As I pulled into Earl's Drive-In the knot in my stomach felt as tight as my grip on the steering wheel. It had been so long since we last had lunch here that I had no idea what make and model of car to look for.
I parked and slowly walked through the lot, scanning the rows for a familiar face. If Betty and Eric already were here, maybe they would see me first and save me the embarrassment of walking right past them. Certainly they'd be parked in a handicap spot.
I soon saw Eric waving from the first row and ran over to meet him. But I stopped abruptly and held my breath when I saw him close his door and walk over to the passenger side. First he retrieved a collapsible walker from the back seat and then Betty from the front seat.
He positioned the walker in front of the open car door and soon my friend emerged. Once I was sure that she was steady on her feet, I exhaled and went over to give her a long-overdue hug. The three of us slowly made our way to the entrance of Earl's. The last time we were here, Betty had driven herself and walked with only a bit of a limp.
"Will two hours do?," Eric asked smiling, lingering at the door.
"I think so," Betty said.
I grabbed the doorknob, guided Betty in, and nodded to Eric. He slipped over to a coffeehouse down the road. As we settled at a table, so did my stomach. We were soon ordering lunch and rapidly filling in the gaps of a year's worth of e-mail.
Betty and I became good friends during my brief sojourn in the Southern Tier as a school librarian. We met when she was a guest at our elementary school's Local Author Visit, having a children's storybook to her credit. Soon thereafter, stopping at her house on my way home from work became routine. The first time I phoned ahead and was told, "Use the back door. That's where friends come in!" Those words were more soothing than the honey she put in my tea; I was terribly homesick.
Our afternoon visits continued for three years, and when I returned to the Buffalo area we made it a point to meet halfway at Earl's for lunch at least once, if not twice a year. We were able to keep that promise until a year ago.
I've come to admire many things about Betty, but one quality leaves me in awe: She doesn't fear death. Her childhood home was next to a cemetery, and she recalls sitting on the front porch watching funeral processions drive past. She, her mother and brother would sit and sip their lemonade, waiting for the cars to leave. When all the mourners were gone, they would visit the new grave to see the flowers and say a prayer for both the deceased and the grieving family. Her father was absent from this ritual. He had died when she was 7.
In 1994 Betty was handed her own death sentence: lateral sclerosis, a form of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Her doctor told her then that she had six years to live. Sixteen years later she has seen her children's children grow into young adulthood, has served her church and community in various capacities, teaches creative writing and is a published author.
Over the past few years I have come to draw from her ease and familiarity with this "fact of life," as well as her profound faith in God. In 2001 she helped me navigate the rough waters of grief when my mother died. In 2004 her steadfast friendship eased me into widowhood.
And this past year we bid farewell to a mutual friend. It was Beverly's death that made me determined to make it to Earl's last summer.
Betty often ends her e-mails with "I'm glad we're friends."
For my part, I always have been grateful.