Thursday, February 20, 2014

The End of the Road Not Taken?

When I was a teenager, there was a road not taken.

I grew up in a rural area with not a lot of neighbors, but there were two brothers who helped their father farm the cabbage fields that covered much of the land around our home. At one time, their dad had even leased my grandpa's farm and they had worked much closer. The brothers were a bit older than me, so I never really knew them in school growing up, but knew them and their family by name.

The summer after I graduated from high school, however, we had a constant supply of cabbage.

The older of the two would regularly stop to visit briefly with the offer of fresh cabbage as a pretext, so we ate a lot of coleslaw and fried cabbage that summer. It became a regular source of amusement with my family, because the young man in question never said anything beyond the quick exchange, despite the frequent visits.

I remember his car, and waving at him when we cruised around town, and one night I actually stopped and talked to him in the Hardee's parking lot. But it never went beyond that. He never worked up the nerve to ask me out, and I was too backward to initiate a next step.

Later that summer I met the children's father and followed a different road, away from farms and cabbage, cattle and close family ties. I married someone else and so did he, but we always maintained that friendly connection when we bumped into one another on family outings, like at a local seafood restaurant on Sunday afternoons. He did farm work for my grandpa so Pa didn't have to own all the equipment for putting up round bales of hay.

When things were tough, when my marriage ended and the children's father turned out to be the worst sort of deadbeat dad; when I made other bad choices and found my life in places I never wanted it to go, I often wished that things had been different and that one of us had the nerve to say "Why don't we go out?"

The person I finally grew into would have done it, but the 17-year-old social misfit I was that summer never imagined it.

While I had no idea if that relationship might have developed, I often thought that the life he gave his wife, a brick house not far from my parents and his, and a life built on farming, family and church, was what I would have wanted had I had better sense at 17. I never really coveted that life, just always imagined it would have been a better fit for what I once wished for.

So Monday's news from my mom left me shaken.

Sunday afternoon, the farm boy I grew up near apparently got into an altercation with his wife at the gymnasium where one of their kids played in a Christian sports league. He shot and killed her, pushed her body out of her vehicle, then drove to a barn where he had cattle and killed himself.

With my own real grief so fresh, my heart was broken for his family, for her family, for their children. Although we were never more than casual friends and neighbors, and I never met the orphaned children, I've cried for them and prayed for them off and on all week.

With my reflections the day before on what I might have done differently, I was also shaken because a total change in my life could have also been a change in theirs. If I'd had a do over, and opted for a totally different path, would it have been the better life I imagined? Was what happened between the two of them what would have happened between him and his wife, whoever she might have been? Did he have buttons that were pushed too often, or was there a totally different man beneath the surface of the person I knew?

Because I'd already spent the morning thinking about paths not taken, and because my own grief has left me raw, I know the news hit me harder than it would have six months ago.

Sometimes I know it is the accumulation of things, rather than the events themselves. Just as, years ago, a former coworker's suicide on the morning after I talked to her by phone, following so close on the heels of her husband's accidental death and my ex-husband's suicide, hit me harder than our fading friendship would have made me anticipate, a tragedy in my home community left me reeling.

It also reminded me that the paths we sometimes imagine walking may not be any smoother than the one we've chosen to follow. The grass, it seems, is seldom greener.

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