Author of fiction novels, short stories, book reviews and other online content, Peggy Cole has been writing articles on HubPages since 2009.
I sat at the breakfast table pondering my last day in town. It wouldn't be spent doing touristy things like a trip to the beach or Busch Gardens. This would be my last trip to see a best friend.
I looked out of the plate glass window and spotted a lizard crawling along the outer ledge. His curiosity and agility reminded me of years earlier when I'd lived in town in a small house with a hedge around the foundation. My dog loved standing on her back legs, shaking the bushes to make the critters scatter.
Today would not bring the fun I'd had in the past when visiting but it would be memorable for other reasons.
The waiter placed my meal in front of me, steaming grits, eggs over medium, a short stack of pancakes awaiting warmed syrup over the top. He asked if I needed anything else. No, I had everything I needed right there on the table. Everything I needed except my friend's face across the booth smiling at me.
Instead, she lay in a hospital bed hooked up to tubes and drains, translucent in the harsh fluorescent overhead lights. When I finished breakfast, I would be standing by her prone form for the last time.
My eggs grew cold as I sat remembering the numerous times we'd eaten meals in that same restaurant. We'd seen many changes over the years. Long gone were the ashtrays at the table. Later, the smoking section moved to the back. Currently, no smoking was allowed inside. Right now, I wanted a cigarette despite having given up the habit over two decades ago.
People all around me in the restaurant were wearing vacation outfits, likely snowbirds, visiting the area rich with places to go, things to see. But my journey was ending. After four days of living in the motel, I'd packed my roller bag that morning and checked out, my suitcase tucked into the trunk of the rental car, baking in the humid July climate.
Tomorrow, the fourth of July, I'd be home with fireworks a regular occurrence during the holiday and the days prior and afterward. As soon as the sun dropped over the horizon, blasts like automatic weapons would sound as the magnificent display of fireworks bloomed in the sky over the lake. Many times my friend had flown up to visit Texas during the holiday. We'd mix up a batch of Margaritas and sit on the wrap-around porch watching the show. But not this year or any year that would follow. Her travelling days were over.
When she was first diagnosed, she'd told me if she beat this thing there were so many places she'd never seen, people she wanted to visit, travel plans on her bucket list. Our last travel together would be the trip in her car, me driving, from her house to the nearby hospital.
I looked at the factory across the street from the restaurant. It had been there 30 years earlier when I lived down that street in a little bungalow house. My friend would come over and spend afternoons with me, sharing a cold glass of sweet tea and conversation. Seemed like forever ago in some ways and just last week in other ways. We were so young back then.
How many mornings had we shared a cup of fresh coffee in her living room since then, pondering the workings of government and the universe? Her house had changed over the years. She'd remodeled the bathroom and kitchen, laying the tile floor herself. The carpeting was gone, replaced by hardwood floors. The old air conditioning unit on the east wall was now a rectangle of glass blocks that let in the morning light. Her dogs had changed over the years, too, always big, friendly, lap dogs that shared the loveseat with me. Those faces had changed, coming and going with happiness and sadness as they grew old and left for greener pastures.
I remember the phone call on New Year's day, my friend telling me about one of her beloved animals passing during the night. We both cried. Now, as I faced my last visit with her, I held back the tears brimming in my eyes.
My patience was growing thin, waiting for the waiter to return with my food check so I could move toward that cold room where I would sit and watch her breathe and drift in and out of consciousness.
When I caught the server's attention and asked for my check, he looked confused.
"Ma'am, your check has already been paid."
"You must be mistaken. I haven't paid yet."
"Someone picked up your tab," he told me. I glanced around the room trying to see who might have done that. No one was looking at me. I felt a surge of emotions: embarrassment, gratitude, humility, surprise, confusion. How could anyone have known that I needed a gesture of kindness? Not financially. I was easily able to afford the meal. In that moment I had needed compassion. An unknown stranger gave me a gift that couldn't be repaid.
I left the restaurant quickly, chin down, tears dripping out of weary eyes. Someone had paid it forward and all I could do was cry. The floodgates were open and pent-up emotion rolled down my face. I sat in the car in the parking lot for a long time, waiting to regain control. Finally, I drove the few miles to see my friend for the very last time.
Paula's Favorite Musical Group
© 2021 Peg Cole