Her name was Judy — no point in making up a protect-her-privacy name for her at this point.
She was a year behind me in high school — a junior when I was a senior — so our paths did not cross that often. But a few subjects were taught without regard to class distinction, so we had the same speech class.
It’s not enough to say she was pretty. To a 17-year-old boy, a lot of girls are pretty. There was also a strong attraction, and not just physical, that sent me even further into babbling incoherence than usual, which is saying something.
I made up excuses to say something to her. May I borrow your pencil? Have an extra stick of gum? Can I see your algebra book for a second?
Then one Saturday afternoon walking home from my shift at McDonald’s, I ran into her near downtown. We exchanged a few pleasantries the specifics of which are now buried deep in my subconscious, and then she said, as sort of a parting shot, “You know, you never talk to me unless you want something.”
And. I. Said. Nothing.
It occurred to me years later — and periodically it haunts me to this day — that I had been a dimwitted knucklehead, the moronic king of missed opportunities. She was reaching out to me, giving me an opening, and I was oblivious to the potential of the moment.
What if I had seized the moment? What if I hadn’t let what could be dissolve into what might have been?
I looked her up recently, something that can be done easily in the Google age without all the bother of going to class reunions or hunting down and calling the friend of a friend of a friend.
She got married, I discovered, and moved to Michigan. She had one daughter and one granddaughter. They survived her, as did her husband and a slew of other relatives. That’s what the obit said — she died back in 2013.
My first reaction was not sadness that someone I once knew was gone, or even the dread of creeping mortality brought on by the death of someone seven years ago a year younger than me. Those came later.
No, my first thought was a sort of peevish irritation that Judy had gone on to have a full life with a husband and offspring to carry on. She wasn’t supposed to do that. She was supposed to pine for me and mourn the dull ache of my absence, turn into something like a spinster librarian the way Donna Reed did in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
People have a disappointing way of doing that, just going on about their business as if it’s all about them. They refuse to stay put in the little compartments inside our heads where our perfect pasts are safe from the gracelessness of the plodding present.
Funny thing about freedom. It means something only if we use it, but to exercise it is to lose a little bit of it, because every time we make a choice, we eliminate all the other choices we could have made.
Economists call it the “opportunity cost,” the hidden price we pay in every transaction. Money we spend on one thing is money that can’t be spent on other things. Politicians who brief us on the balance sheet of taxes due and projects funded always leave that part out.
Those opportunity costs are everywhere in our lives. Every choice we make — or fail to make — takes us down a path that excludes all other paths.
Sometimes, we are inclined to ponder the opportunities we might have missed. What if I had joined the Air Force as originally planned instead of the Army? What if I had taken that city editor job in Kentucky instead of turning it down? What if I had said to Judy, OK, what I want from you is a date?
But we can’t dwell on them to the point where we fail to appreciate what we have and instead brood over what we might have lost. Otherwise we risk becoming like the fool in Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” who is so paralyzed by the pitfalls of choice that he makes not choosing a prolonged exercise of exquisite agony.
We are on the brink of what is tritely called “the holiday season” of offering gratitude for what we have and the people we share it with. That has always been an easy platitude to express but a hard commitment to live up to. It won’t be any easier in a year in which we are told to fear not just family gatherings but even leaving the house. Celebrate if you must, but make visiting Uncle Fred and Aunt Evelyn stay on the porch.
But we need the celebration more than ever. If everything else in the world seems on shaky ground and we don’t cling to each other and cherish what we have, what’s the point?
So, I will be thankful not just for my loved ones and how they bless my existence but also for the choices we all made that put us together in the same space and time. The roads we didn’t take no longer matter.
And I wish for Judy’s loved ones that they embrace the choices they all made to put them in the same orbit and that they dwell not on their loss of her but on what she gave them while she was there.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.