Flowers on the table. And two envelopes. The first was a list of memories, from my dad, and the second was a story, from my mom. Neither she nor I had been very comfortable on the day in question, but she remembers it— vividly— and I do not.
Friends in the Middle East had contacted my family in Maine, to get suggestions on how to celebrate this day’s anniversary with me. They had taken responsibility for delivering the flowers and notes from my parents. Later, they pulled out a cake glowing with candles— trick candles, a couple dozen of them, plus extra until they achieved the correct number.
How did you know? I asked, when the smoke had cleared and I could see the cake itself.
It was a household favorite, only eaten on birthdays. But I hadn’t thought of one, much less mentioned it to them, in time within memory.
My friends shrugged in a downplay of their own thoughtfulness. But I learned later, the “favorite cake” tip had been sought out, arranged after advice from my family.
A fresh perspective welcomed my thirty-second year. Those who helped me to celebrate were mostly unknown to me six months earlier, and the view they gave me was definitely “second story,” and beautiful. A midnight picnic at the Red Sea with international coworkers. Sweet gifts from the hearts of the ones I love. A surprise scuba diving trip– first time!– from one of the teachers at our community center. More flowers, and a heavily accented rendition “Happy Birthday,” from sixty students in Young Leaders.
But sometimes returning to the basement is the only way to put the panorama in context.
I say basement— my housemate (a former real estate agent, and who’s family is among the few I have known for some time) says “garden level apartment.” It is underground on three sides. But no matter what he calls it, when the conversation is over, I descend the stairs down, down to the home’s foundation. To a place both close and cozy.
Sometimes, as I sit in this basement, I simply feel closed in and limited in perspective. I want the breathing room of the second story. I want to peel back layers of soil until I reach it, but the result would only be dirty hands. Exhaustion.
I cannot change this.
My mother’s life verse to me, which she told me two decades ago, comes from the exclamation of an impossibly pregnant old woman to an impossibly pregnant young woman. I love the promise it holds. “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.” It rings in my mind often as I hold out for promises made that are yet to be fulfilled.
A couple of days after birthday celebrations, I felt drawn to read the beginning of this story, to go down, down to its foundations. Earlier in the chapter, before she got any affirmation from a human voice, Mary listened to heaven make a promise of something unexpected.
Something scandalous. Something impossible. Something desperately needed by the whole world. Her question in reply: How?
Sometimes I fight to see promises fulfilled: for the area in which I live now, for my beloved family and friends, for my life. Work harder, perform higher, plan with more discernment. Love more, listen more, speak less and with more discernment. Have more friends, since many of those who were here this year may not be next year, and choose who from your local and foreign community to spend time with… with more discernment.
But trying to fulfill promises through these mean efforts only results in a mess. In exhaustion.
I cannot control this.
Then I think about how the promise given to Mary was fulfilled, not because of her capability, but because of the power of the One Most High, who overshadows the limitations of the ones like me. So I return to the foundations.
Like on my birth day, I could not cry until I could breathe. And I could not breathe until I got released from the cord around my neck. My mother recalls her own breathlessness in waiting for this, her joy when I finally let out a wail.
Sometimes when we go to the basement (or garden-level apartment) of the soul, to remember the promises we have been given and the foundational identity upon which our lives are built, there are tears as well as laughs. And that is okay. We can relax our hands and renew our hopes, because He is the one who is powerful, and the basement perspective is limited but the promises still hold on. We are, crying or laughing, still taking breaths.
Because the promises in the basement– even the ones yet unfulfilled– are sweeter than a chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting.