Tomorrow is Not Promised
My friend Lisa used to send me chain emails. Not the awful kind that promised instant wealth, just messages of love and friendship that were sometimes accompanied by animated rainbows or teddy bears. But still, they had a dark side.
‘Friends are like balloons,’ one said. ‘If you let them go, you can’t get them back.’ Although it was written in Comic Sans, it seemed deathly serious.
Another said that if I didn’t tell six people that I loved them within the next twenty minutes, terrible things would happen. ‘Tomorrow is Not Promised,’ it warned.
Tomorrow is not promised.
What was at stake wasn’t just my friendship, or my wellbeing. It was the future itself.
The oldest surviving example of a chain letter was written in 1888. Across their history, chain letters have usually claimed to bestow on the recipient something desirable – luck, money, health – so long as the letter is reproduced and sent on to many other people. The chain must be continued within a set time frame, usually a matter of days. As an added incentive, the letter will offer examples of the ill luck that has befallen those who broke the chain: ‘Christine Fehlhaber broke the chain because she was too busy preparing for her wedding. On her wedding day, she was hit by a drunk driver and killed instantly.’
What the letters want you to know is that friendship and gratitude and love require active commitments. You must maintain them. These are balloons that you must hold tight. And if you don’t, the ill luck that follows will be all your own fault.
Lisa and I became friends in Rockhampton when we were twelve and thirteen, in the last year of the 1980s. It was a world so different from now that it’s hard to remember how it worked. The television showed only two channels. All the shops and supermarkets closed at noon on Saturdays, at which point stubbies would hiss and lawnmowers would roar. Lisa and I hung around together after school and on weekends. We listened to cassettes endlessly – Roxette and Wilson Phillips and compilations like 100% Hits – and developed elaborate plots to rent R-rated VHS tapes from the suburban video store. We painted each other’s nails, read Dolly and Smash Hits, and lounged in Lisa’s above-ground pool. Once or twice, we threw dry-ice bombs at the letterboxes of people we hated.
Time was circular. Maybe childhood time always is. All I know for sure is that, to my twelve-year-old self, the future seemed distant and unreachable, like adulthood or Melbourne. We might never get there at all.
The future happened for Lisa more quickly than it did for me. She left school at sixteen and procured, in quick succession, a job, a car, and a boyfriend. A couple of years later, I finished grade twelve and moved to Brisbane for uni. At eighteen, Lisa had her first kid, a daughter. She named her after me – Brianna Michelle – and asked me to be a godmother. I was thrilled, but anxious. I didn’t even believe in a capital ‘g’ god, not in the way that Lisa did. What kind of godmother could I possibly make? Besides, I didn’t know what a godmother did.
‘You don’t have to do anything,’ Lisa told me.
Under those conditions, I accepted the role.
As it turned out, the christening coincided with an exam period. I didn’t even make it to the ceremony. Someone else stood in for me.
Over the coming years, I bought Brianna books, the closest thing to a religion I had. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that I was a terrible godmother. I was too far away, too absent, too casual. But I couldn’t figure out any other way.
Before email, people sent hand-written or photocopied chain letters. After years and years of reproduction, parts of the messages faded or disappeared entirely. Subsequent versions would misinterpret or wilfully change these bare patches. ‘Christine’ might become ‘Christy,’ then ‘Chris,’ and turn from a bride to a groom.
About ten years ago, bioinformatics researchers used an algorithm to track these kinds of shifts in a sample of 33 chain letters. Normally, this algorithm was used to track changes in genomes to see how plants or animals or people evolved. The way the researchers saw it, the chain letters were just like genomes. By tracking the traits that each generation of a chain letter inherited or lost, they were able to build a phylogeny: an evolutionary tree.
Like Lisa, I eventually married, but my partner and I probably won’t have children. Neither, it seems, will my two older brothers. My parents worry about this. They wonder who will continue the family line. They feel that something important is being lost, something important is ending.
Brianna will turn seventeen this year, the age I was when I moved away from home. I look at her Facebook photographs and wonder at her suddenly grown-up face, and how she is so similar to her mother and father, her aunt and uncles, her grandmother – all these people I knew so long ago. She is a little link in a chain, a story rewritten in a different hand, a song sung back in a new key.
Brianna has 31 people listed as family on Facebook. I have one: Brianna. She listed me as her aunt.
These days, 1989 seems an age ago. The future seems closer to me with each passing year; it has been winning this foot-race from the outset, but I am making my slow, late surge. Even so, I still don’t know what I’m chasing.
I read in the news that some Spanish scientists think that time might end one day, permanently. If it happens, these physicists say, everything will stop, in an instant and forever. Not in my lifetime, or Brianna’s. But someday. All of history will come down to this one moment, this single Polaroid shot: the world as it is when time ties its knot. The thought of it doesn’t make me sad, though I suppose it probably should. It makes me relieved. The future that’s not promised is the only one I want.
To celebrate the launch of our new website, Stilts hosted, ‘Brisbane Authors write letters and other things’: a chain letter for novels, memoir, poetry published in 2011.
Michelle Dicinoski is the author of a fresh and engaging poetry collection, Electricity for Beginners.