Dallas, TX –
Last week, I delivered a eulogy for a woman who saved my life long before I was old enough to know her name. At 2 years old, I was dying of pneumonia. To survive required a series of painful thick penicillin shots that provoked convulsive kicking each time they tried. At the 11th hour, a nurse from another wing was called, a woman whose flaming red hair, backlit by the hall light in a darkened doorway, appeared to me as a glowing angel's halo. I believed she was from heaven, and so, it seems, Nurse Pat McElroy was. She rescued me, and while so doing, met my mother's brother, John. One result was the six children of that marriage who sat before me in a front pew, the youngest being a bi-racial adoption. Looking over at the once young and beautiful Irish nurse, I thought, "What were the odds?"
There were other ironies in that church that morning. One enchanting mourner had once upon a time been a favorite cousin's unplanned teenage pregnancy. Thirty years later, this beautiful woman held her own newborn daughter, whose Aztec look-alike father was also an unplanned Nicaraguan birth, adopted by a rural Texas family. Fate? Looking at their baby girl, I thought; what were the odds?
Several days before, I had dined with a college friend and her daughter who, likewise, had been this woman's "accidental" child, conceived after a drunken dare from roommate sorority sisters. I reflected back to those tearful times and thought: what were the odds that this had a happy ending? This daughter's husband also had an unlikely path. He was born to a Mexican girl who became pregnant at 15 after being raped by a professor. His birth mother had slipped into Texas so her baby would be born an American citizen. Left at an orphanage, the boy was ultimately adopted by an Israeli immigrant couple. Divine intervention? What were those odds?
Life's crap-shoot-roll-of-the-dice-wonder comes in countless forms. In 2002, I lost every finger on one hand in a grisly accident. Clutching the severed pieces to my chest, the ambulance paramedics were rushing me to a hospital where options would be few. Suddenly, one fireman, Todd Hamessley, who was supposed to be at his 6 year old son's soccer game but instead was subbing for a friend, reversed this decision. We raced to Baylor Hospital, where a renowned re-attachment surgeon had cancelled vacation to operate on another man, who inexplicably died en route. The now available doctor, David Zehr, saved my hand. Five years later, each happy finger moves and has feeling. An uncanny coincidence? Luck? Destiny?
We Americans are a people who want easily explained enlightenment in an inscrutable world. Everyone seeks their personal definition of deity. I say, it's a no-brainer. Perhaps our "higher power" is all around us in earthly form - that pediatric nurse or someone who began life accidentally. A paramedic who breaks the rules. An unlikely dog.
As I see it, the meaning of life is at once an obvious answer and an impossible question:
"God only knows; what were the odds?"
Rawlins Gilliland is a National Endowment for the Arts Master poet. He lives in Dallas.
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