One of the defining moments of my life happened in a cemetery. My mom and I were walking toward my grandma's grave, talking about the funeral of my mom's ex-husband, which had happened recently. My two older sisters, Suzette and Michele, were his biological children, but my dad adopted them soon after he married my mom, and then we had literally zero contact with my sisters' biological paternal family. Until he died, and my mom's ex-mother-in-law called to invite her to the funeral. I don't remember if she went or not, but I will never forget the conversation we had as we walked across the cemetery grass. She told me some things I had never known about her first marriage, both how it got bad and why ended up getting a divorce, and then she said "choosing to divorce him was one of the best decisions of my life."
I had to stop walking for a few seconds when the realization hit me: she decided to divorce him. It wasn't some fuzzy thing that happened to her in her nebulous past. It was a choice she made, and when she chose it, she also chose me. I could feel just how flimsy my very existence is: if she had chosen to stay with her first husband, who would I be?
That moment undid something in me. It put into an unforgettable clarity how our choices create our lives. And not just our lives, but our children's as well.
Who would I be if she had decided something different? From the other end, it looks like fate that she divorced him and then, years later, married my dad. Like it couldn't have turned out any other way because that is how it turned out. But of course, it could have. She could have stayed married to him. She also could have told my dad no when he asked her to marry him.
Not all choices change the future. At least, not in such dramatic ways. In my life, I think the three choices that changed everything were these: quitting gymnastics, my experiences with J, and marrying Kendell. Each decision was a hinge upon which my life turned, and sometimes I wonder. What would my life be like? If I hadn't quit gymnastics, if I hadn't had J in my life, if I had married someone else? I think my essential personality would be mostly the same...I think I would still love reading and writing, running and hiking. I think. But everything else would be different, and I think about it quite often. Not with regret, really. But just curiousity. How would I be different, who would be in my life, what else would my decisions change?
Jo Walton's novel, My Real Children, attempts to answer some of those questions. It tells the story of Patricia, an old woman living in a care center whose chart regularly reads "VC." Very confused. She is confused because of dementia, but also because she isn't sure which of her memories are correct: Did she marry Mark and have four children? Or did she say no to Mark, fall in love with Bee, and have three children? Is her life as a traditional wife and mother the real one? Or the one where she was a travel writer in love with Italy?
The memories hinge on her choice to marry Mark, or not marry him. Alternating chapters tell the story of each of her lives, in worlds very similar but not identical to our own. In one, for example, President Kennedy is assassinated by a bomb; in another, he fades from history after the Bay of Pigs incident that resulted in nuclear bombs being dropped on Miami and Kiev. Both worlds have space stations on the moon, but in one, the scientists are friendly to all nations, and in another no information is shared between countries. But the most visible difference in the story is in Patricia's life. In one she is called Trish, in another, Pat; in one she is a traditional wife, in another she is a lesbian struggling with an intolerant society.
This isn't a book with a traditional narrative structure. For one, it can't be, what with the alternating story lines. But it also doesn't build to a major conflict and then conclude. Instead, it is just the ebb and flow of life; babies are born, families are made, disasters are either circumvented or survived. But the last chapter—oh, the last chapter. In it, Pat/Trish are each in a care center, trying to figure out which life was their "real" one. They realize not just that their personal lives were different, but the whole world itself, too. Neither Pat nor Trish can figure out why. "She hadn't been important, in either world, she hadn't been somebody whose choices could have changed worlds," except for the butterfly effect.
What made me cry so hard was that, seeing both lives, she wants to chose which one is real but she cannot, because in each world, there are good things and people she loves. In a sense, it doesn't matter which world is "real," because which child would she give up? Which life would she uncreate? It is impossible to choose and yet still so compelling in its possibility. Just to see both lives. In her unhappiest life, the one with Mark, the world itself is happier and safer; in her richest life, with Bee, the world is ruled with tyranny and scarred by nuclear fallout. If she decides her life with Bee is the real one, she decides to doom the world; if the life with Mark, then she dooms herself.
But the simplicity of the idea also made me cry. The ugly cry, the kind that shatters out from a deep place of constant aching. There are so many possible lives we could have! Why are we limited to only one? What if I could know, could see somehow, what my life would look like if the hinges had turned the other way—if I hadn't quit gymnastics, if I had chosen differently with J, if I had married someone else? Sometimes that alternate life seems so real, a thing I could see if the film separating the two (or three, or five) lives from each wasn't so opaque. Maybe it wouldn't matter; maybe with everything different I would still be the same me. Patricia thinks so: "It didn't matter what they called her," she decides, "Patricia or Patsy or Trish or Pat. She was herself. She had loved Bee, and Florence, and all her children."
It's been a little while—since I loved a book so much. Maybe it isn't the book itself so much as it is the concept and how it struck one of my individual chords. Maybe it wouldn't resonate with everyone else so strongly. But for me, it was a devastating book (in a good way) and one, like that day I walked across the cemetery grass talking about divorce with my mother, I will never forget.