I can only remember one time in my professional career that I cornered myself with a promise - and as terrified as the experience made me feel - I am so much richer for having made a promise to Dolores.
Dolores had mild learning disabilities and some motor clumsiness. She and her brother were being raised by their mom who was a single parent. Things I remember about this family focus a lot around their names: Dolores, Wally (brother), and Hazel (mom). All of these names are uncommon today, but as uncommon as the names were they fit this family well, because the names reflected precisely on the way that they did not exactly 'fit in' with most of the other people around them. The family was quite poor, and perhaps a little socially awkward, but at the same time the kindest people I have ever met.
Dolores wanted to learn how to ride a bike - she was clumsy and could not coordinate her balance with the motion of her legs. In therapy we worked on developing these skills so that she could ride - and eventually she had improved to the point that I asked her if she had tried riding her bike lately. I will never forget the sadness that she looked at me with as she said, "My bike is broken, and now even if I knew how to ride it I couldn't."
I felt my heart melt right there on the spot, and without any hesitation I told her to bring her bike to me next time and I would fix it for her. There really was no other response to offer other than making that promise.
The next time that they came in I walked them to the parking lot after the session to get the bike out of their car. Their car was quite old (of course) and from the trunk I pulled out an ancient, rusty, and dented Schwinn Western Flyer.
I took the bike home that evening and stripped it down to the frame and air-brushed it a brilliant yellow that I knew Dolores would love. It took hours of work, and I even had some parts soaking in a solution of weak oxalic acid to try to get off all of the surface rust. I found a store that had some pedals that fit, and found a new seat as well - I was really making some progress!
Unfortunately I got hung up on the ball bearings and locking nuts around the pedal mechanism that were impossibly stripped and made the bike un-useable. I almost had a friend machine me the parts but I just kept thinking that this bike would be useless again if anything else ever broke on it. Parts for this bike were just not easy to find.
Dolores asked me each session that she came in, "How's my bike coming, how's my bike coming??" Her mom would gently shush her and tell Dolores that I was busy and I had my own kids and that she should never ask me such things - that it was nice enough of me to even offer to TRY to fix it. After hitting a dead end with the parts I needed, I felt defeated. Then the final blow was delivered when she told me one day, "It's OK, really, I am just glad that you even tried to fix that rusty bike for us."
Dolores' words echoed in my head as I drove home into the sinking sunset. I felt that if I stayed on the road long enough the sun just might swallow me whole and take me with it - to wherever it goes after the day is completed. All that existed was the road. And me in the car. And the sun looming as large as the promise I made, threatening to swallow me whole with each passing moment.
At this time I saw where the earth and the sky met, with no geographic barriers that would limit my perception. The Earth curved outwardly in all directions, and the sky was equally large but in a conversive orientation. As I drove I remember thinking how beautiful it was, how large the sky was, how the earth and sky moved in and out in congruence with my breath. I prayed for an answer.
When I got home I stared at the bike in my garage, wondering what I should do. I could not find the parts I needed. But I promised her I would fix it. PROMISED her. How many people ever promised little Dolores anything? How many people ever came through for her in her short life? The answer that kept coming back to me was "No one does. And no one has." But I knew that I had to.
Here I have to be very thankful for my wife, who understood the mess I got myself into. At the time it certainly wasn't an easy solution, but together we went straight to the store and bought her the best bike that we could find. It was a beautiful pink girl’s bike with a plastic basket that had flowers on it. It was everything that the old Western Flyer was never going to be again: the bike of some child's dreams. And of course, I purchased a matching helmet.
Dolores is a young adult by now. I have always thought that I didn't need to see her again - and that I wanted to remember her as an eight year old little girl, kicked around a little too much by unfair circumstances, and with an innocence of humility and understanding that most eight year old children don't have.
I'll never forget the wonder in her eyes that saw her old Western Flyer magically transformed into this brand new bicycle. "Oh how did you do that?? How did you make it so new??" as she and Wally ran with the bike to try it out.
It may be the best promise I ever got to keep.