And she walks that road without fear. If you're lying on your deathbed, Betty's your gal. She won't shrink from the changed strange fact of you, from the rasp of your vanishing voice, from your ashy skin, your cracked fingernails, your morphine-addled visions. She will fail to register the blades of your cheekbones, the sweaty mess of your hair. She will see only you, the you beneath. She will place her sweet bird face into the filmy path of your breath and call you honey.
She did this with our mother. With our uncle. With our aunt. And now with Ron, who, despite Betty's tender ministrations, dies anyway.
Afterward we go to Laura's house, where the bed remains, empty and terrifying. "Can I get in it?" Betty asks. My other sisters and I exchange glances. Betty, predictable as the moon, can still muster the power to astonish us. Awestruck, we watch her climb over the metal sides of her surrogate father's bed and lie down where he lay, folding her skeletal hands one over the other. She stares at the ceiling. No one speaks. Eventually, she sits up, gets out, smooths the sheets, says nothing.
We do not ask. Whatever she has done, in our full view, is clearly private. Between her and Ron, perhaps. Or between her and God.
At times like this, I find in Betty's eyes a flame of wisdom, a burning intelligence, a flickering glimpse of a parallel self. She seems older in these moments, not just older than me, but older than everyone, older than her own mortal self. Divinity is the word that comes, even to this weak believer; then it's gone, and she's Betty again.
She and Laura share their grief in the only way available to them, to any of us: Keep going.
They resume their After Work Call, and also the 6:26, the Weather Report Call.
"What did the weatherman say, Betty Wood?" asks Laura, who has just watched exactly the same report on the same channel.
"Rain, Laura Ellis."
So it goes, until one day Laura arrives at the shop forgetting things, the first sign of a dementia that often afflicts Down-syndrome souls lucky enough to make it to 50. For Betty, a familiar rerun commences: appointments, pills, time measured out in "bad" days or "good."
On one of the last good days, the ladies and I take a sunny walk to a wooded path. It's still and fragrant here, the trees looming in silence, but the gals are loud talkers. Birds shy off from branches, unseen creatures flee into the brush. Suddenly Laura remembers her most reliable joke:
"Betty Wood lives in the woods."
I chuckle politely. They howl.
"Betty Wood lives in the woods. Betty Wood lives in the woods. Betty Wood lives in the woods."
After a few minutes of this, even Betty—who will eagerly rewind a steak-knife commercial 50 times—finds it tiresome. They tease each other a lot, these dear friends, but today Laura's "off" button is on the blink.