My unharnessed wheelchair swerved unexpectedly. I reached out to grab onto something so that I wouldn’t flip over.
Riding in the back of my former wheelchair-accessible van was challenging. It had been adapted for a power wheelchair, but after grad school, with no big campus to cross daily, I had switched to using a manual wheelchair full-time.
Angelle was in the driver’s seat. She was formally dressed and looking amazing, just as I was equally formally attired, but appearing uncomfortable. She had agreed to be my plus-one to a wedding party on a Wednesday night in New Orleans, a three-hour drive from my small town.
The uniquely sweet and foul scent signaled that we had made it to NOLA. As we drove through the city’s French Quarter toward the restaurant, we voiced our dismay at the absence of suitable parking spots. Angelle agreed to drop me off in front of the restaurant, helping me out and into the venue, before leaving to find a place to park.
She did this without hesitation. Her response is what marks her as a real friend, though she may have cursed me an hour later as she drove around still looking for a parking spot.
Meanwhile, I was in a much happier atmosphere. The elegant party had moved from pre-dinner cocktails to the formal dining room. I pulled my wheelchair to my place at the table, feeling slightly overwhelmed by the array of silverware and elaborate place settings. I looked at the empty seat next to me, and then at my watch. Almost two hours had passed.
Angelle arrived about 10 minutes later, exasperated. She had to park about an hour away. Since it is unsafe to walk alone at night through the French Quarter, she had befriended a group of tourists who had accompanied her to the restaurant.
She accepted a glass of wine that someone at our table had poured for her, saying that she needed it.
Thoughts raced through my head, and my overriding feeling was guilt. My friend had to endure a major inconvenience because of me. She was exhausted, both physically and mentally.
“I am so sorry,” I told her. “I wouldn’t have asked you to go if I knew it would be so hard.”
“I know,” Angelle said. “If we knew how hard it would be, we wouldn’t have come.”
Tears welled in my eyes. It’s an uncomfortable habit of mine: I’m not a crier, so my tears don’t fall, but my eyes become glassy when I’m overwhelmed by my emotions.
I sometimes think of myself as merely a burden. The progressive manner of Friedreich’s ataxia makes me increasingly dependent, and I believe that I am overly relying on others for help.
Angelle seemed to read my thoughts. “But it’s OK. I’m glad I’m here.”
And suddenly, just like that, I was, too.
The dinner continued. It was an awesome event: eating delicious food, drinking excellent wine and champagne, visiting with old friends, including the future bride and groom. As the party came to a close, I dreaded the long return trek to my van, but Angelle and I made it fun, by walking with some friends from the party and stopping by Café du Monde after midnight for some much-needed beignets and café au lait.
We arrived home at 5 a.m. Angelle had to be at work in four hours.
I don’t remember what we talked about on the drive home. I don’t think our conversation mattered. What counted is that I have a friend who can overlook my neediness. She serves as a constant in the receding tides of my physical abilities.
When we first met in my first year of undergrad, some of my friends didn’t understand Angelle’s quick-witted and dry humor; they assumed she was just so mean. But I could see through her sarcastic exterior to her heart of gold.
And how I see her has remained consistent throughout the years.
Maybe it runs both ways? Perhaps my qualities that matter to her are still there, despite my physical degeneration.
Over 10 years later we are still great friends. Cheers to Angelle. Cheers to the French Quarter and beignets. Cheers to consistency.
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