When a Promise Should Not Be a Promise

Doing the right thing in life isn’t so hard. Let’s not kid ourselves, we all know what’s right and wrong when faced with a decision. And there’s only do or not do. Simple enough. Really. The real challenge is knowing when doing the right thing isn’t the right thing.

Right now, I’m trying to teach my two and a half year old daughter the concept of a “promise”. She’ll tell us she wants noodles for dinner. So I get her to “promise” that she’ll eat them when mama is done making them. Then she changes her mind when they come to the table. And I tell her she broke the promise she made when she said she wanted the noodles and when she said she was going to eat them. Then she shows me a picture of a blue fish in a book. She’s two years old. She’ll learn, eventually. It’ll work itself out. I’m not worried, but I contemplate, how am I going to explain to her when its ok to walk away from a commitment?

I’ve spent the past few months teaching a couple of night courses at a local sorta non-profit tech school thingy that I’m not going to call out in a public blog. The money was good, the enrollments were growing. I was the first instructor to have a completely sold-out class. I was actually enjoying teaching and I think I was pretty good at it too.

Then I came into the building one night and noticed the construction crews had stopped working on the space that the out of town company had bought to contain the business. Then they laid off the education director who hired me and the remaining staff would take three days or more to respond to emails. Dominos were falling all around. I knew where things were going, I just didn’t know how quickly. There was plenty of time for them to pull things together. After all, the idea they had was just too good to fail.

When my father fell ill, I somehow managed to get through all that by only canceling one class session. During the last week of his life, I missed being able to spend two nights with him because I made a promise. I committed to teaching. I committed to the staff and I committed to the students. I had a one year plan in mind. By my math, after twelve months, I’d be able to make enough money to accomplish some pretty important financial goals my wife and I set, including moving to neighborhood where homeless people won’t be eating from our trash cans on a daily basis.

Since much of what I do for a living is relationship based, and since I expected my father’s illness to draw out for a few years, I thought I was pretty necessary following through on my promise to teach. I just needed to get through the round of classes, then I’d start going to see my father on Saturday nights and I’d watch baseball with him every weekend until he died. I was going to make up for those nights I couldn’t be there. I had plenty of time. At least another 18 months.

I spent my childhood watching a neighbor, who was given six months to live, endure a double masectomy, battle chemo, waste away to a bag of bones, and die only when she was good and ready, ten years later. Through grade school I watched my mother shepherd her mother through the fifteen years it took her to die. As a young adult I watched one uncle, then another, then another spend half a decade in and out of hospitals and through treatments. I knew trench warfare. After that first, and final, ambulance ride my father took, I knew it was my turn to be a witness. Death didn’t just appear at your door step one day, it stalked you for weeks and months and years. With my mother’s words in my head, “there are things in life worse than death”, I clenched my teeth, set myself up to dig in. This was just the beginning, and my father had not yet begun to fight.

It really didn’t work out that way. I did what I was supposed to do, I taught my class on Tuesday and Wednesday, saw my father on Thursday, and then he died early Saturday morning. It wasn’t five years, or 18 months, it was two days. There was no stand-off with the shadows, no grand resistance, they just came and took what they wanted. It really ended before it even began.

Its a month later now and I just got notice my next three classes were canceled because, well, because the dimwits who ran the school burnt through all the money they had and can’t pay the bills. So, sacrificing those last few nights with my father was for, in essence, nothing. I’ll probably find some other part time job, hopefully teaching programming, which is what I do professionally during the day. But I’ll never get those nights back, that I sacrificed, because I promised something.

It seemed kinda hard at the time keeping that promise. I wanted to be at the hospital with him those nights, but I told people I’d be somewhere at a certain time and I had every intention of following through, and I did. Because of the commitment I had, because of the class schedules, during the last week of my father’s life, I spent only one night with him where he was coherent, and watched half an Eagles pre-season game which they, rather aptly, lost. All because I promised something to people I never met, nor who care I even exist, nor have the ability to manage a lemonade stand for profit.

But I really wish I didn’t do it, that I didn’t care so much about the next year, or my reputation as a programmer and instructor. I wish I could have just stopped and recognized the moment for what it was, and realized the doctors weren’t kidding, or understand that my mother wasn’t nuts when she said my father would be dead by Christmas. I’d give almost anything to get those few last nights back. If only I had known when it was the right time and place to to keep my word, and when it was the right time and place to say, you know what, fuck it.

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