Sunday Morning ~ Promises, Threats, and Possibilities
Fodya ndi uyu ali pa mphuno; wa pa cala ngwa mphepo. ~ The real tobacco is in the nose; the one on the finger is for the wind.
~ Chewa proverb
November 15, 2020
Don’t believe all you hear. What we can taste is the reality. Empty promises are blown away on the wind. Oh how I miss Malawian wisdom punctuating my daily conversations. Along with stepping into the backyard to pick a lime or ripe avocado, the experience of life there amid the steadfast belief in a better day was a rich existence. I think I’m allowing myself to miss it more now that I have hope for our state department. It feels like a fire was recently extinguished and we are assessing the damage but haven’t gotten the insurance check yet. I’m in the imagining stage of how to reconstruct.
What is the difference between an empty promise and an empty threat? They really are similarly cruel. I have spent many hours counseling women in abusive relationships and it’s incredibly frustrating. As my mother said to me, “When someone tells you you are stupid for thirty-six years, you believe it.” It’s a long hard process to get them to believe otherwise and understand how much better their lives would be without the stress they endure. Leaving an abusive relationship is not easy. The threat of never seeing their children again, of killing their cat, of being murdered keep them in a dangerous and toxic situation. Fear is a powerful motivator and those threats are real. These examples are blatantly and extremely abusive, but there are more subtle, craftier abusers. The ones that tell you everything is your fault, who dangle the pursestrings, who promise glory if only you behave, who tell you they really are leaving their wife this time. I’ve sat with these women and heard all the promises and threats in different varieties. And I struggle with how to get a chink in the wall to shine a light, gently, lest she never come back. Who wants to hear we’ve been duped? It feels so shitty. Especially when your bank account is now empty and there’s some serious egg to wipe off that face of yours.
When I found myself facing the end of my marriage I spent $125 for one visit to a divorce lawyer an hour away. She’d been recommended by a friend and I was still in crisis. I drove there, crying the whole way, somehow thinking she was going to fix this whole thing. She welcomed me into her office and I blubbered the abridged story and asked her what I should do until he came to his senses and came back. She, in an apparent attempt to save my money as she charged by the minute, said, “He’s not coming back.” I stared at her in disbelief. How could she say that? I was outraged! How dare she? She didn’t even know me! Or him! I didn’t hear much of what she said next. She may have listed some things to do but she may as well have been talking to a mannequin. I got up numbly and left her office and told myself all the way home what a terrible lawyer she was. She, of course, was right. He didn’t come back but it took some time to accept that my world was crumbling around me. Once the reality took hold, I took care of it myself, went to the town hall and bought a packet titled “Divorce With Children” for a dollar. Then it was a step by step walk toward independence and solvency which wasn’t easy, but it was doable. The first step in that long walk out of the woods, however, was recognizing the difference between empty threats, broken promises, my own illusions, and reality.
When it was all final I took a trip to France to visit Michel, a missionary priest I was very close to in Malawi during my Peace Corps days. He was the godfather of my son born there, had been to visit us here twice, and was then retired in southern France. I dreaded telling him about the divorce; he was so close to our family and it felt like such a failure. I couldn’t bear that he’d be disappointed in me or us. I’d written to him ahead of time so it wasn’t a surprise when I arrived. I knew he’d still love me, that wasn’t ever a concern but just having to admit my marriage failed was hard. I stayed in a guest room in the retirement home and shared daily meals and mass with the White Fathers. I prayed and cried, still sorting out how to rebuild what I lost. I prayed for my family, that my kids would be ok, that I would figure out how to make a good life on my own. I was careful not to demonize my ex and Michel never asked for many details. One afternoon, after an amazing lunch in the dining hall where the retired fathers swallowed their medications with their wine, Michel took a nap. I sat quietly in his room and looked around for something to read while he slept. I pulled a photo album off a shelf labeled “Visit to America 1995” and opened it. The album held photos of his last visit to Maine when he’d visited the kids’ school and told stories of D Day. There was a photo of me sitting at our dining table and underneath was written “Linda, my great friend from America”. Next to it was a photo turned backside out. I pulled back the plastic and turned the photo over. It was my husband with the line under it, “Joe, my great friend from America.” I looked at Michel asleep on his bed and wept. He must have done this when he’d received my letter explaining what had happened to us, turning the photo over as a statement. Finding his gesture was an incredible validation for me. I thought how he hadn’t ripped it up and thrown it away. He was leaving room for the possibility of healing and reconciliation. I put the album back on the shelf and never told him I’d seen that. A few weeks after I returned home, Michel wrote to tell me he’d been diagnosed with acute leukemia and he died six weeks later. I am so eternally grateful I made that trip.
I know I am only a small speck in this complicated country. I know my story is only one of zillions that didn’t turn out so well. But I do believe we can recover from this blight in our history and build something better. We’ve got so much of the world behind us who know what’s in the nose and what’s in the wind, ready to turn over the photo of the last four years.
Love to all,