A BOX OF PROMISES...
In the weeks and months after I met Diana, we grew as close as two people could possibly ever get. I love to announce to the world as often as I can, and to anyone who will listen, that falling in love with her was the easiest and very best thing I have ever done in my life. I am not exaggerating an iota when I tell you this woman has changed the trajectory of my life and opened parts of my heart and soul that I honestly never knew existed. There is but one thing I have found that is better than making promises to her...and that is keeping them!
Every day for more than a decade, I have been learning things about her and her life. I am as fascinated today as I was the first day we met beneath that oak tree in Parco dei Gessi. And if you haven’t heard that story...well, let me tell you where you can read it.
The last chapter of the first book in my Terra d’Amore. An Italian Story series, Sojourners All, is entitled Twenty One Days In May. Those final pages tell the incredible story of how our amazing love and respect for one another began. If you have not read it, you really should! It is a very good story if I must say so for myself. But I digress...
One day, a year or so after we met, we were walking hand-in-hand along a beautiful dirt, country lane called via Martiri di Pizzocalvo. I recall it was in the last weeks of November. We were wearing warm coats and clothes. By that time she had introduced me to the wonderful amenity all Italians wear, the neck scarf, and I was wearing mine so proudly...
“I have a box I keep in my closet,” she said to me. “Do you want to know what's in it?”
“Of course I do,” I answered. I wanted to learn everything I possibly could about this woman.
“I call it “la scatola di mio padre,” she continued. “It means my father’s box. It didn’t belong to him, but I’ve filled it with small, inconsequential things that were his. They mean nothing to no one but me. They are my private and most personal memories of him. It is my most prized possession.”
Diana’s father died nearly three decades ago now, of pancreatic cancer. The disease took his life quickly. Few people are prepared to witness what cancer can do to the human body and soul. Diana got to see it up close and personal. The experience has forever scarred her. To hear her try to speak of it, even today, brings tears to my eyes.
“My father was a very, very good man,” she said as she began to tell me about him. “He was loved by everyone who knew him. He was honest and kind and generous. But one thing he was not, was sentimental. He never really fussed over me when I was a little girl. He had the highest expectations of and for me though. He wanted me to be smart and successful. He really drove me to be the best Diana I could be.”
“You could be talking about my own father,” I answered. “There were times when he drove me beyond what I was capable of...and he knew it! It caused so many problems between us. He wanted me to be something and someone I was not...nor did I want to be. And when my vision of myself conflicted his...well, let me tell you, the sparks would fly!”
“Oh please don't misunderstand what I am saying,” Diana said to me. “I knew that he loved me. I knew he wanted me to be true to myself. He just had a little different idea of how I should get there! He never really told me that he loved me…but he showed me his love in hundreds of other ways.”
That day, Diana decided she needed to tell me about one of those ways...
“When I was growing up,” she began, “I always believed my parents were happy together and that they had a good marriage. But my mother could be a very difficult person. I never really knew how difficult until much later.
As time went on, before he died of course, I could feel the tension growing between them. It made me very troubled and frightened. I could tell he was growing despondent and distant, but I was only nine years old...I had no idea why.”
The more Diana told me her story, the more I was preparing myself to hear one that would remind me of my own childhood. The situation was different in my home though...it was my mother who was loved and adored by everyone. My father was respected by everyone, but he was a taskmaster and incapable of showing much emotion other than anger. The rest he kept bottled up inside. I don’t know how many people I could actually say loved him…really loved him, but he too was growing distant in my little family. The tension it brought has left its scars on me and given me a few habits that are difficult to break.
“My father used to share in the chores around the house,” Diana continued. “But gradually, as he and my mother argued more and more, about ridiculous things, he helped less and less. From the time he came home from his job at the insurance agency to the time he went to bed, he hardly spoke a word to any of us.
What was happening to my parents was becoming more evident as the months passed. But I have to tell you something...I was not prepared in the least for the day my mother sat with my brother and me to tell us my father had decided to leave.”
No sooner had those words come out of Diana’s mouth and we stopped walking. She turned to me and for the first time I could look directly into those beautiful sad eyes...all the way down to her tender heart. As her eyes were filling with tears, mine were filling with love and a yearning that swept over me…a yearning to protect her. Forever.
“All that I could think about was what my friends were going to say,” she continued. “Divorce just didn’t happen in my little world...not here in Italy! It was something I never thought possible in my family. The very thought of it was too much for me to bear. I kept telling myself over and over that it wasn't going to happen. But the day he finally left with his suitcases in his hand, I went completely numb.”
In a deft attempt to make her feel that she was not alone, I told her of the many times my mother would pack our suitcases and take my sister and me by city bus to the train station. She was taking us back to her family...always telling my father they’d reached the end. What I didn’t know was that every ticket she bought for the train was round trip. When I asked her about that years later, this is what she said to me...
“I made a promise to your father Giacomino…and to God,” she said. “I stood at the altar and when I recited my vows, I meant every single word of them. But your father didn’t know that. He did not know I would never quit. Leaving like we did was my way of getting him to see that he too made the same vows I did. I am sure he felt how empty the house was when the three of us were gone. I only stayed away long enough for it to sink in. I wanted him to understand how important we were. And it worked, didn’t it?”
“Thank you Jimmy,” Diana said to me. “It is good to know I wasn’t alone...that it happened to other families too.”
“Do you want to continue?” I asked. “I am sure there is a lot more to your story.”
And of course there was...
“The night before he left,” she continued, “I couldn’t sleep...I was awake all night. I knelt beside my little bed and I cried and I prayed and I cried some more. I turned on the light at my desk and I wrote him a long letter. I told him how much I loved him and how much I would miss him. I told him that I would forever and always be his Dianina. I told him I would never stop praying that he would come back. I made him promise me he would.
When I finished writing that letter, and before I folded it to put in the envelope, I took a photograph of him and me from a photo album that I kept on my dresser.
In the photo we were in Giardini Margherita in Bologna. I was three...maybe four years old. He was sitting on the ground and I was standing beside him. It was the time of Carnevale here in Italy and I was dressed in the costume of Zorro! I had completely tied him up with ribbons and strings and was standing beside him with my sword in the air. He was perfectly content to be my prisoner!
Before I put the letter and photograph in the envelope, I added a few final words...
“You are not only my father you know…you are my very best friend.”
I got up very early the next morning, well before he was ready to leave forever. He’d already taken one of his bags out to the car, and he’d come back in for the other, and to say good-bye to my brother and me. I never wanted the words good-bye to ever come out of my mouth, so I slipped my letter and the photograph into his suitcase and then I hid on the balcony until he was gone.
As I watched his car pulling away, believing I would never see him again, I cried harder than I’d ever cried in my whole life. A few weeks went by and we heard nothing from him. We knew he was staying with his parents in the house in which he’d grown up and that it was just across town, but to a nine year old girl whose heart was broken, it felt like he was as far away as the moon!”
Diana took a few minutes to rest from telling the story. The look on her face told me the pain was as fresh today as it was so many years ago...
“I came home from school one day to find my mother sitting at the kitchen table,” Diana continued. “She was waiting for me to come home. My brother was outside playing but she told me she had something she needed to talk to me about. I could see in her eyes that she had been crying.”
“Mamma?” I blurted out, starting to cry myself. “Is everything OK?”
“Your father was here a little while ago,” she said to me. “We talked for a long time. We talked about him coming back and what had to change between us if we were going to have that forever we’d promised each other.”
Then she looked me right in the eyes and said something to me that made my little heart take flight...
“Your father told me that you wrote him a letter before he left,” she said. “He would not tell me what you wrote but I am hoping you will. Will you tell me what your letter said?”
I found it really hard to tell her what I had written to my father. It was from my heart and I didn’t think it was any of her business and so I mumbled a few words and then I shrugged. She seemed to understand that it was very personal to me."
“Well, your father said that when he read your letter it made him cry. It meant a great deal to him and I want to tell you something. I have known your fathe for a long time...since we were children. I can never remember seeing him cry. It was your letter that made him call to ask if he could come over and talk. Whatever you said to him seems to have made all the difference in the world."
Diana told me that a few days later her father came home and promised he was there to stay. The two of them never spoke about her letter...
“I guess we always figured that it was something that was a secret,” she said. “A secret just between us.”
Diana’s parents went on to be married for more than twenty-five years before his early death at the age of fifty-three...
“In the last sixteen years they were together,” Diana added, “I got to see what a truly great marriage looks like. Their love for each other, and for my brother and me, grew stronger every day. My heart still swells with pride to know in some little way I’d helped.”
I wish this story had a happier ending, but it doesn’t. Diana’s father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer shortly before his fifty-third birthday. Six months later he was gone...
“When the doctor gave my father the bad news,” she said, “I remember him taking my mother’s hand and asked that she stay right beside him until the end. She promised she would...she promised to never leave.
After he died, we had to go through his things. I hated doing it and so I made it a point not to be home while most of his things were being divided and boxed up. When I came back one day, my brother was waiting for me out on our patio...
“Mamma wanted me to give this to you,” he said, handing me an envelope. I recognized it as the one I’d given my father so many years before. “She said you would know what it is.”
It wasn’t until she looked down and took the envelope out of her brother’s hand that she fully understood the impact her letter had that day so long ago. Inside was the photograph of her dressed in her Zorro costume...
“My unsentimental father,” she said, fighting back her tears. “The man who never let his emotions get the best of him, had kept the one thing that meant so much to him and to me.
I sat down on the steps and the tears began to flow. They would not stop. I thought I’d cried every tear I’d had at his funeral and the day we buried him. But now my tears were more than plentiful and my love for that man found a brand-new life.
I finally understood what I had meant to him. My mother told me that he kept that letter and my photograph in the drawer beside their bed right up to the moment he died. He’d kept his promises to all of us. My father was a very, very good man.”
Sometimes we don’t understand the gravity of the promises we’re making when we make them or just how much others depend on us keeping our word. Sometimes keeping our promises can really test us. But if we want to think of ourselves as good, honest and honorable people, we keep them anyway. That’s what love is. Love is keeping the promise anyway.
Words can be twisted into any shape. Promises can be made to lull the heart and seduce the soul. In the final analysis, the words of our promises mean very little or nothing. It is in the keeping of our promises that we demonstrate not only their importance but our own integrity.
This month’s message is about promises and the important role they play in developing trust and keeping love strong and healthy. Diana was kind and gracious enough to allow me to share a personal story of hers with all of you…to help drive home this message. It is her kindness and her desire to help everyone, even those she does not know, that makes me love her the way I do. So before I close, I want to renew a promise I made to her and I want to have you all as witnesses to keep me honest...
Diana. I promise I will love you, protect you and stand by you all the remaining days of my life, no matter what may come along. I promise to be right at your side always and ever...to hold you up when you’re about to fall and to carry your load when you become too tired. You have my word that I will always do whatever I must to keep you safe, to keep you happy and to keep you in love.
I had given up believing that there was someone out there for me. Then I met you. Your love has changed me and my entire life forever. I cannot imagine a day without you in it. I do not want a single success I cannot share with you. You need to know that you are loved more than you ever thought possible.
You have made me see that I must never allow my life to become so complicated that I cannot keep these promises!