They say everything exists until it doesn’t, that every possibility exists all at once and all the time, every thing that could ever happen or never happen is all there, just ahead of us, an explosive array of options ranging from miniscule changes in our life to colossal upheavals that would wrench our minds, all these things hovering just out of our reach and intangible, unseeable, unknowable, but existing anyway.
Until someone looks, the very act of looking at all these things eliminating all but one of them, and that one remaining becomes what we think of as reality, but any of those previously-existing options could have been reality, we just never really know it (other than to suspect it, late at night or early in the morning, lying on our side facing away from the dark television and towards the window where we cannot quite see if it has snowed outside or not overnight – it could have snowed and might not have snowed, either is equally possible until we get up and look out the window, at which point it will have snowed, or will not have snowed, and the world where the other one might have happened will not have ever existed, all the people who woke up on Christmas Day to a world where they could still see the leaves they never got around to raking will never have done that, because we got up and looked and the snow was there.)
Think, then, for a minute, not just of whether the snow fell or didn’t, but of all the things that didn’t: think of all the millions of billions of trillions of moments that never existed, all the animals and rock formations and aerial shows and quasars that never even were, all because someone looked at a certain moment and, looking, froze the universe that is into place, eliminating all the universes that could have been.
Think, then, of Sally, who never existed.
If you think about it, if you knew of the things that never were and thought about them, things like Sally, then of all the days and times and places that a person might not exist on, Christmas might be the most extravagantly sorrowful. Because of the lack, you see. For however sad July 17th might be in the abstract (and it must be abstract, for most people never knew that Sally might have existed, and having not known that she could have existed they perforce did not know that she did not exist, and had in fact never existed) so it is in the abstract that on July 17th Sally, who never existed, didn’t come into existence on that day and thereafter, each year, on July 17th, Sally never celebrated her nonbirthday, never rubbed cake into her 1-year-old face, never had a group of friends gather around while she opened her Easy Bake Oven and waited impatiently while her dad who never was her dad put in a lightbulb that never was a lightbulb to bake cakes that were never baked.
Sally never, of course, opened a sweater one year and said “It has an owl on it!” to laughs of merriment from her friends who understood the inside joke that never existed about the owl sweater that, while it might have existed maybe somewhere in a department store (because those exist) was never given to Sally to commemorate a night that never happened and an owl that never swooped down out of the tree just as Sally was about to not have her first kiss with the man she would never marry.
Because she never existed; it was no fault of the man’s that they did not kiss, go to another movie a week later, take a three-day trip to Puerta Vallarta, go back to the restaurant of their first date, each break into tears over the ring, wed in a small ceremony held in the church where Sally’s parents had been married, have a child, have another, take their children to Disney World and pose all wearing mouse ears and making crazy faces in front of the Haunted Mansion, eventually start a small business selling stationary and greeting cards, watch as their children themselves got married and had grandchildren and then spend each winter in Boca Raton in a small duplex where they didn’t really care for the neighbors but still gave them a Christmas gift each year because that was what you did.
It wasn’t the man’s fault, because he existed, but it wasn’t really Sally’s fault, either, because she never existed and so how could you blame her? All those things that didn’t exist, they just didn’t exist.
(Disney World exists. In case you were planning to take your own kids there, stop worrying.)
All those things might be very sad, but they are not, because they never existed in the first place. How can you mourn the nonexistence of a time when Sally, wondering where her son is, he’s late getting home, and it’s snowy out, is staring out the window and hoping that he is all right, and then she gets a call from the State Patrol, her son has been in an accident, and she and her husband are racing to the hospital, little Ann in the back seat, and things are tense for a few hours but eventually he is all right and they are happy, although in the back of her mind Sally is wondering whether she should be mad at her husband for letting him go in the first place, a little kernel of resentment that will linger for years until she lets it go one morning, watching him do the crossword puzzle and things are then all right.)
(He never knew that the kernel of resentment existed, never suspected, and then it was gone – almost gone like how Sally herself was gone: she noticed it, or would have, had she existed, but then she would have willed it into nonexistence, had she herself ever been around to do that. But she wasn’t, and so the moment when her marriage was saved by her giving up on that tiny nugget of hostility, instead of letting it grow, the happiest moment of her life with her husband, never existed. Don’t mourn it. Because you never knew it could have existed, either.)
So those things are not sad, and this is not sad:
A Christmas morning, which comes with snow (you looked, it was there) and a Christmas tree (still there from the day before) but underneath the tree there is not a small toy pony with a glittering long mane and several combs. There is not a Barbie doll to dress up. There is no book about a young girl who fell into a magical world when she climbed up on her roof to try to grab onto the moon, but fell short of the moon and fell into the moon’s reflection in the pond by her house, dropping into the reflection without a splash and realizing that underneath the reflection of the moon in the pond there is a whole other world filled with pale reflections of things that exist in our world, and filled with real things that exist in the World Of The Reflected Moon, things that barely exist in our world above the reflection, and the girl has amazing adventures among these things, meeting the Pale Prince who rules this world from his castle on the Mountain Of Truth, and she wants to marry the Pale Prince but he says that she must return to her world, and she cries but realizes that is true.
That book, which also never existed, is not under the Christmas tree which is actually there, because there is no little Sally to give it to, and so there is no need to inspire a girl to believe in both fantasy and reality, to want by such books to raise a little girl who for a time will exist in both of those worlds, marching on the mountains of the couch wearing a magical cape that once was a towel, raising her hands imperiously over her subjects (a cat, the glittering pony, and several stuffed animals), all these things that never existed.
Instead, on Christmas morning, there is egg nog, and presents for grown-ups, watches and a table saw and tickets for a trip to Paris in the spring, a wonderful surprise that causes tears to well up and hugs to be exchanged and talk about needing to get passports and a new camera to take pictures of Paris, all things that are taking up the places in the universe that are not occupied by all the things that didn’t exist, and the people who have watches that wind themselves and a need to get a passport, those people don’t even know about all the things that they never had or didn’t have, because those things never existed.
And if they find themselves sometimes glancing at the spaces under the tree almost expectantly, as if there were meant to be packages wrapped in princess wrapping paper there? And if they sometimes look up the stairs to the quiet second level of the house without knowing why? And if they leave a small cookie on the plate, a cutout sugar cookie Christmas tree that has extra jimmies on it, more sprinkles in more colors than any adult would ever want on a cookie, what of it? Each moment they are collapsing further into nothingness the things that never existed, simply by noticing things that do.