My daughter has always had an air of caution about her. It’s not that she is fearful or doesn’t take risks. In fact I would say Liv is quite adventurous. But she tends to think through what she’s doing. Once she has deemed something worthwhile, she goes for it. Now that she’s 14, this is a great trait. But the early years were a little problematic. She would come up with something she thought was quite logical, but her logic had limitations and she would occasionally get stuck. For example, one day in first grade she went to the nurse’s office because she wasn’t feeling well. She threw up on the nurse, the floor, and herself. The nurse was annoyed that Liv didn’t use a trash can (Really???) and Liv was mortified. Liv wanted to make sure she would never experience this kind of embarrassment again, so she (in her mind) logically concluded that she should never throw up again.
Bedtime ritual typically included talking about the day, a bedtime prayer, kisses and hugs. Then one day, shortly after the throw-up incident in the nurse’s office, she asked, “Will I throw up?” “No,” I said. “Promise?” I tried to reason with her and tell her that I couldn’t make that promise. But she needed reassurance and it was more important to do that than worry about breaking a promise. And so each night for a few years to follow we would go through the routine, “Will I throw up?” “No.” “Promise?” “Promise.” I assume that her logic was that we as parents were trustworthy, and our promises assuaged her fears. Other promises followed. And it was always for a sense of peace. She never asked us to promise her a pony or a trip to a faraway land. Her requests were always her attempt to be reassured, comforted, and told it would be okay.
Then one day she asked me this: “Mom, promise me you’ll never die.” The first time I was asked, my logical response in my head was, “Of course I can’t make that promise. There are many factors beyond my control.” But she was little, and I could see in her face, just as with the throw-up incident, that reassurance was needed more than grownup logic. And so I would take a leap of faith to make a promise I wasn’t comfortable in making, and often with a silent prayer following, “Please God, don’t make me a liar.”
I remember my son periodically asking me if I would die. When he was young I would simply answer with a “no” and that was that. When he got older, I answered with a little more vagueness, “I have plans to be around for a long time.” The answers satisfied him and eventually he realized that I couldn’t know when I would die and so he stopped mentioning it. My daughter, on the other hand, didn’t stop. She would hear, read, or think of something related to my dying, and then come to me asking me to promise that I would never leave her. When she was about 10 or 11, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the exchange. It’s not that I didn’t want to comfort her, but I knew that her logic had exceeded this ritual. And so the day came where she said, “Mom, promise me you’ll never die.” I hesitated. I looked at her pleading face. Tears began to well in her eyes. She was old enough to know that this was not a promise I could make. And yet I could see the little girl in her looking for reassurance. She said again, “Promise me, Mom.” And I thought, “What if the unthinkable happens? Will she look back at this moment and hate me for lying if I make her this promise now?” She tried to blink back the tears. She probably knew what was coming. I hated to say it, but I had to. “You know I can’t make that promise.” Tears spilled onto her cheeks and it was painful to watch. She knew what I was saying was right, but it was hard to hear.
And then I knew what I had to do. I hugged her tightly and said, “I promise to do everything I can to be around for a very long time. But I want you to know that whatever happens, I know you’ll be okay. No matter how hard life gets, you are strong and kind and loving and resourceful. You will find what you need to get through. You have so many people who love you and will be there for you. YOU are going to be okay.” And I held her while we both cried a little. It wasn’t that I could no longer reassure her, but I realized her reassurance needed to be different. She was old enough to face what was real, and needed my help in finding the courage to do so.
I think we all have promises of our own that we ask, whether acknowledged or not, and we are hoping they will be kept. It doesn’t matter if they are realistic promises. They are rooted in both deep need and fear. “Promise me you won’t leave me because I can’t be alone.” “Promise me you really do love me because I’m not sure that I’m worthy.” “Promise me that you won’t tell me bad news because I don’t think I can handle it.” But there comes a day, or two or a hundred, when we are given an opportunity or even forced to face the need and fear behind the promise, just as my daughter had to do.
When she was little, Liv had the luxury of believing that her world was in my care. And I’m thankful for that because many children do not have that luxury. But at some point, that belief would have become detrimental to her. We can inadvertently teach our children and hope for ourselves that our world is controllable, that good things always happen to good people, that life is fair. But those things simply aren’t true. And when we assume God is only in the positive outcome or we have a faith that requires winning/healing/success/promise, we are denied the opportunity to experience God when we need God most, such as in a tight, long-lasting hug that follows a difficult truth.