(from the Introduction to
I Love These People?")
A few years back, a woman
named Jerriann Massey was floating down a river on an innertube when she
got sucked into a hole on the back side of a waterfall. There, stuck in
that hole, a very curious thing happened.
was in the Texas hill country; the river was the Guadalupe, which pours
out of Canyon Lake and washes down to New Braunfels. It was August; the
water was shallow and limestone brown. Jerriann was along on a big family
outing 24 of them in all, including Jerrianns husband and two
children. A great gang. Their innertubes were tied together with ski ropes
into four pods. It was a lazy flotilla, complete with floating coolers and
spare clothes for the kids. They had no intention of risking the rapids.
When they drifted down to a spot in the river where some house boulders
form a twelve-foot drop known as The Chute, they ferried to the bank
and pulled their innertubes out of the current. They carried their gear
down a trail like pack mules. Jerrianns pod was the last to make this
portage. Her husband was there with his firm hand; he grabbed the ski rope
and tugged the pod towards him. The rope snapped and Jerrianns
innertube spun away, then was grabbed by the current. She was in her
bathing suit with a t-shirt and hat, sneakers tight on her feet, her
daughters sunglasses in hand. She screamed, then laughed.
See you downstream! she
cheered, as The Chute sucked her in.
Get over here! her husband
But what could she do? Her rump
was in the water and her arms were too short to paddle effectively. She
did not sense danger.
Jerriann went over the falls
like a high diver, inverted, with the innertube on top of her. She plunged
straight to the bottom of the hole, felt the bottom, and pushed off to the
surface like in a pool. She was surrounded by the loudest noise she had
ever heard, the crashing hydraulics as the falls bent back on itself in a
churn. She surfaced and gasped for air but was immediately sucked back
down and tumbled-topsy turvy like a rag in a clothes dryer. She hit the
surface again, managed another incomplete breath, then disappeared.
This is not right, she thought. I think Im stuck.
Her kids had already made the
portage; they had put in thirty yards downstream, in knee-high water.
Nathan was twelve; Ashli was nine. They watched their mother flip as she
went over The Chute, and then they did not see her at all amid the
splashing of hairy whitewater. Imagine watching your mother drown. About a
minute went by when Jerrianns t-shirt washed downstream to them.
Then a sneaker spit out and
drifted their way.
They waited for their mother to
emerge. They remember a great noise, too, the noise of chaos and panic,
but they never took their eyes off that hole. Nathan began running
upcurrent to mom, but his dad screamed for him to go back, it was too
A second minute ticked off.
The other sneaker followed,
laces still knotted.
What was going on down there?
What was mom doing?
The third time Jerriann was
sucked down, it was completely different. The noise was gone. It was
extremely quiet and still, but pitch black. A vast expanse of space was
her impression, but she could not see this space. It was like being in
your yard on a night so dark you can barely see your hands. The universe
is palpable, just not visible. She could think clearly and hear herself as
if speaking. Above herself, she saw a light. Oh my gosh, she
thought. Im dying.
What followed could have many
explanations. Some would say her soul was saying goodbye to her bag of
bones. Some would say she experienced a hallucination caused either by
lack of oxygen or by calming endorphins that numb the brain to alleviate
the suffering of death. But it doesnt matter, because thats not
where this story is headed it is not about what is on the other side,
its about making the most of what is on this side. Jerriann was
at lifes edge, in a dream-like consciousness. This was her reckoning
point. She was oddly, and curiously, and vividly aware.
Her life did not flash before
her eyes, as the convention goes. She felt herself gliding toward the
light, without any fear. The moment had the very distinctive feeling you
get when you are very weary and headed home that I cant wait to
get home yearning. As if numbed and hypnotized, Jerriann wanted to go,
desperately. She knew if she got to that light, she would never return.
Wait a minute! she
Time out! she hollered.
Lets rewind! she
objected. This is not supposed to be happening. Not here, not now. This
is not what my children planned! My children did not agree to see
their mother die! This is not what they came to learn!
Something is really wrong
about this, she thought.
Then, the curious thing
happened. Jerriann was overcome with an astounding panic as she thought,
Oh my gosh, I have not done what I have promised I would
do. The closest feeling she can compare this to was the time she had
been in a meeting at work and remembered, all of a sudden, that she had
forgotten to pick the kids up from school. She has never lost her children
in a crowd, but she imagines it is that same panicky feeling.
Overwhelming, this feeling.
Oh my god I havent done what I promised!
How could I have forgotten that!?
Of all things!
It was a horrible feeling,
stinging with guilt and terror.
But heres the most curious
thing Jerriann did not know what it was she had promised. In her
surreal dream logic, she remembered that she had made a promise, and she
remembered that it was the most important thing in her life, but she did
not know, actually, what it was.
Begging now, Jerriann summoned
her resolve and offered the light a bargain: If I can go back and raise
my children, I promise I wont forget this time, I will go back
and complete what I promised.
With that, Jerriann was back in
the water, alive again. But not downstream, unfortunately. Still caught in
that churn, drinking water, unable to breathe. Now it was getting
ridiculous. I just talked myself back into another chance at life and
Im still stuck! But she no longer thought she would die.
Im all right, she thought. Im here.
Finally, the river let go of
her, and she washed down toward her children, sputtering, throwing up
grass and muck, snorting water out her nose. The kids seemed to recognize
how close to death Jerriann had come. They all needed to touch her, and
pat her on the back as she kneeled on the grass and continued to vomit.
But the adults did not seem to grasp that they had nearly lost her.
I almost died! she pleaded
to her husband.
Oh, you are fine! he
insisted, refusing to go there, scared of admitting it.
No, I almost died! she
He shut her down. No, you
were only in there a few minutes.
She stewed over the absurdity of
his comment. Only a few minutes!? Would he like to try a few
minutes trapped underwater!? Would he like to suffocate on river
dredge for a few minutes?
She tried to bring it up again
the next day with him. She wanted to tell him about the bargain shed
made, the promise she had to fulfill. The urgency she felt. He was
uninterested. Jerriann! Youre making a big deal out of nothing!
How could he not be interested
in this mystery!? How could he not be compassionate at least for her
benefit? She needed to talk about it. She had made a bargain not with
God, not with Death. With herself. She had a promise to remember, and then
But what was it?
Every time she thought about it,
that guilt and panic flooded her. It haunted her. She owed her life to it.
She knew if she found it, the treasure of life would reveal itself to her.
I made a promise, she
whispered, taking Ashli to school.
What was it? she wondered,
preparing dinner for Nathan.
This was not how it worked in
the movies. In the movies, if you went all the way to your reckoning
point, and you had to bargain for your life and the life of your kids, you
would at least know what your end of the bargain was. You might not get it
in writing, but youd exit this negotiation with epiphany-like clarity.
But in real life, we are meant
to search. The secret to unlocking lifes treasure is not handed to us.
We have to look high and low for it. We have to endure, we have to
experience, and we have to contemplate.
I havent been trapped
underwater, but I know a bit of that feeling Jerriann experienced, like I
too have a promise I struggle to both remember and keep. I recognize that
feeling Jerriann describes. Its her story, her life, but it feels a
little like mine.
Life is full of promise, and we
engage that promise when we take our first breath, and we remember a bit
of that promise every time we fall in love, every time we go home, every
time we make a new friend. Every time we cry, and every time we laugh. We
live with it, just like Jerriann.
Dont you feel like Jerriann,
We are meant to do
just dont get to know what it is.
Jerriann Massey was one
of the 700 people I talked to during the creation of this book. She was
every bit what one might call a fairly regular and ordinary person.
I enjoy people like Jerriann
because she is thoughtful and grateful for the life shes had. I
interview people like her because I believe that there is more courage and
nobility in the quiet parts of our life than in those to which we ascribe
fame, glamour, and celebrity. I believe that our greatest accomplishments
are feats that we will never be paid for, deeds that can never be valued
short list of examples: making strangers into friends, forgiving a parent,
repairing a marriage, raising a child, finding fulfillment in work, and
determining the role of spiritual faith. It is in these everyday and
inconspicuous challenges that we truly prove our character and discover
lifes meaning. Though ordinary, they are not simple in the least.
life holds a treasure, it is not behind the gates of country clubs, or in
the boardrooms of corporations, or in the classrooms of great
universities. It is in the air we all breathe, in the experiences we all
share. It is available to all of humanity. There is nothing esoteric about
it; unlocking that treasure does not require a special language, or any
privilege at all. To do this is not godly; rather, it is utterly human. It
is for people like you, and me, and Jerriann.
So what did Jerriann decide her
she has never stopped asking.
she knew this, with great certainty: whatever it was, her children were
part of it. And she found herself, in the wake of her near-drowning,
loving her children quite differently. Before, she pressured herself to do
everything right never miss a Little League game, et cetera. She
insulated her children from disappointment and did not give them many
choices. After, she loosened up. She was there to guide them and encourage
them, and she started to trust their wisdom and quit fussing about their
the year that followed, Jerriann divorced her husband. They had been
together fourteen years, but it hadnt been working for some time. She
was done, like chicken falling off the bone. What killed it was that she
never felt heard. When she was a regular Texas girl, her husband
was tolerant, but when she was Jerriann, in all her peculiarities, he was
annoyed. Ashli supported her right to be happy, but Nathan did not. He
protected his father, and chose to live with Dad. But a boy needs to be
heard, too. A year later Nathan called his mother and said, I made a
big mistake. I chose to live with Dad, but I need a family.
few years after her divorce, Jerriann married her second husband, Doug.
She thought she was done with men, but Doug listened to her like no guy
ever had. No matter how weird she was, and no matter how deep her
inquiries went into lifes riddles, he never once treated her like she
was making a big deal out of nothing. He always went with her.
father had to learn to hear her, too; when she was a girl, he worked in
far-off cities managing insurance agencies. When he stopped traveling,
Jerriann was twelve, and he did not know what to do with the peculiar
specimen of a twelve-year-old girl. They never connected. Before the
near-drowning, she would go months without visiting him, even though he
lived two hours away. After, she drove to see him every month. Her work
was changing she moved into management, and they became friends by
talking about business. Their friendship grew from that. Now he lives
nearby; his workshop is behind her house, and he is around almost every
the best friend I have, Doug added.
is more to my promise than just my family, Jerriann told me, when we
sat on their covered porch which looked out on a small lake near Tyler,
Texas. But my family is a big part of it, sometimes the most visible
part, and certainly the most immediate part. If you asked me how I have
lived up to my end of that bargain I struck, the first thing Id point
to is my precious children, who have become great young adults. And Id
point to my new love for my father. And my love for Doug. My sister, my
brother, my cousins theyre all in the mix. My end of the bargain is
by no means complete. When I die, then Ill be done, and not a second
before. But the first thing Id point to? Thats my family. Theyre
not the whole answer to my promise, but theyre part of it.