We Did Nothing Wrong
It’s a question that haunts me… What if?
I consciously don’t allow myself to start playing this question out in my mind. Nothing good can come from doing it. There’s no possible way to change the past, no matter how many times and ways I run the scenarios. That’s not to say that I don’t catch myself doing this. It happens everyday. Hell, it happens often. When it does, I immediately cut this train of thought off.
I remind myself that I am not to blame.
Ryan is not to blame.
We did nothing wrong.
Where Would it End
It’s easy to know the exact day, right down to the very minute, when the “what if?” game begins. It’s the night of November 7, 2009. This is when Ryan wanted to go to the convenience store behind his college house to grab one of his late-night snacks. Something he did many nights before.
How could he have known that he would never make it? To be left for dead on the cold gravel parking lot as his brutal attackers hid behind a dumpster watching him bleed and seize… well, until they heard the police sirens. Then they ran, as cowards always do. Their only concern was being caught and not if my son would draw another breath. How could have I ever prepared him for such random violence? But, in fact, I did. He handled it perfectly. What he couldn’t handle was a blind side, sucker-punch and a kick to his head while out cold.
I don’t think Ryan, or me, or anyone else, would feel threatened by strolling with two others alongside campus… in a well-lit area bustling with people. I know, even if I had been there that night, I wouldn’t have given him any reason for caution in doing this. What would I have said to him before he walked out the door? Maybe something like, “Hey, grab me one of those snacks as well “, but I just can’t imagine I would have had the least bit of concern for his safety.
But I wasn’t there. I didn’t have the option of going with him. Still, why do I feel I let him down?
Where it would end — in the senseless game of “what if” — becomes vastly more difficult to decide.
Ideally, it would be that very same night. For the most part, I loved my life up to that time. I must remind myself that there was no way I could have known a group of carousing thugs would target my son (and his housemate).
I wish I could honestly deny that I sometimes prefer that I’d never been born. So, perhaps, this is where I frame it? Perhaps. Or, maybe the night I was conceived would be more suitable? What if my parents had never met back in the late 1950s?
What if I or Sue had not met in college? We both had plenty of options of where to go. In fact, it was a her last-minute decision to switch from another school that she had already committed. What about that sun-drenched afternoon we meet in late-August 1983? Anything could have changed this!
Why did I decide to take the long way back to my college apartment; a path that passed in front of her dorm room window? Why did I decide, along with my group of friends, to wear idiotic hats that grabbed her attention enough to make her comment? What if I had stopped to pee for even just a minute? We never would have met.
Would each of us be happier now?
I sometimes wonder if, given the choice, what my decision would be if I could go back in time. Would I chose for us to meet? Would she opt to let me walk on by?
We created two people that we love more than our own lives. I know Sue will agree, we love them more than we love each other. But I tell you this, both of us would give up our lives together if it meant our children’s happiness. If I knew that she would have had Ryan and Kari with another man and it would have changed the course of Ryan’s life, I would have stepped aside. Like any other parent, I suppose, we would sacrifice our happiness (and life) — every ounce of it — for our children.
You see, so many decisions… and random occurrences… a seemingly inconsequential chains of events… could have changed everything. For me, the simple one is that Austin Vantrease and Jonathan May were never conceived. Just forego that instance… that one-in-a-billion chance… that a diseased sperm fertilized a corrupt egg.
Who Would You Save?
It was in 1998. Sue and I were on a “Mini Vacation” with the children in Panama City, Florida. It was over the Easter weekend. The beach was void of people this time of year. It was just how we wanted it. We rented a hotel room that was literally on the beach. Really. It was just a matter of opening the hotel room door to step onto the sand.
We made many major life-decisions that weekend. One was to move back to Northern Virginia from Georgia. It meant that we would both quit our jobs in careers that were flourishing. I remember me asking her, “What are we chasing here anyhow”. We made this decision in the best interests of our children.
The hotel room door was open as Sue and I sat just outside it. We were watching the waves rise, then break against the beach. I looked over my shoulder and took a mental snapshot of my children, just seven and five years old, sleeping on the bed. I knew we made the right decision. Sue must have noticed me doing this and gave a smile that was her way of expressing confirmation.
We never looked back. Well, until November 7, 2009. What if we had stayed in Georgia?
The conversation turned from planning our next moves to a deeper plane. I can’t recall which asked the question first, and I suppose it really doesn’t matter. It was “If I and one of the kids were drowning, and you could only save one, who would it be?” Is there really a “right” answer to this question, I wondered? Would the truth hurt? How could I tell her it wouldn’t be her? How angry would I be if she told me it would be me?
That question hung in the air for some time. I remember thinking it felt like fog sitting on the ocean. Turns out, we both had the same answer, but feared it would hurt each other to hear it.
You know what. The truth didn’t hurt one iota. We both resolved it EXACTLY the same! You know what we said to each other?
It was two things, actually. First, we acknowledged that we love our children more than anything else. It was the kind way, without either outright vocalizing, of saying it would be our child that would live. Yes, we love them to that extent, but we are obligated to them as well. I suppose this might upset some partners in a marriage, but I can tell you that this is both what we wanted to hear.
But, with all that aside, it is what we said next that meant the most to us. It was something that strengthened the marriage. It stopped any further conversation on the topic. What we said was simple…
“Because I know this is what you would want”.