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An Irrevocable Decision

Liz Lerner

When we are young, we tend to feel that any decision we make, no matter how trivial, has the potential to change the direction of our life, for good or bad. Yet sometimes a decision is so fraught with unforeseeable consequences that, looking back on it years later, we realize that it was indeed one of the turning points of our life.

In the spring of 1971 I was finishing up a two-year teaching appointment at Oregon State University. I was twenty-eight years old, married, with a four-year old son. At that point in my life I knew that I wanted to be a writer. And though I had only spent a year living on the Cape, it had already taken a strong hold on my imagination. My plan was to return to Cape Cod with my family and try to make a life there.

At the same time, while teaching at Oregon State, I had developed a warm relationship with the chairman of the English Department. He knew of my intention to return to the Cape and made me a most generous offer. If, at the end of my year on the Cape, I would agree return to Oregon State and get my Ph. D, he would offer me a tenure track position.

The offer was tempting, not so much for the teaching position as for the security it would offer me and my family. Moreover, I had thoroughly enjoyed exploring Oregon’s magnificent mountains, dramatic coastlines, rain forests, high deserts, and natural wonders like Crater Lake. Might it be possible for me to form a similar attachment to Oregon as I had with the Cape? Perhaps. And yet, and yet..

At any rate I eagerly accepted his offer and planned to move with my family back to the Cape at the end of the spring semester.

At least that was the plan. Then fate intervened. That fall my wife developed a life-threatening disease, which required her to stay with my son in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, where she would receive an experimental treatment. We agreed that she and my son would remain with her family while I went on to the Cape. If all went well, they would be able to rejoin me in six to eight weeks.

As it turned out, she spent the entire fall and winter in Kentucky receiving treatments, during which time I made several trips back and forth between the Cape and Louisville. By the time my wife was declared in remission and was able to rejoin me on the Cape, it was the spring of 1972. The year I had planned to spend creating a life on the Cape had been fragmented and was fraught with uncertainty.

I must have forgotten about the chairman’s offer at Oregon State, for I was somewhat taken aback when, one day in late spring, I received a letter from him. The tone was gentle and sympathetic, but the message was clear: he would need to have my answer, yes or no, by the end of the month.

I still remember that day in May. It was a typical Cape mixture of bright sun and damp clouds. The herring had just begun to run in the local streams. The beach plum blossomed like low white clouds. The terns had begun to nest on the barrier beaches. I wrote my reply, put a stamp on it, and walked into town to the mailbox just outside the post office, embossed with the legend “Property of the U.S. Government.” As a boy I had been inculcated with the sacrosanct nature of a federal mailbox, the conviction that anything placed in it was irretrievable. I paused for a moment, then opened the slot and dropped into it the letter that contained my future.

And that, as the poet wrote, has made all the difference.

A nature writer living in Wellfleet, Robert Finch has written about Cape Cod for more than forty years. He is the author of nine books of essays. A Cape Cod Notebook airs weekly on WCAI, the NPR station for Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and the South Coast. In both 2006 and 2013, the series won the New England Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Writing.