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The Promise

(from the Introduction to 
"Why Do 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.

This 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 Jerriann’s 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. Jerriann’s 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 Jerriann’s 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 daughter’s sunglasses in hand. She screamed, then laughed.

            “See you downstream!” she cheered, as The Chute sucked her in.

            “Get over here!” her husband scolded her.

            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 I’m 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 Jerriann’s 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 dangerous.

            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. “I’m 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 doesn’t matter, because that’s not where this story is headed – it is not about what is on the other side, it’s about making the most of what is on this side. Jerriann was at life’s 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 can’t 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 interrupted herself.

            “Time out!” she hollered.

            “Let’s 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 haven’t done what I promised!”

            “How could I have forgotten that!?”

            “Of all things!”

            It was a horrible feeling, stinging with guilt and terror.

            But here’s 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 won’t 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 I’m still stuck!” But she no longer thought she would die. “I’m all right,” she thought. “I’m 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 cried.

            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 she’d made, the promise she had to fulfill. The urgency she felt. He was uninterested. “Jerriann! You’re 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 to keep.

            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 you’d exit this negotiation with epiphany-like clarity.

            But in real life, we are meant to search. The secret to unlocking life’s 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 haven’t 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. It’s 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.

            Don’t you feel like Jerriann, sometimes?

            We are meant to do something.

We just don’t 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 she’s 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 monetarily.

A 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 life’s meaning. Though ordinary, they are not simple in the least.

If 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 promise was?

Well, she has never stopped asking.

But 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 mistakes.

In the year that followed, Jerriann divorced her husband. They had been together fourteen years, but it hadn’t 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.”

A 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 life’s riddles, he never once treated her like she was making a big deal out of nothing. He always went with her.

Jerriann’s 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 day.

“He’s the best friend I have,” Doug added.

“There 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 I’d point to is my precious children, who have become great young adults. And I’d point to my new love for my father. And my love for Doug. My sister, my brother, my cousins – they’re all in the mix. My end of the bargain is by no means complete. When I die, then I’ll be done, and not a second before. But the first thing I’d point to? That’s my family. They’re not the whole answer to my promise, but they’re part of it.”