How many times have you asked yourself that question; imagined that when faced with a fork in the road, you’d chosen the other path? Have you ever wondered what you’d be doing right now if only you’d made a different decision years ago? Have you ever thought about the domino effect one decision has in the whole of your life—and the lives of those you know?
Frankly, I have.
You see, I don’t know very many people who are quite as resistant to interpersonal relationships as yours truly. This is ironic because, actually, I love people. I really do. I just don’t trust them to not rip my heart into teeny tiny shreds. And because, when you get right down to it, I don’t trust them, I inevitably try to protect myself from the heartbreak I am sure is going to come at some point. I never just leap. Well, almost never anyways. I have leaped. I’ve also fallen. And I’ve always ended up alone. I’ve been alone for awhile now but, emotionally, I’ve been isolated almost my whole life. The cost of emotional protection, you see, is isolation.
That all leads to a bunch of “what if…” kind of rabbit hole questions. What if I’d done X? Or Z? What if I had believed that who I was was good enough? What if I’d seen myself as an equal? Would I have said, or done, things differently? I look back and think “how could I have been so stupid?” Retrospect brings experience and emotional growth, and makes choices that were so grey then look crystal clear.
What if? What if? A whole host of scenarios pop into my head. I’m a writer, a born writer, so I see visions of white picket fences and peach trees in the back yard. I see joy, happiness and loyalty. A dream. But the dream isn’t based in reality because, no matter what decision I could redo, I couldn’t change me. If I could build a time machine, I might know to speak up more and to voice the thoughts in my head, but I’d still be me. I’d still be the same, flawed Tiffini who curls her fingers into balls when she’s emotionally shaken so as to maintain semblance of control. I might change the way I reacted to something, but I’d still be same, inadequate, clumsy girl at the first sign of intimacy. I might change a decision or two but my girls would still always come before any other relationship, even if that makes me harder to like or love. See, the truth is, decisions don’t make a person who she is. I can imagine my life as differently as I want to, and maybe magic does exist, but, ultimately, all dreams end. Sometimes they end when you fall. Sometimes dreams end when we’re jerked from them by a loud noise. Sometimes they fade quietly into the oblivion; nonetheless, they all end. My “What if..” dream would have ended too.
The thing is, life is complicated. Some days, you wake up content with the reflection in the mirror while other days… not so much. The truth is… We are all flawed and all have traits that annoy or downright irritate others. The truth is, fairy tales exist for children, not adults. Most days, I wrap my so called strength around me like a shield that wards off the chill of loneliness and isolation. Occasionally, the cold seeps in through a crack in the walls and leads me down a rabbit hole with no answers. It’s on those days that I surround myself in sentimentally favorite books like “Almost Heaven” and “Whitney, My Love” and even my own “Me” and simply drown myself in make believe worlds in which the men believe in the women as much as the women believe in happily ever afters.
Then I run a steaming hot bath with honeysuckle bubbles and three or four Woodwick candles and I soak until my skin feels soft and the chill goes away. Then I remember how soft the grass was beneath my feet today (It’s Dec 18 and I wore flip flops today), and the dandelions growing across the street. I dress and go outside to stare at the stars; I can actually see them now. Slowly, I start to see the light at the end of the rabbit hole: the “what if” dream fades and leaves room only for the present and the gifts in it. There are many.
I can’t really answer that. Many couples have been happily married for forty, fifty, even sixty years. Maybe I wouldn’t have been a disappointment after all. I don’t know. What I do know is that I will one day look at today like I’m looking at yesteryear now. Am I going to make it a day, an hour, a second worth remembering or… Not?
We all have gifts like the sunrise and the wind on our faces and the music that makes us smile. Peace comes when we accept the gifts we do have and stop trying to make the present conform to the past. Worthiness is a topic that has always distressed me. I used to believe I wasn’t good enough for the good things in my life and lived in fear of my unworthiness being discovered which, in my mind, would lead to my being left.in truth, though, being alone has been exactly what has reminded me that my worthiness isn’t dependent upon anyone else: it’s something inherently mine that exists with or without anyone else. You see, all the things I most deeply fear–isolation, rejection, pain–these are the things in my life that have always led to the development of character, wisdom and strength. So to regret them would be to object to the traits in myself that I am most proud of: compassion, humility and faithfulness. Sometimes answering the what-ifs brings me great comfort because it allows me to bask in the love, acceptance and warmth I am sure would exist in my other life. Sometimes, it is all that makes me believe I’m not alone. It also helps me remember special times in my life during which I felt the most cared for and valued. Sometimes wondering in the rabbit hole for awhile is what I need the most.
But only for awhile.
Christmas is fast approaching and on that beautiful morning, my girls and I will spend time unwrapping gifts we give to show one another our love, and to remember the birth of Jesus. We all have other gifts than those beneath the tree. The present is a present too, one of our greatest ones. Cherishing it by filling our time with friends and family, with volunteering and baking, is ultimately what makes our lives the richest and most meaningful.
What if…we made room for the past to flourish alongside the present? What if we accepted change instead of fought it? What if we worked hard to believe the good things about ourselves that we are teaching our kids to believe about ourselves? We can’t go back and change anything that’s already done … but, if my own past has taught me anything, I’ve learned that we can learn from it and we can value the people who meant the most to us, make them a part of our present lives. What if the what ifs were used as a launching pad for us to find the things–or the people– that most mattered and make a way to include them in our lives? What if, instead of just reminiscing, remembering acted as the catalyst for choosing which parts of our past still need to be part of our present, even if in a different way?
Personally, I believe I was ultimately meant to be alone. It allows me to devote my entire focus on my girls and my writing. But I don’t believe I was meant to be without close friends—I don’t believe I was meant to never be fully understood. And, as long as others remember me, that’s the most important part of any “what if…” — the need to be remembered.
There’s a song I listen to a lot called “The Song Remembers When” by Trisha Yearwood. It suggests that there’s a soundtrack to our lives, that no matter how much time goes by, if we hear a certain song, we instantly go back to a time in our lives during which the song played. On a deeper level, it suggests that nothing — and no one — is ever really forgotten “for even if the whole world has forgotten, the song remembers when.” Sometimes I need the special songs to help me go back to those places and times I felt the most cherished and safe. I’ll carry the good with me and allow it to saturate the areas in which I need the extra boost of confidence and care. Armed with the memory of care and gentleness and cognizant of lessons learned, I’ll then fully embrace the present and treat each new hour as though it is my last. I’ll make sure the people I care about know I care about them. I’ll do my best to fulfill all my roles too but, most of all, I will stay on the lookout for a shooting star, or a flower growing in concrete, or the feel of my little girls’ hugs. There are sixty seconds in the next minute — my goal is to make all sixty seconds of every minute count so that five years from now, or ten, I have very few “what if” questions but a whole lot of “remember when…”s