This week I’ve been talking about coincidences, inspired by a recent podcast from This American Life. Today I bring you my final coincidence – the one that’s meant the most to me – and how it almost didn’t happen.
Act three: Bloomsday
On 16 June, 1904, Irish author James Joyce met a woman with the somewhat unfortunate name of Nora Barnacle. They would eventually fall in love and marry. A decade later, Joyce began working on a new novel. The novel was meant to follow the structure of The Odyssey but, unlike Homer’s epic, it was to take place in one setting on a single day. He decided to use the day he met his future wife as that day and the city of Dublin, where they met and lived for many years, as the setting.
The novel, Ulysses, became one of the greatest novels of the 20th century and pretty much the Irish national epic. Every year, on 16 June, citizens of Dublin reenact the wanderings of the novel’s protagonist, Leopold Bloom, during a holiday they call Bloomsday.
Bloomsday doesn’t mean much of anything here in the U.S. except to maybe a handful of people who’ve read Ulysses. Though I’m a fan of James Joyce, I’ve never read the book. I’ve read the first half or so about half a dozen times before I get lost and try again next year. As such, I have an affinity for Bloomsday, but do little more than mentioning it to celebrate it.
On 16 June, 2009, I meant to leave work just a few minutes early because I had to get to the pharmacy before it closed. On my way past the circulation desk, though, my boss saw me and asked a few questions about an issue a patron was having. The conversation only took about three minutes, which wouldn’t make me late to pick up my prescription. But, it turned out, might have made me miss something else.
The pharmacy I used was in the local grocery store. As I walked toward the counter, a young woman passed in front of me, perpendicular to my path. I noticed her in the sense that you notice oncoming traffic. But as I stood in line at the pharmacy counter, I heard someone say, “Excuse me?” I turned to find the young woman standing in front of me. “You’re Bo, right? It’s me, Ashley. The “eat a sandwich” girl.”
I’d known Ashley about ten years previous to this encounter. She’d been very, very skinny at the time and my friend and I, owing to our prodigious sensitivity, always joked that she should eat a sandwich to put on some weight. I would later learn that she had cystic fibrosis and could have eaten three times as much as my friend and I combined and then polished it off with a bag of Snickers and a big box of gummy bears.
She looked very different now, owing, as she explained, to a double-lung transplant she’d had about three years ago. We talked for a while, she showed me her scars, I invited her to dinner…And now she’s my lovely, lovely wife.
So what’s the coincidence here? That I, like one of my favorite authors, (re-)met my future wife on June 16th? Sort of. But there’s a bigger one that I think about all the time.
I meant to leave work about five minutes early, but my boss talked to me on the way out. Because of that, I left work only about two minutes early. The point is, Ashley walked right in front of me as I approached the pharmacy. If my boss hadn’t stopped me for three minutes on my way out, I’d have missed her. She had been walking out of the restroom and out into the grocery store proper. I had no shopping to do, so I’d have picked up my prescription and left by the door nearest the pharmacy. But for two minutes, I may never have met my future wife.
It’s the sort of coincidence – a notable concurrence of events or circumstances having no apparent causal connection – that has had me questioning the connectedness of all things, the degree to which they influence each other. It’s the sort of coincidence that got me to reconsider coincidences. And it makes for a great story.