I met up with my cousin yesterday. She’s also my godchild. Sixteen years separate us. She’s a twin. On most week days, during the summer she was born, I used to cycle a dozen or so kilometers to the duplex her parents rented, to take care of her not-quite-three-year-old brother, and help out any way I could while her young mum (my aunt) cared for her newborn daughters and tried to finish writing her master’s thesis.
That’s to say that I love my cousin immensely and that our connection has deep roots. The fact that she’s a twin, and that I eventually also had twins, has only strengthened our bond. But our lives are full and we see each other too rarely.
Yesterday, we sat with our coffees and tried to catch up with each other’s lives. When there’s so much to say and so little time to say it, conversation does a strange thing: it cuts to the chase.
And so we found ourselves discussing insights that come only with time and distance.
If you were to represent our lives on a timeline, you might expect to see two parallel lines on which the usual signposts of life—youth—studies—romance and coupling—establishing a career—children—mirror each other’s, with hers lagging behind mine at a consistent interval.
But it isn’t really so.
In part, that’s because I got off to a very early start in some things, and she in others. We made different choices and we live with them.
What an easy and fruitless explanation.
I’ve been thinking a lot about our conversation. I’ve had these thoughts about the road less traveled and the road not taken—complementary expressions (and titles)—one inspired by the other, that are intended, in part, as meditations on the meaning and responsibility of choice.
This morning, I looked up Robert Frost’s poem to refresh my memory (I’ve included it at the end of this post). I followed him from the fork in the road that brought him to a place where one path wouldn’t allow him to see too far ahead: to “where it bent in the undergrowth”.
I followed him as he looked from that path to the other, the one “having perhaps the better claim, because it was grassy and wanted wear” and chose that one, the one less traveled by, which “has made all the difference.”
It’s made me realize that you can read it over and over and understand it differently each time, according to where you’re standing on that day.
What strikes me most readily is the traveler’s avoidance of the road that doesn’t allow him to see too far ahead. I’m struck by his delusion that the other is really any different. Because even a straight line to the horizon offers only a partial glimpse of the road ahead.
We place enormous stock in the choices we make in life, and we should.
My cousin and I talked a long while about those. Such conversations inevitably lead to “what might have been”, the weight of which increases as we grow older.
Looking at her beautiful face that is just beginning to show the slightest evidence of her age, and her smile which is as luminous as it was when she was still a preschooler, you would never know what she carries with her. The pain. Held inside her from childhood and still poking gashes into her like a shard of glass. How it changed the way she walks in the world. How it has diverted her from who she might have been.
For some of us, those injuries come early on in our lives and for others, only much later. Sometimes they’re so savage and unrelenting that they break something inside us. Sometimes, they drip, drip, drip, drip until they’ve created a hole that we’ll never be able to fill or close.
But all of us are wounded at some point in our lives. All of us sustain blows that we rise from. All of us struggle to integrate suffering.
How different would my cousin’s choices have been had she carried a lighter burden?
That’s a question I ask about my own life as well.
It’s enormously important and also futile.
It matters: not because it’s answerable—it isn’t—but because it leads to self-knowledge and to a self-awareness that generates the truest compassion.
It has also led me to a deeper understanding of all that flows from WHAT WE CANNOT CHOOSE.
* * * *
On Monday August 22nd, I went for an afternoon walk with my youngest son, Christian. It was his 25th birthday, but we’d done most of the celebrating that weekend.
It was a cool and breezy day and that’s probably what convinced us to head towards the Library and then see where we wound up next.
Across the street from the Library is a cemetery that belongs to Saint-Joachim parish, which is three centuries old and situated a few kilometers away, on the lakeshore, the dead having long ago exceeded the space made for them near the parish church.
My father’s buried there, as are loved ones from generations preceding my parents, but I hadn’t visited it for years.
I’m not sure why that is, because I love cemeteries. When I went to London to visit Christian last year at almost the same date, one of the first places he took me was Brompton Cemetery for a long and lovely walk.
Most European cemeteries are old enough to have been partially reclaimed by nature: the trees have grown tall and many headstones—monuments really—have long since begun leaning back toward the earth.
That’s not the case at the Pointe-Claire cemetery. When my dad was buried there in 1989, only ground plaques were allowed. It bothered me and it bothered my mum that people could so easily walk over the stone upon which my dad’s name was engraved.
About 10 years ago, they changed the rule, and so my mum decided to have a new monument made for my dad’s grave, and asked me if I’d go with her to choose it. While we were there, she told me that she also wanted to have the name of my stillborn son—Gabriel—inscribed on the stone. The circumstances of his death were such that no memorial of any kind marked his passage through our lives. I accepted of course. It was such a kind and sensitive offer.
That must be what drew me to the cemetery with Christian on the day of his birthday. There we were, together, searching for my dad’s new headstone. It took a while because the cemetery has expanded in the years since I last visited and I was confused by the extra rows.
Then I found it. Christian came to stand by my side because it had immobilized me. And there we saw, below my father’s name near the base of the headstone, the inscription: “À LA MÉMOIRE DE BÉBÉ GABRIEL DAOUST”.
It was beautiful to see. It marked a traumatic event that occurred more than a quarter century ago. We stood there for a while, whispering how lovely it was and what a good idea my mum had had.
My mouth had gone dry and I felt a bit unsteady. We began walking toward the edge of the cemetery which overlooks a hill, and then, as though someone had thrown a switch, my heart pounding, the tears came. I said to Christian: It’s 26 years away and it’s two seconds away. Then he took me into a gentle hug and there we stood, embracing in the cemetery on a sunny summer day; his birthday. And it felt like the most appropriate thing in the world.
It was life coming full circle. Because you see, had I been given the choice, I would never have chosen to go through the dark and painful experience of losing Gabriel. I would have opted for “the better claim”, the greener path.
I understand that it’s good that life gave me no choice. I wouldn’t be the person I became. By choosing to not go towards the pain, I would have sidestepped one of the deepest and most resilience-building passages of my life.
Had I done so, I would never have had Christian.
On his Facebook page for August 22nd, Christian posted pictures of the headstone and a selfie he took of us both standing on the edge of the cemetery, in that moment of utter vulnerability and tenderness. They were accompanied by the following message:
“Today of all days, I should give thanks to my mum and honour one of my namesakes. A quarter century on this planet and I’m feeling really lucky. Thanks everyone for making my life grand.”
Christian was born nineteen months after Gabriel.
Had I been able to choose, Christian is WHAT WOULDN’T HAVE BEEN, in my life.
He has made all the difference.
The Road Not Taken – by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.