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NOTIONS: Of saints, poets and the randomness of life

October 8, 2007

Last weekend, my wife Cherí and I visited my son, Austin, and his girlfriend, Karolina, in New York City, where they're first-year students at New York University.

Whenever I land at LaGuardia, catch a cab into the city, ride the subway, shop on Fifth Avenue, or meld with the masses at Times Square, the iPod in my brain advances through Stephen Sondheim's "Company" to a song called "Another Hundred People." Amid the horns, sirens and white noise, I hear:

Another hundred people just got off of the train And came up through the ground, While another hundred people just got off of the bus And are looking around At another hundred people who got off of the plane And are looking at us Who got off of the train And the plane and the bus Maybe yesterday.

As the song plays on, we're strolling through Greenwich Village, munching raspberries at a farmer's market, eating brunch at a sidewalk bistro, touring dorms at NYU, shouting above the din at Tony DiNapoli's, watching "Spring Awakening" on Broadway, standing in awe as a hawk soars high above the Sheep Meadow in Central Park.

On city sidewalks packed with vendors peddling purses and paintings, my son walks arm and arm with Karolina, and I with Cherí. Millions of people go by, leaving me wondering how infinitesimal are the odds that any of us will ever find The One who matters most in our lives.

What if Karolina's parents hadn't emigrated from Poland, found their way to Fort Wayne and enrolled their daughter in the same school as my son?

What if Cherí hadn't found me in my alma mater's database? What if she hadn't requested that first fund-raising visit? What if I'd said, "No, thanks"?

Like a Paul Auster novel, so much of life is random. A chance encounter here. A missed connection there. A whim pursued. An opportunity declined. A plane caught. A red light run. A hunch played. A road not taken.

Back in Indianapolis, I awoke Monday morning feeling sad and dreading loneliness because Cherí was departing on a business trip. I logged onto my computer and got walloped with an overdose of context.

The previous morning, about the time my love and I were watching that hawk in Central Park, my friend John Krauss was losing his love in a freak accident on Indianapolis' north side. John's wife Nonie had gone out to walk her dog, Cubby. She'd stopped first to put some sticks in the trash can. A car, driven by a 17-year-old boy who'd apparently fallen asleep at the wheel, flew through the air and killed her.

And I wondered: Having finally met The One who matters most in our lives, how infinitesimal are the odds that a car will fly out of nowhere and take The One away?

I also wondered: Why couldn't Cubby have stopped for 20 seconds that morning to lift his leg by a shrub? Why couldn't Nonie have skipped the cleanup and walked in the woods instead of down the driveway? Why couldn't she have paused to hear about a story John was reading in the paper or to watch a segment on "Today"? Ten seconds here, 15 seconds there and Nonie and John might have had another 30 years together.

Randomness.

I talked with John Monday night. He told me about Nonie's love of birds. He said she'd seen more than 600 varieties in her lifetime. He told me how, last summer, they'd followed her dream and gone birding in Alaska.

They traveled from island to island. Paddled kayaks along the shore. And sat on the coast at Gambel, looking west toward the International Date Line.

And they decided, "Tomorrow looks pretty good."

At the end of our visit to New York, Cherí and I sat waiting for our plane at LaGuardia. I saw people with thumbs maneuvering Blackberries, ears being blasted by iPods, fingers dancing over laptops, noses buried in books, eyes glued to televisions. I saw very few people seeing, hearing or seeking to understand The One sitting in their midst.

Last week, a friend and I attended Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" at Indiana Repertory Theatre. In the final scene, which is set in a cemetery, deceased residents of Grover's Corners look with sadness upon all the things living people "just don't see."

A young farmer's wife, who's recently died while giving birth, says, "It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another ... Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it-every, every minute?"

"No," says the stage manager. He pauses, and adds: "The saints and poets, maybe, they do some."



Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month.To comment on this column, send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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