‘What ifs’ determine many outcomes

Lesley Toth
At Random

This week, we and our fellow Minnesotans observe the five-year anniversary of the I-35W bridge collapse and remember the 13 people who died and 145 who were injured.

For the vast majority of us, we probably don’t remember exactly what we were doing or where we were going on Aug. 1, 2007, unless — like me — you were near that fateful site. Early that morning I had set out for a 12-hour journey from Memphis to Minnesota. I was headed home to Hutchinson, Minn. after a four-day trip to see my husband (boyfriend at the time) while he was working as a pipeline surveyor in the Oklahoma/Tennessee area.

Just 45 minutes after taking the 35W bridge to 494 and a mere 30 minutes from reaching the front door of my apartment, the car radio informed me that the structure I had just passed over was laying in rubble in the Mississippi River.

Had I taken just a little longer packing my things that day, had I dawdled a little longer with my squeeze, had I met traffic at any point along the more than 800 miles of interstates and highways between here and there — I’ve played the possible variations of events over and over in the years since.

It’s made me reflect on many decisions during the years that may have seemed insignificant at the time, but have since proved monumental in their “butterfly effects.”

What if I had never answered that phone call from a friend (whose calls I generally screen) that chilly January afternoon? I may have never gone out that night and met my future husband. What if I had never taken the chance to introduce myself to the weird, new girl with green streaks in her hair who suddenly showed up in my sophomore physical education class? I may have never forged the decade-long friendship with one of the most fabulous people I have ever known.

What if, like every other cross-country trip I’ve taken in the past 10 years, I had driven to North Dakota last spring instead of taking the train? I could have avoided being stranded in an immobile passenger car for more than 10 hours in the middle of nowhere. What if the dart I threw at the calendar to choose the dates of our last vacation to Duluth would have landed just one week later? We may have been trapped by flood waters.

What if my father wasn’t playing cards with his friends that evening more than a year and a half ago? He wouldn’t have seen the ad in the Mille Lacs County Times for a news reporter, and he wouldn’t have called his journalist daughter, who wouldn’t have gone on to work at a job she adores.

We are faced with millions of choices throughout our lives. Most decisions are inconsequential: Cheerios or a bagel this morning? Some options will shape the rest of our lives, such as the careers we choose and the partners we pick. While others only illustrate their domino-effect of importance after-the-fact and through the revealing lens of hindsight.

While it may not be constructive to ponder about the “what ifs” in life, it has made me appreciate more of the little things. They also have me thanking my stars that even some of the smallest choices have allowed me to avoid a catastrophic fate while other, seemingly unimportant decisions have offered the best relationships and a rewarding career. Is it luck, coincidence, guardian angels or a combination of all three? What if … ?