Last Sunday I turned Sixty Minutes on in time to watch the tail end of an interview with a woman whose tour group had been kidnapped in Yemen. One thing she said was that she realized that if she and another woman had switched positions, it would have been she who had been shot. She had cheated death by standing a few feet to the side.
My sister had a moment years ago when she was attending an event at a hotel, standing on a walkway overlooking the ballroom, when across from her the identical walkway collapsed killing over a hundred people. That day simply choosing where to stand determined whether you lived or died.
I have never made one of those life or death decisions, unless you count those driving moments when you slam on the brakes or veer out of the way of disaster. But I have been thinking lately about all the decisions made by those that came before me that have made my very existence possible. One might say divine intervention, but still you have to balance that with the individual free will decisions by all who came before us.
Being an American, and not a Native one, all of my ancestors had to make the choice to leave the home they knew and come here to try for something better. I think of the countries they came from and the absolute unlikeliness that their descendants would have met their spouses had they remained in their native lands. I have realized that if any of a string of ancestors had listened to their disapproving parents, my particular sequence of genes could not exist.
I think of the peaceful, fruitful, secure life that I am fortunate to have and the multiple trials and tragedies that influenced every one of my ancestors’ life decisions that led to the mere possibility that my siblings and I could be born. The early widowhood that aborted emigration the first time, but prompted it again several years later. The huge families of children in the 19th century, that ensured descendants, but the loss of a husband to war could make remarriage a financial and practical necessity, more business arrangement than love match. The escapes from persecution and lack of financial opportunities. Then there were the choices of where to settle once they were here. Just as many immigrants do now, they often chose to join family members who had chosen to come before them.
I have realized that my existence is a chance event inextricably tied to world events, which resulted in my mother meeting my father, seven years her senior, in college. If Hitler hadn’t run rampant through Europe and the Japanese hadn’t attacked Pearl Harbor two years before, my father might not have been drafted, might not have been injured overseas, might not have been at the university in time to meet my mother. If their two friends hadn’t determined to bring them each along on their own scheduled date, would they have somehow met on campus?
Worse yet, if any these events had changed as a flip of a coin, without my existence, my children could not be present in the world.
I have realized life can turn on a dime, without our even knowing it.