we had to keep moving but which way? We both agreed to turn left for no apparent reason and, before we had gone fifty metres, I felt an intense heat on my back through my Indian shawl, felt my lower back pushed forward. Then and only then, like a physics lesson made virtual, I heard the sound of an explosion. If we had gone the other way, we would have walked right into the blast and become one of the mangled or the dead carried out by bicycle rickshaws, the only vehicles that could make it to ghats and through the alleys.
If we had gone the other way, we might have been in pieces. In grammar: the third conditional, meaning we didn’t and we weren’t. Unreal conditional. It didn’t happen.
I thought a lot about conditionals over the past summer and fall as I reviewed my life so far while downsizing one house, settling into another, as I witnessed so much of the world in war and chaos, as I tried to explain the peculiarities of grammar to advanced English learners over the summer at a college near Toronto. If, I told my students, is such word of longing, of possibility in the English language. Sentences that start with “if” express not only real conditions but wishes and regrets. To let them feel the emotion of the third conditional, I showed them a scene from the movie, Benjamin Button, a scene a clever English teacher posted on YouTube for just that purpose. In the scene, Benjamin describes all the actions of strangers that led to the moment his girlfriend, Daisy, the dancer, is struck by a car and her leg is crushed. If only one thing had happened differently she would have been spared. His voice trembles with sorrow as he recounts the moments before her accident. If only. If only. If only.
It’s what too many people were saying this summer and fall. Families in Gaza, grandmothers in Israel. If we had made peace my children and grandchildren would be alive. Children in refugee camps outside of Syria. If only this war would end, then I would be celebrating my birthday at home. Families watching their loved ones die in Sierra Leone. If only the world cared.
This past summer was one when the conditional fragility of life was evident everywhere. But the personal stories from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was shot down over the Ukraine, struck me hardest. And the story of one Miguel Panduwinata tore at my heart. Miguel was a 11-year-old boy, the Associated Press News Agency reported, a boy who usually travelled happily from the Netherlands to Bali where he visited his grandmother and relished jetskiing and surfing. But this time it was different. The day before Miguel had questions about death and what would happen to his soul when he died. That night he refused to let go of his mother and, before boarding the plane the next day asked her, “what will happen if the airplane crashes?” A real conditional that came true. After the news of MH17’s savage end, his mother lashed herself for not paying attention to her son’s premonitions. I should have listened. I should have listened. And I imagine that for the rest of her life she will say to herself: If only I had listened, Miguel would still be alive. He would still be in one piece.
My own regrets, my own what-ifs,pale in comparison. As I threw out old photos and furnishings before moving, I was nonetheless filled with conditionals. If I had stayed in that job, what would have happened? If I had been a better person, would my first marriage have lasted? If we had waited would we have sold our house at a better price? If I could have done things differently, what would they have been?
What surprised me is that as the conditionals piled up fewer and fewer of them seemed connected to regret. Rather, they seemed more and more to be filled with a light happiness and with gratitude. If my marriage had not ended, I would not have met the wonderful man I share my life with. If I had not married my first husband, I would not have my beautiful daughter. If I had not quit my job, I would have missed out on new adventures.
As I hurriedly packed memories away in boxes in the summer, I took down the post card of the ghats of Varanasi that had hung by our side door for nearly a decade. It had constantly reminded me as I left the house each morning that I have been a lucky person. Perhaps it was just the exhaustion of emptying a house and the emotion of moving on but I came to a new appreciation of the conditional then. Gratitude. Unconditional gratitude. D.