I’ve been thinking about wishes.
With a challenge pictorially to depict “Future Tense,” I was driven to a grammatical gimmick: Future, tense.
So many young high school seniors, including one of my children, have invested profound wishes for their futures into this week’s mail: will it bring thin or thick envelopes?
It’s college decision week, and the tension is high.
But there may be something to the flip side: be careful what you wish for.
When I was a high school senior, I was rejected from what I thought at the time was the college of my dreams.
Instead, I went to a school where I received a wonderful education and met the husband with whom I made a life and a family.
When I was about to graduate from law school I received some gentle advice from my friend Henry, with whom I had spent a summer as a legal intern. I was despondent about not getting the job I thought I wanted. He knew better. He told me he had faith that what I wished for at the time was not the work I was meant to do, and I would find that work.
Two weeks later, events and luck conspired to make a job available to me. It turned out to be my professional calling. I love my job to an unseemly degree.
That job I thought I wanted? It would have paid a hell of a lot better, and no doubt I would have avoided tossing my cookies at crime scenes and autopsy photographs . . . and I may never even have seen the inside of a courtroom, let alone have been entrusted as a young lawyer with serious cases.
I realize many people would think it a hyper-refined privilege to worry about exactly where one is going to get a higher education, or what kind of work one is going to do. I know how lucky I am to have had an education, and to have any job.
Of course I would be proud of my child whether she goes to college or tries something else entirely. But as a parent I don’t want her to be disappointed. I don’t want to see her wishes crushed.
There’s disappointment. . .and there’s disappointment.
Some wishes shouldn’t come true.
Some wishes which do come true can turn into full-blown nightmares.
The distance between a dream come true and a nightmare-come-to-life can be a thin space indeed. Stories like The Gift of the Magi and The Monkey’s Paw suggest that the difference may lie in a failure of imagination: wishes may become twisted and spiral out of control when those who make them can’t conceive of unintended ways in which they could be made to come true.
When my husband and I were very young we could wish for life to remain as it was, sunny and forward-looking. We jokingly promised one another that as we grew older together he would not lose his lush head of hair and I would not become morbidly obese.
Then he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and though he never lost his hair to treatment, it thinned as I did, during the months I was unable to eat for the stress and shock and grief of his diagnosis and illness.
When another of our children was disappointed not long ago by a college rejection, she had no way of knowing her father’s diagnosis with pancreatic cancer was just weeks away and would upend and change her life forever. At the time, her dad and I were as disappointed as she was–but at the time, we simply could not imagine what was lying in wait.
In the years since my own teenage wishes failed to come true, I’ve learned a lot about disappointment and far too much about the boundaries of imagination.
At one end of the gulf lie those distant, rarefied disappointments of my teenage years.
At the other end are the two words my husband spoke when a surgeon handed him a radiologist’s report from his CAT scan: “That’s disappointing,” he said evenly, lifting his head after reading the words “metastatic disease” as I stood in front of him and instantly realized he meant he was going to die within the span of a season.
This week I wish for my daughter, for my nephew, and for their senior friends, that their own wishes come true.
But if you don’t get the envelopes you wish for, may you have friends like Henry, and may you still hold on to what counts.