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Lynn Hummel: Life is full of surprise endings

Life is full of surprise endings and so are literature, the movies, television and history.

Probably the best and most famous author and creator of surprise endings was short story specialist O. Henry. Two of his best known surprise endings are in “Gift of the Magi” (“One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and sixty-seven cents. And the next day was Christmas.”) Which you may have seen on TV around Christmas time and “The Last Leaf.” Both are genuine masterpieces and you should read them if you enjoy storytelling at its best. But O. Henry had a surprise ending in his own career: He did just about all his brilliant writing after he finished his prison term.

New movies and TV shows are cranked out every week and, in case you hadn’t noticed, there is an abundance of low quality, no-redeeming-value junk and trash out there. When the writers have produced an inferior product, they try to bail it out and with a surprise twist at the end. Most are phony, transparent, predictable, or all three. For example, when the girl with a long lost brother falls head over heels with a handsome stranger, it turns out he’s the long lost brother. Yawn. Or when the impossibly dangerous and dramatic situation reaches the point where either death or disaster is right around the corner, the whole thing is revealed as a dream. Phony.

Surprise endings in real life aren’t necessarily happy endings, but tragedies. Astronauts blown up in space; a Minnesota bride died just last week on her honeymoon when the car she and her husband were driving was hit by a drunk driver in New Hampshire; a groom died on his honeymoon a few years ago when he was clowning for a picture and fell over a cliff and was killed.

Our friend, Ralph, is a widower. His wife died four years ago and he’s been lonely. A few months ago one of his pals called him and said, “Ralph, you remember Pat? You dated her an entire summer long ago. She’s single now. You ought to call her.” After a month of working up his nerve, Ralph did call her and they had a long, wonderful conversation. Later he drove to her city and they started dating again. They’re both seniors with grandchildren now, but they’re falling in love. The ending of that story isn’t written yet.

Even stranger is a situation in England just reported to us by friends of Gordon. Nineteen year old Gordon had this wonderful date with Theresa at a dance years ago. She gave him her picture. He went to the same place for the dance the following night with Theresa’s picture in his wallet expecting to see her again. When he got there, he looked across the dance floor and thought he saw the girl who’s picture he carried. He walked across the floor and stood in front of her, and could plainly see she wasn’t Theresa. She was Mary. Theresa wasn’t there for some reason, but Gordon introduced himself to Mary and they danced the night away. Theresa wasn’t forgotten, but Gordon never saw her again and Mary found her way to his heart and he to hers.

Gordon went off to serve in the British Army and when he returned, he married Mary. After over 50 years of marriage and three years of painful disability, Mary died. Months later, Gordon was at the funeral of an old acquaintance in his home town. Another friend came up to Gordon and said, “do you remember Theresa?” He was introduced to Theresa, now a widow, whom he would have never recognized, and they got reacquainted. Now they’re meeting for coffee and lunch, and at last report, Theresa was preparing a dinner for Gordon on his birthday. But that’s not the surprise ending, the surprise is that the picture of 19 year-old Theresa was in Gordon’s wallet all those years. He doesn’t know why. He loved Mary dearly all the years of her marriage and cared for her with devotion when she was dying. But now Gordon and Theresa are reunited. The ending to that story isn’t written yet either.

Life is random. What are the mysterious forces that bring us to the surprising intersections of the roads we travel? Coincidence? Fate? Our own design? We don’t know, but be alert for your next surprise.