Jewish World Review Feb. 15, 2006 / 17 Shevat, 5766
A Promise fulfilled
By Libby Lazewnik
Two boys stood a little apart from the rest. They were both twelve years old. One of them, Yitzi, turned to his friend.
"Well, we're going," he said. He didn't sound particularly happy at the prospect.
"Yeah. Would you look at the size of that truck? I've never seen anything so gigantic in my life!" As opposed to Yitzi's wistful look, the other boy sparkled with life and energy. "How long will it take you to get to where you're going?"
"It's only across town. About forty minutes, my father said."
Yitzi hesitated. "Moishy, can I ask you something?"
"Will you come to my bar mitzvah? It'll be in about three months. I know we won't be in the same school anymore, and it'll be a bother for you to get a ride all the way over to my new neighborhood, but... I'd be really happy if you came."
"Sure I'll come!" Moishy said expansively. "You think a little move like this means we won't be friends any more?"
Yitzi's eyes brightened. "Promise?"
"Sure, I promise! I'll come to your bar mitzvah, and and I'll also come to your son's bar mitzvah one day!" The boy laughed.
"In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if I even showed up at your grandson's bar mitzvah!"
Yitzi laughed, too a joyous peal that made his mother, just coming out of the house with an armful of odds and ends, stop and stare. Then she smiled, too, because her son had not been enthusiastic about the move and laughter had been in short supply lately.
An hour later, the big truck moved off down the block, followed by the family car. The neighborhood boys waved after it until it was gone from sight.
When Yitzi's bar mitzvah invitation came in the mail some weeks later, Moishy was happy to accept. Bar mitzvahs were fun! Together with a couple of other kids who'd been invited from the old neighborhood, he made the trip across town. Yitzi was overjoyed to see him. Moishy went to bed that night feeling very virtuous.
They had spoken on the phone once or twice since Yitzi's move. Then, after the bar mitzvah, Yitzi called to thank him again for coming. Moishy wasn't home.
"I'll call him back later," he thought vaguely, when his mother gave him the message. But, what with one thing and another, "later" never came.
Another call followed that one, and another message. Another good intention never bore fruit. Whenever he thought of Yitzi, Moishy felt a pang but the pang always left as quickly as it had come. Moishy was the kind of kid who lived lightly, on the surface of things, throwing himself into the moment without much thought about either yesterday or tomorrow. Yitzi belonged to yesterday... And so, tomorrow's phone call never happened.
Then they each graduated from the eighth grade, and it was time to go off to yeshiva (rabbinical school). Yitzi attended a local one for a year, after which he moved into a dormitory several states away. Moishy was already ensconced in a dorm room in a different yeshiva. The two boys lost touch completely.
The years marched on. Shidduchim (dating) was
followed by a couple of weddings. The two long-ago boys became
husbands, fathers and responsible members of their respective
communities. Their children grew a little older, and then older still.
The men sprouted one or two gray hairs but just one or two. Life
was good. The years flowed on.
"Dad, can I talk to you a minute?" Shaya asked his father.
It was a cool evening in late autumn. Shaya's father had just settled down at the dining-room table with his Talmud. He looked up questioningly.
"This'll just take a minute," Shaya said. "But I hope you'll say yes."
His father grinned. "Before I hear what this is all about, or afterwards?" Shaya laughed, but the intent look didn't leave his eyes. "After, of course." He drew a deep breath. "It's like this. I met a kid in camp this past summer, and we really hit it off. His name's Zevy. We're kind of good friends now."
"Wonderful!" His father's eyes strayed to the Talmud. He was expecting a late call in just over an hour.
"Okay, I'll get to the point. Zevy's becoming a bar mitzvah in December, and he really wants me to be there. I promised him I'd come."
"So? What's the problem."
"He lives in New Jersey, Dad." Shaya named a community at least an hour-and-a-half from their own Brooklyn home. "I'd need a ride there and back." Eagerly, he added, "You're also invited, Zevy said. Could you drive me? Please?"
He could tell by the look in his father's eyes that he wanted to say no. In fact, he came very close to doing so. The word seemed to tremble in the air. Desperate to forestall it, Shaya said, "I promised, Dad! He'd be so sad if I didn't come, but that's not even the worst part. I have to keep my word!"
"Why do you make promises that you need other people to help you keep?" his father grumbled. But there was something in his son's eyes that made him stop his grumbling. Shaya was a good boy, a serious boy a boy who had what his father thought of as weight. Not in the physical sense; Shaya was thin and wiry, not heavy at all. But there was a solidness to him, a depth and an intensity that his father couldn't help but admire especially since he himself lacked that same weight, and would rather shrug or laugh off an issue than sit down and really think about it ...
It was this quality in Shaya that made him so badly want to keep his word. And it was his father's admiration for that quality that made him say though with obvious reluctance "Well, all right. I'll take you. I don't really feel comfortable about staying for the meal, though. I don't even know the family, or anyone in that town."
"Why don't you come in and say 'mazel tov'? Then you can
decide if you want to stay or not." Shaya held his breath.
The father looked into his son's eager face. "Fine, then. That's
what I'll do."
The weather on the bar mitzvah Sunday could not have been worse. Sleet and snow had been forecast, and for once the weathermen were right on the mark. Shaya took one look out the window when he woke up and raced out of the room to find his father.
Please don't let Dad change his mind, he prayed. He found his father in the kitchen, getting ready to leave for Shacharis (Morning Prayers). He was gazing out the kitchen window wearing a very unencouraging expression.
"Dad?" Shaya's voice was small, but the pleading note was as clear as the sound of a bell on a crisp morning.
"We'll have to see how this thing progresses," his father said. "If it turns into a major snowstorm, it would be dangerous to be out on the roads. You do realize that, don't you?"
"I guess." Shaya looked down at his feet. "But if it doesn't get worse if the weather stays the same or gets better can we go? I "
"You promised. I know." His father's eyes strayed back to the window. "I'll do my best, Shaya."
To Shaya's immense relief, the snow lightened as the morning wore on. By noon, there were only scattered snow showers and the major roads had already been plowed. "The highway should be fine, shouldn't it, Dad? Don't they salt them first thing?"
"The highway is the least of my worries," his father said. "I'm much more worried about the local streets, both here and in your friend's town. But I'm game if you are!"
"Thanks, Dad!" It had been a long time since twelve-year-old Shaya had spontaneous thrown his arms around his father, but he did so now. His father returned the hug, then said with a smile, "Well, what are you waiting for? Go get dressed."
The car navigated the streets cautiously, like a skater testing the ice before gliding out onto a frozen pond. Several times, they slipped and skidded, but fortunately with no ill effects. Shaya hardly breathed until they were safely on the highway, heading south.
The salt spread by the highway workers spattered onto their windshield with the passing cars, making it hard to see even with the wipers working their hardest. Shaya's father grumbled under his breath and strained for a better view.
"It'll be better once we're off the highway," Shaya predicted hopefully.
"We'll see." His father clearly did not share his optimism. At long last, they reached the city they were aiming for. Here, only the major streets had been plowed, leaving two or three inches of powdery white stuff on the smaller streets. "We'll be lucky if we don't end up in the hospital today, chas v'shalom (G-d forbid)," Shaya's father muttered as his wheels struggled for traction.
"We're doing all this so that I can keep a promise I made," Shaya said confidently. "G-d will protect us."
His father said nothing. He was too busy trying to keep the car upright on the slippery surface of the road.
"There it is! I see the hall!" Shaya was beside himself with excitement. Gratefully, he turned to his father. "Thanks a million, Dad. You did it!"
"You're welcome." The glow in his son's face made the nightmarish trip seem suddenly worth all the effort.
Together they walked into the hall, stamping the snow from their shoes. When their coats were checked in the cloakroom, Shaya's father said, "Well, now that I'm here I might as well come in and say 'mazel tov.'"
"You can eat the meal too, Dad. When I told Zevy that you'd agreed to take me all the way out here, Zevy told me that his father specially invited you to stay."
"We'll see." Through the big, double doors they went, following the strains of music and the murmur of guest's voices.
A boy and his parents were standing inside the door, beaming at each set of newcomers as they walked in. Shaya went straight to the boy, who was wearing what was obviously a very new suit and hat. "Zevy! Mazel tov!"
Zevy's face lit up. "You made it! I'm so happy you came." He turned to introduce his friend to his parents. "Ma, Daddy this is Shaya. He came all the way from Brooklyn in this weather!"
"How nice of you to make the drive," Zevy's mother told Shaya's father. Then she along with Zevy and Shaya stopped short. The two men were staring at one another.
"You came," Zevy's father said, in a voice that sounded strangely choked.
Looking dazed, Shaya's father nodded. He seemed incapable of speech.
"After all these years you kept your promise!" Tearing his eyes away with difficulty, Zevy's father turned to his wife. "This is an old friend of mine. We lived in the same neighborhood when we were boys. Before I moved, I asked to come to my bar mitzvah, and he promised that he would and also my son's bar mitzvah. He attended mine, but we haven't seen or heard from each other for more years than I care to remember. And now, here incredibly he is!"
His wife's eyes were shining. Shaya stared at his father. "Dad? How come you didn't tell me you knew Zevy's father?"
His father swallowed hard, and finally found his voice. "Uh... haven't you ever heard of the surprise factor?"
"Well, this is certainly the most terrific surprise!" Zevy's father seized Shaya's father's hand and began pumping it happily. "I'm going to move you to my table so we can catch up on old times. Come on, I'll take you over to there right now. How great to see you again, Moishy!"
Dazedly, like a man sleepwalking, Shaya's father followed the
other man across the crowded room.
Ironically, the accident happened on the way home. By the time they emerged from the hall, the streets that had been plowed were beginning to ice up again in the falling temperatures. Shaya and his father were no more than five blocks away, headed for the highway, when a car appeared out of nowhere, skidding wildly in front of them. Shaya's father wrenched his own steering wheel to the right, in a frantic attempt to avoid the oncoming car.
As a result, the other car did not crash head-on into theirs. But the car's nose did glance sharply off the driver's seat, throwing Shaya's father onto the dashboard. The airbags flew out, and after that all was darkness.
When he came to, Shaya was in a hospital bed , his left leg in a cast. Looking across at the other bed, he saw his father lying there. There was a bandage around his father's head and his eyes were closed.
"Dad! Dad, wake up! Are you all right?"
His anxious voice penetrated the fog in which his father lay.
Slowly, he opened his eyes and said, "Baruch Hashem, I'm fine, Shaya. We had a little accident, remember? We both blacked out for a while. I woke up earlier and the doctor told me that your leg's been fractured. See the cast?"
"I noticed. How about you, Dad? What happened to your head?"
"A close encounter with the dashboard, that's all. They want to keep us both in here overnight, for observation just to make sure there's no concussion."
"Does Ma know?"
"She was called. I spoke to her when I woke up. She wanted to come running down here the minute she heard, of course, but I insisted that she stay home in this weather. We don't need another accident, chas v'shalom! She'll be down in the morning to pick us up."
There was a silence, broken only by the muffled sounds of nurses moving about the halls. All at once, Shaya remembered the bar mitzvah. "Dad, that was some surprise you pulled on me. Not telling me that Zevy's father was an old friend of yours!"
His father looked at him, rather shamefaced. "Actually, I've been wanting to talk to you about that, Shaya."
"The truth of the matter is I didn't, know. Seeing Yitzi Friedman standing next to the bar mitzvah boy was the biggest shock of my life! Especially..."
"Especially?" Shaya prompted, when his father showed no sign of continuing anytime soon.
"Especially since I'd promised him, when we were kids, that I'd attend his son's bar mitzvah."
"You promised that?" Shaya's eyes were round.
Slowly, his father turned to face him. There was a serious look in his eye that Shaya didn't remember seeing often before. "Shaya, in those day I promised a lot of things. I promised without thinking. The words meant nothing more than a good intention a fleeting impulse. I was like that in those days." He stopped. Then, painfully, he added, "I guess I haven't changed all that much..."
Shaya wanted to speak, to say something anything to ease the pain he saw in his father's face. A raised hand stopped the words before he could utter them.
"You're different, Shaya. For you, a promise means something. Your word carries weight. That's why I agreed to make this trip out here to help you be who you are. To help you take the things you say seriously... as I myself don't do nearly often enough." He gazed intently into his son's eyes. "Because of who you are because you would move heaven and earth to keep a promise you made G-d let me keep the promise that I made so many years ago. A promise I never really planned to see through..." He paused, then added emotionally, "Thank you, Shaya."
Color flamed into the boy's cheeks. "It was nothing, Dad. I didn't do anything. I didn't even know about it!"
"You did do something, Shaya. You did everything you could to keep your word to your friend." The father shook his head, then winced as the movement caused it to ache. "Never change, my boy. Never take your friends for granted or your word."
Shaya still wanted to ease his father's pain. So he leaned forward and said the only thing that he knew would do the trick. Words that his father because he knew him would know really meant something.
"I promise, Dad," he said.
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