Updated: August 28, 2013 6:09AM
The recent story of the youngster who lived despite being swallowed up for several hours by a giant sand dune along Indiana’s Lake Michigan shore sounded like an excerpt from Kate Atkinson’s best-selling novel “Life after Life.” Ursula Todd, the tale’s primary character, survives many such harrowing events.
Just as often, however, nothing can save her and she perishes. Over and over she dies. Then, in a subsequent chapter readers pick up the thread of narrative elsewhere in Ursula’s life, only now some small happenstance or minor decision precludes the death she died in the previous scene. In the later chapter, some new threat kills Ursula.
It’s all one story, really, and yet Ursula lives life after life after life, each one significantly different thanks to some contingency readers would scarcely notice if it hadn’t proved fatal last time around.
In one life, Ursula meets and marries a young German, and consequently experiences the terrors of World War II as the wife of an officer in Hitler’s inner circle. In another life, something prevents her meeting the German lad and she remains in London, only to die as a victim of relentless German bombing.
Like most serious authors, Atkinson tells the truth by playing with the truth. Personal histories, and sometimes world history, hang on the slightest of contingencies.
The child resurrected from a sandy, lakeshore burial will change the world, especially if he begets children and has grandchildren. Someday his offspring, however few or numerous, will recall his story and imagine a world in which their great-grandfather died in the sand in 2013. It would be a world without them, of course.
Their world would have been lost, though bitterly mourned by a bereft family who saw an entire future vanish with their son.
I once fell asleep at the wheel of a truck while working a summer job. Only after drifting across the center lane and starting into the median did I become alert.
In a blur too quick and too random to remember clearly, I regained control and continued on my way.
The accompanying surge of adrenalin kept me awake the rest of the night, and for many miles I pondered how close I’d come to dying, and perhaps killing others as well.
I remember imagining that maybe I had in fact died back there, and whatever I did, thought, and experienced now was actually a new and different life. Could I have passed from one “dimension” to another?
Alternate dimension or not, I did drive into a new world that night, one in which I hadn’t died after all. In this world, given a new life, I have enjoyed countless blessings, and mostly it has felt like being here is the most natural, ordinary thing imaginable.
That’s far from the truth, however, for my being here is quite accidental, contingent upon waking up in the nick of time one night on the highway, just as it is on the fact that my mother met my father.
Most everyone I know has a similar story, which means that each of us, and everything around us, is in truth a curious and glorious accident. We didn’t have to be here, but we are. Some who might have joined us were lost, or never were.
We rightly weep, I think, for the worlds we’ll never know and for those that slipped away forever when some dear one perished. And with the family of the boy who escaped a sandy grave, and for our own worlds, altered daily by chance and coincidence, we say thank you, thank you, thank you.