I Made a Promise

I made a promise this morning. I told my husband that I’ll meet him for a big special lunch today. It’s Valentine’s day. It’s a day off teaching for me, thanks to yesterday’s snow storm. He goes out to clear the snow, but my car is buried too deep. He has to leave for work. He’s dejected. No big special lunch after all since I can’t leave the house now. No wife to interrupt his daily routine. Lunch is very important to this man, especially one you’ve planted in his head in anticipation. A man leaving the house with a head hung low is painful to watch.

After he leaves, I call my mind together for a big think. I made a promise, and I intend to keep it. So me and my sore shoulder started digging out the car buried under two feet of snow, exhuming it after two hours. I call and tell him I’m on my way, we’re having a big lunch after all! Really??- He asks. Yeah, really- I say. I punch in the destination and head out in a hurry. Meanwhile, I can hear my husband thinking, “She found someone and paid him to shovel the snow.” That’s actually what I’d have done, but I had no time to find such services. I had a promise to keep.

After 15 minutes on the road, I notice – and here I go into a massive panic – that I’ll be going through Harbor Tunnel in a few seconds. I swerve. I SWERVE. I S-W-E-R-V-E. I’m shouting so you understand the gravity of this situation here. I don’t do tunnels, I don’t do bridges. Something called gephyrophobia. Very bad. It doesn’t kill you dead, but you will die a thousand deaths while hyperventilating, spiraling into hell in an attack of extreme vertigo, tongue stuck on the roof of your mouth, bowels threatening to let loose as you slow down to a mile/hr and scream at the top of your lungs, all this before you miraculously come out alive at the other end of the tunnel or bridge.

A brief history. Gephyrophobia came to me suddenly on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, without cause, after many years of stellar and fearless driving. I’m the one that used to speed across the Delaware Bridge like a Nascar driver. Life will always throw you a curveball. One day, I shall overcome, I promise. But today I have another promise to keep.

Before you think me a wimp, I’ll have you know that Mzee Kenyatta had a phobia for planes and elevators. On one flight, he’s said to have cursed all the way to JKA, made sure a fitting insult was delivered to the pilot, and that was his last flight ever. He lived many years after that, getting around in cars and taking only stairs. George Washington lived in constant fear of being buried before he’s really dead, to the extent that he put it in his will to be left uninterred two days after he’s declared dead. Nixon had a phobia for hospitals, thought if he ever went in there he’d never come out alive. So there, I’m in the company of presidents when it comes to phobias.

I park and catch my breath after that close shave with the offending tunnel. Then I realize I’m trapped. When I swerved, I took a nowhere exit into some space under the I-95 overpass. I have to go back on the highway or else I become a story- “Once upon a time, a woman lived under an overpass…” Of course I won’t go back on that highway. You don’t know my resolve. I’m not moving. So I sit and wait for God. I call my husband and explain the situation. He thinks it funny. It’s a relief one of us can laugh about it. I tell him I can’t make the big lunch after all since I don’t know what time God will show up.

While I sit through this perfect convergence of storms and phobias that have conspired to make me a fraudulent promisor, it strikes me that relationships of all kinds are contractual. They consist of promises made here on earth between two parties. In marriage, “made in heaven” is exactly what it sounds like; fairy tale. Neither of you have been to heaven to sign any contract. You signed up to an institution made right here on earth, governed by laws and parameters decided by imperfect humans. The seal of authority on your marriage certificate is a government seal, even if it’s His Holiness Rev. Dr. Ogbuefi Adegbayo of the Holy Fire of Christ Church who married you.

It is here on earth that you work things out, change the laws that don’t work for you, until the institution provides you with the best structures that allow you to keep the promises you made to each other. Of course you can make all manner of wonderful promises without a man-made institution like marriage; they are still binding moral contracts upon which your integrity stands. Word is bond.

Yet how easily we discard those lovely promises we make to one another in the face of storms and fears. Storms that stagnate us, burying us in feet of ice-cold uncommunicativeness, wondering who will be the first to shovel the gunk of unpleasantness; fears that freeze our progress and cause us to flee, abandoning the dreams we dreamt together. Every promise you make and break nonchalantly is a few inches of snow slowly burying your relationships. In a work contract the resolve is simple; you get fired.

At the deathly precipice of crisis when we’re certain there’s no hope and we’re about to shatter irretrievably into a trillion pieces, the deus ex machina lies within. Call it inspiration, Spirit, God… Take a moment, calm your fears, look around your place of entrapment and in good time the solution begins to show up. Your way out will become clearer. Keeping the promises you made will become the sweetest challenge that fuels you to create simple joys. It is for the ability to create simple joys in life that we build institutions, go to the ballot, choose presidents, mobilize and organize.

And so in the silence of regrouping my thoughts, I looked around and sure enough, I found a way to maneuver out of the nowhere-place beneath the overpass. I punched in the directions, making sure to check the no-highways option. The GPS spat out a long-winding road to Timbuktu. I let my husband know I’ll see him in an hour (would have taken me six minutes through the tunnel). I can hear his thoughts reading my thoughts, and he’s thinking, “She’s abandoned the car on the highway and called a taxi and now I’ll have to go and drive it through the tunnel…” I let him entertain this imaginary thought that I’m thinking he’s thinking.

I get there in an hour and oh, the big-big smile on his face that greets me. And what a glorious lunch! In these simple joys, my life finds meaning. I kept my promise.

First published Feb 15, 2014

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