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A friendship `stronger than miles or years'

In 1966, my friend Martha was MVP for basketball, editor of the year book, Most Popular and Best All Around.

I, on the other hand, held the high school record for the most "runner-up" ribbons.I was editor of the school newspaper because nobody else would do it. And I was voted Most Likely To Go Far (i.e., Most Likely To Get Out of Town) because I hoped to visit an aunt in California someday.

All the big awards went to Martha. She deserved them. I would have hated her, had I not liked her so much.

I especially liked her family. Her house was the scene of countless sleep-overs and cook-outs. Her parents were easy to talk to, quick to laugh, fun to know. I'd watch them, so at ease with a house full of teenagers, and I'd think, "This is it, this is the kind of home I want some-day."

Martha and I were friends through grade school, high school, even in college. We roomed in separate dorms, but every morning on her way to breakfast (a meal she wouldn't miss and I wouldn't get out of bed for) she'd stop by my room to wake me up with the weather forecast. As if I cared.

"Do you know how cold it is on Grandfather Mountain?" she would ask, and I'd say, "Go away or I'll tell your mama you smoke."

She thought that was funny. It wasn't. What was funny was when her daddy put peach fuzz in her wedding gown. Her daddy was a very funny man.

After college, I finally visited my aunt in California and ended up staying forever. When I got married, Martha flew out to be a bridesmaid. Her daddy packed her suitcase full of peaches, but I never let her near my wedding gown.

It was hard to stay in touch, living on opposite coasts, pulled in different directions. But the bond of our friendship proved stronger than miles or years, even stronger than change. We didn't write or phone often, except with big news:

I was pregnant.

She was getting a divorce.

I was pregnant again.

She was changing jobs.

I was pregnant again.

She had multiple sclerosis.

"That's not funny," I said, praying she was joking.

"No," she said, "There's nothing funny about MS."

I wondered if we would ever laugh together again. But then she did a really funny thing: She decided to be alive for as long as she was living. She would take care of herself, treat the disease with respect, but she would give it no more than it demanded.

Tomorrow, she could be in a wheelchair. But today, she can walk. And walk she does, head high, shoulders back, eyes wide open.

Last year, she got married again, to a kind and decent man who adores her and is richer than God. I've known her 40 years and I have never seen her happier.

Yesterday, she sent me two dozen jars of pickles. That's right. Now that she can do anything she wants, what does she do? She puts up pickles to send to friends.